Best and Worst of America

Today we interviewed SHER SINGH (pictured) who was arrested on September 12, 2001 as the first suspected terrorist after the 9/11 attacks. He was riding a Boston-bound train when it stopped in Providence, Rhode Island. He was wearing a turban and kirpan, both articles of Sikh faith. His ‘suspicious’ appearance had caught the attention of the FBI who sent federal agents and local police with bomb-sniffing dogs to the station to intercept him.

Officers rushed the entrance of the train and pointed rifles at the man: “Get your f— hands up.” They pulled him out of the train at gunpoint and handcuffed him. One officer said, “How’s Osama bin Laden?” They led him onto the platform, where crowds of people had gathered, shouting profanities. Someone yelled, “You killed my brother.” Others shouted, “Kill him.”

Sher Singh was released within three hours of his arrest, because it was clear he was innocent. Authorities announced that he had no connection to the attacks. Yet the footage of his arrest was broadcasted and published around the world for three days, showing a tall man with a turban and long black beard, eyes cast downward, led in handcuffs by black-uniformed officers believing they had apprehended the first terrorist

We had first heard this story from Sher Singh in December 2001. Four years later, he reflected on his experience:

I felt and sometimes feel a little estranged. I feel for a split second, maybe I’m not at home here. But then I tell myself it’s all in my mind. If somebody has or had a negative opinion about my appearance or any Sikh’s appearance, then it’s in that person’s mind. That person needs to open up. Home is where you are. No looking back.” He smiles.

After this happened, I got more involved in my community. I gave talks about Sikhism, attending rallies on civil rights, and talked to children on understanding different faiths. I felt that I had to give back a lot more than I had ever given back.

“I’m now a solution architect for EED; I develop solutions for the Navy and Marine Corps and help develop their information technology. I get to do very high level design and it’s a new challenge everyday.”

In his story alone, I see the worst and best parts of the American experience: Sher was a victim of racial profiling, but upon his release, he was able to choose to defend American national security, developing technologies that support troops abroad.

We continued looking at the tension between the history of discrimination in America and the American dream when we made our next visit to the office of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow (SAALT). We interviewed the Executive Director of SAALT, DEEPA IYER (pictured). She explained a history of discrimination toward Asian Americans to provide context to post-9/11 hate violence:

“It’s dangerous to look at post-9/11 by itself. We really need to realize that there has been a history of discrimination that goes back over 100 years for immigrants in the United States. Laws by the US prevented Asians from becoming naturalized, owning land, immigrating to the US. We must remember that many South Asians challenged those laws and became active in their communities. They demanded to be treated with equality, dignity, and justice.

“9/11 was a lightening rod for sentiments against immigrants and people of color, but it did more than that. Just a week after 9/11, a high number of incidents of bias were recorded in the media by South Asians and Arab Americans. SAALT did a report within a month after 9/11 looking at bias incidents. We found 645 reported in the media in just one week. That’s a snapshot of a much larger picture of what happened in the ensuing months and years after 9/11. In the pre-9/11 atmosphere, there was a muted anti-immigrant sentiment, and 9/11 became a space for these sentiments to explode. Suddenly, it became fine to speak openly and visibly about South Asians, Sikhs, Muslims, and people who are brown as possible terrorists.”

I was grateful that organizations like SAALT record these incidents and raise awareness through resources and dialogue groups. You can check out their work here.

The team is battling colds and general fatigue, but we are all staying at the lovely home of Vidya and Tonse Raju (who have supported ‘the arts’ for years now as Sharat’s parents). We are getting some good rest here as we head for the finish line. We are joined by our final sound technician, JIM (pictured to the left of our first cameraman Don.) We have only two more interviews left in Washington, DC before we wrap up production! Here we go.

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