Politics

A Year After Oak Creek

A Sikh American Tragedy
By Anju Kaur | August 10, 2013
Entrance to the Oak Creek Gurdwara premises on the first anniversary divaan on Sunday, Aug. 4.
Entrance to the Oak Creek Gurdwara premises on the first anniversary divaan on Sunday, Aug. 4.
The Nishaan Sahib flys outside the Oak Creek Gurdwara with smaller flags bearing images of each of the six Sikhs killed last year in the shooting on Aug. 5, 2012.
The Nishaan Sahib flys outside the Oak Creek Gurdwara with smaller flags bearing images of each of the six Sikhs killed last year in the shooting on Aug. 5, 2012.
Flags bearing the six Sikh victims of the Oak Creek shooting.
Flags bearing the six Sikh victims of the Oak Creek shooting.
Outside the Oak Creek Gurdwara on the first anniversary divaan on Sunday, Aug. 4. (Courtesy Sandeep Singh Brar, sikhmuseum.com)
Outside the Oak Creek Gurdwara on the first anniversary divaan on Sunday, Aug. 4. (Courtesy Sandeep Singh Brar, sikhmuseum.com)
Harpreet Singh Saini stands in front of the flag bearing the picture of his mother, Paramjit Kaur, who was the only woman killed during the shooting last year.
Harpreet Singh Saini stands in front of the flag bearing the picture of his mother, Paramjit Kaur, who was the only woman killed during the shooting last year.
Outside the Oak Creek Gurdwara, historical photos of Sikh soldiers are displayed for the public.
Outside the Oak Creek Gurdwara, historical photos of Sikh soldiers are displayed for the public.
The Oak Creek police guard the gurdwara on the first anniversary divaan on Aug. 4.  (Courtesy Sandeep Singh Brar, sikhmuseum.com)
The Oak Creek police guard the gurdwara on the first anniversary divaan on Aug. 4. (Courtesy Sandeep Singh Brar, sikhmuseum.com)
The Oak Creek police guard the gurdwara on the first anniversary divaan on Sunday, Aug. 4.  (Courtesy Sandeep Singh Brar, sikhmuseum.com)
The Oak Creek police guard the gurdwara on the first anniversary divaan on Sunday, Aug. 4. (Courtesy Sandeep Singh Brar, sikhmuseum.com)
Balloons decorate the entrance to the Oak Creek Gurdwara on the first anniversary divaan on Sunday, Aug. 4.  (Courtesy Sandeep Singh Brar, sikhmuseum.com)
Balloons decorate the entrance to the Oak Creek Gurdwara on the first anniversary divaan on Sunday, Aug. 4. (Courtesy Sandeep Singh Brar, sikhmuseum.com)
The Oak Creek police guard the gurdwara on the first anniversary divaan on Aug. 4.
The Oak Creek police guard the gurdwara on the first anniversary divaan on Aug. 4.
Notes from well wishers adorn the foyer of the Oak Creek Gurdwara.
Notes from well wishers adorn the foyer of the Oak Creek Gurdwara.
Notes from well wishers adorn the foyer of the Oak Creek Gurdwara.
Notes from well wishers adorn the foyer of the Oak Creek Gurdwara.
Notes from well wishers adorn the foyer of the Oak Creek Gurdwara.
Notes from well wishers adorn the foyer of the Oak Creek Gurdwara.
Notes from well wishers adorn the foyer of the Oak Creek Gurdwara.
Notes from well wishers adorn the foyer of the Oak Creek Gurdwara.
Darbar Sahib at the Oak Creek Gurdwara.
Darbar Sahib at the Oak Creek Gurdwara.
About 1,000 people packed the large gurdwara on the first anniversary divaan on Sunday, Aug. 4.  (Courtesy Sandeep Singh Brar, sikhmuseum.com)
About 1,000 people packed the large gurdwara on the first anniversary divaan on Sunday, Aug. 4. (Courtesy Sandeep Singh Brar, sikhmuseum.com)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker arrives at the gurdwara.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker arrives at the gurdwara.
Victims' family members await the governor for a private meeting.
Victims' family members await the governor for a private meeting.
Victims' family members await the governor for a private meeting.
Victims' family members await the governor for a private meeting.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Taranjit Singh Sandhu, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of India in Washington meet privately the victims' families before their address to the sangat.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Taranjit Singh Sandhu, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of India in Washington meet privately the victims' families before their address to the sangat.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker receives feedback from victims' families before his address to the sangat.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker receives feedback from victims' families before his address to the sangat.
Victims' family members listen to the governor.
Victims' family members listen to the governor.
Victims' family members listen to the governor.
Victims' family members listen to the governor.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker embraces many of the victims' family members after the meeting.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker embraces many of the victims' family members after the meeting.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker embraces many of the victims' family members after the meeting.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker embraces many of the victims' family members after the meeting.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker embraces many of the victims' family members after the meeting.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker embraces many of the victims' family members after the meeting.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker embraces many of the victims' family members after the meeting.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker embraces many of the victims' family members after the meeting.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker embraces many of the victims' family members after the meeting.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker embraces many of the victims' family members after the meeting.
Outside the divaan hall of the Oak Creek Gurdwara.
Outside the divaan hall of the Oak Creek Gurdwara.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker addresses the sangat.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker addresses the sangat.
Lt. Brian Murphy, who recovered from 12 bullet wounds, addresses the sangat.
Lt. Brian Murphy, who recovered from 12 bullet wounds, addresses the sangat.

