Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He was addressing criticisms that he was an “outsider” in Birmingham, and the struggle there for the rights of its citizens was none of his concern. Yet Dr. King knew better, recognizing that we are always connected to the suffering of others whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Two seemingly unrelated events force us to consider what that means for us here in Fort Wayne. One event happened two years ago in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and another one happened this past June in Cincinnati, Ohio.
On Aug. 5, 2012, I had just returned home from my local gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) when I read the news on social media that there had been a shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. I had completed advocacy training with the Sikh Coalition only two months before, so I was very interested in how the media would handle this story. Unfortunately, what I saw on one national network after another was a lack of understanding of the Sikh faith. My fellow advocates and I came forward, approaching our local media around the country in order to educate the masses. Many local Sikh business owners also helped to spread information by providing brochures at the front counters of their stores, etc. This was not an attempt to convert others, which goes against Sikh teachings; it was meant to dispel some of the myths about basic Sikh practices so that these people could live in peace with their fellow Americans.
Unfortunately, I saw one backlash after another against Sikhs even in the wake of this attempt to educate the public. Many people suggested to me that the victims of Oak Creek were somehow responsible for their own murders by “looking different.” There was even an incident where a government official went into a gas station and threw out the educational pamphlets provided to customers, stating that they went against Christian beliefs. I also felt pressured, personally and professionally, to give up my advocacy work.
Fast forward two years, and I am still an advocate as well as a Ph.D. student at Union Institute & University. I have been a member of the Martin Luther King, Jr. specialization since I began my doctoral studies, and it has allowed me to interact with advocates for different causes from around the world. I was shocked and dismayed this summer, however, when I found out that one of my friends in the MLK specialization, a bright young woman by the name of Vanessa Enoch, had been arrested. I couldn’t imagine Vanessa doing anything that would have put her in this position. The offense? Having an iPad in the Hamilton County courthouse hallway.
Vanessa and her research partner Cheri Franklin-Scott had been following the case of Judge Tracie Hunter as part of their doctoral studies. Hunter is the first African American and the first Democrat to ever become a judge in the juvenile court system of Hamilton County, Ohio. She had to fight to prove that she had won her seat fair and square, forcing the county to consider more than 800 votes from majority black precincts that were initially disqualified. The attacks on Hunter continued when she took office, and she became the target of 30 lawsuits and nine felony charges. Her plans to bring positive change to the Hamilton County juvenile courts, including the eradication of a school-to-prison pipeline for many of its children of color, had to be set aside in order to address one lawsuit after another. Hunter’s supporters, such as Vanessa, became targets as well.
All charges were eventually dropped against Vanessa, but Judge Hunter’s legal battles continue. This past week, the Sikh community of Fort Wayne paid tribute to those lost at Oak Creek, yet we also watched the news in dismay as yet another Sikh man in New York was called racial slurs and almost dragged to his death. There is still much to do on both advocacy fronts, but I believe that Dr. King would lend his support to both causes if he were alive today. We cannot pretend that attacks against others do not concern us just because the victims happen to be of another race, religion, ethnicity or locality. We will win the fight for social justice only when we recognize the unity of our struggles.