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The desi taking on Trump in New Jersey

June 25, 2019 19:47 IST

'You shouldn't mistreat Muslims, you shouldn't mistreat Sikhs, you shouldn't mistreat anyone you perceive to be the other.'

Gurbir Singh Grewal is sworn in as New Jersey's attorney general

IMAGE: Gurbir Singh Grewal is sworn in as New Jersey's attorney general. Photograph: Kind courtesy BCPONJ/Twitter

When Gurbir Singh Grewal was appointed New Jersey's attorney general in January 2018, another measure of the Sikh American's rise, he also unwittingly lanced an abscess of bigotry.

But then Grewal is used to that.

As he told WNYC's The Takeaway in June last year, 'What it allows me, in my current job, is a greater degree of empathy in my current job. Understanding how deeply hateful comments, hateful conduct, and bias, and how deeply those words can cut. It makes me more sensitive to making sure that whenever we encounter that type of conduct, as a chief law enforcement officer, we address it appropriately.'

If some found his turban intriguing, others felt either threatened or used it to define him in some fashion, often detrimentally.

The first big controversy broke in June 2018 when Dennis Malloy and Judi Franco of the radio station NJ 101.5 described him as the 'guy with the turban' and 'turban head'.

'If that offends you,' Malloy, who has been on radio for more than 40 years advised the attorney general, 'then don't wear the turban and maybe I'll remember your name.'

Grewal responded on Twitter: '.@nj1015: My name, for the record, is Gurbir Grewal. I'm the 61st Attorney General of NJ. I'm a Sikh American. I have 3 daughters. And yesterday, I told them to turn off the radio.'

NJ101.5 and the two radio hosts apologised in the face of both sharp criticism and people claiming that using terms such as 'turban head' was only descriptive. This, when on the show Franco had said it was not offensive to her, too, while adding tellingly, 'To people who wears turbans? Could be.'

Grewal has described himself as having a thick skin, developed over years of being excoriated by people who saw his turban as a sign of affiliation to Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda or something different enough to be despised or ridiculed. He has described how these experiences had shaped his life, and how he has expended much time prising out the ignorance from people about Sikhism.


But even he was broadsided when a recording of Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino emerged in October 2018 in which the sheriff said Grewal got his job only because of his turban.

A wave of protests, led by Governor Governor Phil Murphy himself, forced Saudino to reluctantly resign after offering an apology that appears to come from a template used by others exposed as bigots.

To wit, 'These remarks are not representative of the person that I am and they are in no way consistent with the manner in which I have conducted my life personally and as a law enforcement professional...'

"Once we begin doing these public sector jobs, these first responder jobs, it helps South Asian and Indian communities to become more part and parcel of the fabric of America," New Jersey Attorney General Grewal, who turned 46 on Sunday, June 23, tells P Rajendran in a recent interview for

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Singh Grewal with his family

IMAGE: New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Singh Grewal with his family. Photograph: Kind courtesy BCPONJ Twitter

When the recording of Saudino speaking disparagingly about you came out, you said you were disappointed. Did that capture all of what you felt?

Both with the radio hosts and Saudino's comments, it's never hurt me on a personal level, because I've dealt with this stuff throughout my life.

As a Sikh, as a visible minority, I'm always on the receiving end of hateful comments.

I've developed a very thick skin and I really just ignore it and move on with my life. It bothers me for a number of different reasons, which I'll get into.

With respect to Saudino, however, it was disappointment. It was disappointment because I spent two years, while I was the Bergen County prosecutor working with him on a near-daily basis: Working with him on important law enforcement issues, working with him to fight the opioid crisis, working with him to come up with strategies to fight violent crime -- all sorts of community policing initiatives.

For someone who knows me to say something like, to say that the only reason I was appointed attorney general by Governor Murphy was because of my turban, yes, that's disappointing to me, because he knows my resume as a law enforcement officer.

It's disappointing for a second reason. I have been at too many community meetings with Sheriff Saudino in Bergen County when I worked with him, where we tried to improve police-community relations.

And it was disappointing that he would make statements to undermine everything we worked together to achieve over two years by making racist remarks, bigoted remarks, homophobic remarks, in addition to what he said about me.

So, for me, in that particular instance, disappointment really does capture what happened.

At these police-community meetings in Bergen County, did Saudino at any point show that he felt that one community is better than the other?

