by Debbie Lang
Revolutionary Worker #1120, September 30, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org
September 11. We watched horrified from the city streets or on TV as two planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the buildings thundered to the ground. In an instant thousands of friends, lovers and co-workers were gone. And downtown Manhattan suddenly looked like Baghdad, Belgrade or the West Bank.
We all wondered if anyone we knew was inside. Frantic friends and relatives tried desperately to reach their loved ones, but circuits were busy or phone lines were dead. For days thousands of people of different nationalities and from many countries walked the streets with pictures of their family members--desperately hoping they would be found alive. Over 6,500 people lost their lives. Thousands more were suddenly without jobs because dozens of buildings in the area were damaged. People who lived near the site were forced to leave their homes. Electricity and phone service went out.
Millions of people have been shocked and jolted by all this. Events have forced people to ask big questions about what's happening in the world and why.
The following Reporter's Notebook is based on beginning investigation-- interviews and stories gathered in the days after September 11 from some different areas of New York City.
People gathered at public parks and squares to erect memorials for the dead and to grieve together. The government announced plans to retaliate--possibly bombing whole countries--and called on people to pick up their flag "in honor of the victims" and as a "show of unity." Suddenly American flags popped up all over the place--and attacks against immigrants spread like a wildfire. A new and dangerous situation developed. And progressive forces mobilized to oppose U.S. war preparations and racist attacks.
Hundreds of people met nearly every night to figure out how to respond--the majority of them middle class people in their 20s and 30s. Teach-ins were held at colleges, universities and meeting centers. People came to learn about the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East and Afghanistan--information they are not getting from the government and the media. On September 21, 5,000 people of different nationalities marched from Union Square to Times Square to oppose the U.S. going to war.
If you look downtown from the west side of Union Square you can see the gap between buildings where the World Trade Center used to stand. Thousands of people who fled the downtown area when the towers fell came to this park. Since then it has become a center of activity where tens of thousands of people have gone to grieve with others--and to debate the problem and the solution. Huge memorials cover almost every surface with pictures of the victims covered by thousands of candles, flowers and signs of every color, shape and size.
The Square is in a progressive middle class area of the city. Revolution Books is a few streets away. An RCP supporter wrote: "I go there almost daily to see all the groups of people--bands playing, people singing, people writing on banners and acres of paper their desires for resistance to the rumbling blind patriotic hate--for peace, for government restraint, for the need for a search for not "who" but "why." You'll see many expressions by level-headed and compassionate people. There are ugly expressions, too, of course. But the overall feeling I get is that it's a place where people are searching for answers and contributing to a dialogue. When someone starts a conversation dozens or hundreds gather around to listen and debate.
"A woman playwright had just finished writing on one of these banners. She very deliberately placed her comments directly beneath the ugly scrawling of someone who had written 'Kill 'em all.' In tears she asked, 'Will people be able to act quickly enough and in enough numbers to stop this?'"
Some of the other messages read: "May love, justice, compassion, and peace prevail worldwide. Let us unite as humans!! God bless and protect ALL people!"; "Resist Revenge--Break the Cycle of Violence."; "It is a responsibility as an American to stop and think for a moment... WHY would anyone do this to us? Maybe there is something we have done."; "One World, One Future"; "ISLAM is not the enemy. WAR is not the Answer."; "Our Grief is Not a Cry for War!"
Some family members of victims also spoke out against the U.S. going to war. Orlando and Phyllis Rodriguez lost their only son Gregory. Daily News reporter Juan Gonzalez wrote: "'Not in my son's name, you don't,' Orlando Rodriguez told me yesterday.... 'I know there is anger,' he said. 'I feel it myself. But I don't want my son used as a pawn to justify the killing of others. I'm not willing to give our government carte blanche to take away our freedoms in the name of public safety.' " More than 5,000 people attended a prayer vigil in Wethersfield, Connecticut organized by Judy Keane, whose husband Richard was killed. AP reported that in a letter to President Bush she wrote: "The recent events have overwhelmed many in the country with emotions of anger and frustration. Retaliation against another country for this horrendous crime is not the answer. We cannot be responsible for the suffering of innocent families in America and abroad. We cannot send loved ones off to war."
