Five Years Later, Remembering Oak Creek

By Valarie Kaur

On a hospital bed on the outskirts of Milwaukee lies a man who has been forgotten by America. Unable to move or speak since bullets tore through him during a mass shooting at a Sikh gurdwara, Baba Punjab Singh lies immobile on a bed – as he has for the last five years.

Today is the fifth anniversary of the mass shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a white supremacist opened fire inside a Sikh gurdwara on a Sunday morning, killing six and wounding others, including Baba Punjab Singh. It was the largest attack on Sikhs since making America home more than a century ago, and among the deadliest on any faith community.

But five years later, Oak Creek has dropped out of memory. We can no longer afford to forget this story. In a climate when hate crimes against Sikhs and others are skyrocketing, Oak Creek can show Americans how to respond to hate with the kind of “love” that results in social change.

Baba Punjab Singh had just tied his turban when he heard gunshots. He was a renowned religious teacher whose oratory called people to live and love in the Sikh state of Chardi Kala, ever-rising high spirits. He taught at gurdwaras around the globe, including in Oak Creek. He was preparing for Sunday service when the bullet entered his jaw and damaged his spinal cord.

When his sons rushed from India to their father’s side, they found a man without words – unable to speak or move except to blink his eyes. To this day, they wash and braid his hair, tie his turban, massage his feet, and stroke his forehead. “We struggle but remain in Chardi Kala,” his son Raghvinder Singh tells me. “Because of love.”

They remember the sacrifice of Lt. Brian Murphy, the police officer who arrived at the scene in Oak Creek and took fifteen bullets when he tried to stop the gunman. Fallen and bleeding in the parking lot, Brian thought of the people inside the gurdwara and kept moving to give the gunman a target. Baba Punjab Singh and many more are alive because of him.

Brian joins many local Oak Creek officials who have become advocates for the Sikh community in the five years since. They are often found in the gurdwara, sharing cups of chai with people whose friendship they say has changed their lives.

In fact, thousands came together in vigils across the country, met Sikh neighbors and entered gurdwaras for the first time, and let the experience transform them. One was Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist who reached out to the families of Oak Creek – to apologize. He built a friendship with Pardeep Kaleka, whose father was killed in the shooting, and they launched Serve2Unite to combat hate through education and service.

Such acts of love and solidarity can also result in policy change. When Harpreet Saini, who lost his mother in the shooting, testified before Congress, thousands heard his story and followed his call: they signed petitions asking the U.S. government to track hate crimes against Sikhs and other minorities so that we could combat the problem effectively. One year later, we won.

These forgotten stories of Oak Creek offer moral resources and strategic blueprints for Americans mobilizing around calls to love today, especially in the wake of hate killings in Kansas City and Portland, where three heroes stood up to hate.

To be sure, acts of love are not enough to end the current climate of hate against Muslims, immigrants and communities of color – unless they are also supported by leadership at the top. At present, as long as this administration supports Muslim bans, detentions, deportations, surveillance, and border walls that criminalize our people, hate crimes will remain rampant and another Oak Creek will be possible.

Today, Sikhs are holding memorial events in Oak Creek, and service projects across the country, opening our gurdwaras to all who will remember with us. We grieve Oak Creek not only in memory but as a constant reminder of the threat that we continue to face.

In Baba Punjab Singh’s hospital room, speech pathologist Holly Sennett has labored beyond the call of duty to teach him to communicate with his eyes. He now blinks his eyes once for no, twice for yes.

“Papa Ji, are you in Chardi Kala?” we ask him. Baba Punjab Singh looks at us intently, eyes bright, and blinks – twice: “Yes.”

When hope is hard to find, love anyway.

It struck me tonight that Baba Punjab Singh represents the state of the Sikh community: We arrived in America a century ago with vitality, potential, wisdom and many words, but hate has tried to kill us. Hate paralyzes our bodies and silences our voices. It finds us in our homes and houses of worship, our schools and streets, subways and screens. Hate strips us of language and denies us recognition so that we cannot even show our real faces in public. To this day, America cannot pronounce our names or remember our tragedies. Our turbans mark us as terrorists, not seekers of truth and justice. America forgets us, or never knew us to begin with. Yet we go on living; we refuse to die. In fact we find a way, beyond all odds, to communicate that we are still residing in the Sikh spirit of Chardi Kala, ever-rising high spirits. We blink twice. That is our defiance – to rise up even in hopelessness. And to tell you so.

So that perhaps you might take our hand, and rise up too.

Valarie Kaur is Sikh American activist, filmmaker, movement lawyer, and founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, based at the University of Southern California ORL. @valariekaur

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