No. Again, that's what's shocking and disappointing is that we would be at a meeting at an African-American church in the wake of a number of police shootings that happened around the country to improve relations, to say you can trust law enforcement here in Bergen County.

This is about two years ago, when we were working together at the local level. I was the chief law enforcement officer in Bergen County and so he fell under my supervision.

When we were together he always struck the right tones. He always had a very positive message, but apparently behind closed doors there was another side to him, which is, again, disappointing, and undermined whatever we did.

One of the other disappointing parts of it was that there were other people in the room -- his command staff -- who didn't speak up when he said these things.

But somebody who for political reasons may have kept quiet did record it, although they waited a very long time before they released it.

There were multiple people in the room. In addition to the person that recorded it, there was also a member of his command staff in the room whose voice I recognise. To me, it's disappointing that the person, who is a respected law enforcement officer, did not speak up to tell the sheriff that his comments were inappropriate, bigoted and racist.

In the moment we're living in today, it's incumbent on all of us, especially those in leadership positions, to speak out when we hear these sorts of comments.

I think when you speak of solutions, it's all of us taking responsibility -- those of us with platforms like I have calling out people who engage in this kind of conduct, holding them accountable.

But it's incumbent on any leader to not tolerate it in the boardroom, in the command room, in a law enforcement agency, even among friends.

If you have people around you saying this kind of stuff, it's incumbent on all of us to call it out.

I think we're in a particularly sensitive moment where people are acting out on hateful comments. People are feeling more and more emboldened to engage in bias attacks and bias crimes.

That's the sort of tenor that's been set at the top with this president (Donald J Trump) who is pitting community against community and almost legitimising this kind of talk.

We're seeing it lead to conduct in parts of this country. That's why I think all of us have to step up and call it out when we hear it.

Given how Saudino carried himself at those community meetings, how long will it take to rebuild trust now that he accidentally revealed that he thought little of minority groups?

I can't put a time frame on it, but it sets us back a great deal.

As chief law enforcement officer of the state, it's incumbent on me to do more to help repair those relationships and to help rebuild those bridges because he tore them down with his comments. How long that will take, I don't know.

I know that a lot of the leadership in the African-American community have reached out to me after those comments. I work with them on a daily basis. They know me. They know I won't tolerate it.

So it's up to me to send a message from the top.

While Saudino ran a big agency, and the comments set relations back, I think there are many other law enforcement leaders that continue to do the right things for the right reasons every day and continue to engage in community meetings.

Folks realise that even Saudino is the exception, not the norm, in law enforcement. Again, it will all take us some time, sets us back, but there are a lot of initiatives that we're organising at the attorney general's office to move police-community relations forward.

That's a top priority of mine since I started (at the job as attorney general) in January (2018),

You had once stopped the police from blocking non-New Jersey residents from coming to Mahwah Park in Bergen County. Would that kind of action have upset the police?

No. That didn't the Bergen County sheriff's department. What you're referring to is when I was Bergen County prosecutor, the township of Mahwah in the northern part of our county had introduced an ordinance to limit its parks to county residents.

That was what the ordinance, on the surface, was intended to do. But the rhetoric from the town council and community members made it clear that the reason they passed that ordinance was to keep Orthodox Jews from neighbouring New York state from using their park.

They just didn't want Orthodox Jewish families to frequent their parks -- for whatever reason.

I instructed the chief of police in Mahwah, James Patelli, that he could not enforce that ordinance without violating the Fourth Amendment (which give people the right to be secure in their persons and possessions against unreasonable searches and seizures).

That set off litigation that my predecessor as attorney general, Christopher Porrino, brought and which was recently resolved in a settlement in court. They withdrew the ordinances.

They agreed to be under our monitorship for four years. They agreed not to pass such ordinances and there's a suspended penalty if they indulge in similar racist and bigoted conduct.

You have a strong relationship with Ravi Bhalla, the mayor of Hoboken, and Amardeep Singh, founder of the Sikh Coalition. Do you ever compare notes on your experiences as Sikhs?

My relationship with Amardeep and Ravi -- we were friends since childhood. We were each other's support group growing up.

We grew up at a time there were not that many Sikh families in New Jersey, and certainly not so many Sikh boys like us who wore their turbans in our schools.

We spent nearly every weekend through high school together. We developed a strong bond and supported each other through these difficult times. That continues to this day.

If I'm dealing with something, they'll reach out in a supportive way, and I'll do the same with (them).

