10 years on, Sikhs say the hatred that drove the Oak Creek shooting is now mainstream

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Ten years ago, a white supremacist opened fire at Wisconsin’s Sikh Temple in suburban Milwaukee. Friday will mark 10 years since the gunman killed six people and injured several others, one of whom would die from his injuries in 2020.

The big picture: Experts and relatives of the victims say the white supremacist ideologies that motivated the 2012 attack have now gone mainstream.

Zoom in: On August 5, 2012, 18-year-old Harpreet Singh Saini’s mother woke him up to accompany her to the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. He was too tired, he told TUSEN, so Paramjit Kaur Saini eventually left for the gurdwara alone.

  • Less than half an hour later, his aunt called – a gunman had entered the house of worship.
  • Pardeep Singh Kaleka, whose father founded and led the gurdwara, knew right away that his parents were in their sights. He told TUSEN that he later learned that his father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, had fought the gunman away with a butter knife and received five shots at close range.

Saini’s Mother and Kaleka’s Father both died that day. “There were feelings of shock that something like this could happen in a place of worship,” Kaleka said. “That day led to weeks and months of just trying to pick up the pieces.”

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Situation: Members of the Sikh community became targets in the post-9/11 landscape, often mistaken for Muslims and vilified as terrorists.

  • Sikh Americans across the country had urged the federal government to track down anti-Sikh hate crimes, said Sim J. Singh, senior policy and advocacy manager for the Sikh Coalition.
  • Just weeks after the shooting, Saini testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, asking lawmakers “to give my mother the dignity of being a statistic”. In 2015, the FBI officially began documenting anti-Sikh hatred.
  • The agency’s 2020 report on hate crimes and prejudice showed anti-Sikh incidents were at their highest level since the FBI first started tracking them – Sikhs were the third most targeted faith community in the US
Kamaljit Singh Saini wishes his brother, Harpreet Singh Saini, good luck before testifying at a Congressional hearing on hate crime and the threat of domestic extremism on September 19, 2012. Photo: Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Since the Oak Creek shooting, white supremacist ideologies have expanded their reach across America, spawning the Great Replacement Theory, new extremist groups and several more hate-motivated mass shootings, according to Michael Lieberman, senior policy advisor at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

  • “In the past year, the FBI, DHS … the White House, the Justice Department, recognize that the main threats now are white supremacists and anti-government militias,” Lieberman told TUSEN.
  • An April poll conducted by SPLC and Tulchin Research found that more than a third of Americans believe the country’s changing demographics pose a threat to white Americans and their culture and values.
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What they say: The US needs a response from all of society, Kaleka said, pointing to the lack of robust mental health infrastructure, inadequate education about Sikh American communities and entrenched toxic masculinity. Many Sikhs have also called on the federal government to require reporting of hate crimes, which remains voluntary.

  • The Sikh coalition has urged Congress to move forward with three legislations, including the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which aims to create better federal standards for investigating white nationalist and supremacist groups. (The bill passed the House but failed the Senate.)

The big picture: Today, Wisconsin’s Sikh Temple is fortified with security cameras. No one can enter unless the stationed guard or a priest lets them in.

  • The community has planned several events to celebrate the 10th anniversary, including a vigil, threat assessment workshops, and interfaith gatherings.
  • The Sikh coalition will also hold its annual National Day of Seva, which began in 2013 to honor the lives lost. Both Sikhs and non-Sikhs are invited to participate in community services across the country.
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“There was a lot of anger in the immediate aftermath … but it’s a fuel that runs out very quickly,” Kaleka said.

  • What fuels them now is compassion, he said, pointing to the tenets of their faith — love and inclusion, mission and purpose.
  • His father lived up to those values, Kaleka said. “He could have left his place of worship at any time. The exit door was ten feet away. But he had something worth fighting for.’
  • “For many Sikhs…there is no greater sacrifice or what we call martyrdom – shaheedi – than to die in the place you helped build. The people you helped build for. And that cannot be taken from him by any government or white supremacist.”

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