Ten years ago today, a white supremacist walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and opened fire, leading to the death of seven and several injured. While six people were killed on Aug. 5, 2012, during the incident, a priest later died of his injuries. The gunman was also shot at the scene by police.
To date, the incident is considered the deadliest attack on Sikh Americans in the nation’s history. The U.S. Department of Justice declared the mass shooting both a hate crime and a terrorist act, and unfortunately, similar crimes are only increasing across the country.
But despite the pain and difficulty, Sikh Americans have been processing the tragedy and are working to keep the community together and healing.
“It has been difficult. It has been difficult to inspire community to keep coming together in the aftermath of tragedy,” Pardeep Singh Kaleka, a member of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, told Spectrum News1.
Singh Kaleka, who lost his father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, added that it’s been a hard ten years to reflect on.
“For us as a community, I think that day reminds us of lots of sacrifice that our community went through. Since then, in the past ten years, we have been healing. We have been healing as a small minority community,” Singh Kaleka said.
Singh Kaleka has also found what many call “an unlikely and controversial” way to deal with his grief: He has partnered with a former white supremacist to spread awareness and speak out against hate.
Singh Kaleka reached out to Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist and a co-founding member of the hate group the gunman Michael Page was a part of. According to NBC News, Michaelis left the racist movement in 1994 and went public with his story in 2010.
“When I reached out to him, I wanted to understand why it is a white supremacist does these things, why it was a member from your particular organization that you’ve helped out, who came to this Sikh temple and attacked us,” Singh Kaleka told NBC News.
Kaleka said he and Michaelis eventually became friends and began speaking at public events together.
“I felt a great deal of urgency in responding to the shooting itself and also a great deal of responsibility. I helped to set the stage that this guy appeared on,” Michaelis said. “I know just from an objective standpoint, Wade Michael Page and the groups that I was involved with probably wouldn’t have existed had I never, but the fact is that I was actively involved in cultivating that kind of hatred in society.”
The pair commonly speak at high schools and other young adult events in hopes of curbing race-based hate and violence early on.
Their work is crucial, especially now with the rise in hate crimes against the Asian American Pacific Islander community, which most Sikhs identify with, and minority communities in general.
Sim J. Singh, senior policy and advocacy manager to the Sikh Coalition, the country’s largest Sikh advocacy organization, told Axios that Sikh Americans across the country have been urging the federal government to start tracking anti-Sikh hate crimes.
But it wasn’t until 2015, weeks after a victim’s son made a testimony that the FBI officially began documenting anti-Sikh hate. The agency's 2020 report on hate crimes and bias showed that anti-Sikh incidents were at their highest level since the FBI first began tracking them with Sikhs being the third most targeted faith community in the U.S.
“We all deserve to live in a society where we can gather in houses of worship, wear our articles of faith and simply exist without fear of being targeted. And as we reflect on the 10th anniversary of Oak Creek, now is the time to call for the change we need,” Harpreet Singh Saini, whose mother, Paramjit Kaur Saini, was killed in the incident, wrote in an Op-Ed for USA TODAY.
Today, the Biden Administration released a fact sheet on efforts to protect houses of worship, including an increase to NSGP funds last year and a proposed increase for next year. We appreciate @POTUS' commitment to this issue as we #RememberOakCreek. https://t.co/vfqrXRsvmN— Sikh Coalition (@sikh_coalition) August 5, 2022
Today, the Biden Administration released a fact sheet on efforts to protect houses of worship, including an increase to NSGP funds last year and a proposed increase for next year. We appreciate @POTUS' commitment to this issue as we #RememberOakCreek. https://t.co/vfqrXRsvmN
Experts and family members of the Oak Creek victims believe that white supremacist ideologies that motivated the 2012 attack have become more mainstream.
An April poll, conducted by Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Tulchin Research, found that over a third of Americans feel the country’s changing demographics are a threat to white Americans and their culture and values.
According to Michael Lieberman, senior policy counsel at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), since the Oak Creek shooting, white supremacist ideologies have wider their reach across America. Lieberman noted that there is not only an increase in advocating the Great Replacement Theory, which has not only encouraged the formation of extremist groups but several more reported hate-motivated mass shootings.
"In the last year, the FBI, DHS ... the White House, Justice Department, everybody recognizes that the principal threats now are white supremacists and anti-government militia groups," Lieberman told Axios.
As for a solution to stop the hate, many believe more resources are needed to not only educate Americans but protect them, in addition to mental health care infrastructure.
According to CNN, Sikh advocates are also pushing for a bill titled the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which would authorize the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the FBI to investigate and prosecute domestic terrorism, in addition to requiring the agencies to submit a joint report on the issue. The bill, which has passed the House, would also strengthen anti-terrorism training programs and create a task force to address White supremacist and neo-Nazi ideology in the military and law enforcement.
Meanwhile, to honor the victims of this horrific incident, vigils are being held this weekend outside of the Gurdwara at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, as well as other temples nationwide. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers also signed an executive order Wednesday ordering the flags of the United States and the state of Wisconsin to be flown at half-staff on Friday to mark the 10th anniversary of the Oak Creek Sikh Temple shooting.
The Sikh Coalition will also be holding its annual National Day of Seva, which started in 2013 to honor the lives lost. Those of all faiths and backgrounds are encouraged to attend to remember and honor the victims.