Reporting from Oak Creek, Wisconsin - In the annals of Sikh history, which are filled with accounts of massacres and attempted genocides – including those by the Mughals during the Gurus’ times and during the Chhotaa and Vaddaa Ghallugaraas of the mid 1700s; by the British during the Punjab annexation and  Jullianwaalaa Bhaag; and by the Indian government during Operation Blue Star and Anti-Sikh Pogroms of 1984 that were followed by the Decade of Disappearances until the late 1990s – the Oak Creek shooting pales in comparison. But, perhaps, it cannot be compared.

Unlike other massacres chronicled throughout Sikh history, more recently during 1984, Oak Creek was not a state-sponsored act.

Wade Michael Page acted alone, the FBI concluded from its investigations. The white supremacist killed six devotees at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on Aug. 5, 2012, and wounded two others. A police officer also was wounded.

“The US administration ended the situation…, pacifying the feelings of the Sikh community in their hour of crisis by instilling the sense of confidence and security among the Sikhs settled in the USA,”  said Charanjit Singh Atwal, former speaker of the Punjab Assembly. It was “really incredible.”

Charanjit Singh was one of many public officials to speak at the Aug. 4 divaan at the gurdwara commemorating the first anniversary of the shooting. He and Taranjit Singh Sandhu, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of India in Washington, represented India. The rest were from various levels of the US government. 

Unlike other accounts in Sikh history, more memorably during the 1984 pogroms when Indian police officers stood by and watched Sikhs being butchered in the streets of Delhi, American police officers laid their lives on the line to protect the Sikhs inside the gurdwara. 

“I would also like to salute (Lt.) Brian Murphy, a heroic police officer who was shot (12) times as he responded to the horrific shooting at this gurdwara, Charanjit Singh added. “This officer has set an example of bravery and humanism by his act.”

Murphy has since retired from the Oak Creek Police Department because of his injuries, the most notable of which is a permanently raspy voice.

“As you can tell, my voice is no longer what it was, but like the other Sikh victims who lost their voice permanently, and mine, which has been diminished, that voice has been replaced by everyone here,” he said to the sangat.

Murphy earlier this year told SikhNN that he has no regrets for happened that day, even as he was lying on the ground while the gunman pumped bullet after bullet into him.

