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August 21, 2012 > Candle-light vigil

Candle-light vigil

By Simon Wong

Following the fatal shootings of a dozen theater-goers and the wounding of 58 others at the Century 16 movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20 and the deaths of six people and injury of four others, including a police officer, at the Oak Creek Gurdwara, Wisconsin, on August 5, 2012, Tri-City residents held vigils to remember those lost and offer hope for the future.

Friday, August 10, 2012 saw local support on the steps of numerous city halls across the nation. In Union City, approximately 300 members of the Sikh community, supported by friends and civic leaders, assembled to pray and sing hymns for those whose lives were tragically and needlessly cut short and to give thanks for those who survived. There was much reflection on open-mindedness, tolerance, unity and what is acceptable in America.

Sikhism is a monotheistic faith, founded in 1469 by Guru Nanak in the Punjab, and is the fifth largest religion in the world. More than 700,000 Sikhs live in the United States and are identifiable by their five articles of faith, viz. Kesh (unshorn hair), Kanga (comb to nurture a tidy living), Kirpan (ceremonial sword for self-reliance and defense of all), Kara (iron bracelet tending towards right action) and Kachera (working man's shorts). The most visible identifier is the turban, or Dastar, which is worn by all practicing Sikhs.

Sikhs are encouraged to integrate in and serve the communities where they live while earning an honest living and sharing a tenth of their income with the underprivileged. They defend the rights of everyone, regardless of association. All humans are equal before God, across gender, race and ethnicity.

Since the late 1800s, Sikhs have contributed to the development and growth of the United States. "Sikh Americans have had notable achievements as farmers, military officers, entrepreneurs, congressman, scientists, scholars, transporters and media personalities, inter-woven into the fabric of the United States. The inventor of fiber optics and America's largest peach grower are Sikh Americans. The largest federal court security contractor for the US Marshals Service is a Sikh-American business. Also, one of the first doctors to arrive on the scene to treat victims at ground zero, and a hero of 9/11, is a Sikh American." [Source: The Sikh Coalition].

"We're grateful for Oak Creek Police Department's rapid response. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Lt. Brian Murphy, who is recovering from multiple gunshots, and with the members of the Sikh community, killed, injured and terrorized, and their families," said Union City Planning Commissioner Harpal Singh Mann. "Since 9/11, tragedy has befallen the Sikh community which had nothing to do with what happened in 2001. Nationwide, there have been 22 senseless and unprovoked assaults, beatings, murders, incidences of harassment, arson and vandalism and even humiliation directed at Sikhs and their property. Victims were targets because of who they were, their appearance, faith and names. Why us? This not what America is about.

"Sikhs fought with the Allies in both World Wars and have served in the American military and with American forces since 1945. We've never been disloyal to anyone. It's time to come together as a community to speak out against hatred and violence. Nobody should have to face this," stated Mann.

"Union City's elected officials have always stood by the Sikh community which accounts for approximately 12 percent of the City's population. We're thankful for their continued support. Mayor Mark Green is a friend and has stood steadfastly by the Fremont Gurdwara. Whenever problems have arisen, he has attended in person, often at short notice.

"Unfortunately, there are at least 84 hate groups in California, the greatest number in any state. Sikhs and non-Sikhs must resist and educate hate-mongers. What happened in Wisconsin should never recur. We're not angry, don't seek revenge and accept what has happened; this is our country and do not want others telling us or the United States, in whose systems we've complete faith, what to do. After 130 years, America is home to us. The Stockton Gurdwara celebrates its centenary later this year. We're Americans," concluded Mann.

"The gathering in Fremont Central Park on August 8, 2012 exuded a sense of peacefulness; it's a blessing for all who attended and for the rest of the country. It's difficult to imagine the Oak Creek and Aurora tragedies in Union City but they could happen anywhere. Sadly, sometimes a mad man is in your midst. We must combat discrimination when it arises, not let it endure and fester. Union City's Youth & Gang Prevention Program could be augmented to include an anti-discrimination component. The recent tragedies are a catalyst for progress, locally and nationally; we must reach out to those at risk of succumbing to, and those who hold, extreme and misplaced views. Speaking as an American, many in this country are unlike us. Now is the opportunity to establish a stronger bridge between all races, ethnicities and religious backgrounds to share commonalities, celebrate our diversity and learn from each other. Sikhs are part of the social fabric in Fremont, Union City, Newark, Hayward and Milpitas; attendance at this vigil is a positive contribution to our society. Union City welcomes and recognizes that," said Mayor Green.

"Union City is one of the most diverse cities of its size in America but society is far from perfect. To reach the ideal, we must win individuals' hearts and minds; the process is slow, hence the need to act whenever prejudice and bigotry show themselves. I've been fortunate to serve in Union City with very tolerant people; such open-mindedness must continue. If you're a racist, this isn't the place for you; Union City is a place for integration and cooperation," he reminded everyone.

"This municipality has five sister cities, including Jalandhar in the state of Punjab, India. Union City hosts an annual Sister Cities Festival at which all are welcome. The 20th Festival of India will be held in Fremont. I encourage attendance at such events, even though some harbor animosity. In America, however, freedoms of protest, religion, speech and association exist but positive exposure and education can only benefit the greater good.

"Remember those who've perished by facing down hatred and ignorance whenever we see it. Please continue to attend the Gurdwara and to participate in your communities because we need your help across the entire spectrum of occupations, activities and expertise. Your past and future contributions to the United States are needed and appreciated," concluded the Mayor.

Vice Mayor Pat Gacoscos, Council members Jim Navarro and Lorrin Ellis, the next Mayor of Union City Carol Dutra-Vernaci, Sarabjit Kaur Cheema, former Planning Commissioner Balbir Singh Ragi and Assistant City Manager Tony Acosta expressed their condolences and support but Ragi would like to see a national dialogue to raise awareness and avoid further tragedy.

"We're gathered here today in our collective grief as are thousands of others... we stand as Americans mourning the loss of six valuable lives in Wisconsin. They were lost to a man's anger, his ignorance and hatred; his hatred not only for the people whose lives he took but his ignorance about the Sikhs and other diverse groups and about this country's values. Every time flags fly at half-mast, it's because harm was inflicted upon one of us by one of us... by one of our very own. Why does this occur? What should be done?" asked Ragi.

When should a dialogue commence to openly discuss hatred, mental illness and reform of gun control? Another vigil would be too late. According to Ragi, nations do not fall because of enemies from without but because leaders become complacent and accept wrong. He encouraged Dutra-Vernaci to initiate the dialogue in Union City, which holds the designation "All American City," and concluded by emphasizing the need to act upon the following well-known passage from President John F., Kennedy's Inaugural Address: "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."

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