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.
Their names were Paramjit Kaur, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, and Suveg Singh. On August 5, 2012, a lone gunman fatally shot the six people listed above and himself at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. I state their names here because it is important that we remember them as more than just casualties. It is important that we remember them as people, because the man who shot them did not see them as people.
He belonged to a number of hate groups and white supremacy organizations that believe America needs to be protected from the threat of brown people and foreigners and Muslims and a whole slew of other “undesirables.” He is not the only person to think this way. So it is important, as we reflect on the tragedy of last year, to remember the victims as people. They deserve that respect from us, since they did not receive it from him.
Their names were Paramjit Kaur, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, and Suveg Singh. They were Sikhs, they were shot in their gurdwara, which was their place of worship, and the men in the group all wore turbans, which are religious head coverings. I state these facts because their religion was the reason they were killed. After 9/11, a lot of fear and hatred has been directed towards Muslims or those perceived to be Muslims, and many times, Sikh men are among those cases of “mistaken identity.” After the shooting, many people expressed great sorrow, saying, “But they weren’t even Muslims.” This idea of “mistaken identity” is problematic because it implies that shooting a Muslim is not as bad as shooting a Sikh, when in reality, shooting anybody is a terrible thing. The idea of “mistaken identity” establishes a hierarchy of tragedy and presents a way of thinking that says some people deserve to be profiled and murdered because they “might be terrorists.” I spent a lot of time after the shooting thinking about the way people identify terrorists these days, conflating the term “terrorist” with “Muslim” and often, the term “Muslim” with “any person with brown skin who wears a turban.” It hurts me to know that people in this country have decided that a terrorist practices only one religion and has only one skin tone. It saddens me that this country has painted a portrait of evil in shades of brown. In reality, a terrorist can practice any religion and have any shade of skin. The perpetrator of the Oak Creek shooting is a perfect example: he was a white man and a Christian and he was also a domestic terrorist. But somehow, nobody is saying that because a white man committed an act of terrorism, all white men are terrorists. Nobody is saying that because a Christian committed an act of terrorism, all people wearing crucifixes ought to be targeted. There is a gross inequality here. There is a lack of education and understanding. There is a prevalence of prejudice here, and all of those things are harmful and dangerous. I take the time to acknowledge the religious backgrounds of the victims because they are important. Being a Sikh was important to each of them, and it should be important to us too because there is currently no mechanism in place to track hate crimes against Sikhs and there should be.
Their names were Paramjit Kaur, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, and Suveg Singh.They were Sikhs, they were members of the gurdwara where they were shot, they were parents and children and leaders and friends, and they were humans. They were humans and their lives were cut short because of one man’s hatred. One year ago and every day since, my heart goes out to them and their families and their loved ones. I have been continuously impressed by the way communities across the country and the world have rallied around the survivors of Oak Creek. There have been incredible shows of solidarity and love. But there have also been incredible shows of ignorance and hatred. So today, one year after six innocent people were murdered in their place of worship, I ask us all to reflect on what we can do moving forward. It is not enough to be angry on our own. It is not enough to think about what needs to change. We must take action. We must create change. We must demand the justice that we deserve. In the name of progress, we must refuse to back down. In the names of Paramjit Kaur, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, and Suveg Singh, we must create a better world.
Joya Ahmad is a biomedical engineering and pre-med student at Columbia University. A lover of neuroscience, proud Bangladeshi woman, and avid reader, she hails from Philadelphia, PA, but loves living in New York City. Her project for the Young Leaders Institute is a student organization at Columbia consisting of a weekly discussion group about power, privilege, and prejudice, as well as monthly community events providing accessible legal information and awareness about bias-based bullying. She has titled this organization Access Justice and is very excited to get to work this semester.