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.