One Year After Tragedy: Oak Creek, WI's Relentless Optimism | Not in Our Town

One Year After Tragedy: Oak Creek, WI's Relentless Optimism


By Patrice O’Neill and Charene Zalis
How can a community remember a massacre? In August, the NIOT film team returned to Oak Creek, Wisconsin to honor the lives lost on the anniversary of the hate-driven killings at the Sikh Temple on Aug. 5, 2012, and to witness the community in action.
From this small Milwaukee suburban town of less than 35,000 people, we have seen so much transformation and healing. One year is a short time, but our film tries to capture some of the stories and actions from the families who were devastated, and the community that embraced them.
Here’s a chronicle of the events we covered one year after the tragedy that reverberated for Sikhs around the world, and forever changed the community of Oak Creek, Wisconsin. 


It was a sunny and clear 80-degree day as more than 1,000 residents gathered on Aug. 3 at the Oak Creek High School football field for the first annual Chardi Kala 6K Run. Bright blue bracelets carried the run’s namesake and message, “Relentless Optimism” in Punjab, and that spirit of hope was evident in the speeches by leaders, police officers, family members of the victims, and by the enthusiasm in the crowd of runners and walkers. Harpreet Singh, whose mother died in the temple, gave a Sikh call to action to start the race: Six kilometers, one for each of the victims. In shorts and in saris, the community cheered and started the run.

As they left the track, a flank of motorcycle club members cheered them on, then followed the race as security squad. The band of bikers travels across the country to shield communities from groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, a hate group that targets gay groups, veterans, Jews and disaster victims with bigoted messages (see other creative community responses to hate groups). The Sikh Heads, a biker group formed after the Sikh Temple shootings was on hand to ride with the Patriot Riders.
Kanwardeep Kaleka, Sikh temple member and medical researcher, was joined by Mayor Steve Scaffidi as runners and walkers made their final sprint to the finish line. The race came about during a meeting between young Sikh temple members and city leaders. “This is who we are now,” said Scaffidi after he finished the race. "I’m committed to doing this every year, and continuing to do things like this as we move forward.”


Reminders of the scene in the temple kitchen a year earlier were present, but the greetings for us were warm. Hugs and broad smiles greeted us. Piles of cucumbers and onions were being peeled and chopped by a dozen women, and rolls of dough hit the griddle. The dishes they prepared would feed literally feed thousands of people in Langar meals throughout the weekend. 

Satpal Kaleka was in the corner with steam rising into her face as she stirred a massive pot of beans. Her husband Satwant Kaleka, temple president, was killed a year before, as she and 14 other women hid inside the pantry off the kitchen. Mrs. Kaleka is now vice president of the temple, in a community that her son Amardeep describes as “traditionally patriarchal.”
As we were leaving, a young woman who was helping us navigate the kitchen packaged some bread for us to take along. The naan was some of the best we’ve ever tasted—hot and filled with onion. The soulful tastes that emerge from that kitchen are the source of powerful and persistent memories.  


Milwaukee interfaith leaders, many of whom had mobilized immediately after the killings, called on congregations to remember the six who were killed at their services on the anniversary weekend.  