While TV news anchors cite polls that claim almost 90 percent back the government's war plans, we've met many people who are determined to resist. Union Square has become the center of a developing movement against the war. People told me they come here to find others who oppose the mindless patriotism being pumped out by the media. One Asian youth described the scene: "I was really excited when I got there and saw all these signs that said "Arabs are not the enemy. War is not the answer." There's this giant one that says "End the desperation that breeds terrorism" and another one next to it, "Racism and war are not the answers." I saw one with a giant peace sign and over it was written "End U.S. Imperialism."
Taking to the Streets to Defend Immigrants
Not far from the charred remnants of what was the World Trade Center, cops are stationed at barricades along the streets. You can only walk in a certain direction. People are stopped randomly and asked where they are going. National Guard troops and armored personnel carriers line the streets. There is a stepped-up police presence in many neighborhoods. The New York Board of Education announced in a memo to teachers they would conduct "air raid" drills in the public schools.
The rulers have created a siege mentality in the city and across the country. Their calls for blind patriotism and national unity have sent a lying message that "foreigners" are the enemy and they are here "hidden" among us. Law enforcement officials have drawn up lists of "suspects" and arrested hundreds of people. Arab and Muslim people have become the object of intense racial profiling. Taking a cue from all this, racists have launched an unprecedented wave of attacks. Anybody who isn't white has become a potential target. Several Arab people have been murdered. A Creek woman in Tulsa was run over by a car full of white men who told her, "go back to your own country."
New York City and the surrounding area is home to millions of immigrants from all over the world who now find themselves a target in "America's new war."
The Arab-American Family Support Center in New York said: "We have kids scared to go to school, mothers scared to leave their homes to buy food for their families. People are being attacked. Arab children have reported this afternoon teachers who attacked them verbally.... Families are contacting us because they are to scared to talk to the American police." Many immigrants have flown flags on their shops and cabs fearing they would be attacked if they didn't.
An Asian youth said: "Some people of color are reverting to the flag for fear of what might happen to them if they don't. I mean we've seen two lynchings [racist murders] so far and hundreds of hate crimes reported. It's been really heavy. It's not only that the racists are attacking people, it's that the media and higher powers are testing the loyalty of Arab-Americans right now. And there was a similar dynamic during WWII with Japanese-Americans --who were then put in internment camps."
People are angry that the media is downplaying the extent and severity of attacks. Immigrants of many nationalities have organized to defend themselves and set up hotlines to report racist attacks. There has been a tremendous outpouring of support and help from people of different nationalities--including many white people. I've spoken with many people who have made a point to check and make sure their Arab neighbors and friends are okay. A Dominican woman told me she goes to the store for Muslim women in her building who are terrified to leave their homes.
Hundreds marched through Brooklyn's Arab community in an action called by Arab and Islamic groups. Over half who came were white--including a number of Jewish people. They carried signs with slogans like "Mourn the Victims--Stand for Peace" and "Islam Is Not the Enemy --War Is Not the Answer." As they passed by, Arab store owners came out of their shops to thank them for their support. The march ended with a prayer service for the victims in Arabic and Hebrew.
At a press conference in Union Square, South Asian and Afghani women's groups joined with Imam Talib Abdu-Rashid from a mosque in Harlem, as well as Jews Against the Occupation, the Palestinian Right to Return Coalition, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice to denounce racist attacks against immigrants.
A member of the Refuse & Resist! Youth Network read a statement at the press conference that said in part: "This anti-Arab sentiment has been unleashed by the holy war that Republicans and Democrats alike want to rain down on the Mideast and is fueled by radio jocks like Howard Stern and other rantings in the media. All attacks on Arab and Muslim people must be opposed.... We need to oppose new repressive powers and laws. All of this we pledge to refuse and resist. With great love and compassion for those who have suffered personal losses, we call on all people to act and accept responsibility for building a different future."
The October 22nd Coalition Against Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation issued a statement, which said in part, "Blatant racial profiling, revoking of immigrant rights, increasing legislation (being passed at an alarming rate) that rob us of our civil rights--we must not allow the powers-that-be to exploit our emotions to legitimize the growing repressive measures."
Entering the Debate
"As people mourn lost loved ones, as we put our arms around each other, all who seriously want justice need to reach out to the people of the world--to stand together against the crimes of this system, to strengthen our resistance against every act of war and repression.
"And, as we build our resistance, we need to be crystal clear on the nature of these oppressors who are hurtling towards a new war: these arrogant lying creatures do not rule in the interests of the people of this country or the world. As long as they continue in power the horrors that come from their system will continue to rain from the sky."
