Co-blogged with Nina Chanpreet Kaur
“All the talking is done and now it’s time to walk the walk / Revolution’s in the air 9mm in my hand / You can run but you can’t hide from this master plan.” (Song lyrics by Wade Michael Page’s band End Apathy)
A few weeks ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) closed its investigation into the mass shooting that occurred at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in August, in which six Sikhs were murdered and wounded four others, including Lieutenant Brian Murphy of the Oak Creek Police Department, and Punjab Singh, who is still in a long-term care facility receiving treatment.
The FBI’s conclusion does not bring any closure. In the wake of Oak Creek, the specter of a growing white supremacist movement has not been adequately addressed by the media, policy makers, nor law enforcement agencies. This frames the issue of hate crimes against Sikhs as something almost incidentally perpetrated by independent murderers, and the stalling by the FBI to accurately and consistently report anti-Sikh and other hate crimes as well as link it to domestic terrorism reinforces the sense that the white supremacy movement is something federal, state and local government are not taking seriously or prioritizing. Historically, the white supremacist movement at-large has perpetrated heinous crimes fueled by hate and bias often in the guise of a member gone rogue as we saw in Oak Creek in August 2012.
It was only a year and a half ago that two elderly Sikh men, while on their routine daily walk, were murdered on a suburban street in Sacramento, California in broad daylight. No discernible motive has officially been declared but it is also generally believed to be a hate crime. To date, no suspects have been identified and no one has been arrested. Local police agencies even explored a possible connection to the Oak Creek murders, but that has not appeared fruitful either. Today, given few answers, the Sikh community in and around Sacramento still live in the haunting shadow of that crime. Now, the community in Oak Creek does as well.
Time and time again, the deep pain and tragedy of a mass murder leads us in a desperate search for answers: alcohol, drug use, mental health, family issues, etc. There is no question that these may be underlying causes. However, quite often, such conclusions are presumptuous. For example, in the wake of the horrendous Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown Connecticut, mental health was identified as a leading cause based on unconfirmed and questionable characteristics of the gunman. Yet, in the case of the attack on the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, even though the gunman had clear links to white supremacist groups the issue of white supremacy and its role in the murders remains largely unspoken. This diversion from the role of white supremacy is not unprecedented. Instead, in the case of Oak Creek, the public focus was on the ignorance and misinterpretation of the Sikh identity.
When it comes to addressing underlying causes of violence in the U.S., the white supremacy movement continues to fly under the radar. As responsible citizens, we must ask: how is it that white supremacy has been swept under the rug in the wake of horrendous crimes at large, when other causes so easily rise to the top: Islamic extremism, mental health, violent video games, or access to weapons have all become the focus by the media, government, lobbyists and/or law enforcement? This is not to say that those causes are less relevant but the threat posed by white supremacy is real and alive, and as a society we must bring our focus to address it.
After reviewing hundreds of pieces of evidence, the FBI reported that they could determine no motive for the mass murder perpetrated in Oak Creek:
The FBI investigation indicates Wade Michael Page acted alone and was not assisted in committing this violent crime killing six and wounding four other victims. No evidence was uncovered to conclude this attack was directed or facilitated by any white supremacist group. During the shooting at the temple, Page exchanged gunfire with two Oak Creek police officers seriously wounding one, before being shot by another officer, then turning his weapon on himself. There is also no evidence to suggest the attack was part of any ongoing threat to the Sikh community.
When pressed, the FBI declined to provide any additional information:
“Bottom line is, we spent literally, we spent a great deal of resources,” [FBI spokesperson Leonard Peace] said. “[It was the] highest priority to the FBI to do this investigation, and it was thorough, and it was very methodical in this process to get to the facts. We found that he acted alone, that he was not directed by a white supremacist group, and there is no indication that there is an ongoing threat to the Sikh community.”
Peace added, “We’re going to have to leave it at that for now.”
While the FBI was content to leave the investigation there, the community at large, in particular the Sikh community in Wisconsin, was disappointed in the outcome of the investigation:
Amardeep Kaleka, son of temple President Satwant Kaleka — who reportedly died trying to lunge at Page with a butter knife — told the Los Angeles Times that many in the Sikh community were “disappointed” with the investigation.
“They spent three hours discussing what they found, and it really didn’t amount to anything,” he said of the FBI’s meeting with community members before announcing the conclusion of the investigation. “The community just sat there and asked questions and was disappointed … they were left hanging.”
