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Two Sikh Brothers Caught in the 9/11 Backlash


American Civil Liberties Union (North California), Jun. 21, 2003

Lakhwinder Singh Sodhi's seven-year-old son looked at his father and begged for an explanation. Why, the child wanted to know, are people shooting my family? Lakhwinder is still groping for answers. For now, he has none to offer his son. Within a year of the Sep. 11 attacks, Lakhwinder's two older brothers were shot and killed in two separate incidents in two different states. The likely explanation is as simple as it is sad. Like half a million other Americans, both brothers were Sikh.

The Sodhi family began to pursue the American dream nearly two decades ago. They came to the country in increments, leaving India's Punjab in a quest for peace. They moved to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix, AZ, trying to build a future. They worked hard, driving cabs, managing gas stations, toiling at restaurants. In all those years, nobody harassed them. 'There was not a thing before Sep. 11,' Lakhwinder says. 'People sometimes thought we were Muslim, but we never thought anything about it. We thought it didn't make any difference. We are all children of God.'

But in the days after Sep. 11, the Sodhi family sensed trouble. 'I had a flag in my store,' says Lakhwinder, 'but a customer told my employee that his wife didn't want to shop there anymore because the store belongs to terrorists. You could feel it - the look, the hate. People would say, 'watch yourself.' ' Balbir, 51, was the oldest brother, 'the person everybody went to.' On Sep. 14, he warned Lakhwinder not to go to work close to downtown Phoenix because he feared for his younger brother's safety. As for Balbir, he felt safe in suburban Mesa, where he had opened a gas station nine months before. He called his wife at his parents' house in India and told her not to worry.

On Sep. 15, Balbir drove to Costco, searching for an American flag to display at the gas station. On his way out, he donated $75 to the Sep. 11 victims' fund. At 2:45 p.m., Balbir was stooped outside the gas station, planting flowers, when the shots rang out. Leaving Balbir drenched in a pool of blood, his assailant sped off, tires squealing, in a pickup truck. The Phoenix man accused of murdering Balbir says he shot him 'because he was dark-skinned, bearded and wore a turban.'

Sukhpal, the oldest brother now, stepped up his taxi driving in San Francisco. He needed to make enough money to move to Phoenix and be close to his family. On Aug. 3, 2002, he spoke with Lakhwinder and his family. 'He talked to my four-year-old and said he would bring candy,' Lakhwinder recalls. Then came the crushing second blow. At four the following morning, Sukhpal was shot and killed as he drove his cab in San Francisco's Mission District. To lose a second brother within a year, was almost unbearable, Lakhwinder says.

San Francisco police, who have made no arrests in the case, have not classified Sukhpal's murder as a hate crime. He might just have been a man in a dangerous profession who fell prey to a killer, they say. But it is hard for the family and the larger Sikh community to accept that explanation.

Despite a year of unimaginable darkness, Lakhwinder feels that something remarkable emerged from the shadows. The community arranged a memorial service after Balbir's murder, and 4,000 people - all faiths, all ages - came to speak out against hate. Lakhwinder thinks that in some way the murders may have helped people understand that Sikhs, Muslims and others are not so different under the skin, the beards and the turbans. If it is true, he says, his brothers' deaths may ultimately have 'saved a lot of people.' One day, that may be an answer that Lakhwinder can offer his son.