New York’s Sikhs Need Their Own Al Sharpton

By Dean Obeidallah

New York’s Sikhs Need Their Own Al SharptonPhoto by Ajit Singh Photography

In the wake of the hate-driven near-death of a Sikh man in Queens, officialdom’s response has been apathetic. Sikhs must demand more.

Love or hate Rev. Al Sharpton, there’s one thing you can’t deny: He’s effective. You don’t have look any further for proof than his recent efforts raising awareness about the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died shortly after NYPD officers placed him in an illegal choke hold. Sharpton organized rallies, held press conferences that made headlines, met with the mayor of New York City and federal officials. Bottom line: His actions increase the chances that justice will be served.

And one community that needs its own Sharpton is the Sikhs. To be honest, I think every minority group needs someone like Reverend Al to stir things up, including my own Arab and Muslim-American communities. And yes, I’m aware of Sharpton’s historical baggage that critics love to tout. In my eyes, he transcended that years ago, but even those for whom that isn’t true surely recognize that families like Garner’s come to depend on him and authority figures can’t ignore him.

Sikhs have been the subject of numerous hate crimes in recent years across the United States, including a vicious incident last week in New York City. But attacks against Sikhs attract little media attention. And as New York City Sikh leaders noted, these incidents merit even less of a response from the NYPD. In fact, Sikhs are even discriminated against when applying to join the NYPD because of their turbans and beards.

For the unfamiliar, Sikhs are required by their faith to wear a turban, known as the Dastaar. It’s not a cultural accessory, but an article of faith. Sikhs also view hair—including facial hair—as a gift from God. Thus, they are forbidden from cutting it.

Prior to 9/11, wearing a beard a turban may have been at times challenging. However, after that terrorist attack, that look has proved at times to be dangerous, even deadly. Within days of 9/11, a Sikh man in Mesa, Arizona, was shot and killed by an individual who proudly declared to the police upon his arrest: “I’m a patriot and an American.”

Since then, more than 700 attacks have been recorded on Sikhs in the United States. In fact, this week marked the two-year anniversary of a white supremacist gunning down six Sikh-Americans while they were worshipping in their temple in Wisconsin.

A great deal of these hate crimes are marked by the assailants calling the Sikhs “Osama Bin Laden” or “terrorists.” And many of my Sikh friends have shared with me a history of racial slurs and menacing stares they have endured over the years.

Even in New York City, a place that touts itself as a progressive bastion, Sikhs have suffered a string of hate crimes. In 2003, members of a Sikh family were beaten outside their Queens home by people yelling: “Go back to your country, Bin Laden.”

Being Muslim myself, I feel an added sense of anguish, almost guilt over the fact that the Sikhs are suffering because people think they are of my faith.

In 2004, two Sikh men were viciously beaten by young white assailants while walking on the sidewalk. Sikh teens have been bullied and harassed in New York City high schools, with some even having their turbans or facial hair forcibly removed. And in 2009, two Sikh men were attacked on the NYC subway after being accused of being related to Bin Laden.

And that brings us to July 30, 2014. On that night, Sandeep Singh, a local business owner and father of two, was crossing a street in Queens with two friends. As Mr. Singh walked in front of a white pickup truck that had stopped for the traffic light, the driver yelled: “Go back to your own country, Bin Laden!”

Mr. Singh responded by standing his ground and telling his friends to call the police. The driver responded by hitting Singh with his truck and dragging him for 30 feet. When you hit someone with your vehicle by accident, you stop. When you don’t stop, it quite probably means you are trying to kill or at least really hurt someone. Mr. Singh is alive, thankfully, but he is currently hospitalized with extensive internal injures. According to the local Sikh leaders, however, the NYPD’s response has been slow and bordering on truly “apathetic.” The Sikh community, taking a page from Reverend Al, held a press conference on Tuesday to call attention to this hate crime and the NYPD’s lack of action. But as a reporter for The Gothamist noted, even after this press conference, the NYPD is doing little in the way of investigating this incident. Indeed, the NYPD has still not labeled this attack a hate crime.

And making matters worse is that Sikhs are, in general, banned from serving in the NYPD. There have been certain exceptions, but the policy is tilted heavily to excluding Sikhs because of their beards and turbans. As Rajdeep Singh of the Sikh Coalition, a national Sikh civil rights group, explained to me, Sikhs have a long history of serving their communities in uniform and want to do the same in the NYPD.

In fact, in 2004, two Sikh men successfully sued the NYPD and were reinstated as traffic enforcement officers after being discharged because they wouldn’t remove their turbans while working. And while Sikhs are serving in the police forces in Washington, D.C., and in cities in Canada and the UK, the NYPD has made it all but impossible for a Sikh to become one of New York’s finest. As Rajdeep Singh noted, excluding Sikhs from the NYPD is counterproductive to the very idea of community-based policing. Instead of building relations with the New York City Sikh community, perhaps upwards of 50,000 people, it’s causing more of an adversarial relationship with the NYPD.

What’s especially heartbreaking is that in many instances, Sikhs are being targeted because people believe they are Muslim. Being Muslim myself, I feel an added sense of anguish, almost guilt over the fact that the Sikhs are suffering because people think they are of my faith. Although as Rajdeep Singh noted, bigots hate anything that’s different from them.

The Sikh community deserves better from the NYPD. Maybe it means the Sikhs need to channel their inner Al Sharpton even more. The lessons of having a Sharpton-type figure should be clear for every minority group: If you don’t make noise and raise awareness, you will be unlikely to see justice.

UPDATE: I was informed by the Sikh Coalition that another apparent hate crime against Sikhs occurred in New York City on Thursday night-less than two weeks after Mr. Singh was run down by a vehicle in Queens. In this incident, a Sikh man was walking with his mother on their way to dinner on Roosevelt Island. A group of teens surrounded the two, called the man “Bin Laden” and told them both to go back to their country. Using profanities, the teens also taunted the mother, who was wearing a turban. The teens then repeatedly punched the Sikh man, threw a bottle at him and ran off. The Sikh man, a NYC based scientist, required treatment at the hospital and his mother was emotionally distraught after the incident.

Lets be honest, if a group of white teens beat up an African-American man and taunted his mother because of their race, it would make headlines, the Mayor would hold a press conference and the NYPD would promise swift action. What will be the response here?

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