When I first learned of the attacks on the Sikh temple in Milwaukee yesterday, my heart went out to all the victims involved in the deadly rampage. The newspaper article was careful not to call it a racially or religiously motivated hate crime but did point out the problem. To many people in America, Sikhs are considered Muslims because of the turban they wear around their head. But in reality they are not Muslim at all. It is a religion that ironically promotes tolerance among it’s principals and often is at odds with the Muslim faith. But we people here in America are not known for our enlightened awareness of anything beyond our borders. We don’t realize that Sikhs made up 25% of the British field soldiers during World War 1. We also don’t know Sikhs cherish equality, promote the status of women, and love the American Dream just as the rest of us do.
I learned much of what I know about Sikhs just after the Twin Tower attacks of September 11, 2001. I was called into ABC NEWS headquarters in New York hours after the attack and quickly started getting assignments related to the tragedy. The staff was stretched at that point so they had me working as an ‘OMB,’ also known as a ‘One Man Band.’ I would go out and literally do everything to get a story. I would shoot it, conduct interviews etc and then turn the footage in with a story outline for the editors to follow. One of the stories I was assigned to, was to follow up on reports of hate crimes against Sikhs in Queens.
Although many of the details from this story are long gone from my memory, it basically revolved around a temple where I was shown various people with cuts and bruises. All these people claimed they were attacked by white people seeking revenge against Muslims for the 9/11 attacks. Although it was pretty obvious they were telling the truth, it wasn’t anything I could submit to ABC News because there was no proof of what really happened. When I pointed this out to my subjects, they suggested I join them for a drive around the neighborhood and promised I would see the hostility first hand.
I got in the back seat and 4 of us drove around for about 20 minutes. Absolutely nothing happened. I was almost ready to give up when the driver complained that nothing was happening because I was in the car and the people could see the ‘white guy.’ At that point, I said “Okay, if you have an extra Turban I will put it on. With my beard that should be close enough.” They didn’t have a Turban, but they did have a scarf. We made do and I wrapped it around my head.
10 Minutes later we came to a stop sign in one of the local neighborhoods. The driver stayed there a minute. He pointed at some white kids on bicycles who had spotted us and started flipping middle fingers at us. “You see! There!” the driver said. I powered up my small hand held video camera and started taping. The kids on the bikes started circling the car and yelling things like “Go home sand niggers!” When the driver didn’t move, they started hitting the car with their hands. And this in turn, started attracting a bigger crowd.
Very quickly the car was surrounded by a growing throng of angry looking white folks. When I saw parents coming out of buildings, I thought they would stop their kids from proceeding further. Instead, they just joined the mob and started rocking the car while yelling all sorts of obscenities at us in the car. Most of it was ‘fuck you’ type stuff laced with anti-Muslim slurs. And despite the fact that they could see the camera, they started spitting at us. One kid made sure to land large lugies on the car window directly in front of my camera lens.
I don’t remember how long this went on for, but I do remember when the police showed up and saved us from worse harm. But even they were hostile until they found out who I was. I whipped out my ABC NEWS ID and showed it to one of the cops. He quickly became very angry. “Are you out of your freak’n mind?” He started yelling at me about how I could have been killed – how I could be arrested for inciting this incident – how much he hates the media. But luckily, he did do his job and got the mob away from the car.
“You know,” the cop told me as I got back in the car. “The only reason we are here is because somebody thought the big mic you have on top of your camera was a gun. And that’s why they called the police. Now get out of here and don’t ever let me see you around here again or I WILL arrest you.”
Back at the temple, we all got out of the car and started hugging each other. The experience had bonded us and it made me profoundly aware of what Sikhs have to live with everyday in America. The only thing they asked of me that day was that I do my best to get the story out. I immediately took it back to the office where it became known as the “spit story” and it was placed on the network evening news that night.
In light of this latest attack, there are obviously still some pretty big mountains to climb to make America more informed and tolerant of Sikhs and who they are. I just wish people would understand that in the big picture, we are all flesh and bone with mothers & fathers just like everybody else. If people would just take a few minutes to talk to each other, they would quickly realize this. And I am talking about all sides, not just the white folks.
HERE IS AN EXCELLENT DOCUMENTARY (TRAILER) ON THE SUBJECT OF
SIKH’S IN AMERICA AND HOW THEY ARE TYPE CAST
The Documentary is called “Divided We Fall” and you can visit the website here