Remember Oak Creek — Tragedy and Resilience

By Anir­van Chat­ter­jee

Where were you five years ago, on August 5, 2012?

From sto­ry­telling on the streets of Berke­ley to the mass mur­der at the Oak Creek Gur­d­wara, it’s the fifth anniver­sary of a day I won’t eas­i­ly for­get.

I start­ed the day feel­ing anx­ious. For years, my part­ner Bar­nali Ghosh and I had been col­lect­ing sto­ries of Desi activists in our home­town of Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia. There were so many! Some­one could even do a walk­ing tour, we joked. And then we tried to make it hap­pen.

We start­ed pulling togeth­er sto­ries of Berkeley’s South Asian activism. We found a strik­ing pho­to of pro­test­ers in saris in Kar­ma of Brown Folk.

Bar­nali dove into UC Berkeley’s archives, dis­cov­er­ing sto­ries of Ghadar Par­ty free­dom fight­ers. I inter­viewed our friend “Tin­ku” Ali Ish­ti­aq, a Bangladeshi Amer­i­can activist I’d met dur­ing an anti-war protest. Bar­nali drew a map of Berke­ley, and we marked points asso­ci­at­ed with each sto­ry, hop­ing to find a walk­a­ble path con­nect­ing them. Then we turned our research into a script, incor­po­rat­ing sto­ry­telling, visu­als, and street the­ater.

On August 5, 2012, we tried run­ning our very first Berke­ley South Asian Rad­i­cal His­to­ry Walk­ing Tour for the par­tic­i­pants of Bay Area Sol­i­dar­i­ty Sum­mer—emerg­ing Desi activists ages 15–21. We gath­ered on Tele­graph Avenue and began to walk, shar­ing sto­ries of queer activism, stu­dent move­ments, and con­nec­tions to non-Desi strug­gles. Along the way, we bust­ed out some street the­ater to bring the sto­ries alive. The young activists were lov­ing it, and my ner­vous­ness slow­ly fad­ed.

On the UC Berke­ley cam­pus, we told the sto­ry of Kar­tar Singh Sarab­ha, a young Sikh man who moved to Berke­ley in 1912 hop­ing to study at the uni­ver­si­ty, but end­ed up becom­ing a free­dom fight­er orga­niz­ing Indi­an immi­grants against British colo­nial rule. Bar­nali nar­rat­ed, and I played the part of the young rev­o­lu­tion­ary who had walked the streets that we were walk­ing today. By the time the sto­ry end­ed, we were both inspired and emo­tion­al­ly exhaust­ed.

It was near the end of the tour when I saw one of the par­tic­i­pants star­ing at her phone as we were about to cross the street. She showed me what she was look­ing at—a text from her moth­er say­ing some­thing ter­ri­ble was hap­pen­ing at a gurud­wara in Wis­con­sin, and that she should stay safe. I took in the news and tried to project an air of calm. I assured her that it was fine, that we were all there togeth­er, and asked her to avoid shar­ing the bad news with oth­ers until after the tour had end­ed.

The last sto­ry on the tour, at Berke­ley High School, was par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult. First, we set the scene by ask­ing par­tic­i­pants to read excerpts from Amer­i­can Back­lash, a report by SAALT doc­u­ment­ing the wave of vio­lent xeno­pho­bia that rocked our com­mu­ni­ties after 9/11. Then we told the sto­ry of post‑9/11 back­lash attacks at Berke­ley High, and how a group of pri­mar­i­ly Sikh and Mus­lim stu­dents built a mul­tira­cial coali­tion to take on hate and rebuild safe­ty for impact­ed com­mu­ni­ties.

Past and present were col­lid­ing. I kept think­ing of Sikh fam­i­lies under attack in a place of sanc­tu­ary, even as we were shar­ing sto­ries of a cen­tu­ry of Sikh Amer­i­can resis­tance to racism and colo­nial­ism.

The tour end­ed, and we returned back to camp. The Bay Area Sol­i­dar­i­ty Sum­mer orga­niz­ers shared the bad news with every­one, and made space for us to talk and mourn togeth­er.

We have run 120 more Berke­ley South Asian Rad­i­cal His­to­ry Walk­ing Tours since that ter­ri­ble day in 2012. Over the past five years of his­tor­i­cal sto­ry­telling, we’ve spent a lot of time think­ing about how easy it is to frame the sto­ry of South Asian Amer­i­ca to tell dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives.

Some of us tell sto­ries of South Asian suc­cess, of immi­grant doc­tors and engi­neers, sub­ur­ban homes and mod­el minor­i­ty dreams, spelling bee cham­pi­ons and brown faces in the White House. We worked hard, and the Unit­ed States has come to love us.

Some of us tell sto­ries of hatred, vio­lence, and oth­er­ing, start­ing with the enslave­ment of Mary Fish­er around the 1690s, the Belling­ham Riots, the Tide of Tur­bans, Dot­busters hate crimes, waves of back­lash after 9/11, and anti-Mus­lim attacks in the age of Trump. The Unit­ed States hates us, and all peo­ple of col­or.

Both of these nar­ra­tives are true, but for us, they’re just not help­ful. We’re very open about our bias. The sto­ries we want to empha­size are about resilience, con­nec­tion, sol­i­dar­i­ty, and agency: Pun­jabi-Mex­i­can and Black-Ben­gali fam­i­lies, immi­grant doc­tors offer­ing care in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, Indi­an and Irish free­dom fight­ers dream­ing togeth­er of lib­er­a­tion, youth orga­niz­ing against waves of hate, and sub­ur­ban Desi fem­i­nists stand­ing up to vio­lence with­in their com­mu­ni­ties.

Five years after the Oak Creek shoot­ings, we con­tin­ue to mourn for Paramjit Kaur, Sat­want Singh Kale­ka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ran­jit Singh, and Suveg Singh. But the sto­ry doesn’t end with vic­tim­iza­tion by a White nation­al­ist.

In the wake of the vio­lence, the fam­i­lies of Oak Creek count­ed their loss­es. They mourned. They rebuilt togeth­er. And they con­tin­ued to stand against hate along­side their neighbors—a sto­ry told in Deepa Iyer’s We Too Sing Amer­i­ca. Five years after the Oak Creek shoot­ing, it’s these qui­et acts of resilience and activism in the face of hate that stay with us. And as we decide how to tell the his­to­ries of our com­mu­ni­ty, we hope these are the ones we will remem­ber, retell, and build on.

Anirvan Chatterjee works with the Alliance of South Asians Tak­ing Action and Bay Area Sol­i­dar­i­ty Sum­mer. He and Bar­nali Ghosh curate the Berke­ley South Asian Rad­i­cal His­to­ry Walk­ing Tour.