Reflections on Oak Creek: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

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.

Tanzila Ahmed Activist, Organizer, Writer

Tanzi­la Ahmed
Activist, Orga­niz­er, Writer

Sound­track to lis­ten to while read­ing post:

The teenage Desi youth were sprawled and scat­tered around the com­mon room with wall­pa­pered ros­es and yel­low light from the dusty chan­de­liers. It was dark out­side and the Bay Area chill was seep­ing through the cracks of the old Vic­to­ri­an bed and break­fast. The youth were enrapt, despite the late­ness, despite how much knowl­edge we had tried to pack into their brains that day. When the sun set ear­li­er, we had stood in a cir­cle – youth par­tic­i­pants and core orga­niz­ers alike- and a box of dates had been passed around. Some youth were fast­ing for Ramadan but most were South Asian youth of var­ied oth­er reli­gious back­grounds, not fast­ing. When the aza­an on the iPhone app began soar­ing, we all said qui­et self-reflec­tions and broke our fast with that date, togeth­er and in solidarity.

That was how we began our Islam­o­pho­bia Work­shop at Bay Area Solidarity Summer ( a cou­ple of Fri­day nights ago. We began in solidarity.

The 15 Desi youth at our five-day camp were young, rang­ing from 15 to 20 years old, but they were fierce. We had begun our camp that Thurs­day with sto­ries of lega­cies. We lit­er­al­ly walked the youth through the his­to­ry of jus­tice fight­ing that belongs to the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty in Amer­i­ca. We talked about the Belling­ham Race Riots in 1907, to the Koma­ga­ta Maru being turned away from Cana­di­an shores in 1914, to the for­ma­tion of the Ghadar par­ty in San Fran­cis­co in 1913. We talked about Kar­tar Dhillon, Tin­ku Ish­ti­aq, Pre­rna Lal, and Amit Gup­ta. We talked about how the Beats for Bangladesh album in 2013 built on the lega­cy of George Harrison’s Con­cert for Bangladesh in 1971, how the sev­en South Asian con­gres­sion­al can­di­dates who ran in 2010 built on the lega­cy of the first Sikh and Indi­an Con­gress­man Dalip Singh Saund in 1957, how the Pun­jabi poet­ry on the walls of Angel Island was con­nect­ed to the The Bridges pub­li­ca­tion out of UC Berke­ley in the 70’s, and how the Asian Exclu­sion Act (1924), Luce-Celler Act (1946), and Dream Act were all related.

I took a deep breath as I looked around the youth sprawled in the dim­ly lit room. They rep­re­sent­ed the next gen­er­a­tion of the pro­gres­sive move­ment for the South Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty. As a Mus­lim South Asian Amer­i­can activist myself, I was per­son­al­ly invest­ed in devel­op­ing Desi youth lead­ers who would be capa­ble of speak­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty on Mus­lim issues in addi­tion to mul­ti­ple oth­ers affect­ing the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty. I need­ed an activist com­mu­ni­ty that under­stood the impor­tance of South Asian sol­i­dar­i­ty. That we had unit­ed strug­gles. That it was ben­e­fi­cial to fight social injus­tices togeth­er. That hate-crimes and pro­fil­ing lumped us all togeth­er into a col­lec­tive Brown. But you can’t teach youth sol­i­dar­i­ty – you can only teach them issues and cre­ate safe spaces for dia­logue. The sol­i­dar­i­ty, you hope, comes after.

We walked the youth through images of Aladdin on a car­pet, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma in a tur­ban, a woman caged in a hijab. We walked through con­cepts of racial­iza­tion, oth­er­iz­ing, mar­gin­al­iza­tion, and exo­ti­fi­ca­tion. We talked about sys­tems of oppres­sion, liv­ing in a sur­veil­lance state, the rash of hate crimes at mosques and the $42 mil­lion dol­lar islam­o­pho­bia indus­try fund­ed by only sev­en foun­da­tions. We showed videos of Aasif Mand­vi as Bill Cos­by, of a hijabi flash­mob at Lowes, and of Con­gress­man Kei­th Ellison’s tear­ful 9/11 tes­ti­mo­ny at the King Hearings.

