Reflections on Oak Creek: Activism Starts At Home, Combating Hate in the Midwest

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.

Ami Gandhi

Ami Gand­hi
Exec­u­tive Direc­tor,

Reflect­ing one year lat­er on the vio­lent attacks on Sikh and Mus­lim insti­tu­tions in the Mid­west, I am inspired by com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers who speak out against injus­tice not only in pub­lic venues but also at their reli­gious insti­tu­tions, work­places, and din­ner tables. These indi­vid­u­als might not label them­selves as “activists,” but their activism in every­day life is cru­cial to com­bat­ing hate – not only hate from white suprema­cists but also from mem­bers of our own community.

The Chica­go area has been an impor­tant site for anti-hate efforts over the past year. The Chica­go City Coun­cil and Illi­nois House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives each passed anti-hate res­o­lu­tions, denounc­ing hate crimes and hate­ful polit­i­cal rhetoric. The Chicagoland Inter-Reli­gious Rapid Response Net­work strength­ened rela­tion­ships between lead­ers of dif­fer­ent faiths. But just as much as we need stronger laws and pro­grams to com­bat hate, we also need infor­mal dia­logue about tol­er­ance and inclusion.

Every day, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers leave their com­fort zones and extend a hand to some­one out­side their known cir­cle. Imme­di­ate­ly after the trag­ic shoot­ing in Oak Creek, many Sikhs in Wis­con­sin and beyond had the courage to say that vio­lence in any form should be con­demned, rather than just dis­tanc­ing them­selves from Mus­lims. In my home­town of Fort Wayne, Indi­ana, my dad and over 50 oth­ers from the town’s Hin­du and Jain com­mu­ni­ties stood in sol­i­dar­i­ty and prayed with mem­bers of the local gur­d­waras. In Chica­go, Lakhwant Singh Komal made his­to­ry by shar­ing a Sikh invo­ca­tion at the begin­ning of a city coun­cil meeting.

Every day, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers share their per­son­al sto­ries so that we can bold­ly face past prob­lems and work towards solu­tions for the future. When intro­duc­ing Chicago’s anti-hate res­o­lu­tion, Alder­man Ameya Pawar talked to his fel­low city coun­cil mem­bers about the “oth­er­ness” felt by South Asian Amer­i­cans, shar­ing the exam­ple of when he was the tar­get of prej­u­diced com­ments at a Chica­go Cubs game soon after the trag­ic events of 9/11. Chica­go actor Usman Ally also turned a painful expe­ri­ence into an inspi­ra­tional mes­sage. After fac­ing sus­pi­cion on the train fol­low­ing the Boston Marathon tragedy, Usman poignant­ly explained that silence can inad­ver­tent­ly fur­ther prej­u­dice, and he urged us to sim­ply speak up when we see injustice.

Sin­gle voic­es speak­ing out against injus­tice can be espe­cial­ly pow­er­ful when they come togeth­er in large num­bers. Blog­gers expressed out­rage and mobi­lized the com­mu­ni­ty to do the same when the Chica­go Tribune’s Red­Eye news­pa­per pub­lished an inflam­ma­to­ry “tur­ban primer,” which per­pet­u­at­ed harm­ful stereo­types and pro­fil­ing. Res­i­dents of the 8th Con­gres­sion­al dis­trict, the dis­trict in Illi­nois with the high­est den­si­ty of South Asian Amer­i­cans, vot­ed incum­bent Joe Walsh out of office after his remarks on the dan­ger posed by Muslims.

Regard­less of our age, pro­fes­sion, or polit­i­cal beliefs, we each can com­bat intol­er­ance in our every­day lives.  We can have real con­ver­sa­tions with our fam­i­ly and friends about our prej­u­dices, fears, and scars from com­mu­nal divides.  We can speak out against hate­ful e‑mail for­wards and social media posts.  We can attend a reli­gious event host­ed by some­one from anoth­er faith.  We can focus on our com­mon ground with oth­er vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties, instead of pit­ting our­selves against each oth­er.  We can voice our opin­ion at the polls.

The South Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty has tremen­dous poten­tial.  And com­bat­ing hate in our own back­yards is a ripe oppor­tu­ni­ty for progress.

Ami Gandhi
Exec­u­tive Director
South Asian Amer­i­can Pol­i­cy & Research Insti­tute (SAAPRI)

Ami Gand­hi is the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of South Asian Amer­i­can Pol­i­cy & Research Insti­tute (SAAPRI). SAAPRI is a non-prof­it, non-par­ti­san orga­ni­za­tion estab­lished in 2001 to improve the lives of South Asian Amer­i­cans in the Chica­go area, by using research to for­mu­late equi­table and social­ly respon­si­ble pub­lic pol­i­cy rec­om­men­da­tions. Ami is an attor­ney who is pas­sion­ate about serv­ing the South Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty and has sig­nif­i­cant expe­ri­ence advo­cat­ing for minori­ties and immigrants