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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Targeting the Turban

Today we drove into Richmond Hill, New York, to meet the three Sikh men Amardeep Singh at the Sikh Coalition told us about yesterday. The Sikh Coalition represents Rajinder Singh Khalsa, Kevin Harrington, and Amric Singh Rathour (pictured). Each case centers on the turban, the religious uniform for many Sikh men. Here are sketches of their three stories.

We met RAJINDER SINGH KHALSA (pictured) in front of his brother’s restaurant, where he told us what happened to him on July 11, 2004. On the street, several men accosted him and his brother. “Give me that dirty curtain,” they said.

I tried to tell them that it’s not a dirty curtain, it’s a turban,” Rajinder Singh told us. “But another guy came and said, ‘Go back to your country.’ I said, ‘But we are American, where should we go?’ He thought that we were Iranian. So I told him, ‘We are not Iranian. We are not Muslim. We are Sikhs from India.’ He said, “Then go back to India.’

“Then they started beating my brother at once. I said, ‘Don’t do this; he’s innocent!’ They left him and everybody started beating me. They beat me and crushed my nose. They punched me in the nose, eyes, head, everywhere. They left me unconscious on the sidewalk. They threw my turban away.”

People on the street watched as the men beat Rajinder Singh unconscious and left him for dead in broad daylight. Nobody intervened. His brother ran to get the ambulance. Although witnesses reported five men taking part in the beating, the next day, the police charged only one man with assault. Rajinder Singh’s lawyer Amardeep Singh told us why the community protested:

The community had suffered so many hate crimes without anyone being charged that the community just boiled over in rage. Only because of a spontaneous protest did the police re-open the investigation.”

Rajinder Singh Khalsa became the first to file a civil suit against his perpetrators. This is not the first time that he has stood up against injustice. Back in India, he fought the Indian government for human rights atrocities against the Sikh community after 1984 (pictured). He was tortured by the police. This is why he came to America in the first place.

We finished our interview in Rajinder Singh’s backyard, where he showed me pictures and newspaper clippings from his protest days in India. And his family served us tea and biscuits (pictured). This is when Amric Singh Rathour joined us.

AMRIC SINGH RATHOUR was born and raised in Queens, New York, and his father was one of the first Sikhs to settle in Richmond Hill, now a thriving Punjabi community in New York. In 2000, Amric joined the NYPD, but was subsequently fired for wearing his turban. In his quiet Queens accent, he told us his story.

In 2000, I went to the police department, wanting to serve the city I was born and raised in. I passed the exams and they hired me. I quit my other job and paid money for the uniform. But then they told me to take my turban off, or they would fire me. They trapped me.

“I had always felt that this was my home. This is the greatest city in the world. But after getting fired, the discrimination really disturbed me. I took it to heart. I got really depressed. I stopped having a social life. You think that you’re not human. It may seem like nothing to someone who doesn’t understand believing in something, but when you’re judged like this, it really hurts
.”

Amric decided to fight the NYPD. Amardeep Singh and the Sikh Coalition took up his case, pointing out the long history of Sikh service in the army and civil forces. And after 2 ½ years of litigation, they won. They won because of a court order, desipte pleas to meet Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD and to avoid going through the courts. Amric now wears his turban as a police officer on the streets of Manhattan.

While I’m out there, directing traffic, people come up to me and shake my hand. It was a victory for our community. It feels really good.”

Next, we met KEVIN HARRINGTON, a tall American of Irish decent who converted to Sikhism in his youth. His case against the MTA had also made news this past year. In June 2004, after twenty-four years as a train operator for the Transit Authority, Kevin was asked to remove his turban. He told us his full story:

In 1981, the Transit Authority called me to work for them as a bus cleaner. It was hard to find a job as a Sikh with a turban. Because if you are an American [converted] Sikh, people think you’re crazy. If you’re an Indian, they assume it’s heritage. But if you are a white American wearing a turban, they think you’re nuts. As a result, most American Sikhs are self-employed. But I took the job and became a train operator.

On 9/11. I was operating a Number Four train, and we lost signal power when the first tower fell. That meant the train could not move more than twenty feet at a time without being stopped by the emergency breaking system… So I would recharge the train, move it twenty feet, it would stop again, and I would redo it. I evacuated the people on my train to the Wall Street station.”

Kevin was honored as a hero of 9/11. His passengers still come up to him and thank him for saving their life. In June of last year, the superintendent of the Number Four train approached him:

He told me that because I wore a turban, I wasn’t allowed to work where the public could see me. I had to work in the yard. Or else I had to wear a MTA patch on my turban, if I didn't want to be fired. But to me, I felt that my turban was being used as a billboard.”

Kevin is still fighting the case with the help of the Sikh Coalition and Amardeep Singh, yet again. Several other turbaned Sikhs and Muslim women with veils have also been targeted by the MTA’s new policy.

In front of the Richmond Hill gurdwara, our three interviewees met for the first time (pictured above). Their conversation was fascinating. They talked about the NYPD compared to the MTA, the process of filing suits, and their gratitude for the Sikh Coalition. Amric pointed out that the three of them represented different parts of the Sikh community: Rajinder Singh the Indian-born Sikh, Amric Singh the American-born Sikh, and Kevin Harrington, the American who converted to Sikhism.

This was a very full day. And it went smoothly, because starting today, our crew grew to seven people. There were the usual suspects: Sharat Raju (director), Matt Blute (cinematographer), Don Presley (first camera), and myself. But now MARCUS CANO(pictured), our production coordinator, master of permits and transportation and back-up plans, has joined us on the road.

And so has TRACY WELLS (pictured), our astounding director of communications, who also juggles scheduling and hair design, not to mention female moral support for her frazzled executive producer. And DALE SAINI (pictured below), who volunteered to be our east coast production assistant and flew himself from Atlanta to join the madness. Each person has taken up the responsibilities that would be assigned to a small department on a bigger budget film. And they are doing it gracefully.

One more delicious fact: many religious traditions are now represented on our tiny crew: Sikh, Hindu, Mormon, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and the Church of Don (our first camera). For a movie that seeks to bridge divides, what could be more fitting than such an interfaith crew?

From left to right: Tracy Wells, Marcus Cano, Sharat Raju, Dale Saini, Matt Blute, Don Presley (and I'm taking the picture):

A special thank you to Gurpreet Singh, who fed us at their restaurant Tandoori Express, and to Rajinder Singh who fed us at his house (pictured below). And a big thank you to my aunt, Chitranjan Brar, for housing our crew while in New York!

Join our team and help us make this movie come true.

[This entry is cross-posted on "Into the Whirlwind," and was initially posted on August 20, 2005.]


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