Joy Kanwar

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In the years following September 11, 2001, hate crimes and violent incidents against Sikh people in America rose dramatically. Most of these incidents involved individuals who targeted Sikh people—often men—because of their turbans and beards, which the attackers conflated with their own imagined versions of “9/11 terrorists.” Although the Sikh faith had no relationship to whom these attackers thought they were assaulting, very often someone they believed to be from the Islamic faith, the “visual” told the story—the victim was an outsider, someone who did not belong here and someone who was dangerous for America.

One particularly poignant moment resonated with me from that time. In 2005, my firm took over the pro bono representation of Rajinder Singh Bammi (also known as Khalsa, an honorific for priest), who was beaten within an inch of his life in Queens by several young men of Italian ancestry leaving a christening party. The Queens District Attorney brought a hate crimes case against the men, who were convicted and served either time or community service. Significantly, Mr. Bammi then decided to bring the first case in America in which a Sikh person brought a civil suit against his attackers to pay for his hospital bills and lost wages. In reflecting upon the burden and responsibility of bringing such a case, he asked out loud, “Why are they mixing us up? Why don’t they know who we are?” I have thought both of my immediate response to the first question—that no one should be attacked no matter their faith and that we stand with all vulnerable communities—but also of the lingering second question: “Why don’t they know who we are?”