A Path Divided

Years ago, a dispute over money and power split the Valley's Sikh community. Then one of their own was gunned down after September 11. Will the bloodshed be enough to put them back on the same path?

The life of Balbir Singh Sodhi began in the Punjab Province of India in 1949. But the story of his death began on September 11, 2001, four days before he would draw his last breath. That morning, Balbir watched with horror and fear as the World Trade Center came crashing down. Fear was a common emotion in America that day, of course, but for Balbir and others like him, it took on an added dimension. As footage of swarthy foreigners with beards and turbans flashed between scenes of fireballs and billowing smoke, newscasters speculated on who was responsible. And the people Americans were blaming for what was already being called an "act of war" looked a lot like Balbir.

Balbir Sodhi was a Sikh. Beards and turbans are about all Sikhs have in common with Islamic extremists, but he wouldn't get the chance to explain that to the man who shot him in the back.

The voice of Balbir's younger brother Lakhwinder is weighted with grief as he recalls the events in the last week of his brother's life, a week when the violence on television crescendoed to intolerance that struck his own family. But his first reaction on September 11 was like that of most Americans.

People from throughout the area contributed to a Mesa memorial honoring Balbir Singh Sodhi.
Dan Huff
People from throughout the area contributed to a Mesa memorial honoring Balbir Singh Sodhi.
One of the duties of the new Sikh Task Force is to develop educational materials, like this poster, to prevent further violence against Sikhs.
Click for larger view
One of the duties of the new Sikh Task Force is to develop educational materials, like this poster, to prevent further violence against Sikhs.

Click for larger view

"That day, that terrible day in New York, I didn't think about my family," Lakhwinder says. "I only felt full of sympathy for those families that lost someone."

Later that day, he recalls, the phone rang. It was a distressed Balbir who had called with a warning. "All Sikhs will be in trouble soon," he told his younger brother. "The man they suspect, the one they show on television, has a similar face to us, and people don't understand the difference."

Lakhwinder says Balbir was protective, ordering him to stay home and lie low, and advising him not to go to work, to the store, or anywhere else out among the angry public.

"How about you?" Lakhwinder asked with a younger sibling's petulance. "You shouldn't be working either."

"Don't worry about me," Balbir told him. "I'm in a nice neighborhood. I'll be okay."

On Thursday, Balbir took Lakhwinder to the Sikh temple where they met with its secretary and leader, Guru Roop Kaur Khalsa. They told her they were worried about the safety of Sikhs in the Valley and wanted to do something about it as soon as possible. Their concerns were justified. The day before, September 12, an elderly Sikh man had been brutally beaten with a baseball bat in New York; a Sikh temple was fire-bombed in Cleveland; and a Sikh-owned gas station in New Jersey had been covered with threatening graffiti. They decided to hold a press conference that Sunday, to tell people not only who Sikhs were, but more important, who they weren't.

Balbir wouldn't live to see it.

On Saturday, September 15, Balbir rose for the last time around 4 a.m. He bathed, and then spent more than an hour praying and meditating as he did every day. Later he stopped by Costco to pick up supplies for his gas station at the intersection of 80th Street and University Drive, as well as to donate $75 to a fund for the victims in New York. He was well-known at the Mesa branch, where he frequently shopped. He had just been named businessman of the month; his picture was placed in a frame near the store's entrance, showing Balbir in a blue turban, a small pink smile blooming out of his black beard, his eyes full of light and pride.

Later, from the Chevron station he'd owned and run for a year, Balbir phoned his brother. Nerves and frustration strained his voice. "Lakhwinder, can you bring me four or five flags this afternoon?" he asked. Balbir wanted to put flags up outside his store, lots of flags, he said, but he hadn't been able to find any in Mesa. A display of patriotism couldn't hurt, he figured, as more reports of attacks on Sikhs circulated, including that of a 31-year-old Sikh cab driver who was choked and beaten and had a portion of his beard ripped out by two men in Seattle. Balbir himself had driven a cab for seven years in San Francisco, before moving to Arizona after a friend and fellow cab driver was murdered. At the time, owning a gas station seemed like a safer way to make a living.

While Balbir was deciding where to hang flags that would come too late, another Sikh was deciding between action and drama at a Phoenix video store. Sevak Singh Khalsa, a white Arizonan who had converted to Sikhism in the '70s, stopped in at Blockbuster Video with his wife to rent a movie, looking for a distraction from nonstop news coverage of the events in New York and Washington, D.C.

As they perused the store's aisles, "I could feel some guy giving me the hairy eyeball," Sevak recalls. The unfriendly scrutiny was coming from a young Hispanic man staring at him from near the check-out counter. "I watched him and I could feel him, I could feel something was not right," Sevak says. "I mean, the guy was really glaring at me. I walked by him and he brushed my shoulder; he looked back at me and I could feel his impotence, the need he had to blame someone.

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