Reflections on Oak Creek: We Are One

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.

priya kamath

Priya Kamath
Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da

“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.

Priya Kamath
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.