This past weekend, Kamal Singh finished a 6K run honoring the victims of the massacre at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin with his mother’s picture in his hands. Three years ago today, his mother, Paramjit Kaur Saini, and five other Sikh-Americans—Satwant Singh Kaleka, Suveg Singh Khattra, Prakash Singh, Ranjit Singh and Sita Singh—were fatally shot by Wade Michael Page, a member of the white supremacist Hammerskin Nation and a musician in white power bands. Page, who barged into the gurdwara and began shooting indiscriminately, also wounded several congregants, including Baba Punjab Singh who remains in a coma three years since the massacre.
A few days after the hate violence, Attorney General Eric Holder said at an Oak Creek memorial service: “We must ask necessary questions of ourselves: What kind of nation do we truly want to have? Will we muster the courage to demand more of those who lead us and, just as importantly, of ourselves? What will we do to prevent that which has brought us here today from occurring in the future?” In the three years since the tragedy at Oak Creek, we have made progress in answering these questions. But, we have not come far enough.
In the years since the Sikh temple massacre much has changed in the city of Oak Creek, a suburb outside Milwaukee where working-class immigrants including Sikhs have settled. Many of the young immigrant children—whose entry to America was marked by the loss of a parent to bigotry—are now making their way through high school and college. Young Sikh-Americans like Kamal, Mandeep Kaur and Rahul Dubay have become visible participants in interfaith and multiracial citywide events to promote diversity and inclusion. Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi regularly speaks about the need for American cities to be prepared for hate violence. And at the federal level, the FBI is beginning to track hate crimes committed against Arabs, Hindus and Sikhs as a result of advocacy led by the Sikh community.
Yet, around the nation, hate violence against people in their places of worship continues. Just in the past six months, a Jewish synagogue outside Washington, D.C., was defaced with swastikas and KKK signs; more than 200 protesters, including many with guns, held a “Free Speech” protest against Islam outside of a Phoenix mosque; and a sign at the site for a Hindu temple near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was found riddled with more than 60 bullet holes. The summer began with the devastating act of hate violence at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, when 21-year-old Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people. This tragedy was followed by reports of arsons at black churches.
As a nation, we have become accustomed to the reality that hate violence targeting people on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity can occur anywhere, from our sanctuaries to the streets. According to federal hate crime data reports, the percentage of hate crimes involving violence increased from 78 percent in 2004 to 90 percent in 2011 and 2012. The number of attacks committed by right-wing extremists is on the rise, spurred on by the ideologies of anti-gay, anti-Muslim and anti-government “patriot” groups.
Not surprisingly, we have also become accustomed to the playbook that is set in motion in the wake of an incident of hate violence: The FBI opens an investigation. Community activists press for federal hate-crime charges and demand that local and federal government agencies coordinate task forces to address the violence. City officials, philanthropic institutions, government agencies and community leaders implement rapid-response measures to assist families of victims with medical, legal, psychological and immigration needs. Educators put in place services to children affected by hate violence.
To prevent further attacks many places of worship decide that they must secure institutions that were designed to be welcoming to all. At the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, for example, the gurdwara leadership invested in security measures that The Washington Post characterized as those often seen at a military base, including security guards, bulletproof windows and 24 cameras that send footage to the police department. In fact, many places of worship—historically, Jewish synagogues and community centers—have been hardening their security measures with help from a federal grant program that is investing $13 million in “nonprofit preparedness” for institutions identified as vulnerable to threats because of their mission or ideologies.
Instead of being in a defensive posture after the fact— of convening interfaith conversations on the ground, implementing government task forces, investing in security measures to protect congregates, and utilizing weak federal laws to prosecute perpetrators—we must be prepared to confront and eliminate patterns of hate violence before it occurs. Affirmative steps include a federal focus on right-wing extremist groups, whether that means characterizing their activities as violent extremism or domestic terrorism, conducting threat assessments, and monitoring their tactics and strategies—all of which are activities that the federal government regularly engages in to counter Muslim “radicalization.” The White House and Congress must call for and support inter-governmental task forces to respond to the epidemic of hate violence at places of faith, requiring regular reports and setting benchmarks for their progress.
State lawmakers can pass legislation denouncing hate violence and setting aside funds for rapid-response tools. Educators can design and implement mandatory curricula that teach children to respect and understand the racial and religious diversity in their communities.
Media outlets can end the use of hypocritical narratives that characterize perpetrators differently when they are people of color or Muslim (usually called “terrorists”) as opposed to white perpetrators (usually called “lone white males”). Philanthropic institutions can support participatory research by nonprofits that enables us to better understand the impact of living with the threat of hate violence. Communities of color and faith can continue to make the connections between hate and state violence, both of which are often premised on anti-black racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia.
The third anniversary of the hate violence at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin occurs under the specter of the Charleston killings. In the weekend after the Charleston tragedy, Sikh-Americans organized a vigil in Oak Creek to draw connections between the white supremacist hate violence at two places of refuge against people of color and faith. During the 6K event at Oak Creek High School this past weekend, runners and event organizers evoked the memories of the Charleston victims by carrying pictures of them.
While we may not be able to prevent racists like Wade Michael Page and Dylann Roof from taking violent action, we can certainly create communities where their bigotry is unwelcome, denounced and shunned. In Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the community is sending that message once again, loudly and clearly. It is our responsibility and duty to hear it, and do the same.
Deepa Iyer is a senior fellow at The Center for Social Inclusion and the author of the forthcoming book “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future.” Iyer also serves on the board of Race Forward, the organization that publishes Colorlines.