Remember Oak Creek – Side By Side

By India Home

On the 5th anniversary of the Oak Creek shooting we remember the words of Pradeep Singh Kaleka, the eldest son of the late Satwant Singh Kaleka who was the president of the Sikh temple in Oak Creek and who lost his life during the tragedy in 2012. Pradeep stated in 2016, “Building safe and inclusive communities takes sacrifice, dedication, hard work, and deliberate practice.”

These words resonate even more today as our diverse communities continue to come under attack, not just from white supremacists and nationalists, but from this administration.  As an organization that serves South Asian elders, including Sikhs, India Home pledges our support and solidarity to our communities’ efforts. For Vaisakhi this year, India Home helped bring the Sikh message of inclusivity and dignity for all to a wider audience through a program we initiated at the renowned Rubin Museum in Manhattan. Sikh elders told the story of the Khalsa and explained Sikh beliefs to a large, diverse audience.

We remain committed to fighting side by side with our communities for justice and dignity for all.

In solidarity,
India Home board and staff

The mission of India Home is to improve the quality of life of vulnerable South Asian older adults through social services.

Remember Oak Creek – Our Stories Are Tied Together

By Sabiha Basrai

I got the news of the massacre at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek just before I was about to lead a workshop for Bay Area Solidarity Summer (BASS) — a social justice political training camp for South Asian youth. My workshop was to be about messaging strategy and visual communication — how to tell our stories and reclaim our narratives. The other trainers and BASS coordinators were juggling logistics and bringing the youth together to get started. But everyone quieted down as the news rippled through the group. We stopped in our tracks and found ourselves sitting on the floor in a circle. We thought about the families at that temple. We thought about our own relationships with family and faith and what our religious centers have meant to us. I did my best to help hold the space as our BASS youth worked through these questions and let the gravity of the situation sink in.

As I listened to these brilliant youth, I remembered what it was like for me when I was their age and 9/11 had just happened. I remember the racism and hate speech I endured. I remember the sadness and frustration over the loss of life and war mongering rhetoric that dehumanized Muslim Americans. I remember the way Sikhs were targeted because they are perceived as Muslims.  I wished I could protect these youths from those feelings of fear, sadness and confusion. But I also recognized our community resilience as I saw them finding their political voice and articulating their commitment to social justice for all.

On the anniversary of the Oak Creek massacre, I mourn the victims and I express solidarity for all those impacted by racial profiling and the violence of white supremacy. I promise to continue my work in support of racial justice and remember that our struggles intersect and our stories are tied together.

Sabiha Basrai is a member of Design Action Collective — a worker-owned cooperative dedicated to serving social justice movements with art, graphic design, and web development. She is also Co-Coordinator of the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action where she works with racial justice organizers to fight against Islamophobia.

Remember Oak Creek – Time is not a neutral force

By Jahnavi Jagannath

This summer, we stood at a vigil for Nabra Hassanen, a 17-year old Muslim American girl brutally murdered near her local mosque. Two years ago, we mourned in pews of a church, shaken by the murder of eight Methodist African Americans in their AME church. Five years ago, we prayed and loved and came together in the aftermath of the Oak Creek massacre, when a neo-Nazi white supremacist murdered six Sikh Americans in their gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Today, we must stand together again.

At Nabra’s vigil, a woman stepped up to the podium and read a poem describing a time in which we stood up. She spoke about intolerance, hatred based on race and religion. She called us to look, to open our eyes—and to act upon what we saw. She finished the poem, closed the notebook, and said, “I wrote this poem four years ago. I didn’t want it to still be true today, but here I am. And here it is.”

When the Oak Creek tragedy happened, I read about it, briefly discussed it, and let it fade back into the news. It got swallowed in the 24-hour news cycle for most of my peers and community members; our Hindu community didn’t care beyond a muttered condolence because “we don’t wear turbans.” Our white suburban news sources mentioned the shooting and glossed over the fact that it was motivated by hate. I found myself out of touch with a South Asian identity; rather, I was Indian, I was Hindu, I distanced myself rather than standing with. At the time of the shooting, women in the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin were cooking Langar, the communal meal eaten after prayer. That same day, we finished our bhajans and shared a meal, without mention of the murders happening halfway across the country.

