Sikhs In America: A History Of Hate
Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
THE 1907 EPISODE in a seaside timber town in Washington came to be known as the Bellingham Riots. Really, though, there were no riots. There was a pogrom.
At the time, the U.S. was suffering through deep economic distress, a panic-filled recession that had begun the year before. Angry anti-immigrant sentiment was ascendant. And hundreds of Sikh men who had traveled from India to Bellingham to toil in the lumber mills paid the price.
Some 500 white men, many of them members of the local Asiatic Exclusion League, descended on the Sikhs and other South Asians, routing them from the bunkhouses where they roomed and chasing them into the streets. Within hours, the entire Sikh population of Bellingham had fled, frantically piling onto trains and boats in search of some sort of refuge. Many had been physically battered.
I knew nothing about this incident until I visited Washington state this spring and met with members of the Sikh community there. For them, it was easy to draw at least some parallels between that century-old ugliness and recent events. Immigrants were again being demonized. Lost jobs were fueling white working-class despair and resentment. Hate crimes were reported to be up. Yelling, “Get out of my country!” a gunman had shot two Indian software engineers in an Applebee’s restaurant in Kansas. Closer to home, in Kent, a suburb of Seattle, a man had shot a Sikh in an apparent hate crime.
A few weeks after the shooting, on a gray March day, I met Hira Singh Bhullar at a café in Kent. “The shooting happened four or five blocks from here,” he said, gesturing in the direction of the crime scene with his finger.
Bhullar, who works in the IT department at the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, was shaken. He’d lived for a time in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He never felt entirely safe there, always worried that somebody would accost or attack him.
But Bhullar had never felt threatened in Washington. Sure, some racists had posted mean comments on his Facebook page when he ran for the Kent City Council. Still, he didn’t take that kind of internet obnoxiousness too seriously. Now, though, things seemed different. He worried about what seemed to him to be a metastasizing meanness towards immigrants and members of minority religions.
Persecution is something Sikhs know well. Their faith began with the teachings of Guru Nanak, born to a peasant family in 1469 in the Punjab region of South Asia, an area that stretches from eastern Pakistan to the northwest edge of India. Nanak’s message was decidedly oppositional, challenging the authority of the region’s two dominant religions, Hinduism and Islam; some scholars compare Nanak’s spiritual revolution to Christianity’s protestant reformation, which was unfolding in Europe at the same time.
Equality — between man and woman, preacher and congregant, ruler and serf, high-born and the untouchable — was central to Nanak’s theology. What has developed over the past 500 years is a monotheistic faith with a heavy emphasis on social justice. Sikh temples, or gurdwaras, make a point of feeding anyone who needs a meal.
Of course, not everyone appreciated his teachings. Early Sikh gurus, or prophets, were tortured to death by the region’s rulers.
There are an estimated 500,000 Sikhs living in the U.S., many in New York and California. In recent years, Yuba City, California, a small city in the middle of the Sacramento Valley, has become a major hub for Sikhs — Yuba City’s annual Nagar Kirtan parade, a key holy event, draws as many as 150,000 people from around the world.
In the U.S., Sikhs are a frequent target for xenophobes and haters. They are often immigrants or the children of immigrants. They tend to have brown skin. And their garb and personal grooming practices set them apart. Following the directives of the gurus, observant male Sikhs do not cut their hair — ever — and many keep their locks covered by a turban whenever they leave the house. They also typically refrain from shaving, often growing robust beards.
Initially, the look was intended to distinguish Sikhs from the adherents of other religions. But in America, the bulk of the populace knows little to nothing about Sikhism, so they see a person with a turban and assume he’s a Hindu or a Muslim.
For a multitude of reasons, there are no credible statistics regarding the number of hate crimes directed at Sikhs each year. But it is not hard to appreciate the very real fact of those crimes. Talk to a member of the faith. They’ll likely know of an incident. They for sure will know of their history of victimization. They might have a personal connection that explains the threat they feel at this moment.
I spent time with three of them in recent months. I also researched the life of the American man who murdered six Sikhs at a temple in Wisconsin. What follows are four profiles, stories of hurt and worry and resilience.
Inderjit Singh Mukker probably works harder than you do. The 54-year-old wrenches himself out of bed while the world is still wrapped in darkness, at 3 a.m., for a few moments of prayer and meditation before he climbs into a sleek black sedan and starts driving. And driving.
