Human Rights

Cab Drivers in the Crosshairs

Sikh cab drivers in the San Francisco Bay Area fear the night shift, since three Sikh cabbies were shot in the last two months.
In the back of the San Jose airport, 30-year-old Farhan Kahn is handing out samosas to the other cab drivers sitting in lawn chairs waiting for their dispatcher to call. Kahn, cabby by day, world-music sitarist by night, is giving his explanation for the never-ending Bin Laden references drivers hear. "Even in the Bay Area people are ignorant," he says. "They need to watch less movies and more PBS."

He's joking, but the group of South Asian and Ethiopian men don't laugh. Before, racial slurs, and questions like, "What do you think about Saddam?" from passengers were only words, part of the job. Now, after the recent shootings of three Bay Area Sikh cab drivers, many fear those words may portend something much worse.

Three shootings in two months. Davinder Singh, 21, was shot to death by two passengers early Sept. 13 in Redwood City. Gurpreet Singh, 23, was killed on July 2 in Richmond. Another cab driver, Inderjit Singh, 29, was shot in the jaw on July 5th when he responded to a call from his dispatcher.

Most Sikhs share the last name of Singh.

Police in both Richmond and Redwood City determined robbery to be the primary cause of the shootings. But many Sikh cab drivers say the crimes were about racial hatred.

"They just see the turban and the beard and they hate us," says Baljit Singh, an older Sikh man who has driven a cab in the Bay Area for four years.

Sikh Cab drivers responded to the shootings by holding a work slowdown and organizing a memorial procession of hundreds of cabs from San Carlos to San Jose.

Here at San Jose's Norman Y. Mineta airport, the most common feeling among drivers is that they are trapped in a political and economic moment that has put Sikh cabbies in the crosshairs. If asked whether the shootings were hate crimes or just about money, most cab drives say it was both.

Farhan Kahn explains. "Right now the biggest question on peoples minds is, 'Who has cash?' Put that with all the mistaken identity about Sikhs, and people get targeted."

Kavneet Singh echoes the sentiment while speaking about the death of Davinder Singh at a Muslim community center in Santa Clara. "Police say it is not a hate crime, but when the shooter sees the turban and beard it must have made it that much easier to pull the trigger."

Kavneet is a local organizer for Sikh Media Watch and Resource Task Force (SMART) and is addressing an Asian, Latino, and black audience that has convened to talk about civil liberties struggles since 9/11. SMART has taken steps to connect the attacks on Sikh cab drivers to this broader public dialogue. Kavneet, a young healthcare professional who can handle a microphone, is a bridge between the insular community of Sikh drivers and the city officials and community activists. His unexpected transformation into a vocal activist has mirrored the evolution of identity of Sikhs from largely unknown, to targets of racial slurs and violence, to an organizing community.

Since the shootings, Kavneet and SMART have facilitated meetings between local and federal law enforcement officials, elected representatives and cab drivers regarding safety and protections. As a result of these efforts, city officials in Richmond are considering cab drivers' suggestions for installing video cameras and glass partitions in cabs.

Kevneet says San Jose police have even approached him about organizing trainings on cultural sensitivity toward Sikhs for their officers.

At the airport, drivers are starting to get called by the dispatcher. Nobody seems too worried right now about incidents. The danger comes at night, when customers are finished drinking at clubs and bars, and the streets are dark and empty. Getting up, Swara Singh, a driver for three years, tells Kahn to translate his Hindi. "I don't want to drive a cab anymore." His wife and children, he says, worry about him. "But I have to. If I work for someone else they may make me shave my beard, and I won't do that."

Raj Jayadev is the editor of www.siliconvalleydebug.com, the voice of young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley.
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