A decade after the Oak Creek shooting, Sikh community members and experts are pushing for improved policies and resources

A decade after the Oak Creek shooting, Sikh community members and experts are pushing for improved policies and resources

Wisconsin native Pardeep Kaleka was driving to the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin when he learned that it was an active shooter in the gurdwara – the same place where his parents and several other congregations prepared a communal meal.

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

“This tragedy was heard, not just in the United States, but around the world,” Kaleka said Friday at a vigil commemorating the incident. “It resonated with every single Sikh.”

The shooting became the deadliest target attack on Sikh Americans in American History. So while hate crimes were not a new concept to Sikh Americans, the Oak Creek attack sent shock waves through the community, said Sim J. Attariwala, a senior policy and advocacy manager at the Sikh Coalition.

“It was a somber day,” Attariwala told CBS News. “I think every Sikh I know, including myself, 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 increased, he said.

“Oak Creek can be seen as a warning about the increasingly violent and assertive role that white supremacy has set out to play in American society over the next decade,” Attariwala said. “Our community, the AAPI community, the Latino community, the black community, the Jewish community, the Muslim community — they’re all, I think, in a heightened sense of vigilance.”

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

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

One way to potentially reduce these threats going forward is to improve the way hate crime data is tracked in this country, he said. Local law enforcement agencies only report hate crimes to the FBI voluntarily – they are not required to. This means that many hate crimes that occur in the United States are likely to go unreported.

“Having that data and taking the reporting of that data seriously would help to 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 community leaders go out and talk to them.”

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

“This grant actually covers things like bulletproof glass, improving security alarms, and installing new cameras and all that. So this money really helps,” Singh told CBS News. “But at the moment there’s a limited budget, so the competition is going to be really, really tough.”

If the government is able to increase the budget 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 targeted, but Sikh Americans have turned heartbreak into a motivator for change, Kaleka told CBS News.

“What happened that day did not deter us from understanding that we have a role to play in America. It only made us more determined,” he said. “In times of grief and suffering, it sometimes 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 Sikh Americans’ response to the attack as an example of how to take action in the face of tragedy. So far, they have prompted the FBI to begin tracking the number of hate crimes affecting Sikhs specifically, initiated a National Day of Seva, otherwise known as Selfless Service, encouraging people to engage in some form of community service, and helped dozens of gurdwaras apply for the federal security grant.

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

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