Combating Islamophobia – SAALT welcomes the 2017-2018 Young Leaders Institute cohort

From July 19-21, SAALT welcomed the 2017-2018 class of the Young Leaders Institute (YLI) at a convening in Silver Spring, Maryland. This year marks the sixth cohort of young adults SAALT has trained in leadership skills for social change on campus and in our communities. The 2017-2018 cohort includes 16 outstanding, diverse youth who have developed creative and thoughtful projects focused on this year’s theme of Combating Islamophobia in South Asian American communities and broadly through civic engagement.

Following a competitive application process, YLI Fellows took part in a three-day training workshop where they learned the history of immigration and Islamophobia in America, built organizing and direct action skills, connected with activists and mentors, and explored social change strategies around issues that affect South Asian and immigrant communities in the United States. Learn more about each Fellow’s respective YLI project here. See pictures from the convening here.

SAALT is thankful to the trainers who provided vital insights at the YLI convening, including Dr. Maha Hilal (Institute for Policy Studies); Terri Johnson (Center for New Community); Noor Mir (D.C. Justice for Muslims Coalition); and Darakshan Raja (Washington Peace Center).

“I had an amazing experience at YLI,” stated Shilpa, one of SAALT’s YLI Fellows. “I met a great community of South Asians committed to social justice and combating various forms of oppression in the community.  I also heard from amazing organizers who taught us about direct action, the history of the war on terror, and how we can move forward within our communities.  Going forward I want to carry all that knowledge with me back to Georgetown and build communities of South Asians committed to social justice on my campus.”

Check out this video on Islamophobia and how the Young Leaders Institute empowers young people to combat it on campus and in their communities.

Sania, another YLI Fellow, noted, “The reason I took part in the Young Leaders Institute is because when I’m older I want to be involved in community organizing. YLI was the perfect first step in finding my way there.”

Rakin, a YLI Fellow who will work to repeal House Bill 522, an anti-Sharia legislation in North Carolina, stated, “Through YLI, I was able to gain access to educational resources that helped contextualize what it means to be a South Asian in America. YLI helped me understand the broader history and dynamics of the South Asian American identity.”

SAALT would like to thank our supporters and donors who make the Young Leaders Institute possible, and to our YLI Fellows, who are the leaders of tomorrowand who inspire us with their commitment to taking on Islamophobia on campuses and in communities.

Please consider making a generous donation to SAALT. Your help will ensure that the Young Leaders Institute continues to train tomorrow’s leaders today, for a more justice and inclusive society for all Americans.

In partnership,
The SAALT Team

This Week in Hate – August 11 – The Significance of Intersectionality in Hate Violence

Prepared for SAALT by Radha Modi

 

 

There are now 141 documented hate incidents against those who identify or are perceived as Muslim, Sikh, South Asian, Asian, Middle Eastern, or Arab since the election of Donald Trump (figure 1). Of these 141 hate incidents, almost half (59 incidents) are verbal and written assaults, an additional third (49 incidents) are physical assaults, and about a quarter (33 incidents) are property damage (figure 2). The total number of verbal and written assaults post-election have already surpassed the pre-election total. Property damage will soon surpass the pre-election total with the ongoing attacks on mosques. The total number of physical assaults is steadily increasing.  About half of the physical assaults are against Muslim and immigrant women (figure 2).

