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.
“It’s like we’re a walking hate-crime waiting to happen!” exclaimed my hijab-wearing friend as she walked alongside our Sikh classmate and me. At the time, I mustered a nervous laugh, but as I reflect on the Oak Creek Massacre, I am disturbed that we are able to laugh off how commonplace hate crimes directed towards our South Asian and Muslim community are.
Since the September 11th terrorist attacks claimed thousands of American lives 12 years ago, xenophobia and Islamophobia have permeated this country. Intrinsically linked to the September 11th attacks are the hate crimes which manifest this bigotry. Twelve months ago, six Sikh Americans were gunned down by a U.S. Army veteran while worshipping at the gurdwara.
This tragic result of gun violence isn’t exclusive to members of our community, either. Just last year, unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin was shot down in his own neighborhood by a racist vigilante. Trayvon’s murderer defended his actions because Trayvon donned ‘suspicious clothes.’ Akin to Trayvon’s hoodie, a pagh (turban) is considered ‘suspicious’ not only at the airport, but also at workplaces and schools, where adults and children alike face discrimination and harassment.
Beyond enduring the occasional bullying, many Sikhs learn to look over their shoulder while waiting for the subway, driving taxicabs, or worshipping at the gurdwara. This is because the profiling of our community has proven to be deadly.
I applaud the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s decision to begin tracking hate crimes of not only Muslims, but also Hindus, Sikhs, and Arabs, who are an indelible part of the American fabric. However, for every step forward, there has been a step backwards.
Recently, the FBI launched a “Faces of Global Terrorism” campaign which featured 16 photos of Muslim terrorists plastered on busses. The tagline sandwiched between these faces read “Stop a Terrorist. Save Lives.” While the busses whizzed around Washington state, the only message being sent to passersby is that the face of global terrorism is brown and bearded.
It is my heartbreaking suspicion that the six Sikh American victims of the Oak Creek Massacre will not be the last. Not until a critical dialogue about race relations is established and maintained. After the Oak Creek Massacre, media attention turned to focus on the fact that the six victims were not Muslim. Disturbing rhetoric surrounding this subtly suggested that hate crime violence against the Muslim community would be somehow warranted.
Anti-Muslim sentiment is so widespread that we have come to apply our country’s founding principle of religious freedom selectively. While acts of violence against Muslims are not explicitly excused, they are expected, and this issue has not been sufficiently addressed. Rather than stressing the inherent differences between Sikhism and Islam, commentators must address the fact that backlash against any religious group is unacceptable and unjust.
During such difficult times, I find solace in the fact that the South Asian and Muslim community recognize that religious hostility and hate crime violence directed at any faction of our population endangers the well being of our entire community. More than ever, we realize how imperative it is that we stand as one, indivisible despite outside pressure. Moreover, the civil liberties of all Americans are compromised when the justice and freedom of one group are challenged.
As I send my thoughts and prayers to those taken from us at Oak Creek and their families, I am reminded of the words etched on a plaque outside that very gurdwara in Wisconsin: We Are One.
University of Florida
Priya Kamath is a rising junior at the University of Florida, where she is studying Economics and Public Health. Aspiring to bridge the gap between the corporate sector and human rights, she hopes to work reducing health disparities among LGBTQ youth. Priya has a passion for expanding civil rights and elevating the voices of minorities through public policy and law, and hopes to pursue an MPP/JD after graduation. This summer, Priya served as a communications intern at the U.S. Department of Labor.