One decade on, it is essential to revisit the 2012 attack on the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin–and to reflect on what more we must do to better protect our communities from similar horrific violence.
2022 was a year marked with significant anniversaries of hate against the AAPI community both historic and recent, from the 40th anniversary[i] of the hate-driven murder of Chinese American immigrant Vincent Chin to the one-year anniversary of recent mass shootings in Atlanta and Indianapolis.[ii] These commemorations, moreover, came amidst a series of hate crimes targeting Sikh men in Richmond Hill, Queens,[iii] and a years-long spike in violence against Asian Americans[iv] — particularly Asian American women[v] — ignited by the COVID-19 pandemic. One anniversary in 2022, however, is both important on its own right as a marker in the history of targeted violence and useful for contextualizing recent trends of hate in the United States: the 10-year remembrance of the shooting at a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.[vi]
On August 5, 2012, a white supremacist gunman stormed the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek. He opened fire on worshippers who were preparing for Sunday morning services; six people lost their lives that day, and a seventh was severely paralyzed before succumbing to his injuries in 2020. Others, including a responding police officer who was shot 15 times, survived the attack with severe medical complications. The entire Sikh community — both in Oak Creek and across the nation — was left in mourning and disbelief that a sacred space could be targeted with such horrific violence.
In some respects, Oak Creek was the culmination of a decade of anti-Sikh sentiment that had surged after 9/11. Ever since the beards and turbans of Sikh men were falsely conflated with terrorism in the American public conscience, the community had to persevere in the face of individual acts of hate and systemic discrimination. The most high profile example of the former was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a turbaned Sikh man living in Mesa, AZ, who was shot and killed in the first deadly post-9/11 hate crime on September 15, 2011.[vii] The attack in Oak Creek could also be viewed as an early indicator of the targeted violence against religious minorities, communities of color, and women that would grow over the next decade. This trend, driven by white supremacy, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and other noxious and overlapping ideologies, can be seen in subsequent acts of terror including those in Charleston,[viii] Pittsburgh,[ix] Poway,[x] El Paso,[xi] Atlanta,[xii] Buffalo,[xiii] and others.
Despite both of these trends, ten years after the attack on Oak Creek, the Sikh community has not wavered from the spirit of chardi kala, the idea of relentless optimism in the face of struggle. This resilience has been particularly exemplified by the Oak Creek sangat, or congregation. On September 20, 2011, Harpreet Singh Saini, an 18-year-old Sikh man, testified before a Senate subcommittee to pay an emotional tribute to his mother, who had been murdered less than a month before.[xiv] His testimony changed history: in 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder announced that the FBI would begin tracking hate crimes specifically against Sikhs.[xv] Pardeep Singh Kaleka, whose father was murdered in the attack, sought to understand the ideology that had driven this act of hate: he reached out to Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist, and the two men went on to partner in a decade’s worth of work to promote deradicalization and interfaith understanding.[xvi] In August of 2022, the local sangat continued to step up, leading efforts to commemorate this solemn anniversary with a series of events involving different communities, elected officials, and national advocacy organizations.
It is undeniable that the Sikh community has done tremendous work commemorating and honoring the lives lost and impacted in the 2012 attack in Oak Creek. While their courage, resilience, and love displayed through 10 years of activism and compassion are powerful, the fact remains that communities across the United States continue to suffer under the pattern of targeted violence that has continued to ramp up in the last decade. Despite recent steps forward — including the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, the most significant federal hate crimes legislation passed in more than 12 years — the action taken by federal lawmakers has been disproportionately small in comparison to the urgent threat presented by violent hate. Accordingly, there are steps that Congress must take now to move all of us, in the AAPI community and beyond, towards a safer future.
First, in a direct answer to acts of violence against not just the Oak Creek gurdwara, but also synagogues, churches, mosques, and temples across the nation, Congress should do more to help marginalized communities secure our institutions. Passing the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act[xvii] will increase the grant funding from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state administrative agencies to help houses of worship and other community gathering points with “target hardening and other physical security enhancements.”