Women by far are the most common target of hate incidents. Thirty-three percent of the 141 documented hate incidents are against women who identify or are perceived as Muslim, Sikh, South Asian, Asian, Middle Eastern, or Arab (figure 3). Women wearing hijabs are, in particular, vulnerable to hate violence. Hate violence towards women underscores the role of intersectionality and the need for identifying these intersections in documenting hate. The combination of gender, religious attire, skin color, accent, and other factors all play a part in how women are perceived and targeted in daily life. For instance, Noor Tagouri, a Muslim American journalist, who wears a hijab, was told to “kill herself” by a fellow passenger as she boarded a domestic flight in the US[1]. This form of routine dehumanization is not only rooted in Islamophobia but also misogyny, xenophobia, and racism. While men seem less vulnerable, they are also a common target post-election. Eighteen percent of hate incidents are against men who identify or are perceived as Muslim, Sikh, South Asian, Asian, Middle Eastern, or Arab (figure 3). For men, as well, intersections of multiple factors contribute to how they are perceived and treated by others. Recently, Farid el-Baghdadi, a brown-skinned food truck vendor selling Middle Eastern sandwiches, was pelted with eggs multiple times in Queens, New York. One of the eggs had a note attached to it that read: “F**k Arabs and F**k Muslims”. The perpetrators used Farid el-Baghdadi’s skin color, occupation, and name to profile and target him.

The third major target of hate incidents is young people. Twenty-one percent of hate incidents involved students and youth. Incidents not only occur on the streets from strangers but also in schools where they are vulnerable to bullying. Another common target is mosques or Muslim organizations making up about a fifth of hate incidents. On average, about 3 to 4 mosques or Muslim organizations are targeted monthly with some mosques having multiple attacks this year. Just this past week, Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota was bombed by unknown assailants. This is the second time in the last 30 days that a Minnesota mosque has been targeted. Despite the incessant violence against Muslim communities, the Trump administration has yet to release a statement denouncing the bombing[2] and thus indirectly sanctioning the violence against marginalized communities.

Remember Oak Creek – They Still Stood Strong

– Sus Ri Kaal – Salaam Alaaaikum – Namaste –

When I was 8 years old, my Papa died before my eyes. I was so confused why he left me. I used to ask every Sardarji (turban wearing religious elder) I walked past if they knew my Papa, if he told them any jokes, or if he mentioned me. The image of a Sardarji is one of love, service, and compassion.

Every day that has passed since 9/11, I feel as though I am barely holding onto the many parts of my identity, my community.. and with every story on social media of an uncle being beaten up or killed — of a store being vandalized or mosques being burnt — I feel like those same parts are slipping from my shaking grasp. The constant vicarious trauma from the media and its ongoing forms of PTSD shake me.

One more part of me, one more piece of safety slips from me with every news update, praying it is not targeting a Sikh or Muslim. With every 9/11 remembrance over the past 16 years reminds me of Balbir Singh being shot to death after he was looking to buy flags for his store. He was an immigrant who wanted a better life for his family, working hard within the American Dream only to be shot cold in a business he started from nothing just days after 9/11. I remember the fear that day, for us to quickly buy any flag sticker, stand, cloth and adorn it on our residence and vehicles. It was terrifying how quickly this fear swept across the nation. Was his flag not up fast enough? We had to PROVE we are American, we had to LABEL ourselves as American, why were we ever put in that situation?

This past weekend I flew out to Oak Creek on a red eye. I was not expecting to go, but I felt I had to, as a Sardarji ka beta (daughter of a turban wearing religious elder). I had to. At 8am I checked into the hotel, loaded my backpack up with a second change of clothes and a hoodie not knowing what to expect with Midwest weather. I got into the Uber with a punjabi uncle who shared how close he was to the people who died. We talked about my father, about how hard it is to be brown in America – but he reminded me that the love of the community is what will get us through all the hard times. I went into the temple, performed muthna taaknaa (respectful prayer) and ate the parshaad (holy sweets) looking at this small prayer hall with eccentric pink and gold, full of love. I found myself in tears, this was where people had died, where Papas were last seen, where lives had transformed forever. There was blood on this carpet once. I saw the bullet hole in the door they had left as a reminder to people of their perseverance.