The distancing of identity was baked into me as I grew up. “Put on a bindi, you look Muslim without one.” “It’s fine that we get pulled aside at airports. They’re just being careful.” “You should marry whoever you want, except a Muslim.” The well-meaning people who built this into me as I was a child were the same people who were infuriated when Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani were shot—but they hold the same biases against Muslims that motivated the murder in the first place. I didn’t know how to explain—it’s not that “we” look like “them.” It’s that there IS no “us” and “them. There can’t be.”

I find no way to accept the apathy we showed in the time of the Oak Creek tragedy, but now have found a stronger base of a South Asian identity that stands in solidarity and not separation. Today, we remember Paramjit Kaur, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, and Suveg Singh, brothers and fathers, a mother and wife, people who loved music and prayer and the outdoors. We remember Punjab Singh, a visiting Sikh priest and teacher who has been paralyzed since the shooting. The Sikh community in Oak Creek has always been one of open doors and support, but has reached its roots broader and deeper into the larger community since the shooting. Over time, people who have been most deeply and personally impacted have gone on to pursue lives of helping others and living fully, embodying the spirit of the Sikh principle “Chardi Kala”—relentless optimism in the face of adversity.

I have drawn inspiration from this, trying to weave it into my life. I remind myself that optimism is essential for movement. Time is not a neutral force. I find myself constantly at a trembling balance of inspiration and desperation, hope and despair, thinking about the potential I have and the potential we as a community have, to make change. We move through time, and as long as hate is born and reborn into our societies, our poems about pain and intolerance and loss will stay relevant. Time is not a neutral force. Thus, we will keep tracking acts of hate, lobbying to congressional offices, holding each other up as community members as we try to make changes in all the ways we do. Every minute we spend in working for a better world, with less ignorance and less fear and more acceptance—those minutes are not in vain.

At times, this is a paradox. I think about the fact that these friendships, coalitions, partnerships exist. I think of collaborative art and of community accountability and the unbearable giddiness that comes as one freely exists in this world. Though these can be achieved, though we have enough food to share and water to distribute and kindness to give universally, we choose not to. I feel an ache that we have chosen fear and hatred as our tools, building societal structure that intrinsically denies equality and joy. The poem of the brave woman who spoke at Nabra’s vigil will stay relevant until we stop choosing hate. Organizers and community movements didn’t just happen: they take work. It is our responsibility to do this work, to create a world in which her poem will be about the past, and not about the present.

This is a large call to action. The tremendous optimism and despair and the collision this causes in my head at times becomes too much—at those times, I find comfort in this:

“We have the resources at our disposal to create a nonviolent world, a world in which all people are adequately fed and clothed and housed and educated and valued. These are not insoluble problems, and this is not an impossible dream. It’s a dream worth dreaming, although the improbability of this attainment will likely break your heart time and time again. Just as such a dream is worth dreaming, such a life is worth living. A life lived in pursuit of nonviolence, of justice, and of equality. It will be a life of aching, suffering, disappointment, and sadness. It will be a fulfilling life, too, though—a life of compassion, and truth and beauty and magnificence and wonderment and love. And the very act of living such a life will give you the strength to withstand its multitude of heartbreaks.”1

-K. Estabrook – The Scholar, the Teacher, the Saint: The Life, Work, and Nonviolent Philosophy of James M. Lawson, Jr

On this five year anniversary, we stand with the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. We say the names of Paramjit Kaur, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, and Suveg Singh, remembering them as whole people and not merely numbers. We, as a South Asian community, must stand with rather than separating. Our liberation is bound together, and it’s our time to remember that time is not a neutral force: we have the potential to create the world we want.

Jahnavi Jagannath is a rising senior at Rice University, where she studies Policy Studies, Sociology, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Studying this broad (and seemingly odd) combination of disciplines, she is interested in the intersections of race, gender, and environmental justice, and hopes to pursue law or policy in the future. She currently serves as a policy intern at SAALT. She tries to maintain relentless optimism in her life and work, and looks forward to the opportunity to be a part of her communities in Houston and Memphis to further progress.

 

Remember Oak Creek – Tragedy and Resilience

By Anirvan Chatterjee

Where were you five years ago, on August 5, 2012?

From storytelling on the streets of Berkeley to the mass murder at the Oak Creek Gurdwara, it’s the fifth anniversary of a day I won’t easily forget.

