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Dreadlocks, Turbans, and Rollercoaster Racism

Living in Brooklyn, New York City as a turban-wearing Sikh, I attract plenty of negative attention from random strangers as well as the cops, which I’ve written about at length. Fortunately, I also get some love and respect from time to time as I walk or ride my bike in my neighborhood in central Brooklyn — especially from Rastafarian men who don uncut dreadlocks, often wrapped up not so differently than the gol pagh I wear, albeit usually much taller.

I don’t mean to make broad generalizations about a whole community, but it is worth mentioning that nearly every time I cross paths with a man who appears to be Rastafarian, without fail I get a shout out. ”Respect, brother,” or “Blessings, brother,” usually accompanied by a hand or fist on his heart. Living in a neighborhood with a large Caribbean population, I encounter this regularly (and reciprocate), which is a breath of fresh air in my day-to-day life, which involves no shortage of street harassment, dirty looks, and sometimes worse. I’m grateful for this genuine, simple act of human connection and solidarity.

I’ve talked to friends about this phenomenon as well as my brother who has had similar interactions with Rastafarians in Atlanta, GA where he lives. The consensus is that the connection might stem from a recognition of a mutual prioritizing of our spirituality, and in particular, our shared spiritual connection to our hair. Indeed, Rastafarians believe in keeping hair in its natural state, and many wrap up and cover their dreadlocks. Without overstating any similarities between two very different spiritual traditions, our shared commitment to keeping our hair (not to mention a shared commitment in fighting for justice) is striking.

Our respective commitments to our hair have been similarly met with discrimination— discrimination that threatens our right to practice our religions or express our identities freely, based on racist notions of what a “professional” hairstyle is.

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Sikhs challenging racial profiling

Photo courtesy of the Sikh Coalition

My Facebook news feed and email inbox have been buzzing with discussion and calls to action to challenge racial profiling and, in particular, the NYPD’s infamous “stop and frisk” policy. I was happy to receive multiple emails today on the issue from Sikh American civil rights organizations, namely SALDEF and the Sikh Coalition. I’ve previously written about my own experiences with racial/religious profiling in NYC and the importance for us Sikhs to make the connection between the profiling we face post-9/11 and the profiling young black and Latinos have been enduring for decades.

Encouraging the NY Sikh community to attend a massive silent march this Sunday (father’s day, not coincidentally), the Sikh Coalition’s email alert stated:

In the post 9/11 era, Sikhs know all too well the consequences of racial profiling. We have felt the violence of profiling at airports; it is humiliating. It is a violation of our civil rights and it severely undermines our liberty and our safety.

As Sikhs, we have an obligation to stand for the human rights of all people. It is important that we uphold this sacred commitment as African American and Latino communities endure the type of unfair scrutiny that leads to hate crimes, workplace discrimination, school bullying, and profiling.

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Sikhs in the White House

Co-blogged by Sundari and American Turban

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Courtesy: The Sikh Coalition

Likely unbeknownst to many Sikhs, last Friday marked a historic moment for America’s Sikh community.

Around 7:30am on that day, about 50 people representing Sikh communities from across the country – California, Texas, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, New York, New Jersey – gathered at the East Wing for a special tour of the White House. These members of the community walked through the historic center of the country, seeing with their own eyes notable places such as the room in which President Thomas Jefferson first held cabinet meetings and the Blue Room which remains the reception room of the White House. Following the tour, community members joined White House administrators for the first-ever White House briefing on Sikh civil rights issues.

For those of us in the audience, it was a deeply moving moment – particularly when the briefing started out with Bole So Nihaal, Sat Sri Akal. Yes, a jakara in the White House!

There was something symbolic in that moment. Once, a long time ago, Sikhs would have made the jakara call while raising their flag at the Red Fort in Delhi, the symbolic capital of India, as Jassa Singh Ahluwalia was proclaimed Sultan-e-Quam (‘king of the nation’) – a gesture in which Sikhs laid claim to their sovereignty as a people in 19th century India. Now, under certainly different circumstances in a land separated by time and distance, Sikhs were making a similar call to claim to their legitimacy as Americans.

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NYC transit system’s “turban-branding” policy defeated

On the morning September 11, 2001, long time train operator Sat Hari Singh (aka Kevin Harrington) was driving the 4 train towards lower Manhattan when news of the attacks came in. He quickly directed the train in reverse, leading all his morning commuters to safety. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) later honored him as a hero of 9/11 for his efforts.

