On the morning of August 5, 2012, the Sikh American community in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, headed to gurdawara, their temple, to pray, as they had done so many other Sundays, surrounded by their community. Tragically, August 5 was unlike any other Sunday they had experienced, as that day Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, stormed into the gurdawara with a gun, killing 6 parishioners and himself.
When this murderer entered the temple, families were preparing langar, a communal meal in which all are invited to eat, Sikh and non-Sikh alike, all sitting on the floor and breaking bread together as a simple, powerful statement of equality, one of Sikhism’s central values. It was in this environment where Wade Michael Page carried out this act of domestic terrorism, and shook a community to its core.
Why am I writing about this? I’m not from Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Is it because, although I am not Sikh, my wife is, and as I watched that day’s events unfold with her, I saw the impact that this act had on Sikhs everywhere? Is it because I’ve sat in gurdawara with my wife and our extended family time and again, and can relate to exactly what the people in Oak Creek were doing at 11:30am that fateful day? It’s more than that. A horrific, racist murder like this should shake each and every one of us to our core, and strengthen our commitment to fight for justice, for progressive values, and for an America free from hate and bigotry.
I could get into the issue of Mr. Page’s murder weapon, which he purchased legally. But right now, I think it’s more important that we talk about hate, and what drives people to go into a house of worship and execute 6 people (and shoot several more) just for looking different, or praying different, or somehow being “different.” Don’t get me wrong, the horror at Oak Creek was a crime against the Sikh American community, but it was a crime against anyone that has ever been treated as the “other” in America – because of their race, their faith, their sexual orientation, their gender identity – or any other reason. And while Mr. Page is dead, hate is still alive and well. We see it every day, on the news, on the Internet, in the world around us.
Progress is slow. And maybe we haven’t made much progress in the past two years since Oak Creek. But we cannot forget events like this. We must let these events serve to motivate us as progressives, as agents of change, and as people in search of justice. Despite all of the horror we see around us, and despite all of the hate – both in the U.S. and abroad, I’m reminded of the Sikh principle of Chardi Kala – eternal optimism, even in the face of adversity. It’s easy to see the world around us and become cynical. But we can’t let it beat us down. We need to remain optimistic. Because only through that do we have a chance at a future where incidents like Oak Creek can simply be consigned to history, an ugly memory.
In the memory of Paramjit Kaur, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, and Suveg Singh, we must work tirelessly for an America, and for a world, without hate. We owe it to them, and to the girls who died at the 16th Street Baptist Church, and to James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. For Balbir Singh Sodhi. We owe it to everyone who has come before us, and who has died fighting for a better America, or who died simply for being different.
So today, and tomorrow, and moving forward – let’s remember. And let’s do better.
Also, an organization called the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) recently organized a langar on Capitol Hill for members of Congress and others to eat, to share, and to celebrate the principle of equality. Check it out: Langar on the Hill