Attack on L.A. Metro driver sparks fear in the Sikh community

An attack on a Sikh bus driver who struggled to keep his Metro bus from careening into South Los Angeles traffic in November should be investigated as a hate crime, according to the Sikh Coalition. 

The assault on the driver, who wore a beard and traditional Sikh turban, was one of a string of bias-based attacks against Sikhs in recent months, according to coalition lawyers.

Local authorities, however, were not treating the incident seriously and considering only misdemeanor charges, lawyers argued.

"We cannot fight hate if law enforcement agencies ignore or fail to recognize hate crimes," Sikh Coalition senior staff attorney Gurjot Kaur said this week.

The pummeling reportedly occurred at the hands of a passenger, who left driver Balwinder Jit Singh with a black eye, a bruised jaw, and a swollen face. He continues to experience pain and blurred vision, the coalition said. 

News of the assault also comes at a time when Metro bus drivers are reporting an increase in violent confrontations.

According to Sikh Coalition lawyers, Singh had been working his regular route on Nov. 6, when he picked up a passenger at Manchester and Western avenues.

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The male passenger paid his fare, but then started shouting at Singh, calling him a "terrorist" and "suicide bomber" and accusing him of hijacking the bus, the coalition said. 

When Singh dropped the passenger off at Crenshaw and Manchester boulevards, the passenger came back onto the bus and began pummeling him in the face.

Throughout the attack, Singh kept his foot on the brake of the running bus, which had 20 to 25 passengers on board, the coalition said. Once the suspect left, a passenger called the police and Singh was taken to the hospital.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Sikhs say they have been subjected to violence or harassment by people who mistakenly associate their appearance with violent Islamists, just as American Muslims say they too have been singled out for abuse. 

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Transit Services Bureau confirmed that it was investigating a reported attack on Singh, but offered no further details about the incident, saying it was an open investigation.

"I know that more information has come to light, so we’re re-looking at the case," said Ramon Montenegro, a spokesman for the bureau. "We’ve gotten some more information that wasn’t originally given to us when the first report was taken."

The suspected attacker was taken into custody shortly after the report was taken, and remains in custody on a separate criminal matter, according to the Sikh Coalition.

Violence against bus operators has been rising steadily over the last three years, according to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

In 2012, the number of assaults totaled 79, but rose to 105 in 2013. In 2014, the number stood at 141 and last year -- through November -- the number totaled 155.

"Assaults against operators have been going up nationwide and we’ve taken a lot of proactive steps to combat that and to try and keep our employees safe," said Paul Gonzales, a Metro spokesman. "These are our employees, we want to make sure their workplace is a safe place."

Some of the steps taken, Gonzales said, include the installation of surveillance monitors. Also, new buses have been outfitted with steel or polycarbonate barriers that protect drivers.

In more than a third of bus driver assaults -- 34% -- the incident concerns a dispute over bus fare. Because of this, Metro now uses an automated fare announcement, Gonzales said.

Gonzales confirmed that Singh is a bus operator, but said he couldn’t go into further details because of pending litigation.

The coalition is working with local and federal officials to push for a hate crime investigation and prosecution, the coalition said.

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"The suspect came onto the bus and immediately saw Mr. Singh's turban and beard ... and started shouting racial slurs at him," Kaur said. "That’s some of the clearest evidence that we've ever seen in a hate crime case."

Singh went public about the November incident this week.

"I know that sharing my story sheds further light on the bigotry and hatred faced by communities across the nation," Singh said in a statement. "These crimes cannot be tolerated."

Singh sits on the board of a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, in Buena Park that was vandalized in December. Gang graffiti was found scribbled on the exterior of the gurdwara on Dec. 6, while an expletive and the word "ISIS" were also found scrawled on a tractor trailer parked at the temple. A 21-year-old man has been charged in the case.

The assault on Singh continues to spark fear and outrage in the Sikh community.

"This guy is on his job doing what he’s supposed to do every day. Somebody coming up to you and punching you, doing something like this, is definitely very scary and concerning to me," said Jaspreet Singh, who also sits on the board of the Buena Park gurdwara. "He was attacked because of his identity."

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