An NYPD vehicle sat conspicuously on the corner of 118th Street and 97th Avenue in Richmond Hill as the sun rose Monday morning. On the front steps of the ornate building on the corner, uniformed cops stood guard, glancing to their left and to their right.
There was no specific threat to the building which houses the city’s largest gurdwara — the name Sikhs give to their houses of worship — but the day after a gunman opened fire at a gurdwara outside Milwaukee, Wis., the police were taking no chances.
“The NYPD is increasing coverage in and around Sikh temples in New York City today, including the deployment of Critical Response Vehicles, as a precaution in the wake of the Wisconsin shooting,” the police said in a statement Sunday night. “There is no known threat against Sikh temples in New York City; however, the coverage is being put in place out of an abundance of caution.”
The attack, allegedly perpetrated by a former soldier with ties to white supremacist groups more than a thousand miles away, sent shockwaves through the Sikh community in Queens, home to one of the largest concentrations of Sikhs in the country.
There are only about 500,000 Sikhs in the United States, making it a small close-knit community where many know each other, and the members of the Wisconsin gurdwara are familiar to some in Richmond Hill, which is home to more than 15,000 Sikhs. Mohan Singh Khatra, the newly minted chairman of the Sikh Cultural Society, lost his uncle, Suveg Singh, in the shooting.
“I just spoke to him [this weekend],” Khatra said. “I feel really sad. I will never see him again.”
Khatra traveled to Wisconsin this week for his uncle’s funeral and said he had planned to visit his family there even before the shooting.
On Monday, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly visited the Sikh Cultural Center in Richmond Hill to offer condolences to Khatra and the community and discuss security.
“[This goes] against everything that New York is all about and this remains a city where people of every nationality live in harmony, and where people of every faith worship in freedom, and that’s essential to who we are as New Yorkers,” Bloomberg said outside the gurdwara on Monday.
Gurdev Singh Kang, president of the Sikh Cultural Society, said the NYPD responded immediately to local gurdwaras after the attack in Wisconsin.
“They have met their obligation to protect New York City,” he said. “NYPD, they came right over here and went to other area temples and we feel safe and we feel the confidence in our NYPD.”
The police officer wounded in the attack, Lt. Brian Murphy of the Oak Creek, Wis. police department, also has connections locally. Murphy, who suffered multiple gunshot wounds but is expected to survive, is a Brooklyn native and the brother of a recently retired NYPD officer. The advocacy group Sikhs for Justice is planning on making a $10,000 donation to Murphy’s recovery to thank him.
“Brian Murphy is the one that came into harm’s way,” said Gurpatwant Pannun, legal advisor for Sikhs for Justice who has a law firm in Jackson Heights. “Had it not been for Brian Murphy, God forbid, there would have been many more lives lost.”
The massacre brought to the surface a common problem among relations with the Sikh community, who are often mistaken for Muslims because of their trademark long beards and turbans, required by Sikh religious doctrine, which bans cutting hair. After the Sept. 11 attacks, a Sikh man in Arizona was murdered by a perpetrator who mistook him for a Muslim. Locally, a Sikh man was beaten near Lefferts Boulevard and 101st Avenue in July 2004 by a group of white men who called him a Muslim. Five men were later arrested and charged with bias crimes for the incident. Pannun said there has been a big increase in hate crimes against Sikhs since 9/11.
Councilmen Ruben Wills (D-South Jamaica), Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) and a number of their colleagues also appeared at the Sikh Cultural Center Monday afternoon to show solidarity with the Sikh community, and Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights), joined by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan), and other elected officials spoke at a gurdwara in Woodside.
“While we do not yet know the motivations of this senseless act and it’s important to wait for more information from law enforcement, we do know that Sikh-Americans are too often the victims of intolerance and hate,” Crowley said.
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion with no connection whatsoever to Islam. It originated in India in the early 1600s and most Sikhs still live in the Punjab region of the country. Its teachings are focused on equality of humanity, moderation and nonviolence.
Many Sikhs immigrated to the United States, Canada and Great Britain during the 1980s, when they were being persecuted in India after a Sikh assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Kang noted that the Sikh Cultural Center had pushed to allow Sikhs to wear their turbans when working in the NYPD or in other jobs because he believes it would bring about more acceptance for their culture and traditions. Bloomberg said there are between one and two dozen Sikh members of the NYPD.
The Wisconsin shooting also reignited the debate over gun control that sparked after another mass shooting less than three weeks ago at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Bloomberg called out both President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney for ignoring the issue of gun control in their campaigns for president. He suggested a number of potential regulations including microstamping of bullets and closing gun show sales loopholes and called on the candidates to discuss the issue.
“During the next president’s term, 48,000 Americans are going to be murdered and so far we haven’t heard from either candidate a plan, a concrete plan that makes sense, to get the problem solved,” he said.