Politics

Sikh councilman and Sikh comedian stand up to Trump’s hate mongering

By Miya Treadwell | June 06, 2016
Left: Councilman Ravinder Singh Bhalla at the Hoboken Day Parade. Right: Arish Singh responds to Donald Trump's innuendo about his red turban during an Iowa campaign rally.

Left: Councilman Ravinder Singh Bhalla at the Hoboken Day Parade. Right: Arish Singh responds to Donald Trump's innuendo about his red turban during an Iowa campaign rally.

In perhaps the most bizarre presidential campaign in recent history, in which one of the candidates has managed to offend every minority group, two Sikhs are turning incidents of hate speech into conversations on embracing the changing face of America.

Ravinder Singh Bhalla, councilman-at-large and council president for the City of Hoboken, New Jersey, was insulted in a response to an official Twitter message about new bike lanes on May 19 by a supporter of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
 
“How the hell did Hoboken allow this guy to be a councilman?” said Robert Dubenezic, who used Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” in his Twitter byline and wrote numerous posts against the Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton. “(He) shouldn’t even be allowed in the U.S.”
 
Dubenezic ended the tweet with “#terrorist.” 
 
Not knowing the councilman, Dubenezic made an assumption solely based on how Ravinder Singh looked. As a Sikh, he wears a turban and has a full beard. 
 
The councilman didn’t shy away from the discriminatory innuendo. He corrected Dubenezic in a follow-up tweet.
 
“Sir, I am born & raised in America,” Ravinder Singh said. “You clearly don't know what it means to be an American.”
 
He ended the tweet with “#ignorant.”
 
Ravinder Singh saw the situation as a way to make a constructive change. 
 
“(It) created an opportunity to elevate the conversation and turn a negative into a positive,” he told SFP. “(It was) an opportunity to educate about the Sikh community.”
 
On Twitter, Ravinder Singh received an outpouring of support from the citizens of Hoboken, while Dubenezic received condemnation of his continued unapologetic, racist tweets, including: “No towel on my head.”
 
SFP asked Dubenezic for input for this story. He said, "No thanks."
 
“Sad, un-American behavior that cannot be tolerated,” said Ronald Bautista, @RBautistaReal. “I'm happy majority of Hoboken is progressive & rejects racism.” 
 
“I was taught Sikh (& Ghurkas) *dominated* bravery medals for Allied Forces (official or not) in world wars,” said Tom Kelshaw, @tomkelshaw. “Respect.”
 
Ravinder Singh also received immense support from elected officials, including Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. 
 
“What was said was so outrageous,” Zimmer told SFP. “He is an excellent councilmen and I wanted to publicly defend him.” 
 
News reports of the incident in NJ.com, New American Media and NBCnews.com opened the conversation further about discrimination and prejudice. 
 
"With a lot of the rhetoric we're hearing from people like Donald Trump about Muslim Americans and people who are perceived to be from a Muslim background, I think the spread of Islamophobia from our national leaders sends the wrong message," Ravinder Singh told NBC News. 
 
"I hope this episode shows people that words can be hurtful and that discriminating based on how someone looks shouldn't just be ignored.”
 
This incident is just one of many that have illustrated the bigotry not only among some Trump supporters, but also from the candidate himself. 
 
In January, Arish Singh and another man were quickly escorted out of a Trump rally in Iowa after unfurling a banner that said, “STOP HATE.” Trump verbally attacked his red turban. 
 
"He wasn't wearing one of those hats, was he?” Trump said, referring to his campaign’s red baseball caps with the “Make America Great Again” slogan. “Was he wearing one of those? And he never will. And he never will. And he never will."
 
The audience chanted, “USA!”
 
Arish Singh, former editor of “Little Village” magazine and aspiring stand-up commedian, arrived at Muscatine High School about 16 minutes into Trump’s speech, shortly after he criticized President Obama for failing to “talk about” radical Islam.
 
“I was shocked at the political extremism,” he told SFP. White supremacists flooded Iowa with pro-Trump, anti-Muslim robo-calling campaigns. “There was no condemnation from Trump camp.”
 
It was another white supremacist, Wade Michael Page, who gunned down six people at the Oak Creek gurdwara in Wisconsin, in August 2012.
 
“I was affected by the Oak Creek shooting,” Arish Singh said, emotionally. “I wanted to make something constructive out of that incident.”
 
He talked about the harmful effect of hateful rhetoric to many major newspapers and broadcasters around the world, including the BBC. 
 
“People do have to condemn that and make a statement,” he told SFP. 
 
Arish Singh responded to Trump’s “hat” comment. 
 
 
“I can’t be getting mad,” he said. “I take a different direction, to make fun of the media.” He criticized the American media for not covering Trump’s hate mongering.
 
Arish Singh’s comedy act is all about political satire. His routine is a response to what happened at the Trump rally. He also does shows to fundraise for other activist causes.
 
Arish Singh is influenced by the social justice of Sikhism. 
 
“The Sikh religion is geared toward modernity and equality,” he added. “To have that so misunderstood, I feel attachment to preserve that tradition.”

SFP staff reporter, Anju Kaur, contributed to this story.