Soon thereafter, Singh and other Sikh transit workers as well as hijab-wearing Muslim transit workers were transferred to new jobs hidden from the public eye by the MTA, as long as they chose to wear their articles of faith, which apparently looked a little too “suspicious” in the aftermath of 9/11. After an uproar from the Sikh and Muslim communities as well as countless others concerned with civil rights and religious freedom, they were reinstated to their original jobs but with a caveat: their turbans and hijabs were to don the MTA logo.

“They called me a ‘hero of 9/11.’ I didn’t have a corporate logo on my turban on 9/11,” Sat Hari Singh said. “This policy made no sense. It was driven by fear.”

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Sikh Coalition hits a home run with FlyRights app
FlyRights App from the Sikh Coaltion (photo: fly-rights.org)

FlyRights App from the Sikh Coaltion (photo: fly-rights.org)

By now, you have likely heard of the smartphone app (available for iPhone and Android devices) released by the Sikh Coalition called FlyRights, which was released yesterday (April 30), and is free of cost. The news of this app’s release has spread virally among news outlets and has been applauded by other civil rights organizations and the general public.

FlyRights allows travelers (Sikh or otherwise) to now report complaints to the TSA and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) if they feel that they have been racially profiled by TSA agents.

Based on past experiences, it is an app I wish I had before, but I’m glad that it’s available now.

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In the Shadow of the Shaheed: Beant and Satwant’s Badla and the JAKARA Album

Co-blogged by JooKay Singh and Jodha

Our fellow langa(w)r-iter – Navdeep Singh highlighted the dominant pop genre of Punjabi music that celebrates nihilism and suicide through political complicity and destitution. Today, we highlight another form of music that has reached new heights in the shadow of the Shaheed.

UK-based producer Tru-Skool’s latest dharmic-track, ‘Beant Satwant Da Badla‘, which will be part of the 10th Shaheedi Immortality album, has topped the BBC Official Asian Download Chart this weekend gone. This isn’t the first time one of the Shaheedi Immorality tracks has been on the BBC Asian Network playlist (Tigerstyle’s Son of a Sardar and Jhooldey Kesri Chande have previously been played by Bobby Friction, Nihal & Adil Ray amongst others), and some would argue this track isn’t pushing the envelope musically or lyrically, since the Immortal Production (IP) collective have been putting out similar tracks for the past 10 years. So, what’s different, and is this a flash-in-the-pan riding on the back of kesri lehar, or is there more?

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Previous IP tracks were given play time on the BBC courtesy of their association with Tigerstyle, who are well respected in the UK as innovative producers, rather than for the tracks themselves; diligent listeners will have noted that the songs were also edited to remove ‘controversial’ lyrics. In Jhooldey Kesri Chandey, for example, the first thirty seconds or so contained part of a speech by Baba Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale, and was removed entirely. Beant Satwant Da Badla, by contrast, has received air time by virtue of being the most officially download ‘asian’ track last week in the UK and was played unedited.

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Workplace Religious Freedom for Sikhs and Other Religious Minorities
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Credit: Karaminder Ghuman, Courtesy: The Sikh Coalition

The Sikh community is leading the way to strengthen law that will protect Sikhs and other religious minorities from job discrimination in the workplace. AB1964 – or the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA) – has been introduced by Assemblymember Mariko Yamada and is co-sponsored by The Sikh Coalition. Earlier this week, in a show of community leadership, the California Sikh sangat packed a hearing room in the California Assembly and testified in favor of AB1964. As a result, the bill passed through the Labor and Employment Committee and will be considered by the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday April 24th. The Sikh Coalition states that,

This is the first time in California’s history that the Workplace Religious Freedom Act has survived a committee vote, and this is a credit to the power of Sikhs to provide leadership on civil rights issues for all Americans. [link]

Why should Sikhs care about WRFA?

Sikhs suffer high levels of employment discrimination because of their Sikh identity. Many are told to shave their beards; others are told to remove their turbans; some are told that they can only work out of public view. If enacted, WRFA would make it harder in each of these cases for California employers to discriminate against Sikhs.

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UPDATED: Echoes of New Phases and some Updates

UPDATED: All of a sudden I remembered a video from KPS Gill. Readers on this site are aware of this murderous sadist, but maybe it is still worthwhile to juxtapose his lies with the findings announced this week.

