On August 5, 2016, we marked the fourth anniversary of the massacre in Oak Creek that killed six people and wounded many. The attack, committed by a man with ties to white supremacist organizations, occurred at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on a Sunday morning. Local community members marked the 4th anniversary in Oak Creek with a 6K race/walk and services at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. The youth group, which organized the anniversary event. asked me to provide remarks, which are below.
Credit: Lee Matz
Remarks On 4th Anniversary of Oak Creek Hate Violence (August 2016)
Let me start by sending my deepest gratitude to the group of young people who organized this community commemoration in Oak Creek along with Serve2Unite.
I am deeply humbled to be here this Saturday on the fourth anniversary of the hate violence at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. The youth group asked me to provide keynote remarks, but this will be more of a love letter to the community in Oak Creek.
I know that we are also still absorbing Kamal Saini’s moving, powerful words who spoke before me. Even though I’m not related by blood to you, Kamal, and Harpreet, or to Amardeep, Pardeep, Palmeet, Prabhjot, Gurvinder, Kamal, Sarbjit, Harmeet, and Jasbir – all who lost a parent four years ago – you are my brothers and sisters.
And even though I do not live here, Oak Creek has become a home to me.
And even though I am not a Sikh, the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin has become a place where I can find a sense of comfort, spiritual connection, and belonging.
I do not say any of this lightly. I say it, fully aware that those of us outside of Oak Creek on August 5, 2012, and who did not lose loved ones in the massacre at the gurdwara, can never fully grasp what this community has endured.
That is why we have a responsibility, a duty and obligation, to make sure that Americans do not forget what happened here four years ago.
That is why it is so important that we come together each August.
That is why it is critical for us to say their names again and again – the names of Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Suveg Singh, Paramjit Kaur, Prakash Singh, and Satwant Singh Kaleka.
That is why we must not forget to support Baba Punjab Singh, wounded four years ago and still in a coma a few miles from here.
Because in remembering, in uniting every August, in saying the names of those taken away, and in supporting the families who endured unbearable loss, we are standing firm in our commitment to prevent another calamity of gun and hate violence from tearing the fabric of our communities. We are standing firm in our own commitment to creating more humane, more inclusive, more safe, more loving communities all across our nation.
You – the Oak Creek community – have been living and embodying this message from the days right after the tragedy on August 5, 2012.
It was at the memorial service in the gymnasium of this very high school when the nation first realized the resilience and strength of this community – in the emotional words of the family members who lost loved ones, in the sincere promises of first responders including Mayor Scaffidi, Lieutenant Brian Murphy, Chief John Edwards, Lieutenant Sam Lenda, US Attorney James Santelle, and in the actions of Oak Creek residents like Mandeep Kaur, Rahul Dubey, Navi Gill, Simran Toor and so many others who supported from the sidelines without need for attention or credit, who cleaned the gurdwara in the days after the tragedy, who organized youth groups for the young people who were exposed to deep trauma in their own place of worship, who helped with immigration applications, who provide ongoing psychological support, who speak at schools about the Sikh faith, who build bridges with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities locally, and who help to put together these anniversary commemorations year after year.
In Oak Creek, ordinary people have heeded a call to action in the midst of tragedy in order to do remarkable and extraordinary things that continue to inspire me and so many others around the nation.
At the time of the Oak Creek tragedy four years ago, I was the director of a South Asian American civil rights organization in Washington, DC. We worked with people like Amardeep Singh and Gurjot Kaur of the Sikh Coalition, Jasjit Singh at SALDEF, Valarie Kaur of Groundswell, Puni Kalra and Jasvir Kaur Singh at the Sikh Healing Collective and many others to bring national attention to what had happened in Oak Creek, to press successfully for changes to how the FBI collects data on hate violence targeting Sikhs, and to ensure that the federal government was being responsive to the range of linguistic, immigration and psychological needs in the community here.
But more than anything, we knew that our responsibility was to keep telling the story of the Oak Creek community. My small part in ensuring that as many people as possible know about what has happened here has been through writing a book called We Too Sing America, a book which begins by centering Oak Creek in a chapter called “Not Your American Dream.” The chapter’s title is a reference to the powerful testimony that Harpreet Saini provided at a hearing in Congress months after his mother, Paramjit, was murdered at the Sikh gurdwara. The chapter goes on to document how community members, public officials, government employees, faith leaders, and non-profit advocates played their parts in creating the infrastructure to provide rapid response and long-term support to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.
But we must also remember that hate violence against South Asians – such as the massacre at the Sikh gurdwara four years ago – did not begin on August 5th, 2012. In fact, it has a long history. It is one that started in the early twentieth century when Sikh and Hindu migrant workers from India were excluded from becoming citizens and from owning land, as well as subjected to violence. The Bellingham riots in Washington. The Dotbusters in New Jersey. The attacks on people like Rishi Maharaj in Queens and Sandip Patel in Pittsburgh. The post 9/11 murders of Vasudev Patel and Balbir Singh Sodhi. These are all part of the history of South Asian America, and Oak Creek stands as the latest marker of mass violence targeting our people.
But, there is more to the story here in Oak Creek. You play a critical role in our unfolding community story by reminding us that love overcomes hate, that inclusion and understanding of each other prevents fear and suspicion, and that acts of solidarity sprout hope.
You see, what is so special about this community, is that you don’t give up. No, instead, you show up.
Through your words and actions, you show us all what it means to overcome, what it means to get up day after day and spread a message of love even with a deep hole in one’s heart, and what it means to be in solidarity with people who have suffered similar losses – from the extending of your embrace to American Muslims who face tremendous discrimination and violence even 15 years after 9/11, to recognizing the families who lost children in Newtown to holding a vigil at the Sikh gurdwara last year for the African Americans killed by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, to remembering the Latinx gay, lesbian, and transgender people killed in Orlando earlier this summer in today’s anniversary events here.
Credit: Lee Matz
So how do we each of us carry on the legacy of the Oak Creek community? I invite each of us to make a pledge today, to identify a way in which you will make a difference.
Perhaps it’s to share the story of the Oak Creek tragedy at the workplace. Perhaps it is to write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper about the importance of diversity and inclusion. If you are a student, organize a talk or forum on campus about hate violence. If you are a parent, inquire about the anti-bullying policy and teacher training on bias at your children’s school. Visit the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. Call out racism and bigotry at gatherings of friends and your Facebook feeds. Ask local elected officials and government agencies about their preparedness to handle hate violence.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr said in 1963, “[W]e are now faced with the urgency of now.” Four years after the tragedy at the Sikh gurdwara here, we should be even more focused on the urgency of the moment.
It is up to us to practice the spirit behind the words chardhi kala – to remain in grateful optimism while we continue to fight against hatred and bigotry. As we participate in this weekend’s anniversary events, let us do so in honor of the six people who lost their lives in an act of hate, and let us recommit individually to doing our part to create safer, more inclusive, and more loving communities.
If not us, who? If not now, when? And if not here in Oak Creek, where?
Credit: Pardeep Kaleka