I started the day feeling anxious. For years, my partner Barnali Ghosh and I had been collecting stories of Desi activists in our hometown of Berkeley, California. There were so many! Someone could even do a walking tour, we joked. And then we tried to make it happen.

We started pulling together stories of Berkeley’s South Asian activism. We found a striking photo of protesters in saris in Karma of Brown Folk.

Barnali dove into UC Berkeley’s archives, discovering stories of Ghadar Party freedom fighters. I interviewed our friend “Tinku” Ali Ishtiaq, a Bangladeshi American activist I’d met during an anti-war protest. Barnali drew a map of Berkeley, and we marked points associated with each story, hoping to find a walkable path connecting them. Then we turned our research into a script, incorporating storytelling, visuals, and street theater.

On August 5, 2012, we tried running our very first Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour for the participants of Bay Area Solidarity Summer—emerging Desi activists ages 15–21. We gathered on Telegraph Avenue and began to walk, sharing stories of queer activism, student movements, and connections to non-Desi struggles. Along the way, we busted out some street theater to bring the stories alive. The young activists were loving it, and my nervousness slowly faded.

On the UC Berkeley campus, we told the story of Kartar Singh Sarabha, a young Sikh man who moved to Berkeley in 1912 hoping to study at the university, but ended up becoming a freedom fighter organizing Indian immigrants against British colonial rule. Barnali narrated, and I played the part of the young revolutionary who had walked the streets that we were walking today. By the time the story ended, we were both inspired and emotionally exhausted.

It was near the end of the tour when I saw one of the participants staring at her phone as we were about to cross the street. She showed me what she was looking at—a text from her mother saying something terrible was happening at a gurudwara in Wisconsin, and that she should stay safe. I took in the news and tried to project an air of calm. I assured her that it was fine, that we were all there together, and asked her to avoid sharing the bad news with others until after the tour had ended.

The last story on the tour, at Berkeley High School, was particularly difficult. First, we set the scene by asking participants to read excerpts from American Backlash, a report by SAALT documenting the wave of violent xenophobia that rocked our communities after 9/11. Then we told the story of post-9/11 backlash attacks at Berkeley High, and how a group of primarily Sikh and Muslim students built a multiracial coalition to take on hate and rebuild safety for impacted communities.

Past and present were colliding. I kept thinking of Sikh families under attack in a place of sanctuary, even as we were sharing stories of a century of Sikh American resistance to racism and colonialism.

The tour ended, and we returned back to camp. The Bay Area Solidarity Summer organizers shared the bad news with everyone, and made space for us to talk and mourn together.

We have run 120 more Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tours since that terrible day in 2012. Over the past five years of historical storytelling, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how easy it is to frame the story of South Asian America to tell dramatically different narratives.

Some of us tell stories of South Asian success, of immigrant doctors and engineers, suburban homes and model minority dreams, spelling bee champions and brown faces in the White House. We worked hard, and the United States has come to love us.

Some of us tell stories of hatred, violence, and othering, starting with the enslavement of Mary Fisher around the 1690s, the Bellingham Riots, the Tide of Turbans, Dotbusters hate crimes, waves of backlash after 9/11, and anti-Muslim attacks in the age of Trump. The United States hates us, and all people of color.

Both of these narratives are true, but for us, they’re just not helpful. We’re very open about our bias. The stories we want to emphasize are about resilience, connection, solidarity, and agency: Punjabi-Mexican and Black-Bengali families, immigrant doctors offering care in rural communities, Indian and Irish freedom fighters dreaming together of liberation, youth organizing against waves of hate, and suburban Desi feminists standing up to violence within their communities.

Five years after the Oak Creek shootings, we continue to mourn for Paramjit Kaur, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, and Suveg Singh. But the story doesn’t end with victimization by a White nationalist.

In the wake of the violence, the families of Oak Creek counted their losses. They mourned. They rebuilt together. And they continued to stand against hate alongside their neighbors—a story told in Deepa Iyer’s We Too Sing America. Five years after the Oak Creek shooting, it’s these quiet acts of resilience and activism in the face of hate that stay with us. And as we decide how to tell the histories of our community, we hope these are the ones we will remember, retell, and build on.

Anirvan Chatterjee works with the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action and Bay Area Solidarity Summer. He and Barnali Ghosh curate the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour.