Fresno, California’s first homicide victim of 2016 is a Sikh American, and police are investigating whether motivation of the attack qualifies it as a hate crime, according to local reports.
Gurcharam Singh Gill, 68, was stabbed to death on Friday at a convenience store where he worked.
The murder is the latest in a string of attacks on adherents of the Sikh faith that seem motivated by prejudice.
It comes after the Dec. 26 beating of Amrik Singh Bal, 68, also a Sikh resident of Fresno. The Fresno Bee reported that Bal was waiting for a ride to his job on a farm in the early morning, when young men reportedly yelled, “Why are you here?” and backed their car into him and assaulted him. Bal was hospitalized due to wounds sustained during the attack.
The police are still investigating that attack as a hate crime as well.
And in September, Gilbert Garcia was sentenced to 13 years in prison for brutally beating Piara Singh, an 82-year-old Sikh Fresno resident, in 2013. Garcia later made anti-Muslim comments in relation to the incident.
Anti-Muslim bigots often mistake Sikhs for Muslims, because they commonly wear turbans and grow their beards. Sikhs have already been swept up in the recent wave of anti-Muslim violence after December’s San Bernardino massacre. Anti-Muslim prejudice also may have motivated the shooting massacre of six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in August 2012.
Harjinder Singh Dhillon, a local medical clinic manager and board member of Fresno’s Sikh Institute, estimates that there are some 30,000 Sikhs in Fresno, a city of nearly 516,000.
Yet anti-Sikh prejudice rooted in Islamophobia persists.
“I very much feel the anti-Sikh sentiment because sometimes those young people call me things like Osama bin Laden,” Dhillon said. “Young people are basically the ones who do that often. These kinds of incidents -- they can be prevented, but they happen.”
Dhillon said the community has made headway in combating prejudice by reaching out to educate local young people about their faith.
“Many elementary schools came to the gurdwara [Sikh house of worship],” Dhillon said. “It is good to reach them when they are young enough to learn.”
He said the community is largely satisfied with the attentiveness of local law enforcement and government to the problem of anti-Sikh prejudice.
“The police knows everything -- who the Sikhs are,” Dhillon said. “It is very positive.”
Dhillon, who is an immigrant from India, is nonetheless disappointed in Americans' religious illiteracy.
“When I was young in India, I knew every religion of the world. I think in India every kid who went to school they know about everybody,” he said. “But here, this is the only country in the world where people don’t know.”
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