Activism and Outreach From 9/11 Hate Killing

By Anju Kaur
Published by SikhNN.

A new kind of activism was born out of the Balbir Singh Sodhi tragedy ten years ago when he became the first person killed in the backlash against those perceived to be related to the 9/11 attackers.

About 100 people gathered at his Mesa, Arizona, gas station to remember Balbir Singh who was gunned down on Sept. 15, 2011. He was shot because of his Sikh identity of unshorn hair and turban. His attacker, Frank Roque, went on a rampage, shooting him five times before attacking a local business and a home. Although Roque received the death penalty for the murder, Balbir Singh’s family asked the court to reduce the sentence to life imprisonment and spare the Roque’s family the kind of grief they were experiencing. Roque’s sentence was commuted because he was deemed to be mentally ill.

“It’s very tough,” said Lakwinder (Rana) Singh, his brother, of the family’s ordeal for the past 10 years. “But the thing is that it gave an (opportunity) for Sikh organizations and community, and other communities, to come together and understand each other more.”

One of the well-known activists to arise soon after the tragedy was Valarie Kaur. At the time, she was not sure of what to expect as she drove to Arizona with a camera in her hand. She had known the family from previous visits to Mesa.

“I knew I wanted to play some role in tell story,” she told SikhNN.

“Right after (Balbir Singh) was killed, the family had a choice of taking the grief and closing their doors,” she said. “But they had the moral courage to step in front of a camera and give a message of peace.

“(Their) courage has changed many people around the world, changed the course of my whole life.”

The clips of the Balbir Singh’s family led to many more from across the country, documenting hate crimes against the Sikh Americans. All those untold stories were crafted into an award-winning film, ‘Divided We Fall.’

Valarie Kaur came back to Mesa for the tenth anniversary memorial service, she said. She joined in Ardaas with the family and friends at the monument where Balbir Singh was gunned down.

The tragedy has also inspired some in mainstream America. Danny Goldfield was driving across the country in 2003 with his video camera when someone informed him of the Mesa gas station and memorial. He had no idea about the Balbir Singh story.

He set up his camera at the gurdwara and had a conversation on camera. Off camera, he remembers Rana Singh telling him that it was important, in light of what happened, to get out of the house and get to know his neighbors. “It’s dangerous to stay indoors,” he told Goldfield.

“In spite of this violent thing happening to his family, his solution was this simple and beautiful: to meet neighbors,” Goldfield said.

Goldfield founded his own way to bring neighbors together.

“Driving later that night, inspired by Rana’s simple prescription to make the world safer, I was struck by the idea to photograph a child from every country on earth and find them all living in New York City,” he says on his Web site.

Goldfield has so far photographed children from 169 countries. He has 24 more to go.

Balbir Singh is survived by his wife, Harjinder Kaur; three sons, Sukhwinder, Amarjeet and Phuljeet; and two daughters, Satwinder and Maninder.