Pardeep Kaleka lost his father 10 years ago when a gunman linked to white supremacist groups opened fire in a Wisconsin gurdwara, killing six people. But he says he found an unlikely and controversial way to deal with his grief – reaching out to a former white supremacist.
The pair have spoken out against hate together at events as the Sikh community continues to heal a decade after the murderous rampage.
On August 5, 2012, the shooter, Wade Michael Page, who had ties to white supremacist organizations, entered the Oak Creek gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, and shot six worshipers before killing himself. He injured four others, one of whom died in March 2020 from injuries sustained in the shooting.
The US Department of Justice has declared the mass shooting to be both a hate crime and an act of terrorism, and its anniversary comes as members of the Sikh community look back on it amid growing hatred and violence.
Turning to faith and community
Kaleka, 45, whose father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was the president of the gurdwara, said he believed healing was multi-layered and ultimately turned to his faith and his community.
Kaleka said her father died trying to protect the congregation.
“The exit door for him to leave the gurdwara was literally 5 feet away. He could have left at any time,” Kaleka told NBC Asian America. unable to speak English or defend themselves.”
Kaleka said that was the kind of man her father was. “Sometimes it misses the mark – duty and responsibility. Sometimes you can save yourself. But then, what are the community impacts of this? »
As the community prepared for the funerals of the victims, Kaleka said many used their faith to cope.
“Our faith has called us to be ‘relentlessly optimistic’ – we call it ‘chardi kala’. We had to lean on our faith in times of peril. We did and we were, and here we are 10 years later, still leaning on our faith and in difficult times,” he said.
A decade later, many of the initial fears remain about the impact of the shooting on the Sikh community.
Reaching an unlikely source
Kaleka said he actually found some semblance of closure in an unconventional source.
Arno Michaelis, 51, a former white supremacist and co-founding member of the hate group Page was a part of, left the movement in 1994 and went public with his story in 2010.
Michaelis was also a member of a popular “white power” rock band, a music scene to which Page belonged.
Kaleka reached out to Michaelis after the shooting to find answers about the white supremacist movement and to heal.
“When I contacted him, I wanted to understand why it is a white supremacist who is doing these things, why it is a member of your particular organization that you have helped, who has come to this Sikh temple and attacked us” , did he declare. said.
Kaleka said they arranged a meeting, but he was worried about how Michaelis would be in person. He said that Michaelis immediately became concerned about an eye injury Kaleka had at the time, which initially caught him by surprise.
“Wow, here is the person the world knows as this former white supremacist,” he said. “He feels empathy for a person he has just met. And it renewed my hope in people.
Kaleka said he and Michaelis eventually became good friends and started talking together at public events. Michaelis also visited the gurdwara and spoke to the congregation, which Kaleka said was valuable to the local Sikh community.
“I felt a great urgency to respond to the shooting itself and also a great responsibility. I helped prepare the ground on which this guy appeared,” Michaelis said. objectively, Wade Michael Page and the groups I was involved with probably wouldn’t have existed if I had never existed, but the fact is that I was actively involved in cultivating this kind of hate in the society.”
Michaelis has since become a public speaker in schools in hopes of combating racial hatred and violence early on. He said young people, especially middle and high school students, are at a very vulnerable age.
He joined the movement in the 1990s, but says today the internet and social media are the primary means of spreading extremist beliefs.
“I don’t think there’s anything new ideologically happening really online or on social media, but it’s just a much more virulent vector of this kind of very toxic ideas that social media has created,” he said.
Data from the Brookings Institution revealed that between 2012 and 2021, nearly 3 in 4 murders classified as domestic terrorism were committed by right-wing extremists – mostly white nationalists.
“I was first drawn to it because it was so repugnant to civil society. From a very young age, I lashed out at society simply because of the dysfunction in my house that I didn’t haven’t treated in a healthy way,” he said.
At 14, Michaelis said, he was an alcoholic. At 16, he was used to being violent. He said he would do anything to shock or repel people, which is why he was drawn to the movement, even though he knew why people felt that way.
He joined the movement at age 16. “For seven years, that was really the only aspect of my identity that meant anything to me. And I thought it all depended on that,” he said. “Racial identity was at the heart of the white nationalist narrative that I embraced, which is the same essential narrative that white nationalists subscribe to today.”
It wasn’t until he became a single father at 24 with his 18-month-old daughter that Michaelis distanced himself from the movement. He said his friends were either dead or in jail and he couldn’t risk it now.
Nearly 18 months after his decision to leave the movement, Michaelis has traded his involvement in white power rock for a love of electronic dance music, which he says has been a big part of his journey.
“Here I am on the South Side of Chicago at 4 a.m. Sunday shaking my butt to house music with 3,000 people of every possible ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation and socio-economic background that you can imagine and love every minute,” he said. .
He also interacted with a diverse group of people at his job, he said. He said spending time with his boss, who was Jewish; his supervisor, who was part of the LGBTQ community; and his colleagues, who were Afro-Latino, continued to change his perspective for the better.
“I’m grateful for that every day.”
Openness to mental health
Mallika Kaur, executive director of community advocacy and advocacy organization Sikh Family Center, said there was a range of reactions from the Sikh community following the shooting, including anger and fear, but also resilience.
“There was absolutely the fear of further victimization, which could happen next to our children, which could happen to male or female members who wear turbans in the community,” she said.
Kaur said the experience of Sikh immigrants often involves living their whole lives as “the other”, especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The shooting has become a wake-up call for the Sikh community to create and provide easily accessible mental health resources by understanding what members of the community really need.
“I think for a lot of people a lot of traumatic reactions arose, including the hypervigilance that has become a part of life for visibly identifiable Sikhs wearing turbans, beards and long hair,” she said. .
Kaur said members of the Sikh community did not seek trauma services in the early days.
“It took a volunteer collective of Sikh therapists to produce materials and information on trauma, grief and healing. Over time, we at the Sikh Family Center have relied on resources like this so that we can truly encourage people to receive the kind of support they need while being proud of their own identity and their own culturally relevant coping mechanisms,” she said.
Kaur said she saw the shift in acceptance of mental health resources after a large influx of callers who contacted the Sikh Family Center after the shooting at a FedEx facility last year. The organization receives calls every day seeking mental health assistance.
“Just as with the mental health crisis in general in this country, more people want help than there are resources to help,” she said. . “So I refuse to accept that in our community, mental health is taboo given the work I do almost every day. We have people who regularly seek out resources and still encounter the same challenges that are very true in the United States – that there just aren’t enough accessible and affordable mental health services.