All of our attention shifted towards Punjab last week. There was some interesting developments early this week. One is that Voices for Freedom, a non-government organization, based out of Punjab filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition against the Sukhbir Badal’s appointee for Director General of Police (DGP) Sumedh Saini. Saini is a well-known human rights abusers and was involved in the many murders, “disappearances”, and torture during the 1980s and 1990s. From the media reports, while the petition may not go far, hopefully it does center some more attention on just the type of thugs that the the Badal Mafia appoints.

Another note from Punjab came yesterday when the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India announced that they would pay Rs. 175,000 (about $3,500) to 1,500 families in the Amritsar district for the murder of their sons. Of course there is no culpability, just an attempt to buy silence. Well-known human rights lawyer Navkiran Singh of Chandigarh has rightly state:

It is too little too late and why only from Amritsar District? Khalra gave example of Amritsar district, but wanted an inquiry for the whole of Punjab. Imagine we had to pursue the matter in the NHRC for 17 years for this little justice.

UPDATE: I just wanted again to stress the lies that KPS Gill has restated for years. See this interview with an Australian journalist, when asked point-blank about the case of illegal cremations, KPS Gill lies without hesitation. Contrast this where the NHRC admits it occurred and even pays out money to families, though without casting any blame or responsibility. I have yet to see a true Indian journalist expose KPS Gill for his lies. Unfortunately they continue to lionize him, assuring that impunity continues – whether in Punjab, Delhi, Gujarat, Kashmir, and many other regions of South Asia.

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21st Century Lynching with Impunity

17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s life was taken away from him a few weeks ago in a gated community in Florida simply because of the color of his skin. On his way back from picking up a pack of Skittles and an iced tea at the local 7-11, he was shot dead by 26-year-old George Zimmerman, who was a part of the neighborhood watch group and found Trayvon “suspicious.” Trayvon was wearing a hoodie and carrying a pack of Skittles, unarmed.

To date, Zimmerman has not been arrested nor charged with any crime.

A petition has been circulating on Change.org for the last week or so, calling on Florida prosecutors to charge Zimmerman with the murder of Trayvon Martin. In the last few days, the mainstream media has picked up on the story.

In a message sent through Change.org today, Trayvon’s parents said:

Our son didn’t deserve to die. Trayvon Martin was just 17 years old when he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Trayvon wasn’t doing anything besides walking home with a bag of Skittles and some iced tea in his hands.

What makes Trayvons death so much harder is knowing that the man who confessed to killing Trayvon, George Zimmerman, still hasn’t been charged for Trayvons killing.

Despite all this, we have hope. Since we started to lead a campaign on Change.org, more than 500,000 people…have signed our petition calling for Florida authorities to prosecute our sons killer.

Our campaign is already starting to work. Just last night, the FBI and Department of Justice announced they were investigating our sons killing. Newspapers around the globe are reporting that its because of our petition.

But our sons killer is still free, and we need more people to speak out if we want justice for Trayvon.

We aren’t looking for revenge, we’re looking for justice — the same justice anyone would expect if their son were shot and killed for no reason.

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Tracking Anti-Sikh Hate Attacks

Over ten years after 9/11, the persistence of hate attacks targeting Sikhs in the US, whether in the form of bullying in schools, vandalism of gurdwaras, or even cold blooded murder, is a sobering reality for our community. Jodha and I have both discussed elsewhere that the root cause of much of the anti-Sikh violence we see in the United States is the overwhelming vilification of Muslims and Islam in our country, and in the world, today. Nevertheless, it is imperative that we have sound data about anti-Sikh attacks specifically so we fully understand the scope of the problem and thus can address it effectively.

It may surprise you that the US government does not in any way keep track of hate crimes targeting Sikhs. Even in the midst of the surge in attacks against Sikhs in the wake of 9/11/01, the FBI never kept track of anti-Sikh crimes. While some of us may not see the FBI as the most trustworthy of agencies to protect our communities and our civil rights given its history of spying and repression, it is nevertheless outrageous that there isn’t even a “Sikh” box to be checked when a hate crime has been reported. It says a lot about the continued marginalization and relative invisibility of our community in the United States.

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A Peak into Leadership Development

403749_10100211497339494_6300041_42999244_658911743_n-247x300.jpgThe Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) has announced the application for the 2012SikhLEAD Internship Program.The objective of SikhLEAD is to inspire, train, and support motivated and enterprising young Sikh American leaders as they prepare for a lifetime of community engagement and community leadership.

