As Sikh-American groups raised awareness last week about a religion they say is often misunderstood, a 24-year-old New York City Sikh taxi driver had his turban allegedly ripped from his head early Sunday morning, police said.
The incident happened in the Bronx around 5:15 a.m. on April 16, a New York Police Department (NYPD) spokesperson told NBC News in an email. The NYPD did not identify the driver, but said a passenger became aggressive, punched the cabbie in his arm, and stole his turban.
The NYPD’s Hate Crime Task Force was investigating, police said. No arrests had been made.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took to Twitter to denounce the alleged attack.
Harkirat Singh — You are welcome here. What happened to you was wrong. You did the right thing by calling the NYPD. https://t.co/Vah9tXRLHf
NBC New York identified the driver as Harkirat Singh of Queens. Singh, an immigrant from India, said that four passengers grew angry after accusing him of taking them to the wrong location. The group allegedly yelled slurs at Singh, he said.
Singh pulled over and told them to hail another taxi. But a man then went back in the cab, allegedly tried to break the meter, and punched Singh in the arm, according to police.
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He then grabbed Singh’s turban and fled, police said.
“He picked up my turban from my head, and after he said, ‘Now you see Ali Baba,’” Singh told NBC New York.
“This act of cruelty is sadly just the latest example of violence, bullying and abuse against Sikh Americans,” read a statement from the National Sikh Campaign, which last week launched a million-dollar campaign to let Americans learn more about Sikhs.
The incident also happened the same weekend New Yorkers came to Times Square for Turban Day 2017, an effort by Sikhs of New York to raise awareness of a religion swept up in anti-Muslim sentiment. That event was held as Sikhs around the world celebrated the Sikh New Year of Vaisakhi.
Sikhs don the turban to symbolize a commitment to uphold Sikh values of equality, kindness, justice, and compassion, The Sikh Coalition interim managing director of programs Rajdeep Singh Jolly told NBC News.
But “in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the only people that you saw wearing turbans on TV were Al Qaeda, Taliban, Osama bin Laden — mass-murdering terrorists,” Jolly added. “And I think that stereotype got reinforced. There’s a pervasive ignorance about this, and it just created a perfect storm where Sikhs were targeted.”
“The lesson for all of us is that this is not something that can be legislated away, this is not something that can be solved with a single PR campaign.”
The attack on Singh is the latest in a spate of crimes involving the Sikh community. In late March, a man was arrested for attacking a woman inside a Sikh temple in Oregon. Police are also investigating as a hate crime the shooting of a Sikh man in a Seattle suburb earlier that month. No arrests had been made yet in that case.
Jolly said that while violence and hate crimes against the Sikh community has accelerated since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, its roots trace back more than a hundred years. In one example from 1907, white working men in Bellingham, Washington, smashed windows and beat people in town in an effort to drive out South Asians who had come for work, he noted.
Jolly said tangible steps must be taken in schools and by parents and government officials to push back against hate crime.
“The lesson for all of us is that this is not something that can be legislated away, this is not something that can be solved with a single PR campaign,” Jolly said. “It requires grassroots action and eternal vigilance over the course of generations.”