Neelamjit Dhillon, a Sikh musician, was having lunch in Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday when police responded to a call about a suspicious container at a Chili's restaurant.
“A concerned citizen called the police to investigate me while having lunch because of my suspicious container. Just my bamboo flutes :) #musicianlife #eattingwhilesikh #thanksorlando,” Dhillon wrote on a Instagram post about the incident.
Dhillon — who moved to the Orlando area from Los Angeles to work on Disney's Animal Kingdom show, "Jungle Book Alive," as a performer and Indian music director — was having a late lunch at a local Chili's restaurant with a friend.
While outside on a phone call, Dhillon says a smiling and apologetic police officer approached him.
"A police officer was walking towards me, put out his hand and shook my hand, and right away he said, 'I need to have chat with you. Can we have a discreet conversation back at your table?'" Dhillon recalls.
Confused, Dhillon complied. Back at the table, the officer explained that someone unaffiliated with the restaurant had called police to report a suspicious man carrying a "suspicious container."
As it turns out, the suspicious container was a carrying case for his bamboo flutes — one of the many instruments Dhillon plays professionally.
Dhillon, who carries his flutes in a case designed to hold blueprints, showed the flutes to the officer, who apologized for the trouble and left.
Dhillon said it wasn't the first time a member of his community has been judged or profiled as a possible Muslim terrorist based on his experience as a Sikh.
"We always joke that we get randomly selected for security 100% of the time," Dhillon told BuzzFeed News. "If someone just asked a question, and if someone didn’t come to conclusions based on appearances, they might just learn something about people."
Various Orlando area police departments did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News' request for comment.
"Sikh-Americans, we wear these articles of faith to represent justice, equality, and tolerance for all, and these are also American values. After the tragedy in Orlando, all I know is that more that bigotry and hate will never be the solution," Dhillon said of his experience.
Sikhism, a religion that started roughly 500 years ago in the Punjab region that now inhabits India and Pakistan, has over 30 million practitioners worldwide, with an estimated quarter-million living in the United States.
Practicing Sikhs, like Dhillon, are usually identifiable by their beards and turbans, which are important symbols of their faith.
Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims in the U.S. And since 9/11, the Sikh community has been the subject of many hate-inspired attacks that were intended for Muslims. The recent massacre in Orlando by a man claiming allegiance to Islamic terrorists has Sikhs fearing that they will once again be targeted based on appearance.
"Neelamjit's story is a window into what things look like for Muslims and anyone who appears to be Muslim in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre,” said Simran Jeet Singh, a member of the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization, in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
He also noted how calls from law enforcement for the public to embrace a "see something, say something" approach can lead to "dangerously false assumptions and accusations."
Neelamjit was "fortunate that this encounter with profiling was not personally harmful or violent," but "not every moment like this has such a happy ending," Singh added.
On Sept. 15, 2001, just days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, was shot and killed by Frank Roque, who mistook him for an Arab.
Roque, who reportedly said “I’m going to go out and shoot some towel-heads” prior to the killing, is currently serving life in prison without parole.
In 2012, Wade Page, a man with white supremacist ties, opened fire at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, killing six and injuring four others before taking his own life.
Last month in Texas, Daljeet Singh, an Indian-born Sikh man, and Mohammed Chotri, an immigrant from Pakistan, were pulled off a bus and arrested for “terroristic threat charges” after passenger on a bus called 911 on them.
The passenger thought they were “speaking in Arabic and discussing a bomb on the bus,” the Texas Tribune reported.
The men were released after it was deemed there was no basis for the claim.
And Waris Ahluwalia, a model and actor living in New York, was was prevented from boarding an AeroMexico flight because of his turban in February.
Ahluwalia, who was the first Sikh man in a Gap ad and has starred in multiple films, was told by security personnel to remove his turban in order to board.
“Being asked to remove your turban in public is like being asked to remove all your clothes in public,” Ahluwalia told BuzzFeed News earlier this year.
Ahluwalia refused to take the next flight, and used the incident to spotlight the profiling of Sikhs.
Talal Ansari is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. His secure PGP fingerprint is 4FEE 894C 8088 7E08 E170 A515 2801 7CC6 95D3 11C2
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