I walked into the lungar hall (communal food hall) and saw all the amazing aunties prepping the free food for the 5K guests tomorrow and the weekend of 48 hour prayer. They were laughing, smiling and making sure I had one of everything they made. They did not know me, but they had so much care for me. I sat down next to a younger girl who was personally affected by the death of her father and we talked about how losing your father can transform your life. I shared the milestones I had that I found different ways to memorialize my Papa – my high school graduation, my college graduation, and soon how I will honor him when I marry Naseer. I told her how strong she was to have gone through something so hard and still be able to even step foot into the Gurdwara and do hours of charity work here, but told her she never needed to be put in a situation to need to persevere. So many miles apart and we were connected through loss. I began talking to all of the people in the Gurdwara, all the aunties, the uncles – labored for hours in the kitchen helping them do seva, wiped the floors, threw the trash – and drank bottomless chai.

Throughout the weekend I could feel outsiders asking details about where the aunties and children were when their husband, wife, mother and father died, did they die in front of them, how was the funeral, was their blood on the carpet? My heart sank, I felt the need to protect these people who I just met hours ago. The memorial must have been so hard on them, and then with the questions it must have been so much harder. People want to know the exotic investigative side of Oak Creek.

However, we should ask them about their community, ask them how non-Sikhs supported them, how it was going back inside the temple, how did they get the courage to step back in — what were their favorite memories of their father and mothers? What is their favorite photo? If they could say something to them now, what would they say?

I took a step back and I realized I am a trauma, grief and loss therapist – and not everyone responds that way. I don’t want Oak Creek to be seen as a tragedy, it is a story of not just resilience but perseverance, that when they lost their entire sense of safety, they still stood strong and found the courage to continue leading the lives they hoped for.

When I was leaving for my flight, all of the aunties came and hugged me and prayed I had a safe journey. They loaded me up with six bags of Samosas, a container of snacks, two bags of burfee, and chips. There is so much love in Oak Creek, they need to be remembered for how compassionately the community came together.. of how America should act – not remember it as a scene of a crime.

It was hard to capture the love and connection I felt amidst the mourning of their loved ones, so felt it was only appropriate to create a video to help you enter the weekend with me.

Since 9/11 — every Sikh uncle I pass, I take a moment and make a duaa for them:

“May Rab protect them from the injustices of the world”
May they get home safely without being killed.
May Rab give them courage when the micro aggressions and verbal assault is too hard.
May someone not use their ruby turban as a trigger for protecting America.
May their children never have to have a day without their Papa.”

Ameen.

Rabhi is a trauma therapist, activist, ethnographic researcher, and former YLI fellow. As a fellow, Rabhi led the largest art as activism event in UCLA’s history for domestic violence and bullying awareness. With publications in three different outlets, as a trauma therapist, she has worked with grief and trauma for 8 years now. As an ethnographic researcher at UCLA and Pepperdine, she led the way for research on the power of storytelling for Sept 11th Vicarious Trauma – PTSD Islamophobia survivors – further deconstructing the Media’s War on Islam. Her research findings indicate the power of shared storytelling supports normalization and thus allows for a huge shift in the compassion and healing of communities. Rabhi currently works at CAIR-LA further advocating the basic human rights for her AMEMSA sisters and brothers.

This Week In Hate – August 4 – The Complexity of Documenting Hate

Prepared for SAALT by Radha Modi

SAALT, as well as other national advocacy organizations, are taking the lead in collecting and documenting hate incidents across communities as federal agencies fall short on this front. Organizations use news clippings as a common way to collect and document hate incidents. Often hate incidents do not make it to the news cycle in real time, and organizations only learn about some incidents weeks to months later. In addition, the reporting of hate incidents is a dynamic process with shifts in the safety, ease, and structural access around reporting for community members. Further, the defining and identifying of what constitutes a hate incident is also variable across organizations and media outlets. Considering all of these complex issues, the number of hate incidents against those who identify or are perceived as Muslim, Sikh, South Asian, Asian, Middle Eastern, or Arab are in flux.

Recently, SAALT discovered past incidents that were not originally documented in the organization’s database. These missed incidents have now been cataloged in an effort to bring our communities the most up-to-date and accurate numbers in the dynamic landscape of documenting hate.