Second, it is important to effectively respond to acts of hate that affect individuals. Current U.S. law prohibits the Department of Justice (DOJ) from prosecuting hate crimes where bias is not the sole reason for a perpetrator’s actions — a difficult legal standard to meet. The Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act, however, would close this loophole and allow the DOJ to take a more active role in prosecuting hate crime cases.[xviii] This is an essential reform to prevent cases from being neglected or lost by state and local authorities; we need look no further than the murder of Ahmad Aubery for a reminder of the extraordinary effort it takes to achieve any kind of justice or accountability in hate crime cases.
And third, the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act must be re-introduced and passed.[xix] This comprehensive legislation would direct the DOJ, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security to “monitor, analyze, investigate, and prosecute” domestic terrorism, with a particular [xx] as the top security threat: racially- and ethnically-motivated violent extremists. The legislation would also establish and fund related trainings, task forces, and investigations — and critically, would structure these components through a racial equity lens to ensure that its policies do not inadvertently target Black and brown communities like so many post-9/11 counterterrorism laws did.
On the eve of the ten year Oak Creek anniversary, more than 90 gurdwaras across the country signed a letter[xxi] to President Biden urging him to use his executive authority to strengthen the security of marginalized communities’ houses of worship. The following day, the Biden-Harris Administration released a fact sheet[xxii] offering a series of strong first steps, including expanding funding for securing places of worship and other nonprofit entities, creating a one-stop online clearing house of federal resources designed to counter terrorism and targeted violence, and making grant programs more accessible, amongst other initiatives. In 2023, as we swear in new members of Congress, we have a significant opportunity to build on commitments to keep all of our communities safe.
2022 showed us that commemorating hate violence anniversaries takes a toll on our communities. For too long, the onus has been on those impacted to not just provide support and remembrance, but to also push for change. Targeted communities have done their part, and will continue to do so — but the responsibility to act should also be shouldered by our elected officials. They, after all, are the ones who are charged with protecting our collective rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. These simple asks outlined above should be viewed as neither radical nor polarizing, but as common sense reforms in the interest of all. At the end of the day, we must come to view these attacks as preventable rather than inevitable. Only that change of mindset will determine if the safety of religious minorities, communities of color, and women will be prioritized, and whether our communities will be spared from having to bear further painful commemorations.
1 Pewter, Celeste. “How the Murder of Vincent Chin Changed My Family’s Life.” Teen Vogue, May 3, 2021. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/vincent-chin-death-asian-american-history.
2 Chen, Norman. “Hate Crimes Should Not Be Judged by Intent Alone, but by How They Affect All of Us.” Religion News Service (blog), April 18, 2022. https://religionnews.com/2022/04/18/hate-crimes-should-not-be-judged-by-intent-alone-but-by-how-they-affect-all-of-us/.
3 Stack, Liam, and Samira Asma-Sadeque. “Within 10 Days, Three Sikhs Were Attacked on the Same N.Y.C. Block.” The New York Times, April 15, 2022, sec. New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/15/nyregion/sikh-attacks-nyc.html.
4 Kim, Julie Ae. “3 Asian American Community Activists Share What Safety Looks Like to Them.” Teen Vogue, April 14, 2022. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/anti-asian-violence-safety-community.
5 The AP. “More Than 9,000 Anti-Asian Incidents Have Been Reported Since The Pandemic Began.” NPR, August 12, 2021, sec. National. https://www.npr.org/2021/08/12/1027236499/anti-asian-hate-crimes-assaults-pandemic-incidents-aapi.
6 Kaur, Harmeet. “The Oak Creek Massacre Signaled the Rise of White Supremacist Violence. But the Warnings Went Unheeded.” CNN, August 5, 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/08/05/us/oak-creek-shooting-anniversary-white-supremacy-rise-cec/index.html.