On Friday evening, we attended a service at Congregation Shalom where Rabbi Ronald Shapiro honored the Sikh community members in his sermon and lit Shabbat candles in their memory.
On Sunday, congregations across Milwaukee said prayers of remembrance. Oak Creek Community United Methodist Church held a Love Thy Neighbor service, lighting candles for each of those killed a year earlier. The Sagan Mueller family talked about the Sikhs of Oak Creek they met at a Thanksgiving service last year.
“There was this guy with a long beard talking to my mother, so I thought I’d better go over and find out what was going on,” said Rob Sagan Mueller. Then he started to break down. “This gentleman’s name is Kanwardeep Kaleka.” 
Kanwardeep is one of the key voices in our upcoming film. Rob’s voice quivered when he spoke about how much he had learned from Kanwardeep and other members of the temple, and how much they had taught him about love and compassion in the face of tragedy.
Although they are Methodists, they now regularly attend temple events and services. Rob and Nancy Sagan Mueller’s 8-year-old daughter Anastasia, who has had trouble with bullying in school, spoke about how accepted she felt by the children at the Sikh temple. “I’m not different to them, I’m just a girl,” she said.
As music filled the worship area and Langar Hall, thousands of people poured into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on Saturday morning, removing their shoes and covering their heads with the white scarves waiting at the door.
Among those who gathered for the memorial and prayer service was Lt. Brian Murphy, who is now a hero to many Sikhs. Lt. Murphy was critically wounded a year as the first responder to the shootings, and it was difficult for Lt. Murphy and his wife Ann to make it to the Langar Hall as so many people stopped to hug him or shake his hand. 
Murphy, Mayor Scaffidi and Police Chief John Edwards were ushered into the front of the worship hall as the speeches began in this ceremony. They were joined by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and US Attorney James Santelle, who has been persistent voice in support of temple members to federal authorities.

Lt. Murphy, who was shot 15 times defending the temple one year ago, spoke emotionally about how the six victims gave him his voice back after a bullet ripped apart his larynx in the attack.

“My voice is no longer what it was, but like the other six victims who lost their voices permanently, and mine that has been diminished, that voice has been replaced by everyone here, the voice of Chardi Kala, the voice of going forward and moving ahead, during the darkest times for all of us," Lt. Murphy said.

Police Chief Edwards spoke at the memorial as well. “The City of Oak Creek did come together after this tragedy, but you have to understand it is because of the response we received from you, ” said Edwards.

"Brian (LT. Murphy)  and I have been doing this for a long time. We’ve seen some of the worst things men can do to to men. I’ve never had victims stop and ask me how I was doing. The compassion you showed, I’ve never had that happen to me as a police officer."

Edwards told the crowd of worshippers and guests who gathered at the temple that many of the officers of the Oak Creek Police Department regularly visit and attend services at the Sikh Temple. He added that “they are now addicted to the tea at the gudwara.”

James Santelle opened his remarks at the temple in Punjab. The US Attorney has not only brought the power of the Justice Department to bear in support of the Sikh community, he has become a part of temple life, attending services at the gurdwara, and visiting with victims families. He has worked with the immigration service to help secure the status of temple members and their families, and has secured a line of communication and support from the offices of the Sikh temple and the community. (The US Attorney hosted hundreds of Sikhs and community members at a memorial  event at the Federal Building on Aug. 2  in downtown Milwaukee.)

VIDEO: Lt. Murphy, Chief Edwards and US Attorney Santelle speak at the memorial service at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin

A group of women we had met earlier at the Methodist church gathered outside an open door to hear the talks, sitting next to Congresswoman Gwen Moore, who noted her strong support for the recent recognition of crimes against Sikhs in hate crime reporting to the FBI.

At the end of the afternoon, I had a chance to sit in the Langar Hall with Valarie Kaur from Groundswell, who is also working on a film about the temple killings and the Sikh community. Over the most revitalizing Chai tea served at the temple, we discussed our films and engagement efforts to raise awareness about actions in the aftermath of the killings.  

There were many cameras at the temple that day. Amardeep Kaleka is producing a film called Peacemakers. It’s about his own experience and the events at the temple, but also about the quest to address violence across the country. While the temple killings are the central dramatic moment of our stories, each of the films from Valarie, Amardeep and Not In Our Town provide different insights into the event and the aftermath.  We have all agreed to support each other and use our joined forces to get these stories into the world.

Kamal and Harpreet Kaur Singh

A year ago on this day at 10 a.m., Paramjit Kaur tried to wake her sons Kamal and Harpreet to go with her to the Temple. “That was the last time I saw her,” Kamal Singh said.

Kamal, 21, and Harpreet, 19, sat in front of the shrine they have created and told us about their Mom. The shrine in their window holds the shoes their mother wore the day she died,  her jewelry, and a piece of the rug where her blood was spilled at the temple.