Persistent Patterns of Hate

It is important to note that while the numbers have changed from our previous reports, the overall patterns have remained the same. As shown in Figure 1, the total number of documented hate incidents post-election, tallying at 135, has surpassed the total number of hate incidents of 130 that occurred during the year prior to the election (see below for clarification).

Another pattern that has remained consistent is the prevalence of verbal and written assaults against community members. Figure 2 illustrates that the total number of verbal and written assaults is almost double that of the previous year before the election (57 post-election verbal hate incidents compared to 29 pre-election verbal hate incidents). The sanctioning of hate rhetoric from government officials locally and federally as well as the passing of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant legislation is commensurate with the increased normalization of verbal abuse of community members on the streets. On July 27, 2017, three Somali Muslim women were harassed by a white woman at a local Walmart near Fargo, North Dakota. The white woman screamed to the women that “Muslims were going to hell” and “We’re going to kill ya.” Threats such as these are becoming more commonplace as physical assaults and property damage incidents also involve verbal or written hate filled harassment.

In addition, as we remember the five year anniversary of the massacre at Oak Creek this week, the violence against the Sikh community continues with the increased anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric under the Trump administration. This past week the body of 68-year-old Sikh man, Subag Singh, was found with signs of trauma in an irrigation canal in Fresno, California. Subag Singh went missing on July 23, 2017, after leaving his house for a morning walk. While local police have yet to assign the murder of Subag Singh as a hate crime, the threat of hate violence against local Sikh communities remains across the US.

The 130 total from the pre-election year in the current database does not match the 140 total hate incidents covering the some of the same time period in our Power, Pain, and Potential report. Two issues led to this discrepancy. First, the 140 total in the Power, Pain, and Potential report also documented the uptick in hate incidents one week post-election.The 130 pre-election number in our current database does not include the first week following the election. Second, a handful of incidents categorized as hate incidents are now categorized as hate rhetoric in the current database. As SAALT standardizes the distinction between hate rhetoric and hate incident, the database is consequently updated and reflects these changes.

 

Remember Oak Creek: Organizing through Grief and Pain

By Deepa Iyer

I visited Oak Creek, Wisconsin, for the first time in August of 2012 to attend the memorial service for the victims of the massacre at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. At the time, I was the director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), and I traveled to Oak Creek to make a personal commitment that our organization would stand in support of rapid response efforts on the ground and advocacy around ending hate violence at the national level. I joined hundreds of people to remember and honor the lives of Suveg Singh Khattra, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Ranjit Singh, Sita Singh, Paramjit Kaur, and Prakash Singh, and to send our support to Baba Punjab Singh who was severely wounded and who still remains in a coma.

Since that day in 2012, I have been back to Oak Creek many times thanks to the openness of the community there. They have welcomed me – a complete stranger and a representative of a national organization (both justifiable reasons for wariness) – into their town and their gurdwara during the anniversaries every August and in between.  Our conversations in homes, over langar at the gurdwara, and on trips to the airport, have helped me to understand how this community of survivors and first responders mustered the courage to respond to hate violence. They channeled and processed their grief and pain into community building. Five years later, they continue to build bridges, to care for survivors left behind, and to express solidarity with other victims of violence around the nation.

As I reflect on Oak Creek on this five-year anniversary, so many feelings and images come to mind.

I remember the people we lost. I didn’t know Paramjit Kaur but Kamal, her son, has shared many stories about her. Once, Kamal recounted a story about his mother’s efforts to find a job. “She used to be a housewife for a few years after we moved here because she had a problem with English,” he told me. “It’s funny how she got the job because she had to do a phone interview. She was afraid they would call while we were in school and she wouldn’t understand what they were saying. So it happened to be that the day she got the call, I was home. . . . She put it on speaker and they kept asking her questions and I kept translating for her.” With Kamal’s assistance, Paramjit passed the interview handily and started her job as an inspector at the medical factory. That is part of Paramjit’s story – an immigrant mother in a working class community who struggled with English but who was determined to care for her sons.