Working as a limousine driver, Mukker typically logs 12 or more hours behind the steering wheel each day, navigating Chicago’s cratered and traffic-clogged roadways. By the end of the week he’ll have spent at least 60 hours in the car.
“This is not a good job at all. You are working, working, working,” says Mukker, a slight man with oversized eyeglasses and a dark turban. During the course of our conversation, he speaks in clipped, punchy sentences, the remnants of his native Punjabi tinging his words. “I’m killing myself. My back hurts, my shoulder hurts.” It’s difficult, he notes, to get a healthy meal when you’re trapped in traffic for half of your life.
Driving while wearing a turban can also be hazardous.
In 2010, two men assaulted a Sikh cab driver in West Sacramento, California, breaking an orbital bone in his face and fracturing a bone in his spinal column. The men, one of whom was eventually convicted of hate crimes charges, tauntingly called the victim “Osama bin Laden” as they punched him.
A similar crime occurred two years later in Washington, leaving a Sikh taxi driver hospitalized for more than a week with severe kidney injuries. According to a trial brief filed by prosecutors, the attacker, who was drunk, wrestled the driver to the ground and stomped on his stomach repeatedly. The 50-year-old victim began vomiting, possibly due to a concussion.
“Motherfucker, what are you doing here?” screamed the assailant. “Why did you come to my country?” The attacker, who pleaded guilty, told police he assaulted the driver “because he is a towel head.”
A New York City cabbie, Harkirat Singh, was battered earlier this year by a group of intoxicated passengers who punched him and tore his turban off his head. “Ali Baba, fuck you!” they shouted, according to the driver, who was an interviewed by a local newspaper.
Like so many immigrants in the livery business, Mukker once harbored dreams of doing something bigger, better. In India, he earned a master’s degree in agronomy from Khalsa College and figured he’d go on to a career in agribusiness. But then, in 1988, he moved to Chicago in hopes of improving his economic fortunes.
Equipped with only a rudimentary command of English when he stepped off the plane in the U.S., Mukker quickly discovered that his job prospects were extremely limited — the only gig he could find was driving. Since then it’s been cabs, Uber and now limos.
Mukker has tried other things. For a few years he ran a catering company specializing in Indian meals, but he eventually grew weary of it. Then there was the lawn care business. “It was my own company called United Grass and Lawn Care Service. I had a good number of clients in high-end neighborhoods,” he recalls.
But just as the business was starting to take off, Mukker decided to shutter it. This was after 9/11 and he was afraid that people would think he was a jihadi and assault him, or send the cops rushing to stop a potential terror incident by arresting him. His wife, a registered nurse, was worried as well.
At first, when he tells me this, I’m baffled. I wonder if he’s making some kind of joke I don’t comprehend — how could anybody mistake a lawnmower for a weapon of mass destruction?
Mukker is patient with me. The lawnmower wasn’t the problem, he explains. It was the chemicals. He was a swarthy man with an accent and a turban hauling around sizable quantities of fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides; ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer, has been used as an explosive by guerrilla bomb makers since at least the 1970s. “I was worried about my safety. It was tough out there,” he says.
So he drove.
On a September evening in 2015, he was driving in a personal capacity, picking up food from an Indian grocery store near his home in Darien, Illinois, a comfortable suburb about 20 miles southwest of downtown Chicago.
Mukker was sitting in his Prius at a stoplight when a male teenager in another car started yelling at him. “Bin Laden,” screamed the young man, “go back to your own country!” When traffic started moving, the teen swerved and cut off Mukker, who stopped his car and rolled down the window.
“He came out from the car and started punching me,” recalls Mukker. “He kept on punching me like he was doing boxing or something.”
The blows broke his right cheekbone, damaged both of his eyes, and rendered him unconscious. When Mukker regained consciousness, his mind felt foggy. His eyesight was cloudy. In a photo taken at the hospital, a huge purple hematoma stretches across one cheek, a bandage is taped over the other. Blood is splattered all over his white shirt. “The bruises healed after a month or two, but my vision took a long time to recover. I went to the eye doctor for three different appointments,” he says.
Unable to see clearly, it would be six months before Mukker could return to driving full time. Depression set in. He fell behind on his bills and nearly lost his home to foreclosure. Members of the Sikh community took up donations to help out Mukker and his family, who were stuck with $4,890 in medical costs.
