The New Statesman profile: Gurbir Grewal, America’s first Sikh state attorney general

Despite almost-weekly death threats, New Jersey’s Attorney General wants to use his platform to resist the Trump administration.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

When he became the Attorney General of New Jersey on 16 January 2018, Gurbir Grewal was expecting that as the state’s chief lawyer he might sometimes be called upon to challenge the federal government, should it violate the constitution or individual liberties. What he did not anticipate was how often he’d have to do this.

In his first eight months in office, he participated in over thirty legal proceedings against the Trump administration, from letters and amicus briefs to lawsuits launched in defence of immigrant rights, the environment, consumer protections, labour laws, reproductive rights and access to healthcare.

“The executive has engaged in an all-out feverish attack on individual liberties, on institutions, from our perspective, on the rule of law,” Grewal told me when we met for coffee in Manhattan, one hot afternoon in mid-August. “I had never anticipated the volume because I never thought in my wildest dreams that they would be this relentless in their attacks. We have to stand up and push back as attorneys general, because Congress isn’t.”

The 45-year-old, who wears a turban as a marker of his faith, is the first Sikh to become a state attorney general, and he is emerging as a powerful voice against the politics of hate that has flourished under President Donald Trump.

In July, two New Jersey radio hosts were suspended after one referred to Grewal as “turban man” on air and the other added, “listen, if that offends you don’t wear the turban, man. And I’ll remember your name.”

“My name, for the record, is Gurbir Grewal. I’m the 61st Attorney General of NJ. I am a Sikh American. I have 3 daughters, and yesterday I told them to turn off the radio,” Grewal tweeted at the station, NJ 101.5, as the story was picked up by the national and international media.

“On a personal level, I am not hurt,” he says, now. “I have very thick skin, as someone who has dealt with much worse.” He was troubled, however, by the menacing implication of the DJ’s comments – unless you remove your turban, I won’t bother to learn your name – and by how it represented the extent to which racial and religious intolerance have entered mainstream public discourse under Trump.

Grewal believes there is a direct link between the rise in hate crimes in the US and the hateful and dehumanizing language used by the senior officials, including the president, who has described undocumented immigrants as “animals” and said they “infest” the country. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, the number of hate crimes reported to police in America’s ten largest cities rose by 12.5 per cent in 2017, Trump’s first year in office.

Sikh Americans are especially vulnerable in this political climate. The Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization, says that Sikhs remain hundreds of times more likely than the average American to be a victim of hate crime. It said that in one three-month period between late 2017 and early 2018, it recorded on average one hate-related incident against a member of the Sikh community each week. To date this year its legal team has received seven cases of hate crimes against Sikhs.

“Some people just need a slight nudge. I don’t know what motivated and pushed every protestor in Charlottesville to suddenly feel comfortable coming out of chat rooms and into the public square. But a lot of it is to do with the environment we’ve created. We’ve invited the most base elements of our society to say hateful things in public and not called them out on this,” Grewal said.

Grewal is motivated by a sense of historic duty. More than once he spoke of the example he wanted to set to his daughters, who are now five, seven and nine years old. “When my kids ask me ‘Dad, what did you do when Trump was president?’ I want to be able to say that I pushed back,” he told me.

He also feels a strong personal sense of duty to represent and stand up for the Sikh American community. He hopes that his public position will help underline the contribution America’s estimated 500,000 Sikhs make to society and highlight that his turban and his religious identity do not make him less patriotic or less American.

Grewal visits the Sikh temple at Glen Rock, his hometown in New Jersey, almost daily. Among the other regular worshippers is Ravi Bhalla, the mayor of Hoboken and one of Grewal’s closest friends. He says their achievements have been an immense source of pride among the community. A few days before we spoke, Grewal had received a letter from a remote part of India requesting his autograph and a photo.

