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.