It could have been worse. Just ask Maan Singh Khalsa, a Sikh from Richmond, California, who was brutalized in a roadway altercation late last year. Khalsa’s ordeal started when a Ford F-150 full of oil refinery workers pulled up alongside him at a traffic light. One of the men in the truck hurled a beer can at Khalsa, a 41-year-old IT specialist. Harassment quickly turned to violence, with a pair of men beating Khalsa, yanking his turban from his head and hacking off his hair with a knife.
In the course of the attack, Khalsa’s teeth were knocked loose and his pinky was cut. Doctors had to amputate the injured finger after it developed a virulent infection.
Before the attack, “I was so carefree. I considered myself an American like everyone else,” he said during a court hearing in May. “I had never worried about being the victim of prejudice. I enjoyed my life fully.” Now fear had infected Khalsa. He had trouble leaving the house, found himself treating all strangers as potential aggressors.
Pleading guilty to aggravated assault and hate crimes charges, both assailants received three-year terms in state prison.
In Mukker’s case, the teen, who was prosecuted as a juvenile, was sentenced to 200 hours of community service, monetary restitution — the monthly checks are going to repay Mukker’s medical costs — and counseling.
“I did not expect this would happen to me in my own backyard while I was driving my own private Prius,” says Mukker. “This kid,” he pauses for a second, “he was out of his mind.”
I first interviewed Mukker in his living room in Darien, as he sat beneath a large painting of the Guru Nanak, who founded Sikhism during the 15th century. The conversation was emotionally heavy, but for Mukker it was good day. He had just paid off all the debts that had accrued in the months after the crime, a milestone that gave him reason to smile.
Later I met with him again, hoping to ask a few more questions. This time his mood was gloomy.
A few days earlier, he’d been driving a seven-seat SUV when he picked up a group of young women at a convention of medical professionals. Some of the women started smoking marijuana in the car. He shut that down.
Enraged, one of the women began slinging insults. “Go back to your country,” she snapped. “This is not your country.”
When we spoke, Mukker was still feeling dejected over the incident. He seemed tired. Tired of people calling him towel head or diaper head or terrorist. He was tired of people telling him he wasn’t an American, even though he’s a U.S. citizen and has lived in Illinois for more than half his life.
He said he’d decided to take a different approach to his job. Mukker told me he would drive like “a dead person.”
By that he meant he wouldn’t chat with his passengers or get upset when they verbally abused him. From now on he’d smother all of his emotions, make himself as cold as a corpse.
Because insults and slurs can’t hurt the already dead.
Before the towers of the World Trade Center had even come down, five or six Sikhs scattered across the country arranged a conference call. None of them had ever met. None were activists.
But somehow they’d found each other and they were all deeply worried that the days ahead would bring a wave of violence and harassment directed at Sikhs. They figured that people distraught over the terrorist attacks would strike out at Sikhs in the mistaken belief that they were Muslims, and thus, in the eyes of aggressors, potential jihadists. A simple plan emerged: They’d form a group to collect reports of hate crimes against Sikhs and aid the abused.
They called the group the Sikh Coalition, and today, Harsimran Kaur is an attorney with the nonprofit advocacy group. Educated at George Washington University Law School, Kaur is cerebral, dynamic and, more than 15 years after the 9/11 conference call, very busy.
“We definitely saw an increase from about August of 2016 to the election in November,” Kaur said of reports of crimes against Sikhs during a presidential campaign often dominated by talk of immigration bans and border walls and violently eradicating terrorism.
“Then it was quiet,” she said. “And then, since the inauguration, we have seen an uptick in hate crimes against Sikhs.”
To cite one recent example: Somebody spray-painted “KKK” on a Mercedes owned by a Sikh in Vacaville, California, and set it ablaze, totally destroying the vehicle.
While the coalition is a small outfit — the group had a $1.6 million budget in 2015, the most recent year for which tax records are available — it has become a highly effective defender of civil rights. Kaur, 42, who serves as the group’s legal director, works from an office in her home in the Chicago area.
When the coalition receives a report of a potential hate crime, Kaur and her team quickly launch their own investigation. What are the circumstances surrounding the incident? Does the story make sense? Are there any injuries? Was the alleged victim targeted because of their Sikh identity?
If Kaur decides to take on the case, the coalition will reach out to local law enforcement to make sure police or sheriff’s deputies have all the facts. She’ll give them some basic information about the Sikh faith, let them know that Sikhs are not Hindus, not Muslims. Explain that the turban isn’t just a fashion statement — it’s a crucial display of religious devotion for many male Sikhs. And Kaur will ask the detectives the key question: Are you investigating this as a possible hate crime?
