The Sacramento Bee – Slaying of Sikh gas station employee shocks community accustomed to tragedy

Laura Sussman

Sacramento, 10 August 2017. When Harfateh Singh first heard about the July 25 murder of Simranjit Singh at a south Sacramento gas station, the former president of the Sikh Cultural Association at UC Davis thought immediately of the tragedies that already have struck his community.

Closest to home was an attack from 2011, when two men from the Sikh religious minority, Surinder Singh, 65, and Gurmej Singh Atwal, 78, were gunned down while taking their afternoon stroll in Elk Grove. That apparent hate crime remains unsolved.

More recently, Subag Singh was found dead in a canal in Fresno the day before Simranjit Singh’s murder. The 68-year-old Sikh man’s death is being investigated as a homicide but as yet not a hate crime, according to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.

Last month’s killing of 20-year-old Simranjit Singh, who had come to the USA less than two years ago, hasn’t been linked to his ethnicity or religion, but that violence nonetheless has shocked Northern California’s enormous but tight-knit Sikh community.

“While trying to process the event, I also learned about the older Sikh gentleman who went missing in Fresno, and his body was found in a canal with trauma marks,” Harfateh Singh said.

“Maybe they were both at a wrong place at a wrong time, but what if they were not? I wondered if I will be the next headline or statistic, but I also felt a renewed determination to not stop being who I am.”

Sikh men, in particular, have had to confront more prejudice and violence in the USA, especially after the 11 September 2001, attacks, according to a book by Dawinder Singh Sidhu, a law professor at the University of New Mexico and Neha Singh Gohil, the former Western region director of the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights group.

Sikh men often are confused for Muslims because of the turban and long beard many of them wear for religious reasons. In fact, the first revenge killing in the USA after September 11 was against a Sikh man thought to be a Muslim.

More than 15 years later, Sikhs still face similar problems, even in communities such as Yuba City and Elk Grove, which are part of one of the biggest Sikh populations outside of India.

Some successful Sikhs go on to buying their own gas stations or convenience stores, which often employ more recently arrived Sikhs. Friends of Simranjit Singh said the young man had hoped to buy his own gas station after earning enough money at the station owned by his brother-in-law.

He was also taking an introductory calculus class at American River College to prepare for a possible career in computer engineering.

Singh did not experience episodes of discrimination while in the United States, said his sister, Dimpy Kaur. As for themselves, she and her husband have mostly encountered interest in their customs but “never faced any problems related to religion,” she said.

She added that she did not know whether her brother was killed because of his appearance.

Since moving to the USA in 2007, Harfateh Singh said, he has learned to use his religion to endure the discrimination he’s encountered. He remembered one incident in particular, in his third month after coming to the USA, when a stranger approached him while he was sitting in a San Jose library and asked if he was going to bomb the place.

His reaction, he said, has been to “say a prayer, take a deep breath and remember what’s good in this world.”

Singh said he also has tried to teach people locally and nationally about the Sikh religion, in the hope that through education people will stop mistreating his community.

Rajan Gill, who was born and raised in Yuba City, said Sikhs “mostly face micro-aggressions, such as snide comments or rude stares. They make you feel like the place where you live, where you were born isn’t welcoming and isn’t your home.”

Still, the community has won victories. Rajan’s father, Kash Gill, was elected Yuba City’s mayor in 2009, becoming the first Sikh to head a USA city. Kash Gill insisted that his religion did not play a role in the election. Still, he described the event as a “huge accomplishment for our entire community at large.”

Killings like that of Simranjit Singh, however, quickly dispel that feeling of safety.

The shooting occurred at about 10:30 pm 25 July as Singh and a co-worker were cleaning the Chevron gas station’s parking lot, said Sacramento County Sheriff’s Sergent Tony Turnbull. The suspects began hassling Singh’s co-worker, who went inside to call 911. The men approached Singh, and one of them shot him.

Turnbull said the shooting appears to be the result of the argument rather than a hate crime against Singh.

Two men, Rodolfo Zavala, 23, and his 15-year-old brother, Ramon Zavala, are being sought on murder charges in connection with Singh’s killing. One suspect, Alexander Lopez, 40, of Sacramento, was arrested.

Similar sad news has been a regular occurrence. A 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple [gurdwara] in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, by a white supremacist left six dead. On September 21, 2013, a Sikh professor walking in Harlem was beaten by 20 to 30 men as they screamed “Osama” and “terrorist.”

Also in 2013, an elderly Sikh man in Fresno was beaten with an iron bar in what was possibly a hate crime. In December 2015, Amrik Singh Bal, 68, was beaten and then purposely hit by a car in what Fresno police have identified as a hate crime.

A few days later, a Sikh convenience store clerk was stabbed to death in the same city. In September 2016, two men in Richmond ripped the turban off the head of Maan Singh Khalsa and cut his previously unshorn hair.

“The possibility of hate crime extremely worries me because folks like Simranjit, like me, like my relatives and friends who wear a turban and do not cut their hair or shave their beard, may have to be extra cautious,” Harfateh Singh said.

“But we should not and will not let this dampen our spirits, and we will continue to actively work with allies in combating hate and phobia of any sort.”

Laura Sussman