Remember Oak Creek — Sikhs are here to stay

By Jo Kaur

For many of our com­mu­ni­ties, liv­ing in Amer­i­ca is more dan­ger­ous today than it was in 2012. This is a solemn fact that we must con­tend with as we com­mem­o­rate the five-year anniver­sary of the Oak Creek mass shoot­ing. Not only is dis­crim­i­na­tion ris­ing across the coun­try, but the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is no longer a reli­able part­ner in enforc­ing civ­il rights laws, reduc­ing hate vio­lence, and/or tar­get­ing domes­tic ter­ror­ism.

The rise of Don­ald Trump and the fuel­ing of white nation­al­ism across the nation has placed our fam­i­lies in more dan­ger. The seeds of hatred that grew in the heart of the Oak Creek killer, who iden­ti­fied with white suprema­cist and neo-Nazi ide­olo­gies, are con­nect­ed to the divi­sive­ness and rise of hate groups that we see today. It’s still shock­ing to accept that a fel­low Amer­i­can was hate­ful enough to march into a Sikh gur­d­wara — on a peace­ful Sun­day morn­ing — with the sin­gu­lar pur­pose of killing as many moth­ers, fathers, and grand­fa­thers that he could find. Our aun­ties, uncles, our baba jis.

Make no mis­take – Sikhs were tar­get­ed and killed because of our brown skin, our reli­gious head­wear, and most notably the grow­ing and vir­u­lent forms of insti­tu­tion­al racism that have defined Amer­i­ca. The con­stant dehu­man­iza­tion of brown-skinned peo­ple with reli­gious head­wear, the degra­da­tion of actu­al or per­ceived Mus­lims by our politi­cians, the media, and Amer­i­can soci­ety at large has con­tributed to the onslaught of hate vio­lence and dis­crim­i­na­tion that occurred in Oak Creek and that we see unfold in the Trump era.

What can indi­vid­u­als do? We should look toward the Oak Creek com­mu­ni­ty. I will nev­er for­get a con­ver­sa­tion that I had with an Oak Creek police offi­cer after the shoot­ing. He told me that when the Oak Creek gur­d­wara first opened its doors, their non-Sikh neigh­bors were a lit­tle wary. Who were these brown peo­ple with tur­bans and col­or­ful out­fits? Where were they from? What was their deal? Stereo­types, with­out con­ver­sa­tion or con­nec­tion, were made. The offi­cer felt ashamed that it took a hor­rif­ic act of domes­tic ter­ror­ism to con­nect with such a beau­ti­ful com­mu­ni­ty. Now he vis­its the gur­d­wara week­ly to have cha (tea) with his Sikh neigh­bors. Indeed, the rela­tion­ship between Sikhs and non-Sikhs in Oak Creek has been an inspir­ing, heart­warm­ing sto­ry of neigh­bor­ly love. But the offi­cer is right – it shouldn’t take mass tragedies for us to con­nect with our neigh­bors who may look dif­fer­ent from us.

If some­one does­n’t know your “deal,” it’s much eas­i­er to dehu­man­ize you and your peo­ple, make harm­ful stereo­types and assump­tions, and cast you as a vil­lain and ene­my of the state. But it’s not the sole respon­si­bil­i­ty of Sikhs or demo­nized com­mu­ni­ties to make you com­fort­able with us and to help you rec­og­nize our human­i­ty. To assuage your con­cerns. The heavy lift­ing of aware­ness work must be shared by our allies and part­ners.

Whether we like it or not, Amer­i­ca is a plu­ral­is­tic, mul­ti­cul­tur­al soci­ety. Peo­ple of all races, reli­gions, nation­al­i­ties and back­grounds live here. That’s a beau­ti­ful thing. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, our politi­cians gov­ern as if only the white non-His­pan­ic major­i­ty mat­ters. It is indeed rare to find rep­re­sen­ta­tion at fed­er­al, state, or local lev­els invest­ed in gov­ern­ing all peo­ple and con­sid­er­ing how state­ments and poli­cies impact our var­ied inter­ests. With­out lead­ers mak­ing active and reg­u­lar efforts to infuse anti-racism and anti-Islam­o­pho­bia edu­ca­tion and poli­cies into our nation­al con­ver­sa­tion and pol­i­tics, big­otry will con­tin­ue to spi­ral out of con­trol.

While the Trump admin­is­tra­tion con­tin­ues to per­pet­u­ate its dai­ly agen­da of mak­ing Amer­i­ca unsafe and unwel­come for reli­gious minori­ties, peo­ple of col­or, peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, and LGBT folks, the seeds of hatred in Amer­i­ca con­tin­ue to grow and more peo­ple will become embold­ened to com­mit hate vio­lence. As for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore recent­ly shared with media out­lets, the work to reduce cli­mate change will go on with or with­out Pres­i­dent Trump, and regard­less of our with­draw­al from the Paris Agree­ment. And so too must the work to end hate vio­lence and big­otry in our soci­ety.

It’s up to us now. Togeth­er, we have accom­plished quite a bit since Jan­u­ary and we must con­tin­ue to fire up the ener­gy and wis­dom that we need for the long-term fight. As we com­mem­o­rate Oak Creek, let us be hum­ble; let us reflect and think about the voic­es we are leav­ing out of the con­ver­sa­tion. Let us reflect and think about the voic­es we need at the table and/or build a larg­er table. Let us con­tin­ue to see the best in oth­ers and to show up for our fel­low com­mu­ni­ties, whether to com­bat hate vio­lence or police bru­tal­i­ty. It’s not easy work, but the pur­suit of love and jus­tice nev­er has been and nev­er will be.

We owe our best ener­gy, love and com­mit­ment to the beau­ti­ful souls that we lost that day on August 5, 2012: Paramjit Kaur Sai­ni, Suveg Singh Khat­tra, Ran­jit Singh, Kat­want Singh Kale­ka, Prakash Singh, and Sita Singh. We owe our fiercest ener­gy and our pas­sion to Baba Pun­jab Singh, who remains par­a­lyzed fol­low­ing the shoot­ing and can com­mu­ni­cate only by blink­ing his eyes.  The Oak Creek Sikh com­mu­ni­ty is resilient and pow­er­ful and a bea­con of light for all of us. The glob­al Sikh com­mu­ni­ty – the descen­dants of Guru Nanak Ji, of Guru Gob­ind Singh Ji, con­tin­ue to wear our arti­cles of faith with humil­i­ty and to live out our pur­pose – to see the divin­i­ty of all, to see our ene­my as our sister/brother, to fight oppres­sion and demand uni­ver­sal equal­i­ty for all peo­ple. As Sapreet Kaur, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Sikh Coali­tion said of the Sikh com­mu­ni­ty, “Amer­i­ca is our home, and we are here to stay.”

Sikhs are here to stay, and ready to play an active role in the sto­ry, direc­tion and des­tiny of Amer­i­ca.

Gurjot “Jo” Kaur is a civ­il rights attor­ney based in New York City. Jo worked as a Senior Staff Attor­ney at the Sikh Coali­tion, the largest Sikh civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tion in the U.S. and pro­vid­ed legal and advo­ca­cy sup­port to Oak Creek sur­vivors and their fam­i­lies. Fol­low­ing the shoot­ing, Jo also rep­re­sent­ed Harpreet Singh Sai­ni, the first Sikh Amer­i­can to tes­ti­fy before the U.S. Sen­ate in a hear­ing on hate crimes and domes­tic extrem­ism.