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An Act of Terror: Remembering and honoring the Sikh worshippers killed in Wisconsin 10 years ago

On the morning of Aug. 5, 2012 – 10 years ago today – a white supremacist with a long history of involvement in the neo-Nazi movement attacked a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, as worshippers were preparing a communal meal for later in the day. 

In what then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. called “an act of terrorism, an act of hatred, a hate crime,” the gunman killed six people — Satwant Singh Kaleka, Paramjit Kaur, Prakash Singh, Ranjit Singh, Sita Singh and Suveg Singh — and wounded several others.

On March 2, 2020, Baba Punjab Singh, a Sikh priest who was shot in the head and was partially paralyzed during the attack, died as a result of his injuries.

I have so much respect for families and communities that can emerge from horrific acts of hate crimes and channel their sadness and pain into advocacy for positive change. That is what happened after the murders at Oak Creek. They and other grieving family and community members have played an essential role in improving hate crime prevention and response over the past 10 years.

Under the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 (HCSA), the FBI is required to prepare an annual report quantifying hate crimes reported to it by the more than 18,000 federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies across the country. Though clearly incomplete — because, for one thing, reporting by the agencies is voluntary — the HCSA report is now the best national snapshot of hate violence in the United States.

After the Sikh worshippers were murdered, I remember when then-Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards poignantly highlighted the fact that the FBI hate crime incident report form had no place for an “anti-Sikh” hate crime — only “anti-other” religion from those listed. Almost immediately, the Southern Poverty Law Center and a large coalition of civil rights, religious and education groups came together to advocate for hearings on hate violence and improved hate crime data — including disaggregated data that would include anti-Sikh hate crimes. The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings in September 2012 and included testimony from Harpreet Singh Saini, whose mother was killed in Oak Creek.  

The SPLC and many other coalition groups submitted statements for the record, urging action to improve response to hate violence. We argued that collecting specific data on anti-Sikh and other types of hate crimes would increase public awareness, encourage victims to report these crimes, and expand trust and engagement with law enforcement authorities. And we were successful.

In June 2013, the FBI’s Advisory Policy Board voted to recommend that the FBI add a number of categories in its tracking of hate crimes – including offenses committed against Sikhs, Hindus, Arabs, Buddhists, Mormons and others. The first anti-Sikh hate crime data was included in the 2015 HCSA report. In 2020, the most recent data available, the FBI reported 89 anti-Sikh hate crimes, the highest figure recorded to date. The FBI’s comprehensive, recently updated Hate Crime Data Collection Guidelines and Training Manual now includes a special section on “Identifying Anti-Sikh Hate Crimes.”

Over the past 10 years, other families and communities have heroically responded to hate crime tragedies by stepping forward to advocate for positive change.

  • The parents of Lt. Richard Collins III, a Bowie State University senior who was murdered in a bias-motivated crime at the University of Maryland in 2017, helped lead a successful advocacy campaign to expand and clarify Maryland’s state hate crime law in 2020.
  • In May 2021, responding to thousands of incidents of violence, harassment and intimidation directed against Asian American and Pacific Islander community members – many inspired by racist and xenophobic rhetoric by then-President Trump and others involving false conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic – Congress enacted the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act.
  • The new law includes provisions named after two other hate crime victims, Khalid Jabara – shot and killed outside his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2016 – and Heather Heyer, who was killed during the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Both families actively advocated for enactment of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which authorizes incentive grants to stimulate improved local and state hate crime training, community prevention initiatives and grants for state hate crime reporting hotlines.

At an event for the anniversary of the enactment of the new law, the Department of Justice announced a series of new initiatives to address hate violence, including especially well-crafted guidance prepared jointly by the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services. The guidance provides information on engaging and building partnerships with AAPI and Muslim, Arab, Sikh, South Asian and Hindu communities. The updated Justice Department hate crime website now includes information in 24 languages, including 18 of the most frequently spoken AAPI and South Asian languages in the United States.

As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the racist attack at Oak Creek, we honor the memory of those victims and applaud the courage, activism and commitment their families and the families of too many others killed in acts of hate and terror have displayed in working to improve hate crime response and prevention initiatives for all Americans.

Top picture: Sikh women and men hold candles during a prayer vigil at the Sikh Religious Society temple in Palatine, Illinois, on Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. The vigil was held in memoriam of those killed and wounded in a Sikh temple shooting near Milwaukee. (Credit: Mark Welsh/Daily Herald/AP Photo)