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10 years after the Sikh temple shooting, the son of a victim and a former white supremacist speak out against hate

Pardeep Kaleka lost his father 10 years ago when a gunman with ties to white supremacist groups opened fire at a Wisconsin gurdwara, killing six people. But he says he’s found an unlikely and controversial way to deal with his grief – by reaching out to a former white supremacist.

The two men have spoken out against hate together at events as the Sikh community continues to heal a decade after the deadly killing spree.

On August 5, 2012, gunman Wade Michael Page, who had ties to white supremacist organizations, entered the Oak Creek Gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, and killed six parishioners before killing himself. He injured four others, one of whom died in March 2020 as a result of the shooting.

The US Department of Justice declared the mass shooting both a hate crime and an act of terrorism, and its anniversary comes as members of the Sikh community look back on it amid mounting hatred and violence.

commitment to faith and community

Kaleka, 45, whose father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was the President of the Gurdwara, said healing was multifaceted and he ultimately turned to his faith and community.

Kaleka said his father died trying to protect the community.

Satwant Singh Kaleka with his grandchildren.
Satwant Singh Kaleka with his grandchildren.Courtesy of Pardeep Kaleka

“The exit door for him to leave the gurdwara was literally 5 feet away. He could have left anytime,” Kaleka told NBC Asian America. “But he knew the people who came so early in the morning weren’t able to speak English or speak up for themselves.”

Kaleka said a man like that was his father. “Sometimes it gets overlooked – duty and responsibility. Sometimes you can save yourself. But then what are the community implications of that?”

As the community prepared for the funerals of the victims, Kaleka said many used their faith to cope.

“Our faith called us to be ‘relentlessly optimistic’ – we call it ‘chardi kala’. We had to lean on our faith in times of danger. We did and we were, and here we are 10 years later, still leaning on our faith and through tough times,” he said.

A decade later, many of the original fears about the shooting’s impact on the Sikh community remain.

Shooting at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek
Dilpreet Kaleka, left, and Simran Kaleka weep during a candlelight vigil outside Oak Creek Community Center August 7, 2012 for those who were shot dead at the Sikh temple two days earlier.Chris Wilson/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP file

Going to an unlikely source

Kaleka said he did find some semblance of closure in an unconventional source.

Arno Michaelis, 51, a former white supremacist and co-founder of the hate group of which Page belonged, 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 turned to Michaelis after the shooting for answers and healing about the white supremacy movement.

“When I reached out to him, I wanted to understand why a white supremacist is doing these things, why it was a member of your particular organization that you were helping that came to this Sikh temple and attacked us,” he said.

Kaleka said they arranged a meeting but he was concerned about how Michaelis would be in person. He said Michaelis immediately expressed concern about an eye injury Kaleka had at the time, which surprised him at first.

“Wow, here’s the person the world knows as this former white supremacist,” he said. “He feels empathy for a person he just met. And it renewed my hope in people.”

Kaleka said he and Michaelis eventually became good friends and began speaking together at public events. Michaelis also visited the gurdwara and spoke to the community, which Kaleka said was valuable to the local Sikh community.

Arno Michaeli's portrait shoot
Arno Michaelis is a former right-wing extremist and founder of Life After Hate, an organization that contributes to the deradicalization of extremists. Fairfax Media / Fairfax Media via Getty Images

“I felt a great urgency to respond to the shooting itself, and also a great responsibility. I helped set the stage for this guy to appear on,” said Michaelis. “I only know from an objective perspective that Wade Michael Page and the groups I was involved with probably wouldn’t have existed if I had never been, but the fact of the matter is that I was actively involved in creating that kind of hate in the to cultivate society.”

Michaelis has since been a public speaker in schools hoping to curb race-based hatred and violence at an early stage. He said young people, particularly middle school and high school students, are at a very vulnerable age.

He joined the movement in the 1990s but says the internet and social media are now the primary means of spreading extremist beliefs.

“I don’t think there’s anything new in terms of ideology that’s really happening online or on social media, but it’s just a matter of a much more virulent vector of these kinds of very toxic ideas that social media has created.” , he said.

Brookings Institution data found that from 2012 to 2021, nearly 3 out of 4 homicides classified as domestic terrorism were committed by far-right extremists — most of them white nationalists.

“I was initially drawn to it because it was so off-putting to civil society. From a young age, I attacked society because of the dysfunction in my home that I wasn’t dealing with in a healthy way,” he said.

By the age of 14, Michaelis said, he was an alcoholic. By the age of 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, although he knew why people felt that way.

He joined the movement at the age of 16. “For seven years, that was really the only aspect of my identity that mattered to me. And I thought everything depended on it,” he said. “Racial identity was central to the white nationalist narrative with which I agreed, and that is the same essential narrative that white nationalists agree with today.”

Michaelis only distanced himself from the movement when, at the age of 24, he was the single father of his 18-month-old daughter. He said his friends were either dead or in prison and he couldn’t risk that now.

Nearly 18 months after his decision to leave the movement, Michaelis traded his commitment to white power rock for a love of electronic dance music, which he says was a big part of his journey.

“Here I am on the South Side of Chicago on a Sunday at 4 a.m. shaking my butt to house music with 3,000 people of every race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic background imaginable, enjoying every minute of it,” he said.

He also interacted with a diverse group of people in his work, he said. He said spending time with his boss, who was Jewish; his boss, who was part of the LGBTQ community; and his associates, who were Afro-Latinos, continued to change his perspective for the better.

“I’m grateful for that every day.”

Mental Health Openness

Mallika Kaur, the executive director of the Sikh Family Center organization for outreach and community advocacy, said there were a range of reactions from the Sikh community after the shooting, including anger and fear, but also resilience.

“There was absolutely a fear of further bullying, what might happen next to our children, what might happen to the male or female members who wear turbans in the community,” she said.

Kaur said that the experience of Sikh immigrants often includes living their entire lives as “the other,” particularly since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Police outside the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, after the August 5, 2012 shooting.
Police outside the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, after the August 5, 2012 shooting. Jeffrey Phelps/AP

The filming became a wake-up call for the Sikh community to create and provide easily accessible mental health resources by understanding what people in the community really need.

“I think for a lot of people there was a lot of trauma reactions, including hypervigilance, which have become a part of life for visibly identifiable Sikhs who wear turbans, beards and long hair,” she said.

Kaur said people in the Sikh community did not seek trauma services in the initial aftermath.

“It took a volunteer collective of Sikh therapists to create handouts and information on trauma, grief and healing. Over time we have built on such resources at the Sikh Family Center so that we can truly encourage people to receive the type of support they need while taking pride in their own identity and their own culturally relevant coping mechanisms.” she said.

Kaur said she saw the shift in acceptance for mental health resources following a significant influx of callers reaching out to the Sikh Family Center following last year’s shooting at a FedEx facility. The organization has callers asking for mental health help every day.

“Just like the mental health crisis in general in this country, more people want help than there are resources for help,” she said. “So I refuse to accept that mental health is taboo in our community given the work I do almost every day. We have people who regularly seek resources and still face the same challenges that are very true in the United States — that there just aren’t enough accessible and affordable mental health services.”


https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/10-years-sikh-temple-shooting-victims-son-former-white-supremacist-spe-rcna40977 10 years after the Sikh temple shooting, the son of a victim and a former white supremacist speak out against hate

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