My reflections on Oak Creek five years later are also grounded in the physical presence of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. There is the bullet hole that has been preserved in one of the doors leading to the prayer hall. There is the conversation that I had with a man days after the massacre who told me that he and several others were carrying their own guns now to protect the gurdwara. There is the presence of security cameras and bullet-proof windows in the physical structure.

The gurdwara stands as a reminder that South Asian places of worship – envisioned, funded, and supported by our parents, uncles and aunties – are now vulnerable to violence and harm. It stands as a marker of the impact of white supremacy on South Asians in America, much like how the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina represent the effects of anti-Black racism.  It stands as a tribute to the Sikh value of chardhi kala – resilience and optimism in the face of adversity.

Reflecting on Oak Creek also means learning from the community of survivors and first responders. In the months after the massacre, Harpreet Saini testified in Congress about his mother’s hopes. He said: “[A]s a hard-working immigrant, she had to work long hours to feed her family, to get her sons educated, and help us achieve our American dreams. This was more important to her than anything else. . . But now she is gone. Because of a man who hated her because she wasn’t his color? His religion?” His testimony and the efforts of organizations in Oak Creek and beyond led to the FBI’s decision to add new categories, including Sikh and Hindu, to identify victims of hate crimes.

Pardeep Kaleka who lost his father began an organization called Serve 2 Unite that runs programs about inclusion. Mandeep Kaur has worked with a group of volunteers including Navi Gill, Rahul Dubey and many others to organize a 6K walk/run commemoration event each year to bring the community together, honor the victims, and provide student scholarships. Community members continue to take care of the younger children who lost parents in the massacre. The mayor of Oak Creek at the time of the massacre, Steve Scaffidi, has written a book with tips on how cities can prepare for and respond to hate violence. And in the aftermath of the murder of nine people at the AME “Mother Emanuel” Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, community members organized a solidarity event at the gurdwara.

This weekend, let us remember Oak Creek and all that it stands for, five years later. At the same time, let’s recommit ourselves to justice because hate violence continues to affect South Asians and other communities. Here are some ways you can get involved:

*This weekend, visit your local gurdwara to be in community, and send a donation to support the Chardhi Kala 6K in Oak Creek
*Hold a discussion on your campus or your place of worship about hate violence targeting people of color, faith-based communities, queer and trans communities, and immigrants
*Report and document hate and bigotry
*Work with your own place of worship to build preventative and rapid response plans to deal with hate violence
*Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper about the importance of building welcoming and inclusive communities for communities of color, immigrants and refugees
*Raise your voice against the current climate of hate that leads to bans, walls, and raids

Deepa Iyer is the former executive director of SAALT. Her book, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future, contains a chapter on the Oak Creek community. Learn more about Deepa’s work at www.deepaiyer.com and @dviyer on Twitter.

Remember Oak Creek – Sikhs are here to stay

By Jo Kaur

For many of our communities, living in America is more dangerous today than it was in 2012. This is a solemn fact that we must contend with as we commemorate the five-year anniversary of the Oak Creek mass shooting. Not only is discrimination rising across the country, but the federal government is no longer a reliable partner in enforcing civil rights laws, reducing hate violence, and/or targeting domestic terrorism.

The rise of Donald Trump and the fueling of white nationalism across the nation has placed our families in more danger. The seeds of hatred that grew in the heart of the Oak Creek killer, who identified with white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideologies, are connected to the divisiveness and rise of hate groups that we see today. It’s still shocking to accept that a fellow American was hateful enough to march into a Sikh gurdwara – on a peaceful Sunday morning – with the singular purpose of killing as many mothers, fathers, and grandfathers that he could find. Our aunties, uncles, our baba jis.

