Just 45 days after his mother was murdered by a white supremacist in her house of worship, Harpreet Singh Saini found the courage to testify at a historic Senate hearing on Wednesday of this week. Saini’s mother was killed on August 5 when Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and opened fire.
“I want to protect other people from what happened to my mother,” Saini told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee, chaired by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. “I want to combat hate –- not just against Sikhs but against all people.”
Harpreet Saini was not alone. Tears flowed from the eyes of the more than 400 attendees who sat behind him in the Senate hearing room and in the overflow room. Both rooms were packed with people of many communities impacted by hate, including Sikh Americans. Saini was the first Sikh in U.S. history to testify before the Senate on civil rights, and the congressional hearing is the first in U.S. history held in response to hate crimes against Sikh Americans -- a community targeted by hate and discrimination since 9/11 and long before.
But those were not the only reasons why the Senate hearing was historic.
While Congress has held dozens of hearings on the threat of al Qaeda and its affiliates, this was the first hearing in recent history on the threat of homegrown hate. It confronted us with hard truth: the tragedy in Oak Creek -– and the murder of Saini’s mother –- may have been preventable. Will a hearing that made history also have the power to make the future? Will it prevent another Oak Creek?
The answer lies in whether the U.S. government pursues the solutions proposed by Saini and other witnesses before the subcommittee.
First, the government could begin to track hate crimes against Sikhs. The FBI’s Hate Crime Incident Report form does not include a category for anti-Sikh crimes, even though Sikh organizations have requested data collection for two years.
“Senators, I came here today to ask the government to give my mother the dignity of (at least) being a statistic,” Saini said. “My mother and those shot that day will not even count on a federal form.”
Sen. Durbin told Justice Department witness Roy Austin that he supported Saini’s request and that the government was moving too slowly on requests for data collection. Austin responded that the agency will consider whether to recommend the policy change in October.
Second, the government must invest resources into combating violent right-wing domestic terrorism. The Southern Poverty Law Center had tracked the Oak Creek gunman Wade Michael Page for a decade, but the government did not have a case on him. “I believe the government could have tracked him long before he went on a shooting spree,” testified Saini.
“Was there a breakdown in intelligence here?” Sen. Durbin directly asked FBI witness Michael Clancy. “Was he being tracked by our intelligence community? Were there any warnings to the Sikh community?”
Clancy responded that the FBI was only aware of Page as a “peripheral figure” and did not have information that he posed a threat to any group. But former DHS analyst witness, Daryl Johnson, suggested that the government had effectively turned a blind eye to right-wing domestic extremism.
At DHS, Johnson authored a 2009 report on the alarming rise of white supremacist hate groups, notably anti-government groups, after President Obama’s election. The Department of Homeland Security caved into the political backlash and shut down Johnson’s team of five. It left just one analyst to focus on domestic terrorism by non-Muslims in a time of “heightened extremist activity throughout the country.”
In order to prevent another Oak Creek, the President must make it a national priority to respond to violent domestic extremism, in ways consistent with our commitment to civil liberties. In 1996, President Clinton responded to the large number of attacks on African American churches as a national priority. He created a presidential level inter-agency task force and by the end of the 1990s, attacks decreased by more than half. Recent attacks on Sikh and Muslim Americans, including at mosques and gurdwaras, deserve the same attention.
It is unfortunate that investigating extremism in the Muslim American community writ large still captures more national concern than the focus on violent right-wing hate groups. It is a little-known fact that there have been twice as many attacks on U.S. soil by white supremacist groups than by al-Qaeda inspired groups since Sept. 11, 2001. Perhaps white or Christian terrorists do not fit cleanly into a decade-long narrative that casts all terrorists as Muslims. It’s time to retire that old narrative and collaborate to combat hate in all forms – and on behalf of all people.
“Finally, Senators, I ask that you stand up for us,” asked Saini. “As lawmakers and leaders, you have the power to shape public opinion. Your words carry weight. When others scapegoat or demean people because of who they are, use your power to say that is wrong.”
This election season –- as the economy is recovering, guns are easily accessible, and violent right-wing hate groups are on the rise –- we need our elected officials to foster a political climate that makes hateful rhetoric unacceptable. As Senator Durbin noted, when President Bush repeated in the months after 9/11 that we were not at war with Muslims, anti-Muslim hate crimes eventually fell. They are now being committed at their highest rate since 2001.
The Senate hearing provided reason to hope that will change. When Sikh advocates called for partners to join them in standing against hate, more than 80 organizations representing communities of many races, religions, ethnicities and orientations submitted statements for the record. After the hearing, African American, Asian American, Latino, Muslim, Sikh, and LGBTQ leaders stood to shoulder to shoulder at a press conference in a show of solidarity.
This time, it was Saini who had tears in his eyes.
"I still believe in the American dream," Saini concluded. “In my mother’s memory, I ask that you stand up for it with me. Today. And in the days to come."
Let’s heed his call.
Valarie Kaur is an award-winning filmmaker, civil rights advocate, and interfaith organizer. She is the founding director of Groundswell, an initiative at Auburn Seminary that combines storytelling and advocacy to mobilize faith communities in social action. Her 2008 documentary "Divided We Fall" (co-directed with Sharat Raju) was the first feature film on hate crimes against Sikh Americans after 9/11. Kaur studied religion and law at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School, and Yale Law School, where she now directs the Yale Visual Law Project. You can find her at her blog, and on Twitter at @valariekaur.
You can watch Saini's testimony below, and we advise you to also read Valarie's full statement for the congressional record. You can also sign Groundswell's petition asking the FBI track hate crimes against Sikhs by clicking here.