More than a thousand gathered by candlelight last night in Union Square in turbans, bandanas or scarves. Many held up signs: “I Am A Sikh,” and “All-American. All Sikh.” Others held up the faces of the six Sikhs killed in Sunday’s Oak Creek, Wisconsin Sikh temple massacre: Prakash Singh, 39; Sita Singh, 41; Paramjit Kaur, 41; Ranjit Singh, 49; Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65; and Suveg Singh, 84. One mourner held a sign with a portrait of Lieutenant Brian Murphy, 51, who took nine bullets at close range when he stopped to help a victim.
Some of the onlookers wore red, white and blue t-shirts that read “We Are All Sikhs,” though it was hard to believe that. Surely soldier-turned-neo-Nazi-turned-white power metal band journeyman-turned-legal gun owner-turned-killer, 40-year-old Wade Michael Page, who walked into a place of worship and tried to kill everyone in sight before finally, mercifully, turning his weapon upon himself didn’t believe that. And surely many in the crowd who were black, white, Latino, Asian, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, agnostic and otherwise didn’t believe that, either. But they gathered still to observe as one onlooker, Sikh Coalition Chairman Narinder Singh, put it, “is not a Sikh tragedy. It’s an American tragedy.”
Gurpreet Singh spoke to the Village Voice about where he was when he heard news of the shooting. “I was in the middle of the fantasy football draft,” he said. “And the host’s wife came down to the basement and said, ‘Hey guys, there’s something that happened. Sikhs were shot at.’ I ran up, and when they said on TV something like six to 20 shot, immediately my heart sank.”
Page’s rampage is just the most recent in a long line of crimes against the Sikh community, especially after the attacks on September 11, 2001. Following the attacks, many Americans mistook Sikhs for Muslims. On September 15, 2001, a Sikh storeowner was gunned down outside of his gas station by Frank Silva Roque, who merely said, “”I’m a patriot and an American. I’m American. I’m a damn American.” On January 30, 2009, three men attacked Jasmir Singh outside of a grocery store in Queens. One used a bottle, and the victim was blinded in his left eye. (No one knows how many cases of hate crimes there have been against Sikh Americans in the last 11 years, though it numbers in the thousands. There were over 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikh victims in the first month after the 9/11 attacks alone.)
On Sunday, newscasters all over the country reporting on the Wisconsin temple shootings repeated the disclaimer, “Sikhs are not Muslims.” No one even knows if Page particularly targeted Sikhs or if it was an accident of tragic mistaken identity. Sona Rai, a Sikh living in New York who notified the Voice of the event and served as our guide of sorts, touched on the subject over the amplified din of the vigil’s speakers.
“We don’t know if he [ thought we were Muslims or not,” Rai said. “But my point is, it doesn’t matter. This was a hate crime.”
“It’s not about gun laws,” Narinder Singh said at the vigil. “It’s about educating our children when they’re young in school.” According to Singh, the danger to minorities starts when Americans are young, when they’re taught how to hate, and whom. That’s why, Narinder Singh says, the nationwide Sikh Coalition has aggressively pursued legislation against bullying, discrimination and profiling.
“I get checked 100 percent of the time I’m at an airport,” he said. “What’s that teach other people? It trains them.”
Then he stopped talking. The vigil was coming to a close. Someone started to chant, and voices rose to join his. They were speaking in Punjabi, Rai said. A lot of the mourners didn’t understand what was being said, but they still mouthed along and raised one hand in the air along with the Sikh participants. Then everyone started singing, also in Punjabi, and though the words were a mystery, it was still haunting, sad. There was a rustle as one young, white man weaved through the crowd outward, toward the periphery. He palmed a video camera in his right hand over his head to scan the crowd and held his left arm up in front and away from his face. We locked eyes.
“I’ve got goosebumps!” he said, almost disbelievingly. Then he was gone.