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 and @dviyer on Twitter.

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. 

Remember Oak Creek — Side By Side

By India Home

On the 5th anniver­sary of the Oak Creek shoot­ing we remem­ber the words of Pradeep Singh Kale­ka, the eldest son of the late Sat­want Singh Kale­ka who was the pres­i­dent of the Sikh tem­ple in Oak Creek and who lost his life dur­ing the tragedy in 2012. Pradeep stat­ed in 2016, “Build­ing safe and inclu­sive com­mu­ni­ties takes sac­ri­fice, ded­i­ca­tion, hard work, and delib­er­ate practice.”

These words res­onate even more today as our diverse com­mu­ni­ties con­tin­ue to come under attack, not just from white suprema­cists and nation­al­ists, but from this admin­is­tra­tion.  As an orga­ni­za­tion that serves South Asian elders, includ­ing Sikhs, India Home pledges our sup­port and sol­i­dar­i­ty to our com­mu­ni­ties’ efforts. For Vaisakhi this year, India Home helped bring the Sikh mes­sage of inclu­siv­i­ty and dig­ni­ty for all to a wider audi­ence through a pro­gram we ini­ti­at­ed at the renowned Rubin Muse­um in Man­hat­tan. Sikh elders told the sto­ry of the Khal­sa and explained Sikh beliefs to a large, diverse audience.

We remain com­mit­ted to fight­ing side by side with our com­mu­ni­ties for jus­tice and dig­ni­ty for all.

In sol­i­dar­i­ty,
India Home board and staff

The mis­sion of India Home is to improve the qual­i­ty of life of vul­ner­a­ble South Asian old­er adults through social services.

Remember Oak Creek — Our Stories Are Tied Together

By Sabi­ha Basrai

I got the news of the mas­sacre at the Sikh Tem­ple in Oak Creek just before I was about to lead a work­shop for Bay Area Sol­i­dar­i­ty Sum­mer (BASS) — a social jus­tice polit­i­cal train­ing camp for South Asian youth. My work­shop was to be about mes­sag­ing strat­e­gy and visu­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion — how to tell our sto­ries and reclaim our nar­ra­tives. The oth­er train­ers and BASS coor­di­na­tors were jug­gling logis­tics and bring­ing the youth togeth­er to get start­ed. But every­one qui­et­ed down as the news rip­pled through the group. We stopped in our tracks and found our­selves sit­ting on the floor in a cir­cle. We thought about the fam­i­lies at that tem­ple. We thought about our own rela­tion­ships with fam­i­ly and faith and what our reli­gious cen­ters have meant to us. I did my best to help hold the space as our BASS youth worked through these ques­tions and let the grav­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion sink in.

As I lis­tened to these bril­liant youth, I remem­bered what it was like for me when I was their age and 9/11 had just hap­pened. I remem­ber the racism and hate speech I endured. I remem­ber the sad­ness and frus­tra­tion over the loss of life and war mon­ger­ing rhetoric that dehu­man­ized Mus­lim Amer­i­cans. I remem­ber the way Sikhs were tar­get­ed because they are per­ceived as Mus­lims.  I wished I could pro­tect these youths from those feel­ings of fear, sad­ness and con­fu­sion. But I also rec­og­nized our com­mu­ni­ty resilience as I saw them find­ing their polit­i­cal voice and artic­u­lat­ing their com­mit­ment to social jus­tice for all.

On the anniver­sary of the Oak Creek mas­sacre, I mourn the vic­tims and I express sol­i­dar­i­ty for all those impact­ed by racial pro­fil­ing and the vio­lence of white suprema­cy. I promise to con­tin­ue my work in sup­port of racial jus­tice and remem­ber that our strug­gles inter­sect and our sto­ries are tied together.

Sabiha Basrai is a mem­ber of Design Action Col­lec­tive — a work­er-owned coop­er­a­tive ded­i­cat­ed to serv­ing social jus­tice move­ments with art, graph­ic design, and web devel­op­ment. She is also Co-Coor­di­na­tor of the Alliance of South Asians Tak­ing Action where she works with racial jus­tice orga­niz­ers to fight against Islamophobia.

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.


Remember Oak Creek — Tragedy and Resilience

By Anir­van Chatterjee

Where were you five years ago, on August 5, 2012?

From sto­ry­telling on the streets of Berke­ley to the mass mur­der at the Oak Creek Gur­d­wara, it’s the fifth anniver­sary of a day I won’t eas­i­ly forget.

I start­ed the day feel­ing anx­ious. For years, my part­ner Bar­nali Ghosh and I had been col­lect­ing sto­ries of Desi activists in our home­town of Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia. There were so many! Some­one could even do a walk­ing tour, we joked. And then we tried to make it happen.

We start­ed pulling togeth­er sto­ries of Berkeley’s South Asian activism. We found a strik­ing pho­to of pro­test­ers in saris in Kar­ma of Brown Folk.

Bar­nali dove into UC Berkeley’s archives, dis­cov­er­ing sto­ries of Ghadar Par­ty free­dom fight­ers. I inter­viewed our friend “Tin­ku” Ali Ish­ti­aq, a Bangladeshi Amer­i­can activist I’d met dur­ing an anti-war protest. Bar­nali drew a map of Berke­ley, and we marked points asso­ci­at­ed with each sto­ry, hop­ing to find a walk­a­ble path con­nect­ing them. Then we turned our research into a script, incor­po­rat­ing sto­ry­telling, visu­als, and street theater.

