Wisconsin: SHAUNA SINGH BALDWIN
The Power of One
Early morning on Sunday August 5th, 2012, an Aryan supremacist walked into a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the gurdwara where I worship. The main body of Sikh worshippers had not arrived.
Wade Michael Page shot at every man or woman he could find, and returned to the kitchen for any he’d missed. Five men and one woman were killed, three men were wounded, including Officer Brian Murphy who responded to cell phone calls placed by the 15 men and women hiding in a walk-in pantry.
One man caused state and federal emergency plans to activate, putting blood banks, emergency wards and doctors on alert, activating plans of the National Guard and the FBI. One man disrupted our lives, and the lives of countless others.
I knew only one victim, gurdwara president Satwant Kaleka by sight, and was grateful for all his sewa (service). The tragedy continues to be emotionally wrenching as I meet wounded community members or discuss physical, financial and psychological damage.
Sikh-Americans are familiar with the excuse of collective responsibility for crimes by unrelated individuals. We weathered shootings and assaults for being visibly non-Christian or non-European following 9/11. And so many of us emigrated from India after the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984 that killed 3,000 Sikhs, following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
But somehow we never expected a planned attack by someone who had not the flimsiest excuse of a crime. After August 5, it seemed every non-Sikh for miles around became an honorary Sikh. We made preparations for candlelight vigils and community forums. Shoulder to shoulder with non-Sikhs, we attended meetings and the funerals at the local high school.
At one point it struck me we didn't know if we also were arranging opportunities for other neo-Nazi shooters. But the police forces, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and FBI made themselves very visible. Unfortunately, civic organizations can only address the consequences of hate crimes.
In a support group held two weeks later, a woman from the Department of Justice heard I was a writer and a Sikh. She told me most kindly, that I have a responsibility to my community to tell stories about Sikhs. I said I have been writing fiction about us and our interactions with people of other faiths for almost 20 years, while Aryan supremacists read books like The Turner Diaries, and turned the U.S. flag from a respected emblem into an icon of worship.
I have been telling our stories of displacement, immigration and adjustment to North America even as Aryan supremacists have been nurturing feelings of injured entitlement. The antagonists of my latest book, The Selector of Souls, are Aryan Supremacist Hindus in India where Mein Kampf is still a bestseller. She looked surprised.
Wade Page shot himself, it’s speculated, for fear of encountering non-whites in prison. Men (and women) like him were raised with expectations set by America's traditional doctrine of Manifest Destiny and have difficulty dealing with status shocks wrought by globalization. Unlike Canada, the U.S. has no policy of multiculturalism. If an immigrant were to follow the melting pot idea to its logical end, he/she would become monolingual and lose old customs and connections.
Still, while millions of Americans were becoming experts on ethnic foods, traveling, and celebrating diversity, Aryan supremacists have been listening to modern Brassilachs like Lou Dobbs, and conservative radio jocks like Rush Limbaugh. While even some Republican politicians were learning to quote Martin Luther King Jr. and read E Pluribus Unum from the Seal of the United States, Aryan supremacists were blaming the civil rights movement and immigrants for what they perceive as displacement from centre stage. And everything else that's wrong in their lives.
Being a Sikh does not immunize us from holding others collectively responsible. After the shooting, I reached out to screenwriter Eisha Marjara who lost loved ones in the 1985 Air India 182 bombing, allegedly by a few Sikhs who held India responsible for Mrs. Gandhi’s actions. She wrote, “Injustices will continue, but one’s life is finite and a life fulfilled after a loss, especially one that has come from violence, depends on healing … Grieving as a community is a gift … something many of the Air India victims family members did not have because the sheer complications of a tragedy extended over so many years made it hard to develop … I found healing through my work as a filmmaker. My father and sister sought their own ways to grieve. So in the end, we all did grieve individually.”
Speaking at a law enforcement forum in Oak Creek, Sikh social worker Nimmi Arora said, “We’re still in the early stages of grief. We’re still asking, Why and What. But grieving involves resetting your life entirely.”