“It is by no means easy to grow up as a Sikh in this country, when you look so different, when you are the only one in school who looks like you,” said Grewal, who possesses an easy eloquence so that even his off-the-cuff comments could easily be delivered from a podium. “I’ve been called a towel head, raghead, terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, variations of the n-word that I never imagined applied to me. In addition to being called names when I was a child, going on the bus was a challenge. People would pull at my hair or take off my turban. I’ve been refused service at restaurants. I’ve been asked to take off my hat in restaurants. And I’ve had to explain to people, and when they don’t understand, I’ve had to walk away. So, I’ve dealt with a lot and at a certain point you turn off the radio. You walk away.”

Nowadays, he receives regular hate-mail and death threats almost weekly. “There’s a segment of folks out there who are not happy that someone like me is in this position, that I don’t look American. That despite being born in America, I am not American. That’s just part and parcel of what I have to do,” he said.

****

Grewal was born in New Jersey, the only son of an engineer and a political scientist who emigrated from India. He graduated from the school of foreign service at Georgetown University and initially only studied law because there was a hiring freeze at the state department. He was working in private practice in Washington D.C. during the 9/11 terror attacks, a tragedy that served as a personal and professional turning point for him.

As he watched the news unfold with his colleagues, the office was subsumed with horror, grief and fervent patriotism. “I felt that patriotism, I felt that tragedy, and I felt that sorrow, but I also had to be worried about something else,” he said. He felt he didn’t have the luxury of expressing his patriotism, he told me, because “I had to now look over my shoulder.”

When he went to his local grocery store on the evening of 11 September 2001, he noticed people were staring at him. “Despite growing up in the US, being born here, being a good athlete, playing every sport imaginable, participating in every aspect of American life, I was just made to feel un-American one day,” he said. One man began regularly accosting Grewal outside his office shouting, “I found Bin Laden!”

It occurred to Grewal that while Sikh Americans have “done a good job of succeeding economically, educationally, professionally, we have never been involved in these front-line, public service positions that are so intertwined with what it means to be American, like law enforcement, any aspect of military service, those jobs where you are visibly part of the fabric of this country.”

He set his sights on becoming a federal prosecutor and in 2004 was hired as an assistant US attorney in Brooklyn. “I just wanted to be able to get in front of juries, say my name, tell them I represented the United States and maybe change the perception of 12 jurors at a time,” he said. He took on high-profile cybersecurity and financial cases, and in 2010 moved to become an assistant US attorney in New Jersey and later, in 2016, the Bergen County Prosecutor, the chief law enforcement officer for the most popular county in New Jersey.

In many states the attorney general is elected, but in New Jersey position is a political appointment. Grewal was on holiday at Disney World when the office of the Democratic governor of New Jersey Phil Murphy phoned to invite him to interview for the role. Grewal, who is a doting father (he showed me photographs on his phone of his recent family trip to a Taylor Swift concert), was in the queue for a Little Mermaid ride with his youngest when he took the call and thought initially it might be a prank. “Luckily I didn’t say anything I’d regret later,” he said.

By collaborating to launch legal challenges against the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies and the rescindment of environmental and consumer protections, Democratic attorneys-general have been following the strategy first used by their Republican counterparts, who clubbed together to obstruct the Obama administration. Greg Abbot, the Republican attorney-general of Texas, who sued the Obama government over 40 times, was once quoted as describing his routine as “I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and I go home”.

Some analysts have expressed their concern that the position of state attorneys-general is becoming overly politicized, but Grewal believes the bigger risk is doing nothing and allowing the Trump administration to trample on civil liberties.

The office of attorney general is often a stepping stone into politics, and many office holders have later run for governor – but Grewal says for now he’s just focused on his current job. As well as holding the Trump administration to account, he is prioritising tackling the opioid epidemic and improving police-community relations in New Jersey.

Grewal says that despite the political turmoil and threat to civil liberties posed by the Trump era, he remains an optimist. “Our institutions have endured other crises in the past,” he said. “I just have to have faith in our institutions, I have to have faith in the elected leaders that are speaking out, faith that people are stepping up … we’re going to get through this.”

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.