Remember Oak Creek — Time is not a neutral force

By Jah­navi Jagan­nath

This sum­mer, we stood at a vig­il for Nabra Has­sa­nen, a 17-year old Mus­lim Amer­i­can girl bru­tal­ly mur­dered near her local mosque. Two years ago, we mourned in pews of a church, shak­en by the mur­der of eight Methodist African Amer­i­cans in their AME church. Five years ago, we prayed and loved and came togeth­er in the after­math of the Oak Creek mas­sacre, when a neo-Nazi white suprema­cist mur­dered six Sikh Amer­i­cans in their gur­d­wara in Oak Creek, Wis­con­sin. Today, we must stand togeth­er again.

At Nabra’s vig­il, a woman stepped up to the podi­um and read a poem describ­ing a time in which we stood up. She spoke about intol­er­ance, hatred based on race and reli­gion. She called us to look, to open our eyes—and to act upon what we saw. She fin­ished the poem, closed the note­book, and said, “I wrote this poem four years ago. I didn’t want it to still be true today, but here I am. And here it is.”

When the Oak Creek tragedy hap­pened, I read about it, briefly dis­cussed it, and let it fade back into the news. It got swal­lowed in the 24-hour news cycle for most of my peers and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers; our Hin­du com­mu­ni­ty didn’t care beyond a mut­tered con­do­lence because “we don’t wear tur­bans.” Our white sub­ur­ban news sources men­tioned the shoot­ing and glossed over the fact that it was moti­vat­ed by hate. I found myself out of touch with a South Asian iden­ti­ty; rather, I was Indi­an, I was Hin­du, I dis­tanced myself rather than stand­ing with. At the time of the shoot­ing, women in the Sikh Tem­ple of Wis­con­sin were cook­ing Lan­gar, the com­mu­nal meal eat­en after prayer. That same day, we fin­ished our bha­jans and shared a meal, with­out men­tion of the mur­ders hap­pen­ing halfway across the coun­try.

The dis­tanc­ing of iden­ti­ty was baked into me as I grew up. “Put on a bin­di, you look Mus­lim with­out one.” “It’s fine that we get pulled aside at air­ports. They’re just being care­ful.” “You should mar­ry who­ev­er you want, except a Mus­lim.” The well-mean­ing peo­ple who built this into me as I was a child were the same peo­ple who were infu­ri­at­ed when Srini­vas Kuchib­hot­la and Alok Madasani were shot—but they hold the same bias­es against Mus­lims that moti­vat­ed the mur­der in the first place. I didn’t know how to explain—it’s not that “we” look like “them.” It’s that there IS no “us” and “them. There can’t be.”

I find no way to accept the apa­thy we showed in the time of the Oak Creek tragedy, but now have found a stronger base of a South Asian iden­ti­ty that stands in sol­i­dar­i­ty and not sep­a­ra­tion. Today, we remem­ber Paramjit Kaur, Sat­want Singh Kale­ka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ran­jit Singh, and Suveg Singh, broth­ers and fathers, a moth­er and wife, peo­ple who loved music and prayer and the out­doors. We remem­ber Pun­jab Singh, a vis­it­ing Sikh priest and teacher who has been par­a­lyzed since the shoot­ing. The Sikh com­mu­ni­ty in Oak Creek has always been one of open doors and sup­port, but has reached its roots broad­er and deep­er into the larg­er com­mu­ni­ty since the shoot­ing. Over time, peo­ple who have been most deeply and per­son­al­ly impact­ed have gone on to pur­sue lives of help­ing oth­ers and liv­ing ful­ly, embody­ing the spir­it of the Sikh prin­ci­ple “Char­di Kala”—relent­less opti­mism in the face of adver­si­ty.

