Reflections on Oak Creek: In The Name of Progress

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.

Joya's blogTheir 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.

Joya Ahmad

Joya Ahmad
Stu­dent,
Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty

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.
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Joya Ahmad
Stu­dent
Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty

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.