Make no mistake – Sikhs were targeted and killed because of our brown skin, our religious headwear, and most notably the growing and virulent forms of institutional racism that have defined America. The constant dehumanization of brown-skinned people with religious headwear, the degradation of actual or perceived Muslims by our politicians, the media, and American society at large has contributed to the onslaught of hate violence and discrimination that occurred in Oak Creek and that we see unfold in the Trump era.

What can individuals do? We should look toward the Oak Creek community. I will never forget a conversation that I had with an Oak Creek police officer after the shooting. He told me that when the Oak Creek gurdwara first opened its doors, their non-Sikh neighbors were a little wary. Who were these brown people with turbans and colorful outfits? Where were they from? What was their deal? Stereotypes, without conversation or connection, were made. The officer felt ashamed that it took a horrific act of domestic terrorism to connect with such a beautiful community. Now he visits the gurdwara weekly to have cha (tea) with his Sikh neighbors. Indeed, the relationship between Sikhs and non-Sikhs in Oak Creek has been an inspiring, heartwarming story of neighborly love. But the officer is right – it shouldn’t take mass tragedies for us to connect with our neighbors who may look different from us.

If someone doesn’t know your “deal,” it’s much easier to dehumanize you and your people, make harmful stereotypes and assumptions, and cast you as a villain and enemy of the state. But it’s not the sole responsibility of Sikhs or demonized communities to make you comfortable with us and to help you recognize our humanity. To assuage your concerns. The heavy lifting of awareness work must be shared by our allies and partners.

Whether we like it or not, America is a pluralistic, multicultural society. People of all races, religions, nationalities and backgrounds live here. That’s a beautiful thing. Unfortunately, our politicians govern as if only the white non-Hispanic majority matters. It is indeed rare to find representation at federal, state, or local levels invested in governing all people and considering how statements and policies impact our varied interests. Without leaders making active and regular efforts to infuse anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia education and policies into our national conversation and politics, bigotry will continue to spiral out of control.

While the Trump administration continues to perpetuate its daily agenda of making America unsafe and unwelcome for religious minorities, people of color, people with disabilities, and LGBT folks, the seeds of hatred in America continue to grow and more people will become emboldened to commit hate violence. As former Vice President Al Gore recently shared with media outlets, the work to reduce climate change will go on with or without President Trump, and regardless of our withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. And so too must the work to end hate violence and bigotry in our society.

It’s up to us now. Together, we have accomplished quite a bit since January and we must continue to fire up the energy and wisdom that we need for the long-term fight. As we commemorate Oak Creek, let us be humble; let us reflect and think about the voices we are leaving out of the conversation. Let us reflect and think about the voices we need at the table and/or build a larger table. Let us continue to see the best in others and to show up for our fellow communities, whether to combat hate violence or police brutality. It’s not easy work, but the pursuit of love and justice never has been and never will be.

We owe our best energy, love and commitment to the beautiful souls that we lost that day on August 5, 2012: Paramjit Kaur Saini, Suveg Singh Khattra, Ranjit Singh, Katwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, and Sita Singh. We owe our fiercest energy and our passion to Baba Punjab Singh, who remains paralyzed following the shooting and can communicate only by blinking his eyes.  The Oak Creek Sikh community is resilient and powerful and a beacon of light for all of us. The global Sikh community – the descendants of Guru Nanak Ji, of Guru Gobind Singh Ji, continue to wear our articles of faith with humility and to live out our purpose – to see the divinity of all, to see our enemy as our sister/brother, to fight oppression and demand universal equality for all people. As Sapreet Kaur, Executive Director of the Sikh Coalition said of the Sikh community, “America is our home, and we are here to stay.”

Sikhs are here to stay, and ready to play an active role in the story, direction and destiny of America.

Gurjot “Jo” Kaur is a civil rights attorney based in New York City. Jo worked as a Senior Staff Attorney at the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the U.S. and provided legal and advocacy support to Oak Creek survivors and their families. Following the shooting, Jo also represented Harpreet Singh Saini, the first Sikh American to testify before the U.S. Senate in a hearing on hate crimes and domestic extremism.

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.