Remember Oak Creek: Organizing through Grief and Pain

By Deepa Iyer

I vis­it­ed Oak Creek, Wis­con­sin, for the first time in August of 2012 to attend the memo­r­i­al ser­vice for the vic­tims of the mas­sacre at the Sikh Tem­ple of Wis­con­sin. At the time, I was the direc­tor of South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er (SAALT), and I trav­eled to Oak Creek to make a per­son­al com­mit­ment that our orga­ni­za­tion would stand in sup­port of rapid response efforts on the ground and advo­ca­cy around end­ing hate vio­lence at the nation­al lev­el. I joined hun­dreds of peo­ple to remem­ber and hon­or the lives of Suveg Singh Khat­tra, Sat­want Singh Kale­ka, Ran­jit Singh, Sita Singh, Paramjit Kaur, and Prakash Singh, and to send our sup­port to Baba Pun­jab Singh who was severe­ly wound­ed and who still remains in a coma.

Since that day in 2012, I have been back to Oak Creek many times thanks to the open­ness of the com­mu­ni­ty there. They have wel­comed me — a com­plete stranger and a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion (both jus­ti­fi­able rea­sons for wari­ness) — into their town and their gur­d­wara dur­ing the anniver­saries every August and in between.  Our con­ver­sa­tions in homes, over lan­gar at the gur­d­wara, and on trips to the air­port, have helped me to under­stand how this com­mu­ni­ty of sur­vivors and first respon­ders mus­tered the courage to respond to hate vio­lence. They chan­neled and processed their grief and pain into com­mu­ni­ty build­ing. Five years lat­er, they con­tin­ue to build bridges, to care for sur­vivors left behind, and to express sol­i­dar­i­ty with oth­er vic­tims of vio­lence around the nation.

As I reflect on Oak Creek on this five-year anniver­sary, so many feel­ings and images come to mind.

I remem­ber the peo­ple we lost. I didn’t know Paramjit Kaur but Kamal, her son, has shared many sto­ries about her. Once, Kamal recount­ed a sto­ry about his mother’s efforts to find a job. “She used to be a house­wife for a few years after we moved here because she had a prob­lem with Eng­lish,” he told me. “It’s fun­ny how she got the job because she had to do a phone inter­view. She was afraid they would call while we were in school and she wouldn’t under­stand what they were say­ing. So it hap­pened to be that the day she got the call, I was home.… She put it on speak­er and they kept ask­ing her ques­tions and I kept trans­lat­ing for her.” With Kamal’s assis­tance, Paramjit passed the inter­view hand­i­ly and start­ed her job as an inspec­tor at the med­ical fac­to­ry. That is part of Paramjit’s sto­ry – an immi­grant moth­er in a work­ing class com­mu­ni­ty who strug­gled with Eng­lish but who was deter­mined to care for her sons.

My reflec­tions on Oak Creek five years lat­er are also ground­ed in the phys­i­cal pres­ence of the Sikh Tem­ple of Wis­con­sin. There is the bul­let hole that has been pre­served in one of the doors lead­ing to the prayer hall. There is the con­ver­sa­tion that I had with a man days after the mas­sacre who told me that he and sev­er­al oth­ers were car­ry­ing their own guns now to pro­tect the gur­d­wara. There is the pres­ence of secu­ri­ty cam­eras and bul­let-proof win­dows in the phys­i­cal struc­ture.

The gur­d­wara stands as a reminder that South Asian places of wor­ship – envi­sioned, fund­ed, and sup­port­ed by our par­ents, uncles and aun­ties – are now vul­ner­a­ble to vio­lence and harm. It stands as a mark­er of the impact of white suprema­cy on South Asians in Amer­i­ca, much like how the 16th Street Bap­tist Church and the Moth­er Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Car­oli­na rep­re­sent the effects of anti-Black racism.  It stands as a trib­ute to the Sikh val­ue of chard­hi kala — resilience and opti­mism in the face of adver­si­ty.

Reflect­ing on Oak Creek also means learn­ing from the com­mu­ni­ty of sur­vivors and first respon­ders. In the months after the mas­sacre, Harpreet Sai­ni tes­ti­fied in Con­gress about his mother’s hopes. He said: “[A]s a hard-work­ing immi­grant, she had to work long hours to feed her fam­i­ly, to get her sons edu­cat­ed, and help us achieve our Amer­i­can dreams. This was more impor­tant to her than any­thing else… But now she is gone. Because of a man who hat­ed her because she wasn’t his col­or? His reli­gion?” His tes­ti­mo­ny and the efforts of orga­ni­za­tions in Oak Creek and beyond led to the FBI’s deci­sion to add new cat­e­gories, includ­ing Sikh and Hin­du, to iden­ti­fy vic­tims of hate crimes.

Pardeep Kale­ka who lost his father began an orga­ni­za­tion called Serve 2 Unite that runs pro­grams about inclu­sion. Man­deep Kaur has worked with a group of vol­un­teers includ­ing Navi Gill, Rahul Dubey and many oth­ers to orga­nize a 6K walk/run com­mem­o­ra­tion event each year to bring the com­mu­ni­ty togeth­er, hon­or the vic­tims, and pro­vide stu­dent schol­ar­ships. Com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers con­tin­ue to take care of the younger chil­dren who lost par­ents in the mas­sacre. The may­or of Oak Creek at the time of the mas­sacre, Steve Scaf­fi­di, has writ­ten a book with tips on how cities can pre­pare for and respond to hate vio­lence. And in the after­math of the mur­der of nine peo­ple at the AME “Moth­er Emanuel” Church in Charleston, South Car­oli­na in 2015, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers orga­nized a sol­i­dar­i­ty event at the gur­d­wara.

This week­end, let us remem­ber Oak Creek and all that it stands for, five years lat­er. At the same time, let’s recom­mit our­selves to jus­tice because hate vio­lence con­tin­ues to affect South Asians and oth­er com­mu­ni­ties. Here are some ways you can get involved:

*This week­end, vis­it your local gur­d­wara to be in com­mu­ni­ty, and send a dona­tion to sup­port the Chard­hi Kala 6K in Oak Creek
*Hold a dis­cus­sion on your cam­pus or your place of wor­ship about hate vio­lence tar­get­ing peo­ple of col­or, faith-based com­mu­ni­ties, queer and trans com­mu­ni­ties, and immi­grants
*Report and doc­u­ment hate and big­otry
*Work with your own place of wor­ship to build pre­ven­ta­tive and rapid response plans to deal with hate vio­lence
*Write a let­ter to the edi­tor of your local news­pa­per about the impor­tance of build­ing wel­com­ing and inclu­sive com­mu­ni­ties for com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, immi­grants and refugees
*Raise your voice against the cur­rent cli­mate of hate that leads to bans, walls, and raids

Deepa Iyer is the for­mer exec­u­tive direc­tor of SAALT. Her book, We Too Sing Amer­i­ca: South Asian, Arab, Mus­lim and Sikh Immi­grants Shape Our Mul­tira­cial Future, con­tains a chap­ter on the Oak Creek com­mu­ni­ty. Learn more about Deepa’s work at www.deepaiyer.com and @dviyer on Twit­ter.