7 Kaur, Harmeet. “A Sikh Man’s Murder at a Gas Station Revealed Another Tragedy of 9/11.” CNN, September 11, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2021/09/us/balbir-singh-sodhi-9-11-cec/.
8 Phillips, Patrick. “Friday Marks 7 Years since Charleston Church Shooting.” https://www.live5news.com, June 17, 2022. https://www.live5news.com/2022/06/17/friday-marks-7-years-since-charleston-church-shooting/.
9 Robertson, Campbell, Christopher Mele, and Sabrina Tavernise. “11 Killed in Synagogue Massacre; Suspect Charged With 29 Counts.” The New York Times, October 27, 2018, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/active-shooter-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting.html.
10 Sant, Shannon Van, and James Doubek. “California Synagogue Shooting Investigated As A Hate Crime After 1 Killed, 3 Injured.” NPR, April 27, 2019, sec. National. https://www.npr.org/2019/04/27/717849871/injuries-reported-in-shooting-at-california-synagogue.
11 BBC News. “Texas Walmart Shooting: El Paso Gun Attack Leaves 20 Dead.” BBC News, August 3, 2019, sec. US & Canada. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-49221936.
12 Fausset, Richard, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, and Marie Fazio. “8 Dead in Atlanta Spa Shootings, With Fears of Anti-Asian Bias.” The New York Times, March 17, 2021, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/03/17/us/shooting-atlanta-acworth.
13 Buffalo News. “Complete Coverage: 10 Killed, 3 Wounded in Mass Shooting at Buffalo Supermarket.” Buffalo News, February 15, 2023. https://buffalonews.com/news/local/complete-coverage-10-killed-3-wounded-in-mass-shooting-at-buffalo-supermarket/collection_e8c7df32-d402-11ec-9ebc-e39ca6890844.html.
14 Oak Creek Temple Member Testifies in D.C., 2012. https://www.wisn.com/article/oak-creek-temple-member-testifies-in-dc/5730272.
15 Holder, Eric. “Healing Communities and Remembering the Victims of Oak Creek.” The U.S. Department of Justice Archives, August 2, 2013. https://www.justice.gov/archives/opa/blog/healing-communities-and-remembering-victims-oak-creek.
16 Kaur, Harmeet. “His Father Was Killed in a Massacre at a Sikh Temple. To Understand Why, He Reached out to a Former White Supremacist — and Formed a Surprising Friendship.” CNN, October 30, 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/10/30/us/violent-extremism-kaleka-michaelis-undivided-cec/index.html.
17 Rep. Thompson, Bennie G. [D-MS-2. Nonprofit Security Grant Program Improvement Act of 2022, Pub. L. No. H.R.6825 (2022). http://www.congress.gov/.
18 Sen. Klobuchar, Amy [D-MN. Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act, Pub. L. No. S. 3228 (2020). http://www.congress.gov/.
19 Rep. Schneider, Bradley Scott [D-IL-10. Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2022, Pub. L. No. H.R.350 (2022). http://www.congress.gov/.
20 Merrick, Garland. “Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Remarks: Domestic Terrorism Policy Address.” U.S. Department of Justice, June 15, 2021. https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-merrick-b-garland-remarks-domestic-terrorism-policy-address.
21 Sikh Coalition. “2022 Oak Creek Gurdwara Letter,” August 4, 2022. https://www.sikhcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/2022-Oak-Creek-gurdwara-letter-website-final.pdf. 22. The White House. “FACT SHEET: Biden-Harris Administration Takes Action to Protect Places of Worship.” The White House, August 5, 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/08/05/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-takes-action-to-protect-places-of-worship/.
22 The White House. “FACT SHEET: Biden-Harris Administration Takes Action to Protect Places of Worship.” The White House, August 5, 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/08/05/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-takes-action-to-protect-places-of-worship/.