“She was a very unselfish woman. She sacrificed what she wanted for herself to give us what we needed. It was always her wants versus our needs and till that last day, we both look at her as a guardian angel,” Kamal said.

They only have each other now.

Talking to them on this day—one year after their mother tried to wake them, hearing about their endless wait until the FBI finally identified the names of the lost—was one of the was one of the saddest moments we’ve experienced as filmmakers. Kamal was determined to stay strong and to tell us how they have tried to move forward, go to Washington, DC to testify in a Senate hearing about the need to report hate crimes of Sikhs, and continue with college.

Kamal was a voice for Harpreet, whose sense of loss seemed as present one year later. Harpreet wiped tears away as his brother spoke. Both Kamal and Harpreet want to go into law enforcement.  

On the day of the one-year anniversary vigil for the six victims, the forecast predicted a 100 percent chance of rain. But hours later, Pardeep Kaleka told the dry audience of more than 1,000 that his Dad gave him a sign that it wasn’t going to rain.  

Pardeep and Amardeep Kaleka have taken the anger and pain over their father’s death and turned it into a mission to draw attention to the epidemic of gun violence and the hope that young people represent in our ability to address it.

Amardeep Kaleka is directing a documentary called Peacemakers ( It’s about the events at the temple and how they connect to a wider national trend in violence.  He invited survivors from Virginia Tech, Columbine, Aurora, and Sandy Hook amongst others to shed light on this problem and  to join the one year anniversary vigil in Oak Creek.  

Pardeep and a former white supremacist Arno Michaelis give regular talks and sponsor art programs in schools through a newly found youth led project called Serve 2 Unite.

As sunset neared and people gathered behind the temple, the names of hundreds of victims of gun violence were being read from the stage. As candles were lit, representatives from more than 40 groups provided messages of support. The sister of a teacher killed in Newtown and a friend of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who was there when she was shot were joined by many others who expressed shared sorrow, support and commitment to end violence.

The saddest part of the vigil occurred when each of the families of the victims—the six who were killed included Sita Singh, 41, Ranjit Singh, 49 , Satwant Singh Kaleka, 62 , Prakash Singh, 39, Paramjit Kaur, 41, and Suveg Singh Katara, 84 and Punjab Singh, who still lies in a coma after the shooting—spoke about their loved ones.
For some, like Harpreet and Kamal Singh, the tears had come earlier, and the positive messages and memories about their mother Paramjit were shared. Son of another slain temple member told the crowd that for him, the killer had been forgiven. “There is no question that the victim families are praying for his soul,” he said.

Mrs. Kaleka, flanked by sons Pardeep and Amardeep, remembered their husband and father, and told people at the vigil how much their embraces and actions of support had helped them through both sadness and anger.

The wail and the weeping of 15-year-old Gurvinder Singh was gripping and unforgettable. We had spoken to Gurvinder a few days earlier. He had not seen his father since he was seven months old, and was only able to come to the US after his death. “But I know that you love me, and it helps so much,” he said.
The sadness was present, but the weekend was so filled with hope and a commitment to action.The diverse crowd was filled with Oak Creek residents and Milwaukeeans including Sikh community members, priests, rabbis, imams, Red Cross Volunteers, parents with children, and seniors.
Mayor Scaffidi sounded a hopeful note at the vigil about change. “It doesn't matter that we're 35,000 people—small towns, small cities in America often drive larger cities and larger discussion. We can accomplish things that set examples across the nation, we can make a change that's real.”

Toward the end of the vigil, a young vocal group from Milwaukee working with Serve2Unite livened the crowd with their version of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes anthem, "Wake Up Everybody":

Wake up everybody no more sleepin in bed
No more backward thinkin time for thinkin ahead
The world has changed so very much
From what it used to be so
there is so much hatred war an' poverty

The world won't get no better if we just let it be
The world won't get no better we gotta change it yeah, just you and me.

Oak Creek is awake.


 This was an extremely moving piece.


We look forward to seeing the documentary.





 Thank you, Marilyn. We look forward to sharing the film in communities across the U.S. and around the world. We are learning so much from the people of Oak Creek.  Patrice

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