White Terror in Wisconsin: Paul Ryan, Segregation, and the Sikh Temple Shooting

I remember the first time I saw a Confederate flag in Wisconsin.

It was my sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I was driving with my friend Kevin to go see The Roots in Milwaukee. Complaining how we needed to drive an hour and a half just to see a decent hip-hop show, Kevin told me to speed it up. I moved into the fast lane, casually glancing at the truck ahead of us — and there it was. Blazing brightly at us from the bumper of an old Chevy pickup truck, there shined the Confederacy’s version of red, white, and blue.

I couldn’t believe it. I’d seen the Confederate flag before — growing up in DC, I played soccer in Virginia and saw the occasional diagonally-crossed banner on cars along the aptly-named Robert E. Lee Highway. As repulsive as they were, those Virginia flag-wavers could at least pretend to hide behind Southern pride as inspiration.

But this dude driving his pickup truck up here in Wisconsin, what pride was he claiming? Proud to be south of Canada?

A black guy and a Jew, Kevin and I weren’t going to honk and ask for clarification. Both of us already knew the answer. That flag meant – as it always means – white pride. The deadliest pride of them all.

A White Suicide Bomber

Two weeks ago in Oak Creek, Wis., a man named Wade Michael Page entered a Sikh temple with a semi-automatic weapon and started shooting. By the time he was done, he had killed six people, including Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple’s founder; Prakash Singh, an assistant priest; and Suveg Singh, an 84-year-old former dairy farmer from India spending his last years in America’s own dairyland. Page shot them all down in a matter of minutes. Then, after he exacted his mistaken 9/11-revenge fantasy, Page turned the gun on himself. No one will call him a suicide bomber, but that’s less because of the choice of his weapon than the color of his skin.

Since the shooting, we have learned that Page was a white supremacist of the highest order. An Army veteran, he played guitar in neo-Nazi heavy metal bands with creative names like End Apathy and Definite Hate. He had a tattoo in memorial of 9/11. He referred to people of color as “dirt people,” and told one white coworker who was dating a Latina woman that he was a “race traitor.” Dude took his racism serious. And in a country where it’s easier to get a gun than a job, Page was able to put his hate-filled songs into practice.

The media has been right to highlight Page’s white power background, but they often take this fact to the wrong conclusions. Fox News and CNN both try to paint Page as a crazy outlier to “peaceful, mainstream America.” Meanwhile, they call the Oak Creek shooting a “tragic mistake…against the peaceful Sikh community,” as if mass murder towards Muslims, Page’s presumed target, would have been fine and dandy. Who knew that peaceful America was so picky in its application of racist violence?

Therein is the crux of the tragedy in Oak Creek: as horrific as Page’s actions were, one heavy-metal maniac is just the tip of the white supremacy iceberg. The rocky foundations of racism – from the ever-expanding War on Terror to the prison-industrial complex to the local news that criminalizes black and brown people every night at 6pm – float along unexamined below the surface, ready to sink this titanic ship we call America.

And right there in the heart of it all, lies my beloved, schizophrenic college homeland: good old Wisconsin.

The Geography of Hate

Wisconsin has a long progressive history, from the days of Governor Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette to last year’s labor uprising at the state Capitol, but it also has a strong element of far-right conservatism and racial animosity. In recent years, that element has been growing, especially in the suburbs outside Milwaukee. One of those suburbs is Oak Creek.

An industrial town just south of Milwaukee, Oak Creek is 90% white. Recently beating out Detroit as the most segregated city in America, Milwaukee is racially divided both within the city (the black North Side, the Latino South Side, and white folks on the east) and between the city and its suburbs. Fueled by a mix of hyper-individualism and racist fears of the city, affluent suburbs like Waukesha and Brookfield have become fertile ground for national right-wing politicians.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is best known for sparking last year’s labor rebellion with his vicious anti-union legislation. Before his statewide damage, though, he made his mark in the Milwaukee suburbs as County Executive by vilifying and then denying benefits to welfare recipients (read: black people) in the city. Meanwhile, the local Congressman, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, in 2006 sponsored the most draconian anti-immigrant bill in decades, inciting a massive immigrant rights movement but also laying the groundwork for the current crackdown and racial profiling in Arizona. Small-town Wisconsin comes up big when it comes to pushing the Far Right forward.

