November 28, 2023

Wisconsin native Pardeep Kaleka was driving to the Wisconsin Sikh Temple when he learned there was an active shooter in the gurdwara — in the same place where his parents and several other colleagues were preparing a community meal.

His mother survived the attack on August 5, 2012, but his father, Satwant Kaleka;, not. He was one of them seven innocent pilgrims was killed by a sniper with ties to white nationalist neo-Nazi groups.

“This tragedy was heard, not only in the United States, but around the world,” Kaleka said Friday in a vigil memory of the event. “It resonated with every Sikh.”

Shooting became the deadliest target attack on Sikh Americans in US history. So while hate crimes were not a new concept for Sikh Americans, the attack in Oak Creek shocked the community, said Sim J. Attariwala, senior director of policy and advocacy for the Sikh Coalition.

“It was a somber day,” Attariwala told CBS News. “I think every Sikh I know, myself included, remembers exactly where they were when they heard the news of the Oak Creek shooting.”

In the 10 years since the attack, the threat of white nationalism and crimes against Sikhs and other American minority groups has grown, he said.

“Oak Creek can be seen as a warning of the increasingly violent and assertive role that white supremacy is meant to play in American society in the coming decade,” Attariwala said. “Our community, the AAPI community, the Latino community, the Black community, the Jewish community, the Muslim community — everybody, I think, has a heightened vigilance.”

Authorities such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have discovered that white supremacist groups are one of the most dangerous threats in the US, said Michael Lieberman of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Federal agencies “repeatedly identify what they believe to be the deadliest domestic threats today, which is number one: racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists who advocate white supremacy,” Lieberman told CBS News. “And two: violent extremists against the government or against authority.”

One way to potentially reduce those threats is to improve the way hate crime data is tracked in this country, he said. Local law enforcement agencies report hate crimes to the FBI only voluntarily — they are not required to do so. This means that there are likely to be many hate crimes that occur in the US not mentioned.

“Having that data and being serious about reporting the data would help us be able to allocate resources,” Lieberman said. “If you know there have been three anti-Muslim hate crimes in a particular neighborhood, you can increase police patrols and reassure the community by having civic leaders come out and talk to them.”

In addition to improving hate crime tracking, some activists are pushing for more federal funding for security provisions at places of worship. Sahej Preet Singh of the Sikh Coalition said while the Govt at present offers a grant to these institutions to get money, it’s a competitive process to actually get it.

“This grant really covers things like bulletproof glass, improving security alarms and installing new cameras and all of that. So this money really helps,” Singh told CBS News. “But right now, there’s a tight budget, so the competition is getting very, very tough.”

If the government is able to increase the budget allocated for this grant, more non-profit organizations and places of worship will be able to secure funding, he said.

Tragedies and hate crimes like the one in Oak Creek can be difficult for the communities they target, but Sikh Americans have turned their grief into motivation for change, Kaleka told CBS News.

“What happened that day did not deter us from realizing that we have a role to play in America. It just made us more determined,” he said. “In times of grief and suffering, sometimes it brings out the worst in us. But for us, I think it brought out the best in us.”

Lieberman said the world can look to the Sikh Americans’ response to the attack as an example of how to take action in the face of tragedy. So far, they’ve gotten the FBI to start tracking the number of hate crimes specifically affecting Sikhs, launched a National Seva Day, known as selfless service in which they encourage people to participate in a form of community service, and helped dozens of gurdwaras apply for the federal security grant.

“The resilience that the community has shown and the way they have commemorated those who were murdered is through action,” he said. “The fact that so many members of this community recognize that there is a way to try to make things better, not just for the Sikh American community, but for everyone, that’s really a best practice for communities.

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