I have drawn inspi­ra­tion from this, try­ing to weave it into my life. I remind myself that opti­mism is essen­tial for move­ment. Time is not a neutral force. I find myself con­stant­ly at a trem­bling bal­ance of inspi­ra­tion and des­per­a­tion, hope and despair, think­ing about the poten­tial I have and the poten­tial we as a com­mu­ni­ty have, to make change. We move through time, and as long as hate is born and reborn into our soci­eties, our poems about pain and intol­er­ance and loss will stay rel­e­vant. Time is not a neu­tral force. Thus, we will keep track­ing acts of hate, lob­by­ing to con­gres­sion­al offices, hold­ing each oth­er up as com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers as we try to make changes in all the ways we do. Every minute we spend in work­ing for a bet­ter world, with less igno­rance and less fear and more acceptance—those min­utes are not in vain.

At times, this is a para­dox. I think about the fact that these friend­ships, coali­tions, part­ner­ships exist. I think of col­lab­o­ra­tive art and of com­mu­ni­ty account­abil­i­ty and the unbear­able gid­di­ness that comes as one freely exists in this world. Though these can be achieved, though we have enough food to share and water to dis­trib­ute and kind­ness to give uni­ver­sal­ly, we choose not to. I feel an ache that we have cho­sen fear and hatred as our tools, build­ing soci­etal struc­ture that intrin­si­cal­ly denies equal­i­ty and joy. The poem of the brave woman who spoke at Nabra’s vig­il will stay rel­e­vant until we stop choos­ing hate. Orga­niz­ers and com­mu­ni­ty move­ments didn’t just hap­pen: they take work. It is our respon­si­bil­i­ty to do this work, to cre­ate a world in which her poem will be about the past, and not about the present.

This is a large call to action. The tremen­dous opti­mism and despair and the col­li­sion this caus­es in my head at times becomes too much—at those times, I find com­fort in this:

“We have the resources at our dis­pos­al to cre­ate a non­vi­o­lent world, a world in which all peo­ple are ade­quate­ly fed and clothed and housed and edu­cat­ed and val­ued. These are not insol­u­ble prob­lems, and this is not an impos­si­ble dream. It’s a dream worth dream­ing, although the improb­a­bil­i­ty of this attain­ment will like­ly break your heart time and time again. Just as such a dream is worth dream­ing, such a life is worth liv­ing. A life lived in pur­suit of non­vi­o­lence, of jus­tice, and of equal­i­ty. It will be a life of aching, suf­fer­ing, dis­ap­point­ment, and sad­ness. It will be a ful­fill­ing life, too, though—a life of com­pas­sion, and truth and beau­ty and mag­nif­i­cence and won­der­ment and love. And the very act of liv­ing such a life will give you the strength to with­stand its mul­ti­tude of heart­breaks.”1

-K. Estabrook — The Schol­ar, the Teacher, the Saint: The Life, Work, and Non­vi­o­lent Phi­los­o­phy of James M. Law­son, Jr

On this five year anniver­sary, we stand with the Sikh Tem­ple of Wis­con­sin. We say the names of Paramjit Kaur, Sat­want Singh Kale­ka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ran­jit Singh, and Suveg Singh, remem­ber­ing them as whole peo­ple and not mere­ly num­bers. We, as a South Asian com­mu­ni­ty, must stand with rather than sep­a­rat­ing. Our lib­er­a­tion is bound togeth­er, and it’s our time to remem­ber that time is not a neu­tral force: we have the poten­tial to cre­ate the world we want.

Jahnavi Jagannath is a ris­ing senior at Rice Uni­ver­si­ty, where she stud­ies Pol­i­cy Stud­ies, Soci­ol­o­gy, and Ecol­o­gy and Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­o­gy. Study­ing this broad (and seem­ing­ly odd) com­bi­na­tion of dis­ci­plines, she is inter­est­ed in the inter­sec­tions of race, gen­der, and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice, and hopes to pur­sue law or pol­i­cy in the future. She cur­rent­ly serves as a pol­i­cy intern at SAALT. She tries to main­tain relent­less opti­mism in her life and work, and looks for­ward to the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be a part of her com­mu­ni­ties in Hous­ton and Mem­phis to fur­ther progress.