One year after a gunman murdered six people and wounded many more at a Sikh house of worship in Oak Creek, WI, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department will begin tracking hate crimes against Sikh Americans and six other groups for the first time in U.S. history. Sikh-Americans, along with Hindus, Arabs, Buddhists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Orthodox Christians who are victims of hate crimes will finally be counted on the Hate Crime Incident Report form.
Adding specific categories in federal hate crimes statistics may appear to be just a regular and mundane bureaucratic improvement. But in the Sikh community, the decision represents a major victory for civil rights—the direct result of an army of advocates and the courageous testimony of a teenager whose mother was murdered in a massacre.
Harpreet Singh Saini, a teenager whose mother was gunned down in the Oak Creek prayer hall on August 5, 2012, became the first Sikh in U.S. history to testify before Congress. A white supremacist had opened fire in the hall, marking the largest hate-based act of violence on a faith community since the 1963 church bombings of the civil rights era.
“I came here today to ask the government to give my mother the dignity of being as a statistic,” Saini said at the hearing. “The FBI does not track hate crimes against Sikhs. My mother and those shot that day will not even count on a federal form. We cannot solve a problem we refuse to recognize.”
One month after the deaths at Oak Creek, the town’s police chief, John Edwards, puzzled over the Hate Crime Incident Report Form for the federal government: "There is no box for me to record the six homicides at the gurdwara down the street as anti-Sikh crimes.” He asked, “How can we combat a problem we are not even measuring?"
The Oak Creek tragedy brought national attention to the threat of hate and discrimination that has become a daily part of life for millions of Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and Arab Americans. Hate crimes against these communities are now at their highest since 2001, and hate groups have been on an alarming rise, growing by more than 60% since 2000. Despite numerous requests by Sikh advocates throughout the last decade to address this pressing issue, the community became increasingly vulnerable to violence and officially invisible in hate crimes statistics.
In the aftermath of Oak Creek, Sikh-Americans renewed their call for an end to hate. Their work resulted in a historic Senate hearing on the rise of domestic terrorism and hate crimes in America last September 19.
For ten months, the Sikh Coalition, in partnership with other faith-based and civil rights organizations, waged a full-throated campaign. As a result of their advocacy, Congressman Joe Crowley, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Dick Durbin, and more than 100 bipartisan members of Congress supported the policy change. Four thousand people of all faiths signed petitions collected by the Sikh Coalition and Groundswell at Auburn Seminary. In June, the FBI advisory council finally voted to track hate crimes against Sikhs and other at-risk communities. The changes will be implemented by 2015.
"Having accurate information allows law enforcement leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about the allocation of resources and priorities—decisions that impact real people, and affect public safety in every neighborhood and community," Attorney General Eric Holder wrote. "Today, I am proud to report that we have taken steps to collect this information."
To be sure, many feel that the policy change was long overdue. It took a massacre and sustained organizing to achieve a small policy change that should have already been in place. In the meantime, Sikh Americans continue to face the threat of violence, vandalism, racial profiling, bullying, and employment discrimination—a fact made all too real by the brutal attack on elderly Sikh man Piara Singh in Fresno, California this May. Just a few days ago, a Sikh gurdwara in California was defaced, the word “Terrorist” spray painted along its walls.
However, this particular victory comes at a critical time. Many feel disappointed by Congress' failure to pass basic gun-violence legislation in the wake of Aurora and Newtown but we can look to Oak Creek as a beacon of hope and inspiration. In response to tragedy, one community rallied a groundswell to wage a focused campaign for concrete policy change—and won. It was a result of more than a decade of organization, infrastructure-building, public education, and partnerships since Sept. 11, 2001.
The victory deserves recognition. It is an example for anyone who strives to make social change.
At a federal courthouse in Milwaukee on Friday, where Oak Creek survivors and their community came together to honor their loved ones, U.S. Attorney James Santelle officially announced the decision.
“It makes me feel we did something for our mom,” said Saini, fighting back tears. “One year later, the grief feels the same as it did the day she died. But at least I know that she would be proud.”
As we mark the one-year anniversary of Oak Creek, Sikh advocates and their allies have already launched the next civil rights campaign, calling for the U.S. military to end a discriminatory policy that bars turbaned Sikhs and other people of faith from service. After all, the government must do more than track crimes to prevent hate; it must ensure that all people are free to live, work, worship, and serve as fellow Americans.
Valarie Kaur is an award-winning filmmaker, civil rights advocate, and interfaith leader. She is Senior Fellow at Auburn Seminary, where she founded Groundswell to help mobilize faith communities in social action. Kaur studied religion and law at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School, and Yale Law School, where she founded the Yale Visual Law Project. You can find her at www.valariekaur.com/blog and @valariekaur.
Sindhura Kodali of Groundswell contributed to this article.
How did a community rise out of the ashes of tragedy to heal – and effect lasting social change? Watch the short film “Oak Creek: In Memorium,” produced by Kaur and Sharat Raju.