Despite the FBI’s conclusion, many government officials, policy advocates and civil rights organizations have acknowledged the Oak Creek rampage as a hate crime. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez from the U.S. Department of Justice each indicated that the mass murder in Oak Creek was a hate crime. This is not an unreasonable claim given Page’s ties to white supremacist organizations.
Page’s long history with the white supremacist movement and his extremist racist views leave little doubt that his actions on that Sunday morning in August were motivated by hate. However, the FBI did not acknowledge this meaningfully in their investigation. This raises the question about whether our nation’s leading law enforcement agencies are taking seriously the very visible white supremacist movement and whether or not there is any systemic commitment that would prevent further attacks on the nation’s diverse religious, racial and cultural communities. Even a Lutheran website which openly celebrated the killing of Sikhs in the Gurdwara in Oak Creek — we choose not to promote their website here — did not catch the attention of any major media outlet or government official to intervene. Meanwhile, on a daily basis we are well aware and continually reminded of the activities of and the resources devoted by the FBI and law enforcement agencies to address potential Islamic extremism in the United States, particularly in the post-9/11 world.
After all, despite the FBI’s conclusion, we know that there are others like Wade Michael Page among us and we also know that they do not exist in a vacuum. In fact, the “lone wolf” murderer is a recurring pattern within the white supremacist movement:
In the public debate over the rise of hate groups in the U.S. and the search for signs of neo-Nazi plots, analysts say Page’s one-man campaign of terror fits solidly into an established tradition of “lone wolf” violence that has countless precedents on the fringes of racist American thought.
Many prominent U.S. neo-Nazi groups have condemned the Sikh temple shootings and denounced Page for discrediting the movement. But right-wing extremist literature is rife with treatises that embody the idea of a single man driven to lonely acts of murder for the protection of his race and culture.
The “lone wolf” is a strategy used by white supremacists to ensure that their movement at large continues to stay out of focus:
…racism could not be demonstrated as the reason Page shot up the gurdwara — nor could it be explained away. Analysts previously told The [Los Angeles] Times that there’s a strong tradition of supremacist “lone wolves” who act ambiguously to protect the movement.
Of Wade Michael Page, Hannah Rosenthal from the Milwaukee Jewish Federation so aptly said: “So he may not have been operating hand-in-hand with anyone, but he was operating hand-in-hand with a belief system.”
Page’s history with the white supremacy movement was catalyzed by white supremacist activity in the U.S. military at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Fort Bragg was known for bringing white supremacists into its ranks. Page himself was quoted saying, “If you don’t go in the military a racist, you’re sure to leave as one.” About nine years ago, Wade Michael Page intended to apply to join the Ku Klux Klan according to reports from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Though the U.S. military has taken measures to train recruiters and ranked officers to better watch for the signs of white supremacist activity, it is a well known fact that the U.S. military has tolerated and trained some of its masterminds – whether knowingly or unknowingly. Given the FBI’s conclusion, are U.S. government and law enforcement agencies also tolerating the white supremacist movement and the hate it promulgates in society? While the Oak Creek murders are not the direct responsibility of the U.S. military or any government agency, the lack of a clear plan and the unwillingness on behalf of federal agencies to identify and respond to hate crimes tied to white supremacy answers this question more affirmatively than it does negatively.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center believed there are many others like Page, but little can be done about them:
“There are tens of thousands of people like this,” Potok said, adding that his group uncovered “no record of criminality on [Page’s] part.” Particularly for cases like Sunday’s shooting, which seemed to be a lone-wolf attack, Potok said, “it is almost impossible to predict who is going to go out and commit a murder.”
And yet, when one member of the white power movement breaks out and takes a life, it follows a pattern:
…it would be typical of a white supremacist restless with the white power movement as a whole. “He talked specifically about his frustration with the [white supremacy] movement not moving forward,” Potok said. “Many people in the white supremacy movement are very impatient with their leaders and established groups. They call them the ‘meet, eat and retreat crowd.’” Next, Potok said, “someone gets sick of the group not doing anything and wakes up one morning and decides to go out and start killing people.”
Early investigations into the Wade Michael Page’s murderous rampage explored the role of drugs, alcohol, and mental health. Indeed, the autopsy report on Page reported that no drugs were found in his system. However, there was little discussion by the FBI about the hate that was in Page’s system fostered by a significant and long-existing extremist subculture in the United States. Why aren’t we doing more to break this cycle?
