On the morning of Aug. 5, 2012, the Sikh community in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, was preparing for Sunday services at their gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, when a gunman stormed the facility. Six worshippers lost their lives that day; a seventh passed from his paralyzing wounds in 2020. Still others were injured in the assault, including a responding police officer who was shot 14 times. Survivors were left with the grief of losing both loved ones and the sanctity of a sacred space.
A decade after Oak Creek, our country sits at an inflection point. Violent White nationalism, while endemic to our nation’s history and culture, has continued to reassert itself, with targeted mass casualty attacks against communities in Charleston, South Carolina; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Poway, California; El Paso, Texas; Atlanta; Buffalo, New York; and elsewhere. Gun violence remains largely unchecked in the face of these and other mass shootings.
Hate crimes targeting racial, religious, and other groups continue to rise each year. And in the face of these threats, our government is doing too little for us, repeatedly failing to take action to protect our communities, while doing too much to us by becoming increasingly bolder and more comfortable with rolling back our rights regarding voting, healthcare, and privacy. The attack on Oak Creek is not the root of this crisis, but for many Sikhs, it was an early warning signal of what was to come.
Oak Creek should have awakened our national conscience and propelled us to sweeping policy change. Now, other communities bear the cost of that initial failure to act.
Still, after Oak Creek, the Sikh community did not cower, waver, or retreat from public life. Embodying the spirit of chardi kala, or relentless optimism in the face of struggle, we chose instead to stand taller and get louder. We took to the halls of U.S. Congress, successfully testifying to call for the tracking of anti-Sikh hate crimes and fighting for stronger anti-discrimination legislation and policies.
But as much as this change was needed, it wasn’t sufficient on its own. After 10 years of further attacks on houses of worship and other public spaces, it is clear that we must do more. From common sense gun reform to building a more inclusive educational system to using their platforms to speak against bigotry and for diversity, there is a lot we need our elected officials in Washington, D.C., to do. But today, there are three pieces of legislation already in front of them on which they can act now.
First, Congress should make it easier for marginalized communities to secure our institutions. By passing the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act, they can increase the amount of money available for grants distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state administrative agencies that help gurdwaras, synagogues, mosques, churches, temples, and other houses of worship with “target hardening and other physical security enhancements.”
Second, we have to take care of the individuals who experience violent hate firsthand. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is currently unable to prosecute hate crimes where bias is not the sole reason for the perpetrator’s actions. This is an exceptionally high legal standard to meet, and it often boxes the federal government out of cases. The Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act, which was first introduced in 2020 and should be reintroduced in the upcoming legislative session, would close this loophole and allow the DOJ to take a more active role in hate-crime prosecution.
Third, we must orient our government to recognize the common thread between Oak Creek and so many other targeted acts of mass violence: White supremacy. The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act failed in the U.S. Senate shortly after the Buffalo shooting, but it must be reintroduced. The act would direct the DOJ, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security to “monitor, analyze, investigate, and prosecute” domestic terrorism, including the threat from racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists. It would also increase related trainings, task forces, and investigations. All of this can be done without inadvertently targeting Black and Brown communities like so many post-9/11 counterterrorism laws did.
Extreme acts of violence against houses of worship were a far less common horror a decade ago, and Oak Creek should have awakened our national conscience and propelled us to sweeping policy change. Now, other communities bear the cost of that initial failure to act. The chardi kala spirit we Sikhs practice has been exemplified by not just those in Oak Creek or other Sikhs who have weathered hate crimes, harassment, or bullying, but by all of the communities that have recently suffered targeted violence. And with that continued positive outlook, there has also been an incredible wave of love, unity, and forgiveness, a willingness to come together across disparate groups and to believe a better future is possible.
By choosing to take that vision, spirit, and determination forward to action, we can build a society defined by love, not fear — all to honor those we have lost and those who have persevered through tragedy.
Anisha Singh is the executive director of the Sikh Coalition, which advocates for the civil rights of Sikh Americans.