From the local Fox News outlet to the Republican Party headquarters (is there a difference?), the winning combination in the Milwaukee suburbs is simple and effective: bash early, bash often. Find that all-too-easy “Other” (be they black, immigrant, Muslim, or just plain poor) and make them out to be the threat to all things right (meaning white) in the world. Applaud when Ann Coulter says Muslims shouldn’t be allowed on airplanes but  should instead “take a camel.” Laugh when Rush Limbaugh comes to town and says “the NAACP should have riot rehearsal.” And then ask for a campaign donation.

This culture of demonization indeed leads to higher ratings — and higher gun violence. Two months before the Oak Creek tragedy, Darius Simmons, a 13-year-old black boy was shot dead in Milwaukee by his 75-year-old white neighbor, John Henry Spooner, after falsely being accused of breaking into Spooner’s home. In May, another white man in Milwaukee killed unarmed 20-year-old Bo Morrison in a case eerily similar to Trayvon Martin. Meanwhile, outside of Wisconsin, the NYPD spies on Muslims far beyond New York, and President Obama bombs (or threatens to bomb) every country from Libya to Pakistan. All this high-level fear mongering was bound to trickle down somehow.

In March, a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan killed 16 innocent civilians, sparking fierce Afghani protests. The Pentagon, of course, publicly disowned the soldier, saying he “acted alone.” The media is now saying the same thing about Wade Michael Page, himself an Army veteran. But we never stop to ask: is the problem the individual, or the institution? With the Oak Creek shooting, is the issue that Page “got his orders wrong” — or that he never forgot them?

Paul Ryan and The Economics of Violence

Six days after the Oak Creek massacre, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney chose Rep. Paul Ryan to be his Vice Presidential nominee. Apparently, the announcement of Ryan’s selection was delayed several days because of the shooting —  not merely because it was a national tragedy but because Ryan himself is the Congressman for southeast Wisconsin, including Oak Creek. Last week, Ryan attended the memorial service at the Sikh Temple and offered his condolences to the victims. At the same time that Ryan condemns the violence, however, our next potential Vice President practices his own brand of economic warfare.

Paul Ryan has long been a darling of the radical Right. His reactionary budget policies, now part of the Republican presidential campaign, call for the dismantling of Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, and every other major social program for poor and middle-class people. Meanwhile, he pushes (as does President Obama, by the way) free trade agreements and corporate tax giveaways that destroy the industrial workforce that was once the core of his very district. For a painful glimpse at what a Paul Ryan economy would look like, all you need to do is look at Paul Ryan’s hometown and political birthplace.

Janesville, Wis. is a small city on the Rock River, once home to the state headquarters of the KKK. Janesville is best known for its massive GM factory, which opened back in 1919 and was the region’s largest employer for four generations of local residents. After years of downgrading the facility and moving production to Mexico for cheaper labor, GM shut down the entire factory in 2008. Taking into account the ripple effect of suppliers and related services, nine thousand people suddenly lost their good-paying, union jobs. 9,000 jobs! In a city of 65,000 people, that’s not chump change.

Meanwhile, over in Oak Creek, the corporate deindustrialization that began in the 1970s has been making its final body counts: Delphi (closed 2007, 200 jobs lost); Viasystems (2008; 250 jobs) CSM Bakery (2011; 100 jobs); and the carnage continues. This is economic warfare, with the Rust Belt as battleground and working people as casualties.