In September, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) convened a hearing on hate violence in which representatives of various law enforcement agencies testified and were questioned. Among them was Michael Clancy, the Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, who testified about the FBI’s efforts to address domestic terrorist threats. In Clancy’s testimony he only referred to the term “white supremacist” once, and at that it was in the context of the increase in recruitment due to the Presidential elections. The underlying assumption is likely given that one of the Presidential candidates was African-American, this would likely increase the ire of white supremacists as well as recruitment. Clancy acknowledged the existence of racial extremism but did not directly address it. As such, the FBI did not demonstrate that it took the white supremacist movement seriously enough to consider its role in Oak Creek. It certainly hasn’t taken the white supremacy movement any more seriously after Oak Creek than it did before. For the nation’s communities who are targeted by white supremacists and extreme racism every day, this means that the U.S. government is not taking serious action to protect their vulnerabilities.
Currently, domestic terrorism refers to any range of real or perceived threats to U.S. safety. However, the U.S. government has been reluctant to make a clear link between hate crimes and domestic terrorism. Instead, the government has taken the liberty to identify those threats with or without real evidence including the Occupy Movement. Yet, efforts on behalf of federal agencies to address the very real threat posed by the white supremacy movement and hate crimes and link those threats to domestic terrorism appear half-hearted. To that end, Daryl Johnson’s testimony at the Congressional hearing advocated for greater attention to the definition of domestic terrorism. He highlighted various systemic obstacles in addressing domestic terrorism which includes white supremacist groups:
- There is confusion about what is “domestic terrorism.”
- The FBI ceased reporting of domestic terrorist attacks in the US.
- There is a lack of resources at the national level dedicated to addressing domestic terrorism.
- There is a large “void of knowledge” emerging in the law enforcement community about domestic terrorism.
- A balanced approach in identifying extremist ideology and suspicious behavior is required.
- Analysis of the current state of domestic terrorism is too limited.
For the better part of two years, Sikh civil rights organizations such as the Sikh Coalition and SALDEF have been calling on the FBI to formally report anti-Sikh hate crimes. During the Congressional hearing in September, Senator Durbin added his voice to this call directly, posing this request to the law enforcement agencies at the hearing. Furthermore, with additional such requests by almost one hundred US Representatives, almost twenty US Senators, the US Attorney General and other officials in the US Department of Justice, local law enforcement agencies, and the victims of hate crimes, the FBI continues to drag its feet in implementing this addition to its data reporting system. For the record, the FBI hate crimes statistics database has other issues as well, including that it is voluntary for law agencies across the country to report to the FBI database.
Still, the addition of an anti-Sikh category is only a start. We can only have a robust database of relevant and actionable data once we have addressed the historical significance of that legislation and how it relates to past incidents. We also need to consider how this data will be collected and used. For instance, what will it mean for a new, improved and more effective way of responding to and investigating hate crimes? Knowing the number itself is not enough, we must also erect systems and structures to use those numbers. In addition, we cannot fully know the scope of hate crimes if it is not mandatory for law enforcement agencies to report them. We must mandate that all law enforcement agencies submit their data to the FBI. Moreover, the legal definition of “hate crime” is far too nebulous. The definition must clearly define a hate crime and link it to domestic terrorism. If there are elements of hate bias in a crime, even if not the primary motivation, that should be reflected in the data. Finally, the FBI must report the data in a way that is usable by law enforcement agencies to tackle hate crimes and is reflective of the state of hate crime activity across the country overall.
In addition to reviewing the FBI Hate Crimes database, we must also proactively shed light on the white supremacist movement and the threat it poses. We have seen that the hate expressed by the movement results in lethal consequences for which they are not held accountable. Moreover, we must also recognize that white supremacy does not solely manifest as murder of innocent people, but more commonly as other forms of discrimination such as non-fatal hate crimes, racism, intimidation, discrimination, and hateful media. As such, in as much as we are active in educating the media, law enforcement and public about the Sikh identity, we must also be more vociferous about the threats to our safety posted by white supremacists. It is not enough to say that Sikhs are being murdered simply because we look different. Such a mentality puts the onus on the innocent victims of a crime rather than on those who perpetrated the crime in the first place. We should not allow the murders of the Sikhs in Oak Creek be attributed to the physical aspects of our identity while leaving as a footnote the true threat of white supremacist hate violence that still has not been confronted.
(Cross-posted on The Langar Hall)