Richmond Cabbies

We spent the weekend in Richmond, California, a city known for the highest crime rate in California. While driving, we saw a stop sign with bullet holes (pictured). In June 2003, two SIKH cab drivers, GURPREET SINGH and INDERJIT SINGH, were shot here within three days of each other. The morning after Gurpreet’s murder, his fiance in India, devastated by the news, committed suicide. Inderjit Singh was shot in the face and survivied. Nothing was stolen from either cab.

Weeks later, another turbaned Sikh cab driver, DAVINDER SINGH, was murdered across the bay in Redwood City. Taking into account the murder of SUKHPAL SODHI, brother of BALBIR SODHI, there were four shootings (three fatal) of turbaned Sikh cab drivers within one year in the SF Bay Area alone. Yet none of these were classified as hate crimes.

We wanted to find out why.

So on Friday morning, we went to the Richmond Police Department and met Lt. Mark Gagan (pictured). First let me say that I had developed my own biases against police officers, especially since my own encounter with the NYPD. I expected my tough questions to be met with vague and evasive answers and put on my battle face.

Instead, I was immediately disarmed by Mark’s kindness and candor. He responded to my questions with sincere effort to address the complexity of the situation.

“First of all, in order to identify crimes as hate crimes, we need to know who perpetrated it and why, and we don’t have that for many cases. When you report it to California, you need hard evidence. But if the community suffering these crimes perceives them as hate crimes, I don’t know if we need absolute proof in order to open dialogue (Richmond cab drivers pictured)… If the community is left feeling disempowered, if that is the barometer we use, then we’ve failed, whether or not we are successful in solving the crime. There must be communication. But you have to have credibility, and that takes years.”

“I don’t know of any mechanism on the state level that looks at city to city across the Bay Area to see if there’s a pattern. There is a need for law enforcement to look at law enforcement in other areas. And we need to have good communication with every different group that has specific cultures or languages.”

Lt. Gagan acknowledged the main problems: There is no state program that tracks patterns of crimes against specific groups, just as Assemblymember Judy Chu told us. Even without the classification as hate crimes, these shootings still made an entire community feel afraid and victimized (gurdwara pictured). And currently, the Richmond police department is underresourced to work with the community effectively.

This failing was made clear when we visited the Sikh community in Richmond today. We spoke with HARPREET SINGH SANDHU, who served as President of the El Sobrante gurdwara (Sikh house of worship, pictured below) in Richmond through 9/11 and the shootings. He expressed the community’s deep frustration with the Richmond police:

The families know these murders to be hate crimes, and the community was left very afraid. Yet the police never called them hate crimes, and no one has been brought to justice.”

He then introduced us to PARGAT SINGH (pictured below), a cab driver who lost three turbaned Sikh friends– Balbir Sodhi, Sukhpal Sodhi, and Gurpreet Singh– to murders after 9/11. Inderjit, who was shot in the face, was also his friend.

We soon learned that Pargat Singh has endured an entire lifetime of violence. He was a little boy during the 1947 Partition of India, and he lost several relatives to the riots. Later, after the anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984, he worked under Jaswant Singh Khalra, a human rights activist, in order to investigate the disappearances and torture enacted by the Indian government. After the police seized and murdered Khalra, they caught Pargat Singh and tortured him. I did all I could to hold back tears when he described the torture.

In 1996, Pargat Singh came to the US as an asylee. But driving a cab in Richmond, he has watched his closest friends killed after 9/11, and he himself has been robbed at gunpoint three times. (In the picture, he stands where his friend Gurpreet was murdered.)

I thought of the violence in Pargat Singh’s lifetime as we visited El Sobrante gurdwara (crew is pictured). I remembered coming here before for vigils for the murdered cab drivers. Two beautiful children caught my eye. They told me their names, Dayanidh Singh and Anubhav Parkash Kaur (pictured below). I looked at them and sighed. They will inherit a community that has such violence in its collective memory. How will they treat this burden?

This wraps our trip in Northern California. Thanks to Liam Dalzell, writer/director of a superb short documentary Punjabi Cab, and Harpreet Sandhu for connecting us with the Richmond community. Next after a short break, we head to New York City…

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