The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin is shown Thursday afternoon in Oak Creek. The temple was the site of an Aug. 5, 2012, mass shooting, one of the most shocking and heinous acts of hate in Wisconsin’s history. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)
The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin is shown Thursday afternoon in Oak Creek. The temple was the site of an Aug. 5, 2012, mass shooting, one of the most shocking and heinous acts of hate in Wisconsin’s history. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Local organizations aid victims, spread a message not to tolerate prejudice

The story is often the same. A hate crime happens — maybe a temple shooting or an acid attack or tagging a synagogue with Nazi symbolism — and the community is shocked at what someone could do to fellow humans.

And that shock has been setting in more frequently, with hate crimes increasing in both Wisconsin and throughout the country, according to FBI data. But people in a coalition of more than a dozen Milwaukee-area organizations say they are sick of being merely reactive to hate, so their leaders this month launched the Community Response Network to help guide victims through the aftermath of such actions and work proactively to prevent future incidents.

“(Hate crimes) have been kind of inescapable,” said Erika Sanders, director of program services for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, which is the lead organization in the response network. “Every week or so these days you see something happening somewhere in Wisconsin.” 

After hate crimes in Wisconsin peaked at 93 in 2010, the total steadily dropped to 34 in 2016, FBI data shows. But then they jumped by more than one-third to 46 in 2017, and rose again by 13 percent to 52 in 2018. Nationwide, hate crimes reached a high of 6,628 in 2010 and fell to 5,479 in 2014 before gradually increasing again. From 2014 to 2018, hate crimes increased by about 30 percent to 7,120, according to the FBI.

“It is getting worse in certain states, certain areas. I also think that at the same time, we have to understand that we’re doing a better job of understanding what that looks like and reporting it,” said Pardeep Singh Kaleka, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee.

Many more hate crimes still go unreported, and many hate-fueled incidents may not reach the level of a crime, Sanders said. The Community Response Network is meant to encourage reporting by connecting victims of hate incidents — whether or not they are considered crimes — with people who can help with potential legal relief, counseling and even rapid relocation, Sanders said.

“We are ready to be activated as a group when need be,” Sanders said. “We feel like we have a system in place that will allow us to be more effective than any one of us could be individually.” 

Even with the overall hate-crime decrease between 2010 and 2016 — and an increased awareness — hate in Wisconsin still simmered just beneath the surface of public life. It came to a head on Aug. 5, 2012, when a white supremacist gunman stormed the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in the southern Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek and fatally shot six worshippers, wounded four others and killed himself. Kaleka’s father was among those killed.

The mass shooting was a galvanizing moment for the Sikh community, Kaleka said. He said Sikhs came to expect hate incidents on a smaller scale, whether it was being called a prejudiced name or having property graffitied.

“We just thought that was part of paying your dues of being in America, that you would have to just endure a certain amount of hate,” Kaleka said. “So now my community and other communities are understanding that it is OK to report a hate crime.”

He later added, “When somebody gets habituated to misery, it almost gets normalized.”

Sanders also cited the temple shooting as a moment of change. “The shooting at the Sikh Temple was a moment when we realized in a new, stark way how present hate was in metropolitan Milwaukee, and we felt an obligation to understand (hate) better and how it was happening,” she said.

Some researchers have drawn links between the nationwide increase in hate crimes and President Donald Trump’s divisive, often xenophobic and racist rhetoric. But the issue of hate pervades people of all beliefs, said Elana Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, which tracks anti-Semetic incidents in Wisconsin.

“It looks differently if it’s coming from the left or coming from the right, but it is a problem across the spectrum,” Kahn said.

The council’s preliminary data through 2019 shows 74 confirmed anti-Semetic incidents in Wisconsin, representing a 57-percent increase over 2018, and more than 300-percent increase over 2015, Kahn said. In 2012, the first year the council tracked incidents, there were just 12 confirmed cases, she said. Instances of hate include anything from prejudiced texts or social media posts to high school students in Baraboo flashing a Nazi salute on prom night.

Kahn and Kaleka had simple theories of how hate can be reduced: Victims must report incidents, perpetrators must be called out and suffer consequences, and people need to talk to each other and engage with different cultures than their own.

“Maybe 50 years ago, it was about changing policy — with the voting rights legislation, with the civil rights legislation — but right now, more than anything, it’s about changing consciousness,” Kaleka said. “It’s about changing hearts, as well as laws.”

The Community Response Network for hate victims can be reached at (414) 278-1240.