I found out through a tweet.
On August 5, 2012, a tweet from a family friend told me about a shooting in my childhood gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. A white supremacist had shot and killed six members of the congregation, and then killed himself.
The Oak Creek mass shooting was the most violent attack in Sikh American history. Yet national news coverage lasted only a few days. However, long after the media trucks left, the Sikh community and our allies continued to keep the story of Oak Creek alive – online.
Adopted earlier this year, the Open Internet Order provides strong protections to keep the Internet free and open. The Order prevents Internet service providers from blocking or slowing down sites, or charging content providers fees to reach their users faster. That means that young activists like me have an equal voice online: we will not be asked to pay for a faster connection to public audiences.
Even as the Open Internet Order becomes law, large carriers like Comcast and AT&T are still attacking the Order. I urge Congress to protect the open Internet, because the next generation of change-makers cannot fight for our communities without it.
Here’s my story.
I was only eighteen years old when the Oak Creek mass shooting happened. When the smoke cleared, I felt frustrated, sad, and terrified. I was unsure of how to react or respond. Although Sikhs had faced hate crimes for decades, particularly since September 11, 2001, this attack felt even more personal. By opening fire in a gurdwara, the shooter had shown Sikhs that we were not even safe in our own homes and sacred spaces anymore.
After a week or so of feeling helpless, I decided I wanted to take action. We learned that the incident would not be documented as a hate crime against Sikhs, because the FBI did not track anti-Sikh hate crimes. Rather, these crimes were documented as anti-Muslim or anti-other. Since our government did not track hate crimes against our community, it was extremely difficult for Sikhs to marshal the resources to combat hate effectively.
I channeled my energy toward this federal policy. I wanted to ensure that these six lives were not lost in vain. Along with many other community members, Sikh advocacy organizations, and allied communities, I started to gather signatures to change the policy using an online petition.
As a volunteer at The Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh advocacy organization, I spent hours on conference calls with other Sikh advocates to plan our online strategy. Together, we crafted Facebook posts and tweets to reach new audiences and shared the online petition with any social network ready to listen. Finally, when we had garnered enough support, we showed our petition to members of Congress and asked them to persuade the FBI to make this change.
I will never forget watching sons and daughters who had lost their parents in the shooting walk down the halls of Congress and meet with lawmakers who were ready to support the Sikh community in a time of struggle. This moment simply would not have been possible without the support of thousands of people who showed solidarity with our community online.
One year after the mass shooting, President Obama announced that the FBI would start tracking hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus, Arabs, and other minorities. The decision was widely praised as a milestone achievement. In the wake of horrific tragedy, my community organized – and won.
None of this would have been possible without the open Internet – a space where all communities have an equal voice. We used social media, blog posts, videos, op-eds, and online petitions to respond to tragedy with social action. If there were fast lanes online, community activists with websites would not be able to afford the extra fees to reach audiences faster. If people confronted the spinning wheel of death when they went to our pages, we would never have been able to rally our voices to make lawmakers pay attention.
From interfaith collaboration to community advocacy, we need the open Internet to empower all who are marginalized to tell their stories and make change. As long as Internet service providers are not permitted to influence what happens online – to block or slow down sites, or charge extra fees for faster connection to their users – then communities like mine will continue to have an equal chance of reaching the public. This is why we must support the Open Internet Order.
The FCC has already adopted the protections we need to keep the Internet an open and free space. Now Congress needs to let the Open Internet Order stand, so that all of America’s communities have a chance to organize and author the future.
Kaur is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan with a BA in English and a minor in Community Action and Social Change. This fall, she will be embarking on an 8-month solo travel around the world as a Bonderman Fellow.