On the morning of April 4, 2011, it was my privilege to accompany Sikh youth activist Gurwinder Singh to Capitol Hill, where he was due to give a presentation about his experience with school bullying and his efforts to combat it. This opportunity was made possible by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a civil rights organization, as part of its 2011 South Asian Summit.
Like all summit participants, Gurwinder and I were instructed to deposit personal bags and suitcases in a storage room on the 5th floor of the Cannon House Office Building, which was reserved for SAALT by Congressional staff. And so, after clearing security with Gurwinder’s bag, we found the relevant room, mingled with some familiar faces from the South Asian community outside, and deposited the bag.
On the way out, we ran into my colleague, Sikh Coalition staff attorney, Sandeep Amy Kaur, who also dropped off her bag, and proceeded to exit the building so that we could watch Gurwinder make his presentation at a different location. After walking about a block toward our destination, 3 Capitol Hill police officials stopped us; asked us whether we had dropped off a bag a few moments earlier; told us to step aside in the grass (in full view of curious onlookers); demanded our identification cards; and rudely grilled us with questions about what we were doing there that day.
After several awkward minutes, other summit participants (carrying suitcases) happened to pass by the area and backed up our claim that a storage room had been set aside for the South Asian Summit. By this time, the policemen also received confirmation from their colleagues that we had done nothing wrong. As our driver’s license cards were returned to us, one of the police officials noted that a civilian had reported “two men of Middle Eastern appearance acting suspiciously” inside the Cannon Building.
It was at this moment that I realized we were being profiled and that what made us “suspicious” in the eyes of some misinformed bigot were our turbans. I clarified to the 3 officers that we are actually from South Asia; requested their business cards; and told them that we would “be in touch.” At long last, we made our way to the Capitol Visitor Center, where Gurwinder delivered an excellent presentation with poise and incredible grace, only moments after being profiled by police outside the halls of the United States Congress.