Shuttered factories, foreclosed homes, decimated communities — these issues actually hit communities of color the hardest. But in recent years, white, working-class towns like Oak Creek have increasingly felt their fair share of pain. And when all these jobless or marginally employed white workers (white men, in particular) look for a place to direct that pain, they do so in one of two directions. Some vent their anger at GM or Wells Fargo or Bain Capital. But many others, following the example set by right-wing media, religious, and political leaders, vent their anger at the ever-present, easily vilified “Other,” those with brown skin and names they can’t pronounce.

I want to be clear — while Republicans have been terrible for Wisconsin, the Democrats have been little better, and sometimes worse. Both NAFTA and welfare reform, neoliberal policies that led directly to industrial job loss and deeper poverty in the inner city, were pushed by Bill Clinton. Fast-forward to today, Obama talks an even better game than Slick Willie but continues the same corporate economic policies. Amidst multiple wars abroad and increasing xenophobia at home, the bipartisan decimation of the southeast Wisconsin economy created a climate of resentment that made the Sikh Temple shooting predictable, if not inevitable.

All violence – be it economic, psychological, or physical – provokes more violence. The question for us now is how to break that cycle. How, through our individual actions and collective institutions, do we provoke peace?

Bhangra, Healing, and Justice

When I heard about the Oak Creek shooting, my first thought was: Oh my God. My second was: I hope Harpreet is okay.

Back in my University of Wisconsin days, I knew Harpreet Singh. Everyone knew Harpreet Singh. With a big beard and a bigger smile, Harpreet was one of those students on campus who was always inviting you to something. A concert. A rally. And, most importantly for Harpreet, a bhangra show.

Bhangra, the high-energy style of music and dance that combines Punjabi folk, with hip-hop, house, and reggae, has exploded in the U.S. and Europe in recent years. At the time, though, I had never heard of it. Then I went to the show.

There was Harpreet and the dozen members of the UW Bhangra Association, wearing beautiful, brightly colored outfits and dancing to the pulsing beat with the joy and ecstasy I’d only seen from Puerto Rican b-boys in the height of a Brooklyn battle. Here in the heart of white Wisconsin, at a university caught between the Western canon and its tepid  multiculturalism — here was another immigrant community, boldly navigating the place between assertion and assimilation. And they were doing it with dignity, flair, and an undeniable current of love.

That sense of love was shattered, but not broken, by the Sikh Temple shooting. Like most of Wisconsin’s Sikh community, Harpreet is from Milwaukee and a member of the nearby temple in Oak Creek. When I found out about the shooting, I went to his Facebook page and saw that he okay. Harpreet lives in Massachusetts now, but he was still close to the people in Oak Creek who lost their lives. So Harpreet did what he always does — he started taking action to help his community back in Milwaukee and calling for solidarity and action from the wider American public.

Solidarity and action: that is what we need. After all the vigils, the pleas and the prayers, we need action. We need to support Sikh (and Arab, and Muslim, and all) community organizations in the struggle for justice, civil liberties, and religious tolerance. And we need to start fighting the culture of hate, the economic violence, that create the conditions for homegrown terrorism to erupt.

What would a real War on Terror look like? Let’s start with full employment at living wages, integrated and affordable housing, and high-quality education for all. Shutting down prisons instead of factories, building high-speed railroads instead of border walls, and ending the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Or maybe we start with this: a bhangra show. Yes, I can see it now…a tour of free bhangra shows in every state across America. Accompanied, of course, by workshops and town halls on the history, culture, and challenges of Sikh Americans, people of color, and all struggling Americans.

In the wake of Oak Creek, let’s stop pointing fingers and guns. Instead, let us heal together. Let us organize for justice. And, through it all, let us dance.

This entry was posted in Inter-Culturalism, Politics & Society, War & Peace and tagged , , , , , , by Josh Healey. Bookmark the permalink.