“Last year I was blessed by God to be given an opportunity to serve the gurdwara and for that I will always be thankful, regardless of what happened to me physically,” he told the sangat. 

“That is the essence of chardee kalaa, to stay and be relentless, and to fight the good fight,” he added, also referring to Punjab Singh, the gurdwara’s giaanee who is still fighting to recover from his injuries. 

“Brian will tell you, Sam (Lenda) will tell you, “Don’t call me a hero,”” Police Chief John Edwards said to the sangat. “One thing, looking and reading about the Sikh community, I think what fits better is the term ‘warrior.’

Officer Lenda finally shot and stopped the gunman, who then shot himself in the head. 

“Those two were warriors on that day,” Edwards said, often referring to them as family. “And I think what they did, when I was looking at the Battle of Saragarhi of 1897, the 21 Sikhs who fought - those warriors - that’s what they were.”

Oak Creek is most obviously an outlier in Sikh history because it occurred in the United States. 

Since the 9/11 attacks, Sikh individuals have been victims of gun violence but a wholesale massacre was never attempted until Oak Creek. And even after more than a decade of successful lobbying efforts from Sikh advocacy groups to change government policies, litigate discrimination cases, train law enforcement and raise awareness about Sikhs, hate crimes have continued to rise, especially in the last few years, according to FBI statistics.

“It is a matter of pride for me and honor for me that Sikhs in America had particularly played the van guard role in… the political progress of the USA,” Charanjit Singh said, speaking on behalf Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. “The tragic incident in gurdwara sahib in Oak Creek was all the more painful, and it was really difficult to understand given the background of the outstanding role laid by the peaceful Sikh community in the American success story…

“This heart rendering tragedy was contrary to everything that America stood for.”

About 1,000 people, mostly Sikhs but many from the larger American community, packed the gurdwara to remember the victims and reflect on the many positive outcomes of this tragedy.

Perhaps the greatest outcomes, which set Oak Creek apart form the historical genocidal events on the Indian subcontinent, are reparation and justice.

None of the Indian political perpetrators of the 1984 pogroms have been brought to  justice. And the tens of thousands of survivors, mostly women and children, have received little or no compensation. They have been slowly withering away in the widow colonies of Delhi. 

The victims of Oak Creek and their families have experienced a starkly different response.

“During the last one year, there was (more than) a million dollars donated to the victims,” said Kulwant Singh Dhaliwal, the gurdwara’s president. 

The money came from Sikhs, school children, organizations and the general public, from the US and around the world. It was evenly distributed to the victims’ families, which received about $100,000 each, one of the family members told SikhNN. Part of the money also went to those who were injured, including Murphy.

Parkash Singh Badal also promised Rs. 5 crore last year, more than $82,000 for the victims’ families. But none of that money has materialized, two of the families’ members told SikhNN. Jagjit Singh Kaleka, whose brother, Satwant Singh, was killed in the shooting, also inquired about the promised donation during his address to the sangat.

But the US justice department last week granted more than $512,000 for the victims for trauma recovery expenses. Part of the grant also was used for expenses incurred by the police department, witnesses’ mental health services, the gurdwara security system, and for the memorial events. Several of the victims’ families told SikhNN that they had not yet received any government money, and will apply for this aid. 

The US immigration service also stepped in and allowed two of the victims’ families to settle here from India. Ranjit Singh and Sita Singh were brothers who also were keertaniyaas at the gurdwara. Both were shot in the parking lot as they approached the gunman in his car to ask if he wanted to come inside for some tea. Their children are now attending school here, Kulwant Singh said. 

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker privately met with the victims’ families to listen to their concerns, before his address to the sangat. 

“As our neighbors and our fellow citizens, you showed us what was great not only about being Sikh but about being American,” he said. “When one of us is attacked, all of us are attacked. You responded not with hatred but with love, and that brought great unity.” The governor had also met with the victims’ families in their homes last year. 