“Dealing with law enforcement and prosecutors can be difficult,” she adds. “A lot of times we’ll see police officers who just don’t know how to investigate. Or don’t recognize that if somebody has been assaulted and they’ve been called ‘Bin Laden’ or ‘terrorist,’ that is evidence of a hate crime.”
In that sense, she says, she’s seen some improvement since 9/11 — there seems to be a growing awareness of hate crimes within law enforcement circles — but there are still plenty of police officers who lack the training or inclination to respond effectively to the offenses.
In 2001, the conference call had barely ended before the fears expressed on it were realized. By the evening of Sept. 11, young men armed with baseball bats were beating an elderly Sikh man in Queens. The following days were worse. A man infuriated by 9/11 decided to drive to a Chevron gas station in Arizona and murder the owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, shooting him with a .380-caliber handgun. By way of explanation, the killer told police, “I’m a patriot and an American.” Teenage arsonists set afire a gurdwara in upstate New York. The beatings piled up, one after another.
In those early days it wasn’t unusual for Sikh men to choose to stay indoors, rather than risk physical harm in the outside world. Others, fearful for their lives, took off their turbans, a painful and humiliating act that contravened the basic tenets of the faith. Outside of the Sikh community, few are aware of this hidden history, as many of the stories from those days weren’t covered by the media.
The coalition, then, wasn’t sure it would hold together under the load and the stress.
“For the first few years things were shaky. It wasn’t clear where the money was going to come from,” says Jasmit Singh, a founding member who served on the coalition’s board from 2001 through 2011.
Today, Kaur tells me, there are still “spikes of hate violence after other terrorist attacks.” Or, she adds, after politicians make “xenophobic or Islamophobic statements in the press. That tends to also foment hate violence.”
Those targeted are often elderly. In 2013, 82-year-old Piara Singh was attacked outside a gurdwara in Fresno, California. The assailant, who later pleaded guilty to a hate crime charge, bludgeoned him with a steel pipe, inflicting head injuries, broken ribs and lacerations of the lung — trauma so serious that Piara Singh slipped into a coma for two days. Last May, two young men in the same city attacked 68-year-old Amrik Singh Bal, thinking for some reason that he was a Muslim extremist or ISIS member just hanging out on a California street. After punching him, they intentionally ran him over with a car, an act captured on surveillance video.
Kaur and the coalition are not alone in the violence they see or the work they do. Other advocacy groups like United Sikhs and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) often engage in similar efforts in the aftermath of hate crimes.
Many Sikhs “feel frustrated at the difficulty in convincing police to categorize even obvious hate incidents as such,” says Jaideep Singh, research director at SALDEF. “Another elder was just found murdered in Fresno this week— floating in a drainage canal.” He points to lingering systemic problems — law enforcement officers who lack adequate training, police departments that fail to track hate crimes and report them to the FBI — that need to be addressed.
When Jaideep Singh surveyed 525 Sikhs in the Seattle area about their experiences, he heard about “an awful lot of small, everyday slights” that don’t appear in official hate crimes stats.
The legal defense fund and the coalition went to the media after a Sikh man was assaulted while driving a public bus in Los Angeles in 2015. The assailant called the victim a “suicide bomber” and “terrorist” while punching him. Still, the county sheriff’s department initially classified the matter as a simple misdemeanor assault. Kaur and company had a good story — investigating deputies somehow overlooking key facts in an ugly case — and the local media ran a string of reports on the crime. The sheriff’s department went back and re-examined the case, and in March 2016, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office added a hate crime charge, a move that exposed the attacker to a longer potential prison term.
The case hasn’t yet gone to trial.
Kaur says prosecutors sometimes “acknowledge that there is evidence of a hate crime but are reluctant to file charges because it’s very hard to get a hate crime conviction.”
She continues,“hate crimes require prosecutors to not only prove that an assault has occurred, but also prove that the assault was motivated by bias — and that’s very, very difficult.” In many cases, she says, even “if you do prove that a hate crime occurred, it may not add additional penalties.”
The challenges were on display in 2005, when five men stood trial for allegedly brutalizing and verbally abusing a Sikh community leader outside a New York restaurant. The coalition and other Sikh organizations had urged Queens County prosecutors to use Article 485 of the state penal code, a tough, well-crafted law that bolsters the penalties for those convicted. In the end, though, only two of the five men were found guilty on hate crimes charges.
