It has been 7 years to the day Aug. 5, when a 40-year old white male, Wade Michael Page, walked into the Oak Creek, Wisconsin Gurdwara shooting indiscriminately and killing 6 people and ultimately taking his own life.
What is happening to that Indian-American community of Sikhs, who survived and lost loved ones? Talking to some of them on the 7th anniversary, their resilience shines through.
Not many around the nation recall the 2012 incident when they talk of the horrific gun violence that took place this past weekend in El Paso and Dayton.
There too mothers, fathers, wives, daughters and sons were left bereft, and a police officer seriously wounded. The FBI interviewed some 300 people and followed 200 leads (npr.org), in that Wisconsin gurdwara massacre, but could not find any white supremacist linkage for Page’s motivation. Unlike the El Paso shooter, Page did not appear to have connections to white supremacist groups, the investigators said. But Page did sport a “slew of white supremacist tattoos on both arms and lower legs,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
Over the years, the Sikh community in the U.S. has mobilized on the issue of gun control and gun laws on Capitol Hill and beyond, having borne the brunt of hate crimes around the country. The National Sikh Campaign to raise awareness about this community was an idea born out of that tragic incident.
Back in 2012, Amardeep Kaleka, the older son of late Satwant Singh Kaleka, president of the Oak Creek Gurdwara killed by Page, said “Our chief focus now is that we are interested in what we can do as a nation to stop this from ever happening again,” the Journal Sentinel reported.
Today, Pardeep Singh Kaleka, the other son of Satwant Singh, sounded frustrated when interviewed by Desi Talk. He feels Indian-Americans in the Midwest, are not doing enough to advocate against gun violence and for gun laws. He told Desi Talk, “The problem is our community does not remember it (tragedy) every day. We are busy building businesses and buying houses. It’s hard to get the Sikh community out of the gurdwara, Hindus out of the temple, or Muslims out of the mosques. It is different in the big cities like New York and Los Angeles in the East and West coast, but not in the Midwest,” he said.
This August 5, when this correspondent called the Oak Creek Gurdwara, Paramjeet “Pammi” Kaur answered the phone. She had come early that morning with a friend to begin a marathon cooking session for a wedding of a friend’s son scheduled for Aug. 9.
“We do not have any commemoration today (for the 2012 massacre),” she said, adding, “We will have the Akhand Paath on Friday (Aug. 9) in the memory of those who died.”
For a person who felt the shrapnel from the gun shots Page pounded the kitchen door with, “Pammi” as she likes to be called, sounds upbeat, even happy about the traditional sweets and salty snacks they were busy making — “Laddoo, Shakkar Parey, aur Matthian” – long-term planning for the Aug. 9 wedding celebrations.
But she has not forgotten a single detail of what transpired 7 years ago the day Page walked in guns blazing, and she was in that same kitchen with a friend working over cauldrons of food for the langar, the free meal served to the congregation and anyone else who cared to come to the temple, after the prayers.
“If he had come in we would be dead. My friend and I felt some shrapnel in our feet. Fifteen of us hid in the pantry. He probably thought we had run out when he came in. I saw his face and he had a gun in each hand,” remembers Pammi.
“I thought to myself, perhaps it is because we have served in the temple that the Lord has his hand over our heads to protect us that day,” she said.
While holed up in the pantry, the food on the stoves outside began burning and smoking up the area. People were feeling suffocated and only one bottle of water could be found. They each took a sip and passed it on. It seemed a story reminiscent of Jesus’ loaves and fishes.
“All the food we cooked got burnt because I was not able to turn the burners off before rushing into the pantry,” Pammi recalls speaking in Hindi and Punjabi. Someone called 911 to inform them the people were stuck in the pantry as smoke was building, and after 45 minutes, Fire Department people came and took them out, she said.
Meanwhile, today, Aug. 5, 2019, Pardeep Singh Kaleka is getting ready to go to a vigil for El Paso and Dayton victims. He is being joined by a group of Oak Creek Gurdwara members, including the current President Sukhwinder Singh, who told Desi Talk, the temple does an annual Akhand Paath for the families that suffered and those who died in 2012. “But today we are going to Walker Park in Milwaukee for the vigil being held for the recent shooting.”
More than 40 organizations and the Mayor’s office are going to be there in Walker Park, Pardeep Singh Kaleka told Desi Talk. He has been a vocal advocate for gun control and gun safety, testifying before Congress, meeting the FBI and Homeland Security representatives to make the case for adding Sikhs on the data collection roster for hate crimes etc. Asked if he saw any results of his work, especially in light of the recent shootings, he said, “When something like this happens you feel you are not seeing results. But then you think if you are not doing anything how much worse it could be.”
“We have 400 million guns in this country, more than for each man, woman and child. This cannot be resolved in 7 years, maybe not even in my lifetime, or my children’s lifetime,” Pardeep Singh Kaleka ruminated. “My biggest issue right now is the Sikh community, the Indian-American community getting involved – it needs to go out, to show up. We are losing our culture, our children. We are doing sewa for those inside our gurdwara not the outside world.”
He urged those in the Midwest to “show courage.”
“When have we as Sikhs lost our courage? When did we say we want to be only with Sikhs? That is not Sikhi,” Pardeep Singh Kaleka admonished. “These things happen because not everyone stands up. As a leader, if I am not able to inspire and make more leaders, then I am a ‘nikamma’ (useless) leader,” he said, critical of himself.
However, today is not about themselves, he indicated. “Today’s rally in Walker Park is for the Latino community, for El Paso, for Dayton, the cities where the horrific incidents took place,” he emphasized.