And I was ner­vous. Because last year when I had walked through these issues with the BASS youth, they didn’t quite get it. Their eyes glazed over when I talked about 9/11, in that way that kids’ eyes tend to glaze over when hear­ing again a sto­ry from when they were five. And one youth pushed back, say­ing that even though he had Mus­lim friends, he was Hin­du, and he didn’t have to deal with these issues when he was home. I felt like I had failed as a trainer.

That very next morn­ing last year, on August 5, 2012, as the youth were out on a rad­i­cal walk­ing tour, that the BASS orga­niz­ers got word of the shock­ing and trag­ic shoot­ings in Oak Creek. Hov­er­ing over the lap­tops, we obses­sive­ly clicked refresh on our inter­net feeds. And when the youth came back, I gen­tly broke to them what had hap­pened. How do you empow­er youth when the real life news out there is telling them to be afraid? Be afraid because your skin is brown, because your moth­er tongue is dif­fer­ent, or your reli­gion makes you a tar­get of peo­ple shoot­ing guns, even – or espe­cial­ly – where you pray? Be afraid because gun rights are a joke where firearms are acces­si­ble to white suprema­cist but if you even google guns, you risk being brand­ed as a ter­ror­ist?  Be afraid because white sys­tems of oppres­sion still rule? I didn’t say any of that. Instead I asked for the youth to be still, reflect, and have a moment of silence.

As I looked at every­one sit­ting on the floor that morn­ing last year, I knew that they got it. It was a poignant and trag­ic teach­able moment. A hor­rif­ic, per­fect­ly timed, teach­able moment on why we need to build sol­i­dar­i­ty, as South Asians and as humankind.

It was that teach­able moment I was think­ing about as I looked at this year’s BASS 2013 class. It had been a year since the Oak Creek shoot­ing. It had been a year since the vig­i­lante stream of attacks on mosques dur­ing last year’s Ramadan. What had start­ed as post‑9/11 back­lash ten years ago has mor­phed into a mon­ster of con­stant fear direct­ed at the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty. As a com­mu­ni­ty, we were on the defen­sive, always it seemed. But beau­ty has come out of it, too – a vibrant, lush activist com­mu­ni­ty in sol­i­dar­i­ty that uses tools of love, arts, com­mu­ni­ty, and pol­i­tics to com­bat and resist.

As I looked in the eyes of each of our youth par­tic­i­pants dur­ing our clos­ing cir­cle, I saw a fire I hadn’t seen there before. They weren’t fear­ful. Their pas­sion was ignit­ed and they all felt loved and empow­ered. They were equipped with the tools and knowl­edge they need­ed to com­bat and resist in this world, but to do it in ways that hon­or love and com­mu­ni­ty, that give life to hope. And that was when I knew they’d got­ten it: what it means to live and act in solidarity.

Tanzila Ahmed
Activist, Orga­niz­er, Writer

Tanzi­la “Taz” Ahmed is an activist, sto­ry­teller, and politi­co based in Los Ange­les cur­rent­ly work­ing as the Vot­er Engage­ment Man­ag­er at Asian Amer­i­cans Advanc­ing Jus­tice — Los Ange­les. She has been a long-time writer for, and her writ­ing can most recent­ly be found in the anthol­o­gy Love, Inshal­lah: The Secret Love Lives of Amer­i­can Mus­lim Women. You can find her online at Muti­nous Mind­state and Say What? as well as at the music site Mishthi Music where she just co-pro­duced Beats for Bangladesh: A Ben­e­fit Album in Sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Gar­ment Work­ers of Rana PlazaFol­low her on twit­ter @tazzystar.