As the mayor of the City of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a city that suffered through an act of hate in a Sikh house of worship in 2012, news of the shooting in a historic African American church in Charleston has broken my heart.
My city grieves with the victims’ families. Once again, the peace and safety of a place of worship has been violated in the most hateful way.
I will never forget August 5, 2012, the day a white supremacist opened fire, killing six of our community members. For months, I witnessed and shared the pain of the Sikh community and the broader city. Three years later, our pain and sadness continues, but I have witnessed how acts of solidarity can help us heal and rebuild in the face of such pain.
In the wake of the murder of nine people in Emanuel AME Church, I believe communities across America must come together in grief and solidarity. We must work with city leaders to demonstrate that a single act of hate can’t define a community or our nation. Only then can we honor the lives of the people who died and build new bridges necessary for understanding, healing, and hope. The unspeakable loss of life in Charleston should serve as a call to action for our nation.
Despite the best efforts of many of us, racism remains an insidious challenge for our country. It nourishes these horrific acts of violence, challenging the popular notion that America is a welcoming melting pot.
In Oak Creek, the gunman saw the turbans and brown skin of our Sikh neighbors as foreign and threatening. His act of violence became the most high profile hate crime in a series that the Sikh American community has endured since 9/11.
For African Americans, the Charleston shooting is the latest chapter in a long and painful national story of persecution and violence.
In both cases, these acts were not random and they certainly were not isolated. We must stop treating them this way. We can’t just hold candles at vigils, write a Facebook post that expresses sympathy for the victims, and then slowly go back to the status quo. We must stay on the story, engage people of other faiths, build bridges and begin to change the narrative.
The relationships I have made since violent bigotry struck my town have changed my life, but tragedy shouldn’t have to strike our communities for all of us to play an important role in connecting with the diversity that makes our nation great.
We live in a culture where too many people don’t interact with people of other faiths, colors or beliefs.
Each of us has a role in changing this. We must accept and celebrate the diversity of our country. We must reach out and connect with people who are different from us.
Interfaith efforts thrive in many cities across the country. In the Milwaukee area, the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee hosts “Amazing Faiths” dinners, bringing together small groups of people to share a meal and listen to and discuss our differences and common ground.
These connections are long lasting and contagious.
I’ve shared these words too often in my short tenure as mayor: “My thoughts and prayers go out to ...” and then I name the city most recently shaken by acts of hate and violence.
The root causes of mass violence are complex and woven deeply in the fabric of our nation’s history and our relationships with each other, but my experience in Oak Creek has shown me that mending our personal relationships begins the deep work of healing.
Even as we grieve, let us all commit to build a society where we don’t have to brace for the next tragedy.
Oak Creek, Wisconsin
Mr. Scaffidi’s book “Six Minutes in August” on the Oak Creek shooting will be released this year.