About Josh Healey

Josh Healey is an innovative writer, community organizer, educator, and comedic powerhouse whose work incites your political imagination and attacks your funny bone without mercy. Writing and fighting in the traditions of Amiri Baraka, Emma Goldman, and Aziz Ansari, he is the author of Hammertime (OMAI/First Wave Press). Born and raised in Washington, DC, Healey has performed and led artistic and activist workshops at universities, high schools, and conferences across the country. He is the co-founder of the First Wave program at the University of Wisconsin, the first college hip-hop arts program in the nation. Speaking truth to power while stirring up riots of uncontrollable joy, Healey has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, and Al-Jazeera. Recently, he has shared his work at UC-Berkeley, Harvard, the National Poetry Slam, the Wisconsin Book Festival, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and the Arab Cultural Center. Healey currently lives in Oakland, CA and works with Youth Speaks to empower young artists and activists across the Bay Area and beyond.

16 thoughts on “White Terror in Wisconsin: Paul Ryan, Segregation, and the Sikh Temple Shooting

  1. Wow – what a well written piece. I appreciate the time you took to write this. You make some great valid points. I am a part of the OC Temple and was on my way there when I heard what was going on. It is crazy that WI is so racial. I have seen those confederate flags, and am scared of the person behind them. Countryfest happens each year in Osh Kosh, you drive past that and all you see are confederate flags. It’s sickening to know that MKE is the most segregated city in the States yet the police does not do much to follow these incidents or these people who are a part of these crazy groups. Wade Page was followed for a decade by a Professor who was writing a book – why was he not on the FBIs or MKE Police’s radar? I feel like I am ranting – overall, thank you for writing this – I will be sharing this with all that I know.

  2. You detest racism yet you readily point your finger at “white people” (Which is racist by the way. Why am I not called Irish-American?). Just the fact that people put someone’s race before a crime or action is ignorant. I could care less if it was a “white on black crime” or a “black on white crime” or a “hispanic on white crime” or whatever. One person killed another person and that’s that. The only thing that promotes racism is this kind of garbage. For every KKK group there is a Black Panther group and an Al-Qaeda group. No race is perfect or more supreme than another. So quit trying to make one race look like the bad guy. And I don’t even know why you threw in the little tid-bit about Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman was Hispanic. Also, is it the “white man’s” fault that Milwaukee is this segregated? If you ask me, it is the fault of those living there. Nothing is stopping them from moving away from that area. They can move to Bay View or the East Side or wherever they want. They choose to live there because they don’t want to assimilate. And before you say “They can’t afford to move because they don’t have a job”, I’m going to call B.S. My uncle was homeless for 3 years. He joined the army, came back and went to college (GI Bill). He is now grateful for his 30K a year job living in an apartment in Riverwest. That’s called being responsible. Now if he was anything BUT “white” he wouldn’t even have had to join the army. There are so many freebies given out to “non-whites” (which my hispanic girlfriend is utilizing to go to college). The opportunities are abundant. Everyone just needs to stop with the self loathing and finger pointing and move on with their lives. When my ancestors came on the boat here, Irish were detested and hated upon. Most took the “Mc” or “O’ ” out of their last name so that they wouldn’t be beaten for even sounding Irish. But guess what, they put their heads down, went to work in horrendous conditions, and dealt with it like adults. They didn’t ask for handouts or blame anyone. They kept to themselves and their kids assimilated perfectly into American society because of that. They became respected for their work ethic and Irish-Catholic values. Now everyone enjoys a “wee bit of Irish” because they didn’t force their culture upon anyone, they let people experience it for themselves over time. So with that, I’ll see you at Irish Fest today. Unless you don’t want to spend time with a bunch of “white people”.