But I think that drove us to do the type of work each of us is doing. To get into public service, to really stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves, that's always been an underlying principle in everything that I've done.

That's the reason I went into public service. I know that's the reason Ravi went into public service, and the reason that Amardeep works in the public sector as well.

In the Indian community here, there's also an element of racism. Do you see that yourself?

Post 9/11, there is always this initial knee-jerk reaction, say, when Sikhs were being labelled as terrorists or somehow complicit in the 9/11 attacks, to say hey, that's not us, that was done by Muslims. So don't pick on us, pick on Muslims.

That's never the right answer. That is never the right answer!

You shouldn't be targeting anyone. Period.

I never used that, but you certainly saw an element of prior generations (of Indians attacks) to other communities, to say it was not a Sikh issue, it was a Muslim issue.

To me, it was a narrow issue. It was an issue that a narrow group of terrorists, not a religion, was responsible for.

So you shouldn't mistreat Muslims, you shouldn't mistreat Sikhs, you shouldn't mistreat anyone you perceive to be the other.

I don't think you see that in our generation. Perhaps in prior generations, that was the reaction. That's never the right reaction.

Photograph: Kind courtesy/BCPONJ Twitter

Many of us carry along our biases, baggage from where we came from, to this country, speaking about our sub-communities or regions of origin as being better. Have you seen any of this in the second or further generations?

I haven't seen any of it in my contemporaries, perhaps because I wouldn't tolerate it if somebody acted like that around me.

So you naturally gravitate towards people who share similar beliefs sometimes. Right?

You don't want to be around people who share negativity like that. So I haven't seen it personally.

What are the other kinds of things you've been doing in your outreach efforts? You also have a bully pulpit now not only to promote relations between Sikhs and the rest of the community but also other Indians and other groups, such as African Americans, that have tended to stay apart.

That's a terrific question. As I mentioned earlier, improving police-community relations has been a top priority for me.

When I first got here, I understood the value of dialogue and the value of building relationships and trust before there are crises in certain communities. So I started something called the 21-21 project, which is a 21-county (because New Jersey has 21 counties), 21st century policing tour.

So I required all 21 of our county prosecutors to hold four community meetings a year, one each quarter. So, 84 community meetings between the chief law enforcement officers in each of our counties and residents to cover a range of issues.

The first quarter we talked about officer-involved shooting investigations.

The second quarter we spoke about the opioid crisis. The third quarter we spoke about immigrant rights.

The fourth quarter we spoke speak about bias crimes and how they are investigated. That gives some structure to community outreach.

Our hope is that after those 84 meetings relationships are built and it becomes a natural process to have periodic meetings, looking forward.

We will always have the 84 meetings each year, but we hope that each of our prosecutors in our local departments will build on that and hold more periodic meetings and develop relationships.

But the other thing specific to the South Asian community, and the Indian community, is that I rarely turn down an opportunity to speak -- to law students, to high school students.

I think that's important, particularly in the South Asian community, because we don't have many role models -- we have more now -- saying that public service is a career path that young people in our community should choose, whether it's law enforcement, politics, to become a prosecutor...

So I want to be out there saying that this is a fantastic career for young people to pursue because it helps the broader community, looking forward.

Once we begin doing these public sector jobs, these first responder jobs, it helps South Asian and Indian communities to become more part and parcel of the fabric of America.

If that happens, the type of intolerance we're seeing, the kind of biased attacks we're seeing, I think that will go down.

Because when you see people in power, when you see in positions of law enforcement folks that represent the diversity of the communities that exist in New Jersey, I think it becomes far more difficult for that type of conduct to continue.

I've been invited to speak at Hindu temples, Sikh temples, and I find it hard to say no to those types of meetings because I think they are important to encourage the next generation to public service, which is not a career that's often pushed by the older generations.

Is there something else you need to let people know about your position?

While my job exposes me to more attacks, whether the Saudino attack or the radio host attack, it also gives me a platform to push back.

It gives me a platform to improve the dialogue, and it gives me a platform to push forward an affirmative agenda, which we have with respect to the litigation we are bringing against the Trump administration -- when immigrant rights are impacted, when the environment is impacted in New Jersey, when consumer protection rules are rolled back by the federal government -- which I am doing to stand up for Dreamers, to stand up for otherwise marginalised or discriminated or attacked communities.

So I am making full use of it and I'll continue to do so and stand up for not just myself, but for all communities that are impacted adversely by things coming out of Washington or from within the state.