Residents are fearful in a quiet Queens neighborhood, where younger Sikhs have begun to escort their elders to the temple.
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Liam Stack and
Gulzar Singh was walking to work on Tuesday morning, chatting with his wife on a video call, when he was attacked. Two men beat the 45-year-old Sikh across the back of the head, ripped off his turban and left him bleeding on the sidewalk in a quiet Queens neighborhood.
Ten minutes later, on the same block, another Sikh man, Sajan Singh, 58, was attacked from behind by two men who beat him, robbed him and ripped off his turban. Nine days earlier, Nirmal Singh, 70, yet another Sikh man, had been assaulted on the same tree-lined street.
“I thought the first attack was isolated and did not think anything beyond that,” said Gulzar Singh, a construction worker who came to the United States from India in 2015. The attack left him with five stitches over his eye. “When I came here, people told me sometimes we get attacked, but when I saw our beautiful community here I did not think this would happen.”
The South Asian community in New York has been shaken in recent weeks by this string of hate crimes against Sikh men in Richmond Hill, a neighborhood sometimes called Little Punjab that is home to a large Sikh community and a prominent Sikh temple. The second round of attacks, which happened on the same morning as the mass shooting that injured at least 23 people on the subway in Brooklyn, has left many Sikhs deeply afraid.
“Incidents like this make you think again,” said Sukhjinder Singh Nijjar, a representative of the Sikh Cultural Society, after a rally in Richmond Hill on Thursday. “What happened in the subway — you’re basically not safe anywhere. Even in your community, where everyone looks like you and you even have the same attire.”
Two men have been arrested in connection with the attacks. Vernon Douglas, 19, was charged on Thursday with assault as a hate crime, robbery and aggravated harassment, in connection with the April 4 attack. Hezekiah Coleman, 20, was arrested on Tuesday and charged with assault as a hate crime, robbery as a hate crime and aggravated harassment.
“These attacks unfortunately fit into a familiar pattern,” said Nikki Singh, a policy analyst at the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group. She said law enforcement believed the attacks to be connected.
“Sikhs maintain a very visible identity and they are often targeted for clothing articles of faith, in particular Sikh men who wear turbans and keep unshorn facial hair,” Ms. Singh said. “That was the case for these men.”
After the arrest of the two men, who are not part of the Sikh community, others realized they had seen them both in the local Sikh temple, called a gurdwara, in the days before the assaults. Sikh prayers begin as early as 3 a.m. Since the attacks, younger people in the area have begun to escort their elders to and from services, said Japneet Singh, a local organizer who helped put together Thursday’s rally.
“The thing with this community is they come home after a long day, watch TV for a little bit and go to sleep and repeat,” he said. “And we just want to make sure this happens to nobody again.”
Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, with 25 million believers worldwide. Most Sikhs live in the Indian state of Punjab, and an estimated 500,000 live in the United States, according to the Sikh Coalition.
But Sikhism remains widely misunderstood in the United States. Few Americans know the tenets of the faith, which emphasizes spiritual oneness, or the idea that there is one God who is equally present in all people, which makes all humans equal before God.
It is common for Sikhs to have one of two last names, Singh or Kaur, as a way to rebuke the historical caste system of South Asia and promote the faith’s egalitarian ideals. But pious Sikh men, for whom wearing a beard and turban is a religious requirement, are frequently mistaken for Muslims.
Many Sikh victims of hate crimes were mistaken for Muslims, a religious community that has faced widespread discrimination in the United States in recent decades. In the first month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Sikh Coalition documented more than 300 instances of violence and discrimination against Sikhs in the United States.
Just days after Sept. 11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man, was killed outside his gas station in Arizona during a gun rampage by Frank Roque, who said he wanted to kill Muslims. That same day, Mr. Roque went on to shoot at a man of Lebanese descent and into a home owned by an Afghan American family. He was later convicted of first degree murder.
The attacks this month in Queens are part of an alarming increase over the last few years in the number of anti-Sikh hate crimes reported to federal law enforcement. According to the latest F.B.I. hate crimes report, 94 anti-Sikh incidents were reported to law enforcement in 2020, compared with 44 in 2018.
But Nikki Singh, of the Sikh Coalition, said it is difficult to determine the true number of bias incidents involving Sikhs because many law enforcement agencies do not categorize those hate crimes as anti-Sikh.
That is because they base them on the intent of the perpetrator, not the identity of the victim. If an attacker thought he or she was attacking a Muslim, the crime may be categorized in reports to federal law enforcement as an anti-Muslim attack, even if the victim is not a Muslim.
The New York Police Department hate crimes dashboard does not include a category for crimes targeting Sikhs. The police department did not respond when asked why that was on Friday.
“The N.Y.P.D. and agencies across New York State have not reported any anti-Sikh hate crimes in the past decade,” Ms. Singh said. “We have such a large Sikh community in New York and these attacks should be accurately categorized.”
Three Sikhs Were Attacked on the Same N.Y.C. Block – The New York Times