When talking to Kaur, she stresses that these cases are about more than simply meting out punishment. She doesn’t necessarily advocate for more jail time for defendants. Often, she asks for community service, education, some sort of reconciliation between the aggressor and the abused.
“You know it’s absolutely imperative that as a society we take a stand against hate violence. Hate crimes undermine the fabric of our country. They’re an assault, not only on an individual, but on an entire community and they degrade our democracy. They undermine the American dream and they make us all feel less safe.”
When they hauled Wade Page’s body to the morgue, he’d already been dead for about seven hours.
A doctor with the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office scrutinized Page’s corpse closely. The dead man was 40. White. A little over 6 feet tall, exactly 212 pounds. His hair was shorn down to the scalp. Then there were the tattoos, lots of them, and they were encoded with secret messages.
On the back of his right hand, in large Old English script, was the letter “W.” On his left was “P.” White Power.
The number 88 was tattooed on one shoulder. It meant Heil Hitler. The letter H is the eighth in the alphabet.
Page had a different number inked on his other arm: 14. For white supremacists like Page, 14 holds special significance. It goes back to a man named David Lane, who led a terror group called The Order, which in 1984 assassinated Jewish talk radio host Alan Berg in Denver. While in prison, Lane drafted a 14-word slogan meant to inspire his fellow racist revolutionaries: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
Page took his racism seriously, and on Aug. 5, 2012, he did his part on behalf of the 14 words.
He massacred six people at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin; Page died during a gun battle with police in the parking lot of the gurdwara.
The magnitude of the crime spurred a massive investigation by the FBI and its Domestic Terrorism Operations Unit, which worked in concert with local police from multiple jurisdictions. Telling reporters that “in this country, regardless of what we look like, where we come from, who we worship, we are all one people,” former President Obama ordered flags at government buildings to be flown at half-staff in remembrance of the victims.
Page grew up in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, and does not seem to have had a particularly happy childhood. When he was 13, his mother died, and one friend told the FBI that Page never totally recovered from the loss.
After high school, he joined the U.S. Army and wound up in a PSYOP battalion at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne Division. PSYOP is psychological operations or psychological warfare, which includes the creation of propaganda meant to persuade enemy soldiers and hostile civilians to switch their allegiances and rally behind American troops. “WIN THE MIND, WIN THE DAY” is the motto of Page’s former battalion.
Today it’s hard to determine when, precisely, Page became attracted to Nazism and white supremacist ideologies. It’s not clear why this particularly virulent brand of racism appealed to him. But his racist beliefs were definitely on display during his days at Fort Bragg. Former soldiers told FBI agents that Page, who rose to the rank of sergeant, was open about his extremist views; one remembered him getting drunk and singing Nazi marching songs.
He became a member of the Hammerskin Nation, one of the oldest active Nazi skinhead gangs, which was founded in Dallas and now has chapters around the world. The Hammerskins, who do not admit women, have a signature hand gesture — first the member performs a stiff-arm Nazi salute, then he clenches his fists and crosses his forearms, mimicking the group’s logo, a pair of interlocking claw hammers. The group, which has written by-laws but does not appear to have any formal leadership structure, grew out of the punk rock subculture of the 1980s — you could say the Hammerskins were the despised bastard children of the punk scene, which was generally inclusive and anti-racist.
A capable musician, Page lent his skills on guitar and bass to a string of skinhead bands, which generally played stripped down three-chord punk rock accompanied by bloody imagery and aggressive lyrics; the gravel-throated vocalist for one of Page’s bands, called Definite Hate, pledged to “get rid of them/the enemies of the white race” in a typical song. Amazon, through its affiliate marketplace, still sells CDs by at least one of Page’s bands — the cover art features a Confederate flag and a noose hanging from a tree. One of Page’s old friends told the FBI that he wrote lyrics celebrating the “genocide of other races.”
Page spent some time on Stormfront.org, the white power web forum, promoting “hate rock” gigs, including a 2012 St. Patrick’s Day event in Richmond, Virginia. Using the email address email@example.com, he kept in touch with his racist buddies around the country.
Like many skinheads, Page had a strong affinity for alcohol. He “liked to drink Jack Daniels,” said one ex-service member when questioned by investigators. Another former colleague said Page would “consume a liter and a half of Jim Beam every other day.” Several people described him as a “functioning alcoholic.”
