Six Years Later, the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek is a National Site of Conscience

On the six year anniversary of the massacre at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, the Oak Creek community has asked people to remember and reflect. This is my personal tribute to the Oak Creek community, including family members of victims and first responders, who welcomed me — a complete stranger, a non-Sikh, and an activist from Washington, DC — into their town, their gurdwara and their homes over the past six years. They have helped me understand how to channel grief and hopelessness into courage and compassion.

This weekend, people are gathering at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, a small town outside Milwaukee, to remember the six community members who were murdered there by a white supremacist six years ago. Since August 5, 2012, the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin has become more than a house of worship and a community sanctuary. It stands as a marker of the devastating effects of white supremacy, xenophobia, and Islamophobia in America, similar to how the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina hold the wounds of anti-Black racism. Today, the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin is a national site of conscience, a place that holds the memory of collective trauma and serves as a catalyst for action.

When you enter the gurdwara, nestled at the end of a long driveway, you may not immediately see the impact of the hate violence that occurred there six years ago. You may miss the presence of security guards and the fortified bullet-proof windows that were installed after the massacre. But when you enter the prayer hall, the trauma endured by community members inside the gurdwara becomes immediately visible. A bullet hole has been preserved on the door that opens into the prayer hall. Underneath it is an inscription that reads “We Are One, 8–5–12.”

Sikh Temple of Wisconsin

August 5, 2012 is the day hate violence penetrated the walls of this community sanctuary and refuge, which was a second home to many Sikh children and families in Oak Creek. That Sunday morning, Wade Michael Page, a man with ties to white supremacist groups, entered the open doors of the gurdwara and began a shooting rampage. He killed six people — Parmajit Kaur, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Suveg Singh, Prakash Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka — and wounded several others including Baba Punjab Singh who still remains in a coma. Page terrorized children and adults who had gathered for school and prayer services that Sunday morning, forcing them to seek protection inside a food pantry in the kitchen and in the basement of the gurdwara. Page killed himself in the parking lot after an encounter with two law enforcement officers, Brian Murphy and Sam Lenda.

Bullet hole and inscription (picture credit: Pardeep Singh Kaleka)

Entering the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek means facing the wounds of collective trauma held inside its walls. It means contending with the knowledge that eleven children, including five who were in middle or high school and one who waiting in India to be reunited with his father in Oak Creek, lost a parent in the massacre. This trauma has served as a catalyst for many people, including the family members of victims and first responders in Oak Creek, to oppose gun and hate violence and to stand in solidarity with other victims of hate.

Washington, DC vigil to Remember Oak Creek (August 2012)

Pardeep Kaleka, who lost his father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, joined forces with a former white supremacist, Arno Michaelis, to create Serve2Unite, an organization that works with young people and educational institutions to cultivate compassion and inclusion. Mandeep Kaur, an Oak Creek resident, stood with President Obama in 2016 when he announced executive actions regarding gun regulation, and has been a lead organizer of annual anniversary events in Oak Creek that recognize victims of gun violence, from Sandy Hook to Orlando. In the wake of Dylann Roof’s rampage inside Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015, Oak Creek community members gathered at a vigil at the gurdwara, declaring “we share the pain.”

The Oak Creek community also led the charge to change the ways in which hate crimes are categorized by the FBI. At a U.S. Senate hearing a few months after he lost his mother, Harpreet Saini testified in Congress to bring attention to the lack of national data collection on Sikhs who are victims of hate crimes. Harpreet’s testimony and the efforts of organizations around the country led to the FBI’s decision to add new categories — including Sikh Hindu, and Arab — to identify victims of hate crimes.

In today’s national climate, it is not a surprise that acts of hate against vulnerable communities are on the rise. According to The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, hate crimes rose approximately 12.5% in 2017. The Trump election and Administration have exacerbated the climate in the United States. According to Communities on Fire, a report released by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), hate violence against Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities rose by 64% in the year after the 2016 election. Srinivas Kuchibotla, an Indian American engineer in Kansas, was one of the victims of post-election hate violence. White nationalist groups, emboldened by the rhetoric coming from the Trump Administration and the presence of people like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller at high levels, are also gaining visibility. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 954 recognized hate groups operating in the United States in 2017, 100 of which are white nationalist groups.

Government policies such as Trump’s denaturalization taskforce, the Muslim ban, and the deportations of immigrants including asylum seekers only reinforce public acts of bigotry. Sikh and South Asian immigrants are currently facing the disastrous consequences of Trump’s zero tolerance policy at the southern border. Over 50 Sikh asylum seekers are being held at a federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, where many claim in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU that they are not allowed to wear their turbans or follow religiously mandated diets. A similar lawsuit on behalf of Sikh detainees held in a federal prison in Victorville, California has also been filed. Clearly, South Asian immigrants are no exception to this Administration’s inhumane policies.

As we mark the six-year anniversary of the massacre at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin this weekend, let us also learn from the Oak Creek community about how we can channel our sadness and hopelessness into mindful actions. We can honor Oak Creek in many ways: by remembering what happened six years ago, by sharing the story of the Oak Creek community’s responses in our own places of worship, on campuses, and with our families, by speaking up against hate violence, no matter who is targeted, and by renewing our commitment to the struggle for racial and immigrant justice and liberation in the United States.

Organizers and supporters after the 2016 Chardhi Kala 6K anniversary event