The internship program is aims to put Sikh American college and graduate students, as well as recent grad, in competitive internship in the White House, on Capitol Hill and government agencies. Through this program, students will be afforded first-hand perspective into the functioning of the federal government, as a way of providing experience-based training to individuals interested in civic engagement and government affairs.

Through the experience of interning in a congressional office, interns will:

  • explore a potential career track
  • create a network of professional and personal contacts
  • develop real-world skills
  • build confidence and professional work habits

The application deadline for summer 2012 internships is THIS SUNDAY, Feb 26th, 2012!

Visitwww.sikhlead.orgfor more details and to apply.Spread the word and tell your friends about this exciting opportunity.

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Anti-Muslim Bigotry Strikes Michigan Gurdwara

It’s sobering (and depressing) to hear about another hate attack in the United States fueled by Islamophobia, this one in the form of racist graffiti on a gurdwara under construction in Sterling Heights, Michigan. SALDEF‘s recent statement about the incident states:

…the vandalism happened between the evening of Feb 5th and the morning of February 6, 2012. The graffiti included vulgar language, racial epithets, the use of what appears to be a cross, a large drawing of a gun, and references to the attacks of September 11th.

SALDEF is urging law enforcement to classify the vandalism as a hate crime and prosecute the perpetrators, who have yet to be identified. Anyone with information about the attack are being encouraged to contact the local police department directly.

As you can see in the photo, the graffiti states “Don’t build,” and makes reference to the Prophet Muhammad. While the spelling and grammar are poor, it seems safe to assume the perpetrator was fueled by Islamophobia of some sort.

We talk a lot about anti-Muslim bigotry here at The Langar Hall (as Jodha did on Monday), and it’s been at times disturbing to see comments on our posts reflecting the anti-Muslim sentiment in our community. Some who consistently make it a point to distance themselves from Muslims in every way and in every situation might struggle with this stark reality: the well-being, safety, and dignity of our community here in the US (and many other parts of the diaspora) is intimately connected to that of the Muslim community.

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A Tool in the War on Terror

doublespeak.jpgIt isn’t new in our community. A colonial official promises us money, land, and riches. Hundreds of thousands of Sikh javaans found themselves in the deserts of Iraq, the jungles of Burma, or even in the mountainous regions of France during WWI and WII seeking greater opportunities. One need not blame the individuals, but is there a space for a structural conversation in our community about our role in the world of global capital and neo-imperialism?

Poverty and the need to survive may indeed be motivating factors. But do we run the risk of being dispensable pawns in a Great Game? My fellow langa(w)riter, Brooklynwala and even JasdeepSingh in the comments section, bravely wrote about this larger issue in criticizing the core in the “right to serve”campaign. The criticism for those that may not remember is not that Sikh don’t have a ‘right to serve’, the bigger question is what exactly are we serving?

A reminder of this question became apparent in a news article I came across over the weekend.

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Jay Leno loves to antagonize us

Chances are you’ve probably heard about Tonight Show host Jay Leno’s joke last week that has angered a lot of Sikhs in the US and around the world. In the segment, the voiceover stated, “Here’s a look at Mitt Romney’s summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee,” as a photo of Darbar Sahib was shown.

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The New York group Sikhs for Justice has gone so far as to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and a California based Sikh doctor has fileda lawsuit for libel against Leno and NBC in the superior court of California. A petition to NBC is also circulating, which has over 4,000 signatures so far. The petition, in part, states:

…the sentiments of Sikhs worldwide are off limits to his monologues and cannot be used further his TV ratings. The Right to Speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution excludes defamation and spreading hate, incitement and false advertising.

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A Sikh Student’s Science Experiment in Space?

Here on TLH, we look forward to sharing storiesabout young Sikhs pursuing their passion.

YouTube, Lenovo, and Space Adventures are running a competition to find an amazing space experiment and 16-year-old Pranav Singh is one of the finalists! If he wins,his experiment will be carried out on the International Space Station and streamed live from space on YouTube.

You can view Pranav’s video below and learn about his experiment here. Don’t forget to VOTE! You can vote each day until January 24th. Pranav is a finalist and has a good chance to have his experiment picked! Remember, he is only 16-years old!

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CENSORED: Take Action to Protect Internet Freedom

As you may have noticed, today is a national day of action to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act, two bills being decided on in US Congress right now. Tons of sites, including Wikipedia, are on a 24-hour blackout to protest the bills and urge action.

Needless to say, we at The Langar Hall are deeply concerned about this threat to online freedom and encourage our readers to take action and spread the word.

