Reflections on Oak Creek: Activism Starts At Home, Combating Hate in the Midwest

This week we commemorate the one year anniversary of the hate violence that gripped the community of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, when a gunman stormed into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on the morning of August 5, 2012. Our hearts are with the families and loved ones of Paramjit Kaur, Prakash Singh, Ranjit Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Sita Singh and Suveg Singh who lost their lives in the massacre. As we reflect on this day one year later, it is important to place the Oak Creek tragedy in a broader history and context of racial and religious injustice in our country. To help us understand, reflect and move forward, SAALT is featuring a blog series featuring a range of diverse voices.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog post do not reflect the positions or opinions of SAALT. They should be understood solely as the personal opinion of the author.

Ami Gandhi

Ami Gandhi
Executive Director,
SAAPRI

Reflecting one year later on the violent attacks on Sikh and Muslim institutions in the Midwest, I am inspired by community members who speak out against injustice not only in public venues but also at their religious institutions, workplaces, and dinner tables. These individuals might not label themselves as “activists,” but their activism in everyday life is crucial to combating hate – not only hate from white supremacists but also from members of our own community.

The Chicago area has been an important site for anti-hate efforts over the past year. The Chicago City Council and Illinois House of Representatives each passed anti-hate resolutions, denouncing hate crimes and hateful political rhetoric. The Chicagoland Inter-Religious Rapid Response Network strengthened relationships between leaders of different faiths. But just as much as we need stronger laws and programs to combat hate, we also need informal dialogue about tolerance and inclusion.

Every day, community members leave their comfort zones and extend a hand to someone outside their known circle. Immediately after the tragic shooting in Oak Creek, many Sikhs in Wisconsin and beyond had the courage to say that violence in any form should be condemned, rather than just distancing themselves from Muslims. In my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, my dad and over 50 others from the town’s Hindu and Jain communities stood in solidarity and prayed with members of the local gurdwaras. In Chicago, Lakhwant Singh Komal made history by sharing a Sikh invocation at the beginning of a city council meeting.

Every day, community members share their personal stories so that we can boldly face past problems and work towards solutions for the future. When introducing Chicago’s anti-hate resolution, Alderman Ameya Pawar talked to his fellow city council members about the “otherness” felt by South Asian Americans, sharing the example of when he was the target of prejudiced comments at a Chicago Cubs game soon after the tragic events of 9/11. Chicago actor Usman Ally also turned a painful experience into an inspirational message. After facing suspicion on the train following the Boston Marathon tragedy, Usman poignantly explained that silence can inadvertently further prejudice, and he urged us to simply speak up when we see injustice.

Single voices speaking out against injustice can be especially powerful when they come together in large numbers. Bloggers expressed outrage and mobilized the community to do the same when the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye newspaper published an inflammatory “turban primer,” which perpetuated harmful stereotypes and profiling. Residents of the 8th Congressional district, the district in Illinois with the highest density of South Asian Americans, voted incumbent Joe Walsh out of office after his remarks on the danger posed by Muslims.

Regardless of our age, profession, or political beliefs, we each can combat intolerance in our everyday lives.  We can have real conversations with our family and friends about our prejudices, fears, and scars from communal divides.  We can speak out against hateful e-mail forwards and social media posts.  We can attend a religious event hosted by someone from another faith.  We can focus on our common ground with other vulnerable communities, instead of pitting ourselves against each other.  We can voice our opinion at the polls.

The South Asian American community has tremendous potential.  And combating hate in our own backyards is a ripe opportunity for progress.
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Ami Gandhi
Executive Director
South Asian American Policy & Research Institute (SAAPRI)

Ami Gandhi is the Executive Director of South Asian American Policy & Research Institute (SAAPRI). SAAPRI is a non-profit, non-partisan organization established in 2001 to improve the lives of South Asian Americans in the Chicago area, by using research to formulate equitable and socially responsible public policy recommendations. Ami is an attorney who is passionate about serving the South Asian American community and has significant experience advocating for minorities and immigrants