At this meeting, family members thanked him and asked for his continued support. Kamaljit Saini, whose mother, Paramjit Kaur, was killed in the shooting, asked the governor to help him find a job in criminal justice. He recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. 

“Last time I talked to you, you talked about how you would love Sikhs in law enforcement,” he said. “And I’m here today, a year later, and I’m telling you I’m ready for it… I’m going to come back to you because you gave me your word last time.”

A spokesman for the families also asked for assistance in helping the immigrant children advance from high school to college, and acknowledged James Santelle, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, for his efforts in helping them immigrate.

And, more importantly for the entire Sikh American community, the US justice department also announced that the FBI had approved changes to its hate crime data collection and will add Sikhs, Hindus, Arabs Buddhists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Orthodox Christians, as a separate category when tracking these incidents. 

“I did my job and now the FBI is going to do their job,” Harpreet Singh Saini told SikhNN. He also is Paramjit Kaur’s son.

Last September, his poignant testimony moved many at the Senate subcommittee hearing on hate crimes: “Senators, I came here to ask the government to give my mother the dignity of being a statistic. The FBI does not track hate crimes against Sikhs. My mother and those shot that day will not count on a federal form. We cannot solve a problem we refuse to recognize.”

The FBI’s advisory board recommended in June that the bureau change its data collection forms to include Sikhs as a category of hate crime victims. FBI director Robert Mueller agreed to that recommendation on Aug. 2.

“… I was a part of that (decision), so it makes me feel good,” Harpreet Singh, now 19, added.

“I had to fill out those forms after this tragedy, I had no where to check for the members of the gurdwara and where they fit,” the police chief said. “I had to check a box that said, ‘Other.’” He said he wrote letters to Congress to push the FBI to include Sikhs.

“I’m glad that it was changed,” he said. “It’s very common sense to me. I don’t understand why there was even a debate or hearing on it.”

“In light of the first year anniversary of this tragedy, its important to remember justice and the dignity that each person deserves in that equation,” said Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee, 4) to the sangat. 

“These additions will not wholly prevent these senseless tragedies but it’s a step in the right direction towards collecting comprehensive information on these crimes and these criminals.

“But we can’t stop here brothers and sisters… We must decide as one people, as one nation that we’ve had enough because I, for one, am tired of these offenses and the pain that they cause.” 

Also notable in this Sikh American tragedy is the overwhelming response from the American people and their praise of the Sikh community.

Tens of thousands of people lit candles at vigils that were held across the country during the week following the tragedy. Many gurdwaras again held vigils on the anniversary.

“It’s been looked at nationwide: How does a community come together so quickly after something so horrific?” the police chief said. “And you have to understand, you’re the reason that that happened. I’ve dealt with it a lot and it doesn’t happen that way. It’s how you responded.” (Jaikaaraa)

“The legacy of this is: We are a better country,” Mayor Steve Scaffidi said to the sangat. “We will not allow people to carry out acts of hatred like this to try to take us down.”

“You carried out your fight against violence and injustice without diverging from the tenants of the Sikh faith,” Taranjit Singh said to the sangat. “And in the true tradition of your adopted homeland, you uphold and protect the civil liberties of all citizens…

“nanak naam charhdee kalaa, tayray baanay sarbat daa bhallaa.”

(In the name of Nanak, may the Sikh panth be in the highest spirits, and under Your command and will shall prevail the well being of all of humanity)

Charanjit Singh particularly noted the courage of the gurdwara’s president, Satwant Singh Kaleka, who fought the gunman with a kitchen knife. 

“(He) made the supreme sacrifice by laying down his life while fighting bravely, alone with the assassin, during the Oak Creek Gurdwara tragedy, thereby displaying the real value and courage in this indomitable spirit of fighting against the tyranny, oppression and injustice - the inherent characteristic of the Sikh.” 

_________________________From Sikh News Network archives.