Obama Rings in the New Year with Indefinite Detentions

As many of us in the US and around the world have been celebrating the beginning of a new year this past week as well as the Gurpurab of Guru Gobind Singh, a new draconian law has been brought upon us in the United States with near silence from the mainstream media. On New Year’s Eve, President Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes provisions that allow the US military to round up and indefinitely detain people, including US citizens, without any charge or trial.

Obama himself originally threatened to veto the bill if the language of indefinite decision wasn’t taken out. Yet he proceeded to sign the bill into law as we move into 2012, perhaps giving him the legacy, as Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth states, ” as the president who legalized indefinite detention without trial or cause.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) states:

We are extremely disappointed that President Obama signed this bill even though his administration is already claiming overly-broad detention authority in court. Any hope that the Obama administration would roll back those claims dimmed today. Thankfully we have three branches of government, and the final word on the scope of detention authority belongs to the Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on the scope of detention authority. But Congress and the president also have a role to play in cleaning up the mess they have created because no American citizen or anyone else should live in fear of this or any future president misusing the NDAAs detention authority.

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Article of Faith: A Portrait of a Sikh-American Activist

When I met Sonny, I felt that his story demanded to be told. I was moved by his willingness to share difficult stories about how racism, xenophobia, and islamophobia impact him in a very daily and intimate ways. But more importantly, I was inspired by how he had turned this hardship into a motivation to fight for social justice for all people. I was welcomed with incredible warmth, and inspired by the Sikh traditions seeing the divine in all people, and fighting for equality.-Christina Antonakos-Wallace, Producer and Director of Article of Faith

To continue a discussion about bullying and bias-based harassment that seems to be appearing both here on The Langar Hall and also within langar halls across the nation, we wanted to take the time to highlight an inspiring documentary which discusses this very issue. Article of Faith is a short film, directed and produced by Christina Antonakos-Wallace, portraying one Sikh activist, Sonny Singh, who organizes New York City Sikh youth to combat harassment in their schools. Sonny shares his own, very personal experience with bullying recognizing how incredibly important it is for us to openly dialogue about these issues, so that other children who are experience similar challenges do not feel like they are alone.

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This is what profiling looks like

It’s been quite a day here in New York City. I woke up at 3am this morning and arrived at Liberty Square at 4:00 to protect the Occupy Wall Street encampment from eviction. Sleep deprived but fired up, I joined with thousands of others who showed up to stand in solidarity with this growing movement for economic justice. Before I left my house, I wrote the phone number for the National Lawyers Guild on my arm with a Sharpie, preparing for a possible arrest.

I was planning on participating in civil disobedience this morning. I expected to sit down and lock arms with hundreds of others, forming a barrier around Liberty Square to keep park owner Brookfield’s sanitation crew, and the police, from entering the park and in effect, ending the occupation (occupation in this case being a good thing, for a change).

As many of you have probably heard by now, Brookfield Properties postponed its cleaning of the park at the last minute, and the Mayor instructed the NYPD to hold off in its plans to remove the protesters. We were thrilled, elated, victorious this morning. We held the park, and the occupation of Wall Street continues.

Several hours later after a long nap at home in Brooklyn, I rode my bike back into downtown Manhattan to meet up near the World Trade Center site with some family visiting from India (a few short blocks from where my day began at 4am). My family was running late, so I sat on the corner we decided to meet on, leaning against a fence. After about five minutes, two men wearing hoodies and jeans approached me. One of them unzipped his hoodie, revealing an NYPD badge.

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Sikh runner featured in NYC marathon: Cast your vote!

Following in the footsteps of great Sikh marathon runners like Fauja Singh, a young Sikh Ph.D. student named Simran Singh is currently training to run the largest marathon in the world — the New York City Marathon. And he’s running for a good cause. Simran is working with Team in Training and raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. This is probably blogworthy in and of itself, but here’s what is extra exciting: Simran was selected by the NYC Marathon as one of just six featured runners this year!

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Simran is already representing our community well in the public spotlight as one of the featured runners, but we can all help him get selected as the grand prize winner, meaning more positive representation and mainstream media attention for a turban-wearing Sikh. Hopefully Simran’s presence will help break down stereotypes and barriers (not to mention support cancer research).

Here’s what we can do to support Simran: Go to the ING Featured Runner’s Page, click “View Featured Runners,” and then you can vote for Simran once a day until the contest ends on November 4th. The runner with the most votes wins.

Good luck Simran!

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