Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest religion, but these peaceful people are greatly outnumbered and misunderstood in America. Uninformed people assume their turbans mean they’re Muslim, and racists continue to attack and harass them. The first hate crime after 9/11 was perpetrated against a Sikh man. Yet a group of Sikhs in New Jersey have embraced one of the most iconic pieces of Americana — the motorcycle — to pursue their own piece of the American dream on the country’s back roads.
At BuzzFeed, Teresa Mathew spends time with The Sikh Motorcycle Club Of The Northeast to report on these motorcyclists of faith. Club members fly the American flag and the Sikh flag on the back of their bikes. For them, riding is centering, creates brotherhood and reaffirms their commitment to Sikh values and ways of life. In the American imagination, bikers are associated with drinking, lawlessness, and rebellion. As Mathew points out, Sikhism was partly formed from rebellion against Hinduisms’ inequalities and India’s caste system, but members of The Sikh Motorcycle Club do not drink or smoke. And instead of defining themselves in opposition to authority, they submit to their ultimate authorities: family, faith, and god.
The members of the Sikh Motorcycle Club love to ride, to practice what KJ Singh, another founding member, calls “wind therapy.” One bright morning in early June, three members met in front of a gurudwara in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. In true Indian fashion, the other half of the group trickled in slowly. As the early arrivals waited, they prayed and ate the rotis and lentil curries provided as part of the gurudwara’s langar, a vegetarian meal cooked by volunteers. Once the whole crew was assembled, the riders helped one another program location details into iPhones and clambered aboard their bikes.
They rode for hours, past large swaths of rolling green fields and Shell gas stations and dappled, densely wooded back roads. As they drove their Harley Davidsons through small, sleepy suburban towns, the scene could have made for an edgy take on a Norman Rockwell painting. When they wear their helmets, clad head-to-toe in jeans and leather, the riders’ beards are the only thing that make them identifiably Sikh.
Harjot Singh Pannu doesn’t twist or tuck his beard away when he rides; it flies in the headwind like gray gauze. “I love it,” Harjot said. “People look at my beard and wish they have a beard like that.” When he rides, and the wind runs through his hair, he said, “to me, that’s like living with nature.”
Almost six months after she was hired, the shop had an opening for a full-time mechanic. Layton wasn’t moved into the position, as she’d been promised. Instead, the store hired a young man who hadn’t gone to bike school, and whose experience came from volunteering at the same bike shop where Layton had previously worked. “On his first day,” she says, “he overtightened a seatcollar on a carbon seatpost and cracked it, smashed it. I fucking would have known not to do that.”
Layton was never explicitly told that she wasn’t going to be moved into the full-time mechanic position. Instead, her bosses “hired around” her, evading her questions when she pressed them about when she’d get to start working on bikes. While she doesn’t hold a grudge against the mechanic who broke the seatpost, she’s irked that the shop manager and owner weren’t upfront with her about what they thought her capabilities were. “I took a huge pay cut, making a quarter of what I was making to work there, because I was promised that I would be hired as a mechanic,” she says. “And I never once had a bench of my own to work on.”
The set-up was like something out of a movie—Four California Highway Patrol officers with little to no undercover experience decide to pose as Vegas players to take down motorcycle thieves in LA. Southern California’s street bike culture had made motorcycle theft a major problem in recent years, and so the officers would need to infiltrate the scene in order to pull off their sting. This is where things got tricky. Writing about the operation in Los Angeles Magazine, Greg Nichols details the creative way one of the officers gained credibility in the biker community:
With the team members in place, they set to work finding a second suspect. Scores of thieves were scooping up sport bikes around Los Angeles, but that didn’t make them easy to locate. Combing through Craigslist and eBay, the investigators scanned for ads containing suspicious language. Watson asked insurance companies to provide bike parts. Looking for leads, he and Clifford wrapped their inventory in cellophane, stepped into character, and went around to local motorcycle shops offering tidbits for sale or trade. Watson, always animated, did most of the talking. Clifford was younger, a good kid from a small town in Northern California. He was stiff at first, and cusswords tumbled out of his mouth with the overenunciated eagerness of a parent using slang. Incredulous shop owners sized up the short-haired white boys bearing gift-wrapped parts and said no thanks. The CHP had sprung for fake business cards, which the investigators passed out all over town, but nobody seemed eager to follow up with them.
Then Watson realized he had a teenager’s gift for social media. His humor and goofiness played well online. Watson joined motorcycle forums and set up a Facebook account to get close to club members. Men were slow to respond, but women seemed happy to accept his friend requests. The more female friends he acquired, the more the male bikers warmed to him. Soon he had a cyberposse of unwitting informants. Using those contacts, and cross-referencing frequent posters on Craigslist and eBay, the team discovered a likely suspect. When Clifford called about a Suzuki GSXR posted on Craigslist, the man introduced himself as Biscuit.