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.