To live in the United States is to live with the fear that a mass shooting could, at any moment, cost us our lives or those we love. Unfortunately, as recent disasters have shown, no place is safe – from schools to supermarkets, concerts to office buildings and newsrooms to festivals.
Sikh communities in Colorado and across the country are preparing to mourn and commemorate such an act of violence that invaded a place of worship. But then we will turn our grief into action to fight for a better future.
On August 5, 2012, the Sikh temple in Wisconsin was attacked by a white supremacist gunman. His hateful outburst ultimately resulted in the deaths of seven members of the small, tight-knit community of Sikhs in the town of Oak Creek; too many others have been left with life-altering injuries, psychological trauma and the absence of family, friends and community members.
The waves of shock and pain that follow mass shootings like the one in Oak Creek have been felt by far too many Americans. Moreover, we must recognize that marginalized communities – including Sikhs, who despite belonging to the fifth largest organized religion in the world are often misunderstood by our neighbors – continue to bear the brunt of this violence. Buffalo, Atlanta, El Paso, Pittsburgh, Poway, Charleston and others all offer compelling evidence that white supremacy remains a clear and present threat across America.
Certainly, we must take the time to mourn after such tragedies. I remember after the Oak Creek shootings, when my local Sikh community held a vigil at Colorado Singh Sabha, a gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) in Commerce City. Similar events have taken place from coast to coast, as local communities have shown incredible resilience, especially as the burden of explaining who the Sikhs are, how we worship and why we may have been targeted was our responsibility in this time of mourning.
But action must follow this grief. A decade ago, concerted efforts were made to ensure that the FBI began tracking hate crimes and incidents of anti-Sikh bias. Harpreet Singh Saini, then an 18-year-old whose mother was killed by the Oak Creek shooter, testified before the Senate and pleaded for his mother to be given “the dignity of being a statistic”. The FBI eventually started tracking anti-Sikh hate and since then we have seen the number of hate crimes and bias incidents increase steadily.
Today, Congress can take action to honor those lost in Oak Creek and other communities across the country. To address the persistence of hate crimes and incidents of bias, the Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act would close a loophole that limits the federal government’s ability to prosecute such crimes. The Non-Profit Security Grant Program Enhancement Act would make more resources available to gurdwaras and other places of worship that wish to apply for funding to improve their safety and security measures. And the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act would ensure that our government focuses on white supremacy and other homegrown extremism, which is precisely the ideology that continues to target, harm and kill marginalized communities like Oak’s. Creek.
The situation has only gotten worse in the decade since Oak Creek: more attacks, an increased polarization of our politics, and a growing influence of white supremacists – be they gunmen, public figures media or even elected officials. But I remain hopeful for the future, as a new generation of activists and allies are rising to meet this challenge.
So I ask you what so many communities have asked in the wake of tragedy: join us in mourning and remembering those we have lost. Pause and think about how you would feel or do if someone came to your own place of worship with hate in their heart. And then turn that empathy into action and join us as we strive to make real and lasting change.
Nikki Singh is Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Sikh Coalition, the country’s largest Sikh civil rights and advocacy organization.