Four Years Ago Today

Four years ago today, BALBIR SINGH SODHI was murdered in front of his gas station in Mesa, Arizona. His murderer Frank Roque yelled upon arrest, I am a patriot.” Sodhi (pictured) was the first person of as many as nineteen people killed in the thousands of hate crimes that followed 9/11.

This summer, I have traveled across the country to meet with families in targeted communities to find out how much has changed. Although numbers have fallen, there are continued reports of vandalism, beatings, and shootings. Perhaps most troubling is the way that subtle prejudices have become a daily part of the lives of millions of Americans, including thousands of Sikh Americans. Many of my interviewees talked about the stares, the avoidance, the name-calling they encounter everyday they walk their city streets, in the subway, the workplace, the schoolyard. Many children face constant teasing at schools. DAMAN SODHI, nephew of Balbir Singh Sodhi, notices the stares he gets at school.

The scholars, lawyers, and legislators I met this summer offered diverse views on how to combat this prejudice. We can pass legislation that documents and condemns hate crimes and protects targeted minorities. We can integrate educational materials into our schools, and raise our representation in the mainstream media. (Pictured is a cartoon remembering Sodhi.) Most importantly, we can participate as individuals in the larger American community and tell each other our stories. In this culture of snapshots and sound-bytes, we are starved for stories, real stories, personal authentic voices that lay claim to who we are as Americans.

When the widow of Balbir Singh Sodhi (pictured) told me about the support she found when she went to Phoenix for her husband’s funeral, it gave me great hope in the power of storytelling as a medium for recognition and togetherness. People came out in the thousands for her husband’s memorial. I came to look at Phoenix as a shining example.

But this summer, when I visited Phoenix again, I found a different story. There were more stories of hate violence. RANA SODHI (pictured below) the brother of Balbir Singh Sodhi, was verbally assaulted in Phoenix just after the London bombings. How do I reconcile this?

The caring and compassion of the Phoenix community upon the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi is a testament to what is possible. It is possible to live in a world where we recognize one another as human beings, embrace one another’s differences, and stand with one another in times of crisis. And Phoenix will always be a place in my memory where this happened.

But we are up against powerful forces. As long as unspeakable violence takes place in both acts of terrorism and an unending war on terror, we will see the face of the enemy held up in our national consciousness. And it will be my face. It will be Balbir Singh Sodhi’s face. It will be the faces of millions of Americans. This is why in the very place that held the most hope for me, the place where Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed, things have not really changed. And this is why it is important now more than ever to share our faces and voices in telling our stories— so that we can draw upon what happened in Phoenix as a testament to what we can make possible again today.