Pardeep Kaleka lost his father 10 years ago when a gunman with ties to white supremacist groups opened fire in a Wisconsin gurdwara, killing six people. But he says he found an unlikely and controversial way to deal with his grief — 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 rampage.
On Aug. 5, 2012, the gunman, Wade Michael Page, who had ties to white supremacist organizations, entered the Oak Creek gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, and fatally shot six congregants before killing himself. He wounded four others, one of whom died in March 2020 from injuries sustained in the shooting.
The U.S. Department of Justice declared the mass shooting both a hate crime and a terrorist act, and its anniversary comes as members of the Sikh community look back on it against a backdrop of rising hate and violence.
Turning to faith and community
Kaleka, 45, whose father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was the gurdwara’s president, said he feels healing is multilayered and that he ultimately turned to his faith and community.
Kaleka said his father died trying to protect the congregation.
“The exit door for him to leave the gurdwara was literally 5 feet away. He could have left at any time,” Kaleka told NBC Asian America. “But he knew the people that came that early in the morning were not able to speak English or advocate for themselves.”
Kaleka said this was the kind of man his father was. “Sometimes it gets missed — duty and responsibility. Sometimes you can save yourself. But then what are the communal impacts of that?”
As the community prepared for the victims’ funerals, Kaleka said many have used their faith to cope.
“Our faith called us to be ‘relentlessly optimistic’ — we call that ‘chardi kala.’ We had to lean on our faith in times of peril. We did and we’ve been, and here we are 10 years later, still leaning on our faith and in times of difficulty,” he said.
A decade later, many of the original fears remain regarding the impact of the shooting on the Sikh community.
Reaching out to an unlikely source
Kaleka said he actually found some semblance of closure in an unconventional source.
Arno Michaelis, 51, a former white supremacist and a co-founding member of the hate group Page was a part of, had left the movement in 1994 and gone 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 reached out to Michaelis after the shooting to find answers about the white supremacy movement and heal.
“When I reached out to him, I wanted to understand why it is a white supremacist does these things, why it was a member from your particular organization that you’ve helped out, who came to this Sikh temple and attacked us,” he said.
Kaleka said they organized a meeting but he was apprehensive about how Michaelis would be in person. He said Michaelis immediately showed concern for an eye injury Kaleka had at the time, which initially took him by surprise.
“Wow, here’s the person who the world knows as this former white supremacist,” he said. “He’s feeling 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 at public events together. Michaelis also visited the gurdwara and spoke to the congregation, something Kaleka said was valuable for the local Sikh community.
“I felt a great deal of urgency in responding to the shooting itself and also a great deal of responsibility. I helped to set the stage that this guy appeared on,” Michaelis said. “I know just from an objective standpoint, Wade Michael Page and the groups that I was involved with probably wouldn’t have existed had I never, but the fact is that I was actively involved in cultivating that kind of hatred in society.”
Michaelis has since become a public speaker at schools in hopes of curbing race-based hate and violence early on. He said young people, especially middle schoolers and high schoolers, are at a very vulnerable age.
He joined the movement in the 1990s but says that today, the internet and social media are the primary ways to spread extremist beliefs.
“I don’t think there’s anything new ideology-wise 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.
Data from the Brookings Institution found that from 2012 t0 2021, nearly 3 out of 4 murders classified as domestic terrorism were committed by right-wing extremists — most of them white nationalists.
“I was initially attracted to it because it was so repulsive to civil society. From a very early age, I had been lashing out at society just because of the dysfunction in my home that I didn’t process in a healthy way,” he said.
By 14 years old, Michaelis said, he was an alcoholic. By 16 years old, he was accustomed to being violent. He said he would do anything to shock or repulse people, which is why he was attracted to the movement, even though he knew why people felt that way.
He joined the movement at age 16. “For seven years, that was really the only aspect of my identity that meant anything to me. And I thought everything hinged on that,” he said. “Racial identity was central to the white nationalist narrative that I bought into, which is the same essential narrative that white nationalists subscribe to today.”
It wasn’t until he was a single father at 24 years old to his 18-month-old daughter that Michaelis distanced himself from the movement. He said his friends were either dead or in prison and he couldn’t risk that now.
Almost 18 months after his decision to leave the movement, Michaelis traded his involvement in white power rock for a love of electronic dance music, which he said was a big part of his journey.
“Here I am on the South Side of Chicago at 4 a.m. on Sunday shaking my butt to house music with 3,000 people from every possible ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background you can imagine and loving every minute of it,” he said.
He also interacted with a diverse group of people at his job, he said. He said that spending time with his boss, who was Jewish; his supervisor, who was a part of the LGBTQ community; and his co-workers, who were Afro Latino, continued to change his perspective for the better.
“I’m grateful for that every day.”
Opening up about mental health
Mallika Kaur, the executive director of the community outreach and advocacy organization Sikh Family Center, said there was a range of reactions from the Sikh community after the shooting, including anger and fear but also resilience.
“There was absolutely the fear of being further victimized, what may happen next to our kids, what may happen to the male or female members who are wearing turbans in the community,” she said.
Kaur said the Sikh immigrant experience often includes living their whole life as “the other,” especially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The shooting 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, a lot of trauma responses came up, including hypervigilance that has become a part of life for visibly identifiable Sikhs wearing 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 come up with handouts and information about trauma, grief and healing. Over time, we at Sikh Family Center have built on resources like that so that we really can encourage folks to receive the kind of support they need while feeling proud about their own identity and their own culturally relevant coping mechanisms,” she said.
Kaur said she saw the shift of acceptance for mental health resources after a significant influx of callers who reached out to the Sikh Family Center after the shooting at a FedEx facility last year. The organization has callers every day seeking mental health assistance.
“Just as is true of 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 in our community, mental health is taboo given the work I do almost every day. We have people regularly seeking resources and still meeting all the same challenges that are very true in the United States — that there just are not enough mental health services that are accessible and affordable.”