A long time and proud resident of Bakersfield, California, Balmeet Singh was assaulted and had his life threatened by an individual invoking racist slurs outside a restaurant two nights ago. Below, he recounts and reflects on the experience. Many thanks to Balmeet for sharing his thoughts about the incident. At the end of the article, you can watch Balmeet’s recorded video describing the incident.
One of the simple joys of life is being able to go enjoy a meal with your loved ones. Unless you happen to be one of the members of Bakersfield’s Sikh community.
Friday night at about 7:30 p.m., I went to go enjoy one of California Avenue’s newest attractions, Habit Burger. Before going inside, I decided to call my little cousin to wish him happy birthday. He was officially a teenager! I walked outside the restaurant, asking him how he was celebrating this special occasion. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a white male in late thirties or early forties, approach, from the patio of Blaze Pizza. As I shared in my little cousin’s birthday celebration, I heard some background noise, almost like an angry buzzing in my ears. I adjusted the phone and continued to speak to my cousin, when all of a sudden I heard it more clearly: “You gonna blow up this country!” I paused as I heard it again: “You gonna blow up this country.” I looked around to see where this was coming from, and locked stares with the angry white man. I felt confused, thinking “I’ve never met this person before in my life… I’m just trying to enjoy a meal with my family, and wish my little cousin a happy birthday.”
As I looked into his angry eyes, it hit me again: “You gonna blow up this country! F*ck you! I should f*cking kill you right now…I am going to kill you right now.” I just stood there, in shock, my phone slipping from my hands, my little cousin forgotten, as a million thoughts raced through my head: Who was this stranger? Why was he so angry? Why was he blaming me? All I could think of, was responding slowly, “You… you racist. You’re the problem”.
He angrily yelled it again, “You going to blow up this country! In fact, f*ck you!”
I stood there, my legs frozen, as I saw the filled drink cup leave his hand and hurl towards me in the air. Time slowed down, almost like in the movies. I couldn’t move, as the cup flew towards me, my eyes widening, as it hit me, splashing the liquid all over my my dastaar (turban), covering my eyes, my face, dripping down my beard, to my shirt and jeans. I stood for what seemed like an eternity, in shock at what was happening.
I kept thinking: I’ve lived in Kern County most of my life, I went to school in Bakersfield, I work here, this is my home! I looked around at the packed patio of Habit Burger only a few feet away, filled with people enjoying a meal. My eyes search around from person to person, looking for some spark of recognition, some acknowledgment of what was happening. As I made eye contact, everyone either looked down or looked away, choosing to pretend like I didn’t exist.
As the stepped towards my attacker, called him a racist, and yelled, “I’m calling the police”, he walked further into the parking lot and cruised off in his red pickup truck.
I stood there, sticky, dripping liquid, in the busy parking lot of Habit Burger, on the phone with 911, thinking over and over in my head: There were so many people here. Why didn’t anyone say something?
I made my way slowly past all the people in the patio, walking through the Habit Burger seating area, to the bathroom. l washed my face, wet down my turban, trying to wipe the sticky liquid off my phone, my face, my clothes. I stared into the mirror, looking into my own eyes, breathing deeply, hands shaking, wondering: When it would be okay? When would I be able to just eat a meal in peace?
I guess the guy thought he was a hero, and he was somehow helping my country by attacking me. I reflected back my attacker’s words as I gave my statement to the police officer later that night. It turned out Officer Schindler is the real hero, a veteran of Afghanistan, who came back to serve his community in the Bakersfield Police Department. As we talked, he shared what it felt like for him, coming home at the end of the shift and being able to go play with his kids.
To my attacker, I hope you read this. I have a message for you. Where are you every month, as the Sikh community gathers at 6am Saturday mornings to prepare and serve food at the Bakersfield Homeless Center? Why did you not take the opportunity to visit one of Bakersfield’s 5 Gurdwaras (Sikh community centers), where the community kitchen serves free meals to all? Why did you not join us in downtown Bakersfield in April, as we fed the hungry for a week, serving free meals to over 10,000 people? My attacker doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know that Sikhs stand for service, equality, justice, compassion, and love. He doesn’t know how much we care about Bakersfield.
To the people who sat there last night at Habit Burger, watching as I was attacked, and who did nothing about it, I have a message for you too. Even though your eyes didn’t meet mine when I looked to you for support, even though you pretended like I didn’t exist last night, if our roles are ever reversed, and you need help, know that I will stand up. I will be there for you. Bakersfield, we are better than this. I’m with you.