  3. Sick,
    I would suggest you re-read the article.
    I took your assertion that the author will “readily point [his] finger at white people” as serious criticism of a generally well written piece. If you look closely, he doesn’t. He very carefully lays blame first at white-supremacy, and then at a right-wing manipulation of economic pain. Pointing a finger at “white-people” is a nasty form of discrimination; part of what makes this a good article is its absence of finger pointing. As someone who, like me, would like to see an end to racism, you might want to try out the definition I’ve been testing lately – it keeps me questioning and learning, which I find helpful: racism= prejudice+power.
    I think you raise a good point about “x-race on y-race crime”. That kind of description can be decisive, as the author alludes to several times in the article. What he is trying to call attention to is “white-supremacist on y-race crime” which, as you point out, is not only perpetuated by white people. (E.g. George Zimmerman) What I think you will really appreciate when you re-read the article is that the author isn’t blaming “white-people” for white-supremacy (which others might do). He is blaming racist institutions and individuals who recognize they stand to gain by encouraging racism, and criticising all of us who sit by and allow them to perpetuate racism.
    Your comments regarding the KKK, Black Panthers, and al Qaeda have raised my curiosity. I am going to do some research to try and learn if they do, indeed, have equivalent membership numbers. I’m pretty skeptical, though, as I know the U.S. government made a concerted effort to wipe out the Panthers in the 60s 70s, and has openly started two wars and continues to assassinate people in several other countries to wipe out al Qaeda, while the KKK still holds marches on Main Street in some communities. I also question the analogy, as the KKK is a domesticgroup that is trying to preserve white control over all people in the U.S., and had (has?) members in positions of authority in government, while the Panthers have been working for black autonomy not power over whites, and al Qaeda, while having similar goals and tactics to the Klan, is only tied to people in power in the U.S. who oppose their goals.
    Your ancestors’ history of being oppressed and forced to forsake their names and culture is tragic, and points to the arbitrary nature of white-supremacy, which supports its own aims over any ethnic group’s. Our collective work is to ensure no one else has to go through the same experience.
    That is what this article is about: confronting white-supremacy and embracing diversity.
    As the author says: “let’s heal together.”

  4. “Amidst multiple wars abroad and increasing xenophobia at home, the bipartisan decimation of the southeast Wisconsin economy created a climate of resentment that made the Sikh Temple shooting predictable, if not inevitable.” You are really doing the work to frame the larger, institutional aspects of the massacre and I thank you. “Sick of it all” below learned something important in your article, too, even if he can’t bring himself to face it. Thanks for shining the light – KEEP GOING! Peace.

  5. Let’s stop with the finger pointing and start with you. The issue of racism is complex and it cannot be compared to white Europeans coming to the United States (voluntarily; African Americans were brought here by force). Irish Americans and others could assimilate because they were WHITE. They fit right in. Who could tell if you were Irish or not.
    Once they were freed from slavery, they had no money and few skills. There was a vague promise of 40 acres and a mule, but that never happened. Since they had no skills or money, they stayed where they were and started sharecropping. Do you know what sharecropping is? Believe me, you wouldn’t like, it’s, as one book says, “Slavery by another name.”
    Systemic racism has never stopped. When the federal government was helping cities and individuals, it NEVER helped black communities and did not loan or guarantee loans to black people. Despite laws passed, it was easy not to rent to or sell to or hire black people. They just made another excuse.
    Education should have been a way out or up, but schools in black neighborhoods (and I live in one that is mixed) are terrible in general. (Oh, and by the way, did you know it was against the law to teach blacks to read and writer in the south under slavery; some of them managed to do so anyway. A friend’s great great grandmother was a “house negro” and was able to learn to read. Guess what happened to that family. Here mother and ather and her grandmother and grandfather were successful–some were teachers, some businesspeople, although education vocations outnumbered most other occupations.)
    Anecdotal information doesn’t cut it. There are no figures or evidence to back it up. Personal stories might be interesting, but prove nothing.
    I recommend that you do some serious reading on the race issue–America’s original sin.

    • Are you denying that the irish or other minorities din not suffer discrimination in the US. What about Jews who were denied hoeing in certain neighborhoods and employment in many companies? Please don’t reduce the experience of other groups to a minor footnote to make a point, it is juts wrong.