Actually, the opposite was true. Page’s drinking made a mess of his life, starting with his military career. After showing up for duty smelling of booze, Page was ousted from the Army in 1998. That humiliation led to a peripatetic existence that saw him bouncing from town to town and job to job. There was a stint crashing on the couch of a fellow Nazi skinhead in Southern California. A gig back in Colorado working as a technician at a Honda motorcycle dealership. A $7.50-an-hour job in the parts department at a Harley-Davidson shop in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The owners of the Harley shop fired Page after he had an “outburst” at a female employee that left the woman fearing for her safety.
For a time, he worked as a big rig truck driver in North Carolina. That ended when Page got arrested for drunk driving and lost his driver’s license. Without a job, his financial woes mounted quickly. Page lost his home to foreclosure and his car to the repo man, and was forced to sell many of his possessions, including his guns, to survive.
In the fall of 2011, he managed to pull together the money to relocate to the Milwaukee area to move in with a girlfriend, someone he’d met through the skinhead scene. He got a job at Lucas-Millhaupt, a metal fabrication and welding supplies company with a large, fortress-like facility in Cudahy, a blue-collar town near the Milwaukee airport. But things fell apart again. Page and his girlfriend split. Perhaps more significant, he was excommunicated from the Hammerskins.
Page was kicked out for violating the gang’s by-laws, says James Santelle, who, as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin at the time, helped lead the investigation into the massacre. FBI records show that shortly before the murders, Page got into a street fight with two other skinheads.
Page “became quiet and distant,” one of his co-workers at Lucas-Millhaupt told the FBI. While he “did not mention any plans for destructive behavior,” Page was clearly suffering from emotional distress, his days plagued by mood swings, his nights haunted by insomnia.
In an interview with investigators, Page’s sister, who lived in Colorado, said his “demeanor had changed over the past year and he had become much more intense, as if he had lost his sense of humor and wit and perceived everything very literally.”
Days before the massacre, Page donated a bunch of white power CDs to a thrift store. He went to a GameStop and sold his Xbox 360 console and headset, and three games for $112. Page headed to a gun shop and legally purchased a 9 mm pistol and three 19-bullet magazines.
On July 31, Page’s landlord knocked on his door. Page was living in a small, second-floor apartment in a home that had been subdivided. The rent was late, the landlord told him. Page replied that he’d pay the rent on August 5 — the day of the murders.
For a white supremacist like Page, there are many potential targets in the Milwaukee area. Lots of synagogues. An African Methodist Episcopal Church on the north side of the city. At least three mosques. Why he chose the Sikh temple remains a mystery. Page didn’t leave behind any sort of note.
After the terror attack, FBI agents fanned out across the country hunting for clues. They urgently wanted to know if any other white supremacists had helped Page plan and carry out the crime.
Over and over, Page’s fellow skinheads denied any involvement. They voiced surprise and disbelief that he’d done something so horrible.
The following statements are typical. One skinhead, interviewed by agents five days after the killings, said he “was completely shocked when he heard of his fellow Hammerskin brother, Wade Michael Page, being involved in the killings at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Hammerskins do not advocate this type of violence.”
The skinhead told investigators he was “heartbroken over Page’s death. Page was always a mellow guy and everybody is shocked over what has occurred.” He added that he felt no grief for Page’s victims.
Santelle, the former federal prosecutor, says the bureau found no evidence that anyone aided Page in his terror attack. But he believes the skinhead may have scoped out the temple prior to the shooting. “I wonder if he had been there before,” he says, noting that Page “plainly moved with a certain amount of purposefulness” as he carried out the massacre.
At the Milwaukee County morgue, the doctor carefully studied Page’s body and documented injuries. There was a gunshot wound to the abdomen. A small-caliber bullet had ripped through his gut, punching through his small bowel. That shot had been fired by one of the Oak Creek police officers responding to the attack.
But it was Page who loosed the fatal shot: He’d pointed his 9 mm pistol at the back of his head and squeezed the trigger.
Harpreet Singh Saini has a memory from his first day at community college. One of his teachers at Milwaukee Area Technical College in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, asked Saini and his classmates to get acquainted by sharing tales from their summer vacations.
“It was very weird. Everybody had great stories,” he recalls. “And mine was very sad.”
One student had gone to Florida. Another went to Vegas. There was one guy who talked about the simple joys of sleeping late and lounging around all day.
