Reflections on Oak Creek: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

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.

Tanzila Ahmed Activist, Organizer, Writer

Tanzila Ahmed
Activist, Organizer, Writer

Soundtrack to listen to while reading post: http://saraswathijones.bandcamp.com/track/senseless

The teenage Desi youth were sprawled and scattered around the common room with wallpapered roses and yellow light from the dusty chandeliers. It was dark outside and the Bay Area chill was seeping through the cracks of the old Victorian bed and breakfast. The youth were enrapt, despite the lateness, despite how much knowledge we had tried to pack into their brains that day. When the sun set earlier, we had stood in a circle – youth participants and core organizers alike- and a box of dates had been passed around. Some youth were fasting for Ramadan but most were South Asian youth of varied other religious backgrounds, not fasting. When the azaan on the iPhone app began soaring, we all said quiet self-reflections and broke our fast with that date, together and in solidarity.

That was how we began our Islamophobia Workshop at Bay Area Solidarity Summer (www.solidaritysummer.org) a couple of Friday nights ago. We began in solidarity.

The 15 Desi youth at our five-day camp were young, ranging from 15 to 20 years old, but they were fierce. We had begun our camp that Thursday with stories of legacies. We literally walked the youth through the history of justice fighting that belongs to the South Asian community in America. We talked about the Bellingham Race Riots in 1907, to the Komagata Maru being turned away from Canadian shores in 1914, to the formation of the Ghadar party in San Francisco in 1913. We talked about Kartar Dhillon, Tinku Ishtiaq, Prerna Lal, and Amit Gupta. We talked about how the Beats for Bangladesh album in 2013 built on the legacy of George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, how the seven South Asian congressional candidates who ran in 2010 built on the legacy of the first Sikh and Indian Congressman Dalip Singh Saund in 1957, how the Punjabi poetry on the walls of Angel Island was connected to the The Bridges publication out of UC Berkeley in the 70’s, and how the Asian Exclusion Act (1924), Luce-Celler Act (1946), and Dream Act were all related.

I took a deep breath as I looked around the youth sprawled in the dimly lit room. They represented the next generation of the progressive movement for the South Asian American community. As a Muslim South Asian American activist myself, I was personally invested in developing Desi youth leaders who would be capable of speaking in solidarity on Muslim issues in addition to multiple others affecting the South Asian community. I needed an activist community that understood the importance of South Asian solidarity. That we had united struggles. That it was beneficial to fight social injustices together. That hate-crimes and profiling lumped us all together into a collective Brown. But you can’t teach youth solidarity – you can only teach them issues and create safe spaces for dialogue. The solidarity, you hope, comes after.

We walked the youth through images of Aladdin on a carpet, President Obama in a turban, a woman caged in a hijab. We walked through concepts of racialization, otherizing, marginalization, and exotification. We talked about systems of oppression, living in a surveillance state, the rash of hate crimes at mosques and the $42 million dollar islamophobia industry funded by only seven foundations. We showed videos of Aasif Mandvi as Bill Cosby, of a hijabi flashmob at Lowes, and of Congressman Keith Ellison’s tearful 9/11 testimony at the King Hearings.

And I was nervous. Because last year when I had walked through these issues with the BASS youth, they didn’t quite get it. Their eyes glazed over when I talked about 9/11, in that way that kids’ eyes tend to glaze over when hearing again a story from when they were five. And one youth pushed back, saying that even though he had Muslim friends, he was Hindu, and he didn’t have to deal with these issues when he was home. I felt like I had failed as a trainer.

That very next morning last year, on August 5, 2012, as the youth were out on a radical walking tour, that the BASS organizers got word of the shocking and tragic shootings in Oak Creek. Hovering over the laptops, we obsessively clicked refresh on our internet feeds. And when the youth came back, I gently broke to them what had happened. How do you empower youth when the real life news out there is telling them to be afraid? Be afraid because your skin is brown, because your mother tongue is different, or your religion makes you a target of people shooting guns, even – or especially – where you pray? Be afraid because gun rights are a joke where firearms are accessible to white supremacist but if you even google guns, you risk being branded as a terrorist?  Be afraid because white systems of oppression still rule? I didn’t say any of that. Instead I asked for the youth to be still, reflect, and have a moment of silence.

As I looked at everyone sitting on the floor that morning last year, I knew that they got it. It was a poignant and tragic teachable moment. A horrific, perfectly timed, teachable moment on why we need to build solidarity, as South Asians and as humankind.

It was that teachable moment I was thinking about as I looked at this year’s BASS 2013 class. It had been a year since the Oak Creek shooting. It had been a year since the vigilante stream of attacks on mosques during last year’s Ramadan. What had started as post-9/11 backlash ten years ago has morphed into a monster of constant fear directed at the South Asian community. As a community, we were on the defensive, always it seemed. But beauty has come out of it, too – a vibrant, lush activist community in solidarity that uses tools of love, arts, community, and politics to combat and resist.

As I looked in the eyes of each of our youth participants during our closing circle, I saw a fire I hadn’t seen there before. They weren’t fearful. Their passion was ignited and they all felt loved and empowered. They were equipped with the tools and knowledge they needed to combat and resist in this world, but to do it in ways that honor love and community, that give life to hope. And that was when I knew they’d gotten it: what it means to live and act in solidarity.
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Tanzila Ahmed
Activist, Organizer, Writer

Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles currently working as the Voter Engagement Manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles. She has been a long-time writer for SepiaMutiny.com, and her writing can most recently be found in the anthology Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. You can find her online at Mutinous Mindstate and Say What? as well as at the music site Mishthi Music where she just co-produced Beats for Bangladesh: A Benefit Album in Solidarity with the Garment Workers of Rana PlazaFollow her on twitter @tazzystar.