On August 5, 2012, we tried run­ning our very first Berke­ley South Asian Rad­i­cal His­to­ry Walk­ing Tour for the par­tic­i­pants of Bay Area Sol­i­dar­i­ty Sum­mer—emerg­ing Desi activists ages 15–21. We gath­ered on Tele­graph Avenue and began to walk, shar­ing sto­ries of queer activism, stu­dent move­ments, and con­nec­tions to non-Desi strug­gles. Along the way, we bust­ed out some street the­ater to bring the sto­ries alive. The young activists were lov­ing it, and my ner­vous­ness slow­ly faded.

On the UC Berke­ley cam­pus, we told the sto­ry of Kar­tar Singh Sarab­ha, a young Sikh man who moved to Berke­ley in 1912 hop­ing to study at the uni­ver­si­ty, but end­ed up becom­ing a free­dom fight­er orga­niz­ing Indi­an immi­grants against British colo­nial rule. Bar­nali nar­rat­ed, and I played the part of the young rev­o­lu­tion­ary who had walked the streets that we were walk­ing today. By the time the sto­ry end­ed, we were both inspired and emo­tion­al­ly exhausted.

It was near the end of the tour when I saw one of the par­tic­i­pants star­ing at her phone as we were about to cross the street. She showed me what she was look­ing at—a text from her moth­er say­ing some­thing ter­ri­ble was hap­pen­ing at a gurud­wara in Wis­con­sin, and that she should stay safe. I took in the news and tried to project an air of calm. I assured her that it was fine, that we were all there togeth­er, and asked her to avoid shar­ing the bad news with oth­ers until after the tour had ended.

The last sto­ry on the tour, at Berke­ley High School, was par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult. First, we set the scene by ask­ing par­tic­i­pants to read excerpts from Amer­i­can Back­lash, a report by SAALT doc­u­ment­ing the wave of vio­lent xeno­pho­bia that rocked our com­mu­ni­ties after 9/11. Then we told the sto­ry of post‑9/11 back­lash attacks at Berke­ley High, and how a group of pri­mar­i­ly Sikh and Mus­lim stu­dents built a mul­tira­cial coali­tion to take on hate and rebuild safe­ty for impact­ed communities.

Past and present were col­lid­ing. I kept think­ing of Sikh fam­i­lies under attack in a place of sanc­tu­ary, even as we were shar­ing sto­ries of a cen­tu­ry of Sikh Amer­i­can resis­tance to racism and colonialism.

The tour end­ed, and we returned back to camp. The Bay Area Sol­i­dar­i­ty Sum­mer orga­niz­ers shared the bad news with every­one, and made space for us to talk and mourn together.

We have run 120 more Berke­ley South Asian Rad­i­cal His­to­ry Walk­ing Tours since that ter­ri­ble day in 2012. Over the past five years of his­tor­i­cal sto­ry­telling, we’ve spent a lot of time think­ing about how easy it is to frame the sto­ry of South Asian Amer­i­ca to tell dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent narratives.

Some of us tell sto­ries of South Asian suc­cess, of immi­grant doc­tors and engi­neers, sub­ur­ban homes and mod­el minor­i­ty dreams, spelling bee cham­pi­ons and brown faces in the White House. We worked hard, and the Unit­ed States has come to love us.

Some of us tell sto­ries of hatred, vio­lence, and oth­er­ing, start­ing with the enslave­ment of Mary Fish­er around the 1690s, the Belling­ham Riots, the Tide of Tur­bans, Dot­busters hate crimes, waves of back­lash after 9/11, and anti-Mus­lim attacks in the age of Trump. The Unit­ed States hates us, and all peo­ple of color.

Both of these nar­ra­tives are true, but for us, they’re just not help­ful. We’re very open about our bias. The sto­ries we want to empha­size are about resilience, con­nec­tion, sol­i­dar­i­ty, and agency: Pun­jabi-Mex­i­can and Black-Ben­gali fam­i­lies, immi­grant doc­tors offer­ing care in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, Indi­an and Irish free­dom fight­ers dream­ing togeth­er of lib­er­a­tion, youth orga­niz­ing against waves of hate, and sub­ur­ban Desi fem­i­nists stand­ing up to vio­lence with­in their communities.

Five years after the Oak Creek shoot­ings, we con­tin­ue to mourn for Paramjit Kaur, Sat­want Singh Kale­ka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ran­jit Singh, and Suveg Singh. But the sto­ry doesn’t end with vic­tim­iza­tion by a White nationalist.

In the wake of the vio­lence, the fam­i­lies of Oak Creek count­ed their loss­es. They mourned. They rebuilt togeth­er. And they con­tin­ued to stand against hate along­side their neighbors—a sto­ry told in Deepa Iyer’s We Too Sing Amer­i­ca. Five years after the Oak Creek shoot­ing, it’s these qui­et acts of resilience and activism in the face of hate that stay with us. And as we decide how to tell the his­to­ries of our com­mu­ni­ty, we hope these are the ones we will remem­ber, retell, and build on.

Anirvan Chatterjee works with the Alliance of South Asians Tak­ing Action and Bay Area Sol­i­dar­i­ty Sum­mer. He and Bar­nali Ghosh curate the Berke­ley South Asian Rad­i­cal His­to­ry Walk­ing Tour.