  6. I think there are two things happening simultaneously in the context of this terrible tragedy. One, as Josh points out in such a succinct fashion, is the U.S.’s ongoing struggle with its racist history. Those of African, Native American, Mexican, Japanese and Chinese heritage (among others) are painfully familiar with the sharp end of this history. But at the same time, we are seeing a new racism–a racism that serves the tool of an even larger evil (to my mind). In this regard, wherever U.S. economic interests are threatened (e.g., the decline of worldwide oil), we are consistently encouraged by our government to see “enemies of freedom” (e.g., Arab states, Iran). It is irrelevant to the American Narrative that those “enemies” may in fact be resisting American intrusion. This narrative sells racism against those “enemies” to all who would listen: indeed, the current American narrative against Arabs is sold as much to Americans of African dissent as those of European. The difference being, and I think this goes back to Josh’s point: European American ears are tuned, through hundreds of years of American Culture, to receive that message. It is a tendency that the Right Wing of this country plays up (Radio Hosts unworthy of mention by name have made careers tending the coals of racial hatred) and uses every election year. It is unsurprising that their cauldron of fear boils over from time to time and that the innocent pay the price. There is absolutely no reason for a European American, presuming they are aware of this country’s history and the way in which racism is used as a tool of American propaganda, to take anything Josh has said as an offense to their heritage, their ethics, or their intent for a better future for all.

    • I would rather be a immigrant of Arabs descent in the US, rather than an Arab immigrant in Europe. BTW, Damon, the attack was on a Sikhs. Sikhs are not Arabs , but I’m sure you knew this.

      • Yes, Sammy, thanks for pointing that out. I am aware that Sikh’s are not Arabs or Muslims. My impression however is that the numb-nut that committed this horrible atrocity was not aware of the ethnic or religious distinction.

        • You see, Damon, when you focus on bias against Arabs when twitting about an attack on a Sikh temple, it seem that you have forgotten who was targets by the attic, The attacker is a neo Naz, He hast al no whites, So it would have been ay one on his hate let, not just Arabs.

  7. Thank you for your article and insight. The Milwaukee area has problems with segregation and it is voluntary. (The most segregated city in America?) That is more alarming than the legal segregation (of the past) in the South, isn’t it? And not a bit surprising either. As for me-I am going to listen to some wonderful music and watch the dance on Youtube. Thanks for the link. Peace.

  8. Please look at the racial program enacted in Germany. Especially note the “cost” of those – them degenerates with epilepsy and the so called feeble minded etc.
    as shown in the poster promoting their plan stating the cost to the state of each of those persons. Are we any different with the Ryan Budget? How easily we blame “the other” (people whether by race, age or whatever) when in a pinch of a bad economic state. And we segregate ourselves rather than come together. Peace.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T-4_Euthanasia_Program

  9. Old White Woman,

    I am not a Ryan supporter, but comparing his ideas to policies in Nazi German is not helping you make a point.

    • Yes, you are correct and my post was very poorly written.

      Not sure I can make the point well but in general I was comparing Ryan’s health care politics to the “spin” of Germany on the cost to each German to care for disabled people. (as shown in the poster graphic in the article.) And without proper support and rights the poor and disabled etc. will not fare well– in my opinion. Ryan seems to say that if all programs are reduced for the “needy” among us, the rich pay no or little taxes and then all will be well in America. That seems like a spin similiar to the stated cost to each German as shown in the post. (see link). Sorry, this is likely a muddy explanation at best but I doubt Ryan would or could actually be as evil as Hitler. However, without necessaries (food, housing, medicine, health care) people do get sick and die. I am not in this category but could be except for the grace of God.

      The following in quoted from Portland News segment:

      ” – Would low-income and disabled people still have a legal right to coverage?

      Converting Medicaid into a block grant would end the current right to coverage under federal law, and it remains unclear what rights could be preserved. Most analysts say states would insist on the flexibility to reduce their Medicaid rolls. The Urban Institute estimates that between 14 million and 27 million people would lose coverage because of Ryan’s spending restrictions.”

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