A Sikh student was handcuffed at UNC-Charlotte. It could easily have been avoided.

UNC Charlotte

On Friday night, a UNC-Charlotte student shared on Twitter a video of himself getting handcuffed. In the video, which has been viewed 3.5 million times, the student is wearing a turban and a miyaan. The miyaan holds a special type of knife associated with the Sikh faith, known as a kirpan.

“I wasn’t going to post this, but I don’t think I will receive any support from @unccharlotte,” the student tweeted. “I was told someone called 911 and reported me, and I got cuffed for ‘resisting’ because I refused to let the officer take my kirpan out of the miyaan.”

The incident has made international news, and it is an embarrassment to our state. The kirpan isn’t just a weapon — it is one of the five articles of faith Sikhs are religiously obligated to wear, and it has been legally protected in public schools since the 1990s. It’s possible UNC-Charlotte police violated the Sikh student’s First Amendment right to practice his religion. It’s also possible — even likely — that this issue could have been handled differently.

Sikhism is only practiced by about 500,000 people in the United States despite being the fifth-largest religious group in the world. North Carolina has a small Sikh population, but small does not mean nonexistent.

The Sikh community has laid down roots in North Carolina, and just like other religious communities, it tries to educate the rest of the population. UNC-Chapel Hill’s Sikh student association, Carolina Khalsa, holds a “Tie a Turban Day” each year as a way to educate non-Sikh students about the religion. There is the Sikh Gurdwara of North Carolina, which has existed since the 1980s. UNC-Charlotte even has its own student association for Sikh students, the Punjabi Sikh Association, according to its list of student organizations.

It would benefit our community if law enforcement already knew this, so that misunderstandings don’t occur in the first place. North Carolina does not require a diversity, equity and inclusion course in the 16-week training for law enforcement officers, aside from a 24-hour course on “Individuals with Mental Illness and Developmental Disabilities,” per the state’s topic list. While some police forces require longer training periods that dive into these topics, it’s unclear whether UNC-Charlotte held additional training after the hiring process. Even if the school did, the incident is a signal that confronting bias needs to be a constant topic of discussion in law enforcement, not just a one-time lesson in the police academy.

It’s possible the encounter would have happened even if the police had received sensitivity training on different cultures. But sensitivity training brings accountability. When an incident like this happens in spite of such training, there is an understanding that the police officer should, and likely does, know better.

The issue, however, is deeper than police reaction to a student’s kirpan. It’s also about someone who called 911 because of a person — specifically, a Middle Eastern man in a turban — with a knife, a person who didn’t appear to be doing more than existing on a college campus. If that caller had a better understanding of Sikhism, this wouldn’t have happened.

It’s understandable that UNCC students and police are concerned about safety, given the shooting that happened on Charlotte’s campus in 2019. Other NC universities have gone on lockdown for other non-threats. But it’s also concerning that the worst-case scenario was assumed and that other signs that demonstrated the student’s “safety” were ignored. In the video, for example, it appears that the Sikh student is sitting in the student union, with others around.

UNC-Charlotte chancellor Sharon Gaber apologized for the incident in a campus-wide email Friday and said the university would work with Sikh students and employees to “find reasonable measures and educational opportunities that both protect the safety of our campus and the religious practices of our community members.” That’s a start, but it needs to be followed with meaningful action.