From the RCP Statement,
A staffperson at Revolution Books spoke with two men from a rural area in upstate New York who said they were opposed to war but had an American flag on their truck: "One guy said. 'It's just our way of saying we are grieving for what's going on. It's a statement that everybody is together and we are sad about what happened and that's the symbol for that.' I talked to them about what that flag really does symbolize. That's the flag that was on the planes that dropped bombs on the people of Iraq. That's the flag of the country that manufactured the weapons that are terrorizing the people of Palestine. That's the flag under which they are mobilizing people to support their moves towards war--which is going to bring even more terrible suffering for people here and in other countries. As we were talking they took the flag down."
RCP supporters went among the people with the Party's statement. An RW seller told me about two white tourists in their 30s he met at Union Square: "They had flags around their waist, flags on their head. On their back it said 'Ohio Cares, Support America.' They stood there and read the entire leaflet [with the RCP statement]. The guy's first comment was, 'Wow, if what this leaflet says is true, then the government is really lying to us a lot.' The woman was really concerned about racism and the attacks that are going on. The leaflet shook them up."
I interviewed some people with American flags or wearing red, white and blue ribbons. Most said they wanted the U.S. to retaliate but are opposed to a war in which innocent people are killed--and they didn't believe the government would do this--or said they hoped and prayed they wouldn't. When I asked them what they would do if that did happen most stood in stunned silence. Some said they would find ways to protest such a war. Most took the party's statement to read.
A 45-year-old white guy read the statement all the way through, folded it very carefully end-to-end, tip-to-tip, put it in his pocket and said, "I've been listening to the media. I can't find out why this happened. There's nothing coming across the screen that is explaining to me why they did this down at the World Trade Center. I'm going to take this leaflet and I'm going to investigate what's being said in here because I need to learn more about it. I'm finding nothing is telling me why this happened to us."
I read parts of the statement to a professional dancer who responded: "The U.S. government has done things. The story did not start with that one incident. And the government is of course playing up that the story begins from this point forward, but it doesn't. It begins farther back. And the U.S. government can be implicated in attitudes or policy or war tactics that have brought this upon the innocent people of the United States."
A revolutionary youth I spoke with said, "Now more than ever it's time to rely on our principles and be bold. We have to learn from history that our voices can't be soft. We can't coalesce in the shadows of the voices that are out there calling for war. Look at Hiroshima and Nagasaki--look what they can do if we don't resist--not just repression domestically, but unbelievable devastation abroad."
A lot of people I've talked with in the past two weeks are more afraid of what's going to happen next than what's already happened. An R&R! activist told me about a discussion he had with a coworker who's a film producer: "I saw an American flag and said under my breath if I see one more American flag.... And then the person next to me jumped up and said, 'Oh my god, I've been waiting for someone to say that for a week. I'm so sick of this! It reminds me of Hitler's Germany and it scares me to death.'"
The words to John Lennon's song "Imagine" have been sung and written in many places. And at the vigils and protests many have expressed their desire to live in a different world. A middle-aged woman in Union Square told me: "If we had a world where there was a great deal of caring and a great deal of awareness of other people's needs and a desire to meet other people's needs in the way that we might wish our own needs to be met then these kinds of things wouldn't happen."
A Latino proletarian who has been a revolutionary since the '60s said, "My daughter the other day told me papi, I was thinking of getting an American flag and putting it up. My daughter! And I let her talk for a while. She said the reason for the flag is because we have some freedoms here. I told my coworkers and I told my daughter, we live relatively good here because people all over the world are exploited and dying. This is a global economy. This is imperialism. By its definition and by its necessity it's a global thing. She's not going to put up the American flag. She wants to study more history now."
"This statement from the RCP is clear. This is to the point. This is what the people need to know. We are not going to support these monsters. They kill people all over the world." We talked about what happened at his job. He works at a construction site with immigrants who do back-breaking labor and are paid $60 a day. "Some people started out talking about how these guys are terrorists and that we should retaliate and that innocent people died. I told them all the innocent people that have died throughout the world because of U.S. imperialism. We talked about Panama, Iraq, the Philippines, Chile. Talk about terrorists! Or mercenaries like Ollie North and his gang--every time the U.S. government gets groups of mercenaries together to kill, to blow up places, thousands of people die. For a while they didn't want to speak to me. I sat alone in a corner. I've sat alone many times, many places. I don't care because I know I'm right and I understand this system very well. And I know sooner or later people will see it--and they did."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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