Reflections on Oak Creek: Fearless and Determined

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.

Jasmeet's blog

Grow­ing up in a small town in North Car­oli­na as a child of Indi­an-born par­ents, I remem­ber strug­gling with iden­ti­ty and dif­fer­ence ear­ly in life. As a young girl, I remem­ber teach­ers ask­ing me to decide my race – the choic­es being only black or white.  I recall being asked why I did­n’t go to church and being ques­tioned about my “strange” name. I remem­ber the first time I felt that sink­ing, anx­ious feel­ing in my stom­ach that I lat­er learned was fear – as


Jas­meet Kaur Sid­hu
Law & Pol­i­cy Con­sul­tant,

a man berat­ed my father for wear­ing a tur­ban while we ate din­ner at Piz­za Hut. I was so young that I was­n’t even sure how to artic­u­late all of the emo­tions I was feel­ing and the ques­tions that they aroused in me. As I grew old­er, how­ev­er, I want­ed to con­quer my fear – to be fear­less, to know my rights under the law, to under­stand how to edu­cate oth­ers about my Sikh iden­ti­ty, to cel­e­brate dif­fer­ences and to make a dif­fer­ence.

We always want to pro­tect the peo­ple we love – and usu­al­ly it is our par­ents who fear for our safe­ty, rather than vice ver­sa. Child­hood is sup­posed to be a time of inno­cence, a time to be shield­ed from the harsh real­i­ties of life. Chil­dren are not sup­posed to be wor­ried about the safe­ty of their sib­lings, par­ents, and com­mu­ni­ties, espe­cial­ly not on Sun­day. Not at a place of wor­ship and not in Amer­i­ca. But on August 5, 2012, young boys and girls ran for their lives, hid in small clos­ets, cried out for their par­ents and real­ized fear. Not just in Oak Creek, but all across Amer­i­ca, Sikh par­ents held their chil­dren a lit­tle tighter, and reas­sured them that they were safe against a back­drop of ter­ror in Wis­con­sin.

As a moth­er to two three-year old Sikh girls, I can­not remem­ber a more ter­ri­fy­ing feel­ing. As the news spread we all turned on our tele­vi­sions, des­per­ate for answers, for some rea­son for this kind of attack on a com­mu­ni­ty of peace. Did the gun­man say any­thing before he opened fire? Did he know any­one in the com­mu­ni­ty? Why would he car­ry out such an attack? Just as after New­town, Auro­ra and oth­er tragedies ear­li­er that same year, I felt a sense of help­less­ness and frus­tra­tion with the vio­lence, hatred and sense­less­ness that was becom­ing com­mon­place in our soci­ety.

In those moments, I did a lot of soul search­ing. I think we all did. As a par­ent, I had to think beyond myself. I had to ask, what do I want for my chil­dren? What kind of life do I want them to have? Do I want them to be afraid to go to school, to the movies, to reli­gious ser­vice? In Sikhism, there is a con­cept called Char­di Kala. It means resilience – main­tain­ing strength and spir­it – espe­cial­ly in the face of fear and pain. It is some­thing so intrin­sic to the fab­ric of our faith, that I can’t remem­ber a time when my par­ents did­n’t remind me of its val­ue. Peo­ple find strength in a lot of dif­fer­ent ways in the wake of being attacked. In the days fol­low­ing New­town, Auro­ra, Oak Creek, and most recent­ly the death of Trayvon Mar­tin, Amer­i­cans have strug­gled to make sense of sense­less acts of vio­lence. We have felt help­less when faced with unthink­able and unfore­seen tragedy.  But we are not help­less. We can make a dif­fer­ence mov­ing for­ward. We can chose to remain in Char­di Kala, to focus on how we can trans­form poli­cies and cre­ate last­ing change, to bring injus­tice to light and to unite, with­out fear but with deter­mi­na­tion to hon­or those who lost their lives.

The hate crime and exe­cu­tion of six Sikhs at the Oak Creek Gur­d­wara led to a Sen­ate hear­ing on hate vio­lence, just weeks after the inci­dent, and raised aware­ness of the rise in White Suprema­cy groups in the Unit­ed States. Ear­li­er this year, edu­ca­tion, com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing and advo­ca­cy efforts of civ­il rights and faith-based orga­ni­za­tions result­ed in the FBI adding Sikhs as a cat­e­go­ry in track­ing inci­dents of hate crimes. And just this week, the End Racial Pro­fil­ing Act was re-intro­duced in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, with hopes of erad­i­cat­ing the unjust and dehu­man­iz­ing effects of pro­fil­ing on minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties. Through all of the tragedies that brought us to our knees last year, the bonds of human com­pas­sion and the desire to be strong for our chil­dren and com­mu­ni­ties unit­ed us in a com­mon goal.

Before Oak Creek, Rob­bie Park­er may have nev­er known Pardeep Kale­ka – their paths would nev­er have crossed.  But on August 5th, Mr. Park­er – who lost his daugh­ter in the New­town Mas­sacre – will speak on the one-year anniver­sary of the Oak Creek Tem­ple Shoot­ing, at the Char­di Kala 6K Memo­r­i­al Walk. He will help peo­ple like Mr. Kale­ka  – who lost his father in the Oak Creek shoot­ing  – under­stand how to move for­ward in the face of tragedy. In this way a son will gain strength from a father and a father will be able to com­fort some­one else’s child. We will all be a lit­tle clos­er as Amer­i­cans, as sur­vivors and as advo­cates for a bet­ter tomor­row.

What do I want for my daugh­ters? I want them to be fear­less and deter­mined, to remain in Char­di Kala. I want them to remem­ber Paramjit Kaur, Sat­want Singh Kale­ka, Prakesh Singh, Sita Singh, Ran­jit Singh and Suveg Singh. And to hon­or their mem­o­ries by remain­ing res­olute in their right to be Sikhs, to be Amer­i­cans and to cre­ate change.

Jasmeet Kaur Sidhu
Law and Pol­i­cy Con­sul­tant
South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er, SAALT

Jas­meet Kaur Sid­hu is a Law and Pol­i­cy Con­sul­tant in SAALT’s Wash­ing­ton, DC office.  The cur­rent focus of Jasmeet’s work is immi­gra­tion reform and xenophobia/hate crimes in the Unit­ed States.  Jas­meet has an Mas­ters of Law (LLM) in Inter­na­tion­al Law and Legal Stud­ies with a focus on Human Rights Law.  She attend­ed law school at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na School of Law and obtained her under­grad­u­ate degree in polit­i­cal sci­ence and com­par­a­tive area stud­ies (Mid­dle East and North Africa) from Duke Uni­ver­si­ty. 

Before join­ing SAALT, Jas­meet had exten­sive expe­ri­ence in the pri­vate sec­tor and non-prof­it world.  Fol­low­ing law school, Jas­meet was a civ­il lit­i­ga­tor at the law firms of K&L Gates and Williams Mullen.  She then went on to join Alliance for Jus­tice (AFJ), where she was Senior Coun­sel and spear­head­ed AFJ’s Immi­grant Rights Ini­tia­tive.  Jas­meet was also a legal con­sul­tant with GLSEN (Gay, Les­bian & Straight Edu­ca­tion Net­work), work­ing on issues involv­ing bul­ly­ing and harass­ment of LGBTI stu­dents.  Most recent­ly, while obtain­ing her LLM, Jas­meet was a Vol­un­teer Attor­ney with the Refugee Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram at Human Rights First and a Legal Extern with the Child Traf­fick­ing Project at the Inter­na­tion­al Cen­tre for Miss­ing and Exploit­ed Chil­dren.