Two days before the funerals, a Euro-American man in a pickup truck pulled up beside a young turbaned Sikh man at a traffic light, and cocked his finger, miming shooting. "Don't think it's over!" he shouted.
Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists ... and members of other minority faiths in North America know it's not over because it's never over. And those of us who have lived in other countries know that if it’s not religion, it might be skin colour. If not colour, it could be language, class, caste, gender or sexual orientation. Experiences of discrimination come early in the form of epithets, teasing, bullying. Later: job discrimination, bricks smashing windows, lewd gestures, name-calling and the like.
But those who embraced us and lit candles in shame and sorrow for our loss represent a majority of people. Millions of Euro-Americans support those who dare to be different. Millions of Euro-Americans believe in religious freedom. The mental chasm between Wade Page and the heterogenous, diverse, polyglot, multicultural mourners of his act is stupefying. Yet it offers hope.
At the funerals, I met Sikhs with different lifestyles: a Nanakpanthi, many Yogi Bhajan Sikhs, an Ekankar Sikh. Sindhis who believe only in the first guru, Nanak, arrived to pay their respects. Children at our gurdwara learned that a few Sikh women also wear turbans, and many second-generation Sikh men now wear long hair and baseball caps. Groups of young Sikh men and women arrived from Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Melbourne, Portland, and San Diego and saw the rolling hills and lakes of Wisconsin for the first time. After paying her respects beside the open caskets, a young woman with green eyes, a Mohawk haircut, black lipstick, flame tattoos and several crosses dangling from her neck threw her arms around me. All of us wept together.
Community organizers from the Sikh Coalition and the Sikh-American Legal Defense and Education Fund became our spokespeople. They helped the media focus on the victims, and present us as fellow citizens under the same national flag. Their activism has ensured the August 5 shooting cannot be dismissed as an act of mental illness but named an act of terrorism. They are now challenging the inclusion of hate crimes against Sikhs in the statistics for hate crimes against Muslims – it only refocuses violence to impute these crimes to “mistaken identity.”
Still, some who lose loved ones to shootings, such as the family of Dalbir Singh, a Sikh man shot in nearby Milwaukee one week later, will grieve alone, ever uncertain if that robbery was also a hate crime.
Late at night after the funerals, as I helped scrub blood stains from the dining hall floor at the gurdwara, the comforting chant of our gurus' Punjabi poetry played on speakers throughout the gudwara. Next morning I joined in to give thanks and prayers along with well-wishers from all over Wisconsin and the world. We're back to work now, educating non-Sikhs by our presence. Going home in my car, I played Deh Shiva Bar Mohe Ihai, a hymn of our Tenth Guru urging Sikhs to fight for those who cannot, and be free of fear.
But there are other Wade Pages out there. How can we change them?
From a novella I wrote a few years ago, a character whispers, “One person at a time. One person at a time.”
The author is a second-generation Sikh. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, with her Irish-American husband and is the author of the novels What the Body Remembers and The Tiger Claw, and the collections English Lessons and Other Stories and We are Not in Pakistan. Her latest novel is The Selector of Souls.
[Courtesy: TVOntario. Edited for sikhchic.com]
September 22, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Jaspreet (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), October 06, 2012, 5:33 PM.
Ms. Baldwin, I watched a YouTube video called "The Storming of the Temple" after searching 'Burning Punjab' for I had heard this website had been banned in India. Anyway, I heard Khushwant Singh say 20,000 Sikhs were butchered after Mrs. Gandhi was killed. I was surprised for I regard him as a so-called 'moderate' and had always heard the official government figure, which is around 3000. I trust his judgement for he is an intelligent, informed and courageous man. I recently read his book, "The End of India." It also talks about the way the anti-Sikh killings were orchestrated by the state. As he said, they were not communal 'riots' as Sikhs did not start killing Hindus and there were Hindus who hid Sikhs too. It was state led and completely organized.