Sikh Coalition vs. New York City

We have arrived in New York City to begin production on the East Coast. After we picked up our equipment, we had our first interview with AMARDEEP SINGH (pictured), legal director of the SIKH COALITION, a civil rights organization created in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

I had first met Amar and other founding members of the Coalition in December 2001, when I interviewed them at a round table after one of their first meetings. Back then, they were a group of young Sikh professionals who came together to respond to the outbreak of hate violence. Now the Sikh Coalition has grown into a full-bodied advocacy organization with an office, permanent staff and legal and educational programs. When we arrived, Prabhjot Singh, another great friend and supporter, helped us set up.

It was good to see Amar again. I had followed his work over the past few years, so I knew that he was an intelligent and committed advocate, but that little prepared me for the force of his passion and perspective. We talked for over an hour.

He first told me about September 11th. He was in Washington, DC, rushing home to his family in New Jersey.

My mom was able to reach me about an hour and a half out of DC. The first thing she says to me is, ‘Do you have your bandana in the car?’ I said, ‘I have it in the car.’ I knew why she was asking. She said, ‘Put it on.’ I said, ‘I’m not putting it on.’ She started crying and said, ‘You’re in danger.’ I said, ‘I understand that I’m in danger. But I’m not putting it on.’ Then my fiance called me and she started crying too. And she said, ‘Put on the bandana.’ I said, ‘I’m not putting on the bandana…’

Amar’s eyes began filling with tears. He looked away. And I found myself undone once again. Do you keep the camera rolling? Do you allow yourself to cry too? But he kept going.

He went on to describe the stories that came in, one after another – a man beaten in Richmond Hill, vandalism in Cleveland, assaults in California. The next day, he and his colleagues issued a press release in order to say, “Please do something. Somebody. We’re suffering hate crimes.” He stopped grad school and took phone calls non-stop from people who desperately turned to the only Sikh human rights lawyer they knew.

We kept saying everyday, if the media keeps flashing images of Osama bin Laden, and nobody says anything to distinguish Sikhs from terrorists, then somebody is going to die… And then we got the phone call. Prabhjot was sitting next to me when he got the call. He said, ‘There’s been a death in Arizona.’ I said, ‘Confirmed?’ He said, ‘Confirmed…'”

And here the pain of it returned. The tears. And we stoped rolling.

There was something new in Amar’s emotion, different from other interviews. I have sat with people who have cried when recalling the violence done to them. But Amar’s tears came when recalling the violence that he has tried to fight — that he has now committed his life to fight. I imagine that this raw pain is the actual source for Amar’s life work, his defense of civil and human rights, his legal advocacy.

Many social justice advocates I know keep this raw emotion concealed. They don’t reveal the hurt that drives them, even when asked. They are scholars, lawyers and legislators who need to be hard and impersonal to fight the good fight. Perhaps they see too much to lose in exposing vulnerability. But perhaps they miss what is to be gained. We are all vulnerable. We are all undone and hurt by the violence in our lives. If we are courageous enough to share our vulnerability, perhaps others will do the same. Perhaps this is our common ground. This is the only way I can rationalize filming and showing these raw moments in our documentary.

When we began talking again, Amar outlined the Sikh Coalition’s recent cases. They helped Rajinder Singh Khalsa, who was beaten unconscious in a hate crime in Richmond Hill last summer, to file a civil suit against his perpetrators, the first of its kind. They defended Amric Singh Rathour, who fought the NYPD after he was fired for wearing his turban as an officer. They are currently defending Kevin Harrington, who after twenty-four years as a train operator, was asked by the Transit Authority to remove his turban. We will speak to all three tomorrow when we visit Richmond Hill (stay tuned.)

The Sikh Coalition has chosen to prioritize cases that challenge the state for discrimination, because “if the government discriminates, what kind of message does it send to the rest of America? It becomes difficult for me to say to society, ‘I’m a Sikh, don’t treat me differently’ if the government is treating me differently.”

Amar went on to talk about the larger problem from his perspective, beginning with the lack of media coverage on these issues:

At the end of the day, our stories don’t matter as much. We’re not the mainstream community. What happened to us is not compelling to the media. We’re in America, but we’re not necessarily part of America. That’s what the Sikh Coalition is trying to do. We have an office and staff after 9/11 just to deal with the discrimination we have faced. It is crazy, sad, hopeful. But at the end of the day, it’ s necessary.”

Clearly, discrimination against Sikhs didn’t start with 9/11. Take my life as example: When I was a young child, my father was told to go back to Iran during the Iran Hostage Crisis. During the first Persian Gulf War, I was told to go back to Iraq. During the Oklahoma City bombing, I was told, ‘You people are going to catch a lot of hell for what happned.’ After the first World Trade Center bombing, Sikhs in New Jersey were threatened and attacked. And we all know what happened after 9/11. This is the continuing story of our existence in this country.

Discrimination in America against Sikhs goes in waves. When there is a terrorist attack or war, discrimination manifests in violent ways, and because it’s violent, you sometimes hear about it in the press. During relatively quiet perioids, discrimination mainifests in the way it is now. People are fired from jobs, not promoted, forced to remove their turban, not allowed into restaurants, searched in the subway, called names on the street. Things become less intense and less reported. But it never leaves. The issue is that in America, the predominant associatio
n with a turban and beard is of terrorists.

Today in schools, kids now understand that it’s not okay to call African Americans the N-word, to use anti-Jewish epithets. But kids don’t understand that they can’t call a Sikh a terrorist. But for a Sikh, ‘terrorist’ is our N-word… The challenge is humanizing our community, getting people to understand that I work, I like to watch sports, I laugh when Seinfeld is on, I cry when there is a death in my family. I’m a human being. Not a follower of some crazy cult. Not a violent human being. I’m a loving person. We don’t want to file lawsuits every day. The real victory will be when I don’t have to file another lawsuit. I want to be out of a job.”

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