Berkeley’s candlelight vigil was one of many held near government buildings on Friday. Photos: Natalie Orenstein

About 200 Bay Area Sikhs and community members gathered at Berkeley’s Civic Center Park Friday evening to honor the six people killed in the Aug. 5 shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh temple. As the sun set behind City Hall, the group of mourners stood in a circle, holding candles and quietly praying for the victims.

The vigil, organized by the El Sobrante gudwara, or Sikh temple, was one of many community events held in the week after an army veteran and white supremacist went on a shooting spree in a suburb of Milwaukee, killing six worshippers and then himself.

Observant Sikhs wear dastars (or turbans) and do not cut their hair, and the community has been the target of discrimination and hate crimes since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, UC Berkeley sophomore Gurleen Singh said at the vigil.

“The night after 9/11 happened, I was scared for my life—not because of the terrorists, but because I thought other Americans were going to come and kill me, because we had heard about how other turbaned men were being killed,” said the UC Berkeley Sikh Student Association’s (SSA) director of external affairs. She recalled confronting a student at her Sacramento elementary school after her brother was told, “Go back to your country, son of Osama Bin Laden.”

But last week’s tragic shooting has brought national attention to the bigotry the Sikh community has faced and has opened the door for productive discussions, Gurleen Singh said. “Now it’s easy to bring up in casual conversation, to try to fully remove the ignorance,” she said.

“Sikhs have had to do the job of educating the rest of the country about who we are,” said Sikh Center of the Bay Area founder Jogeshwarpreet “JP” Singh. The earthquake engineer has led training sessions on Sikh culture for local law enforcement officials, and was integral to the successful effort to make Richmond the first city in the country to allow police officers to wear turbans and full beards.

“People are surprised to hear that 80-90% of law enforcement officials don’t even know who Sikhs are,” JP Singh said. “After 9/11 there was a big move to get the Sikhs known and I think that has worked very well. The model we’ve developed to introduce our religion is unparalleled,” he said.

As a UC Berkeley student and recent immigrant in 1965, JP Singh started the Sikh Center of the Bay Area at his Henry Street apartment. There is no longer a gudwara in Berkeley—the three Bay Area temples are in El Sobrante, Fremont, and Hayward—but the university remains at the center of the local Sikh community, he said.

The SSA currently has almost 100 members, and one of the organization’s main objectives is educating the campus at large about Sikhism. “Our primary goal is to create a safe, friendly (place) for Sikh students to learn about themselves and their faith, but we also want to create awareness outside our own community, whether it be the larger campus or the city of Berkeley,” said SSA executive director Harjit Singh.

Gurleen Singh said she has been pleasantly surprised by the empathetic response from people outside of the Sikh community to last week’s tragedy. At Friday’s vigil, after protection hymns were spoken, candles were lit, and snacks were eaten, the floor was opened to a variety of speakers, including a Berkeley police captain and a Native American spiritual leader.

“The speakers were phenomenal. It was inspiring,” Gurleen Singh said after the event. “Especially the Native American man—you could see the pain in his heart. And at the El Sobrante vigil there were member of the Jewish community saying they had been in tears when they heard what happened. Out of all this hate, there is optimism.”

And in the midst of this grieving, there is also cause for celebration in the Sikh community. This year marks the centennial of the first gudwara in the US, in Stockton, and the first Sikh to study at an American university, at UC Berkeley. Citing a current national workplace anti-discrimination bill and a recent successful state effort to include Sikhs in school curricula, JP Singh said, “It’s been an uphill battle.”

But Harjit Singh said the Wisconsin tragedy has to serve as a wakeup call.

“The fact is, people were killed inside their house of prayer. It got a lot of coverage then quickly died down,” he said. “These vigils have been really important in helping us create solidarity, but it shouldn’t stop here. We need to continue engaging in dialogue and being active. There are still a lot of people out there who hold this hatred. We need to discuss how to really combat this. We can’t just become apathetic and go on with our daily lives.”

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...