Then it was Saini’s turn. His story went something like this: One month earlier, Wade Page, a neo-Nazi skinhead, murdered his mom and five other people. The whole thing happened just a mile-and-a-half down the road, during prayer services at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a blocky beige building topped by five gold-colored minarets.
“The room went completely silent,” says Saini, who was 18 at the time.
His fellow students were kind and sympathetic, but Saini still couldn’t shake the sense of otherness, that he was living a very different reality than his peers. It was a feeling he knew well.
Oak Creek, a small town located south of Milwaukee on the banks of Lake Michigan, is a mix of industrial plants, strip malls full of chain retailers and restaurants, and aging suburban tract homes. The population is 86.6 percent white, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures.
Saini and his family came to the U.S. in 2004. He grew up in Oak Creek, went to Oak Creek High School, home of the Knights. His mom, Paramjit Kaur, worked in a nearby town at a factory that manufactured syringes. His dad ran a convenience store in Milwaukee. “It was very hard to fit in,” he says. “To be honest with you, I never really had any friends. I never went to prom. I was one of the students who decided not to take part in the school activities.”
Now 23, Saini has little of the brashness or swagger often found in young men his age. Sometimes he stammers or hesitates a bit when speaking, like he’s not entirely sure he should be talking. But when he tells me about his friendless days in school, the words flow forth smoothly. His tone is completely neutral, devoid of any sadness or anger, as if he’s ordering a coffee at Starbucks.
He introduces me to a friend, a computer engineer. The woman, also a Sikh, had recently quit her well-compensated job at a prominent local company after six years. “I worked for somebody who was a very strong Trump supporter. He was open about not liking people of color, or immigrants. He would talk about how Indians smelled, how he didn’t like them,” she says, requesting anonymity in order to speak freely about the racial dynamics in Oak Creek. “That was the main reason I left.”
For Saini, high school was pretty tortured. “I was constantly bullied. I mean, it was mostly like name calling and it got to the point where it got physical, as well.” He remembers arguing with his mom, telling her that he wanted to bail on school, that he couldn’t bear going any longer. She insisted that he earn his diploma.
Paramjit was the only woman killed at the temple. She was 41.
A remarkable thing happened after the massacre. Suddenly, people wanted to hear what the quiet outsider kid had to say. Saini penned an op-ed for The New York Times and appeared in a documentary film. Accompanied by his brother, Kamaljit, he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Senators, my mother was our biggest fan, our biggest supporter,” he said. “She was always there for us, she always had a smile on her face. But now she’s gone. Because of a man who hated her because she wasn’t his color? His religion?“
He continued, “I want to tell the gunman who took her from me: You may have been full of hate, but my mother was full of love.”
Working with the Sikh Coalition, Saini sought to rectify what he saw as an absurd governmental oversight: the FBI’s failure to track hate crimes against Sikhs. The bureau had long catalogued crimes targeting Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims and adherents of several other faiths. But the FBI had no system for tracking attacks and abuse directed at Sikhs.
After years of pressure, the bureau in 2015 finally added crimes against Sikhs to the national hate crimes database. By the FBI’s tally, there were six such offenses that year.
Saini and other Sikhs are skeptical of the data — “That’s not an accurate number at all. It’s much higher, much higher,” he argues — which is pulled from police and sheriff’s departments around the country and is known to be deeply flawed.
About 20 percent of the law enforcement agencies in the country don’t submit statistics to the FBI, while many agencies that nominally participate in the program provide demonstrably erroneous data. And the database does not include any alleged hate crimes reported to federal agencies.
After three years in college, Saini dropped out. He’d been studying criminal justice with an eye toward becoming a police officer, but he says there didn’t seem to be any openings for new officers in his area.
So he got a job at a gas station at a town outside of Oak Creek. He’s learning the trade and hopes to own his own station in the future. The shifts can be grueling — at one point he offers to meet me for an interview when he gets off work at 11:30 p.m. Saini’s got to be back at the station early the next day. No, I tell him, go home and get some rest.
He enjoys the work. But some of the customers seem wary of him. They want to know if he’s an “Arab.” Saini knows exactly what they’re driving at.
They think he might be a terrorist.
A.C. Thompson covers criminal justice issues for ProPublica. His stories have helped lead to the exoneration of two innocent San Francisco men sentenced to life in prison and the prosecution of seven New Orleans police officers.