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 with 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.
Last August, I attended a vigil at a Gurdwara in Hayward, CA in memory of those killed at the shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. It was one of the worst hate crimes in recent memory and as a South Asian American, my heart felt heavy as I thought of the close knit families who would now have one less person at the dinner table, one less family member telling stories, one more person whose presence would be missed every day.
Yet my mourning ran deeper than this. I grew up as a Muslim American, but as one who did not have much experience with the Sikh community. This changed when I went to Rutgers University in New Jersey, a University and state with a very active Sikh community. As a student leader, I collaborated and became close friends with leaders from the RU Sikhs. I even shared an apartment with members of their national award winning Bhangra team, whose dhol practices drowned out my attempts to study college chemistry. I attended RU Sikh meetings, where I was taught the “5 k’s” or the 5 articles of faith that practicing Sikhs wear at all times. That’s where I received my first kara, a steel bracelet, which I still have and wear to this day.
My activism alongside the Sikh community didn’t begin until after college, when I became involved with groups like SAALT and the Sikh Coalition through my work with the South Asian Women’s organization, Manavi, in New Jersey. I advocated at the New Jersey capitol with leaders like Amardeep Singh, the Co-founder of the Sikh Coalition and activists like Tejpreet Kaur. My activism only expanded when I moved to the Bay Area. I became part of a groundbreaking co-hort of AMEMSA (Arab Middle Eastern Muslim South Asian African) groups that came together to work on issues relating to post 9/11 Anti-Muslim rhetoric. At our convenings we shared our deepest fears and hopes for our communities and worked together on how to address issues relating to civil rights and xenophobia.
When the news hit of the Oak Creek massacre, I felt as if my own community had been directly attacked. I am not Sikh, but years of friendship, activism and camaraderie deeply impacted the way I felt. This was not just one isolated situation, it was connected to years of attending panels and groups where young men spoke of getting beaten up and getting their turbans pulled off their heads in school, this was advocating with Sikh activists in Washington, DC and watching them, not me, get pulled over by Capitol police because someone had reported that they were “suspicious”. The attack came a year after two elderly Sikh men were shot and killed while taking a stroll in Sacramento. It came years, more than 10 YEARS after Sikhs were viciously attacked in the days after September 11. Yet somehow this was different, it was a culmination, it was religiously and racially motivated hate, it was everything my fellow activists and I worked to prevent.
As I made my way to the temple, I felt a strange mix of feelings. I knew that the community would come together in hope and forgiveness. And it did, beyond my expectations. The Gurdwara was filled with people from many different backgrounds that day, white people, brown people, Muslims, Christians, and Hindus. They had come out to support this community.
That evening in Hayward, as I stood watching all of those flames lighting up the night, I felt unified with not only everyone there, but with the Sikh communities who were holding similar vigils throughout the country, to my friends back in New Jersey, and to all of my activist friends throughout the country who felt the same sense of lost and frustration. I felt connected to them all. My experiences, activism and love for my friends brought me to that moment, and I believe that the memory of Oak Creek has only brought us closer together as we continue our efforts to end xenophobia against our communities.
S. Nadia Hussain
South Asian Political Blogger
S. Nadia Hussain is an activist, writer and poet who has worked on social justice issues impacting South Asian communities for years. She currently works as an advocate for marginalized API communities in the Bay Area. She also serves on the board of NAPAWF (National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum), the board of the California Democratic Party’s API Caucus and is a political blogger for Hyphen magazine.