Reporter's Notebook

Soul Searching and Resistance
on the Streets of New York

By Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #1121, October 7, 2001, posted at

In New York City widespread discussion and debate continues about what happened on September 11th. The RW bureau has collected stories about people's experience taking out the RCP's statement "The Horrors That Come From This Horrible System" (See RW #1119 and #1120). And this week we also interviewed people in two of the city's Black neighborhoods, Harlem and Crown Heights. The following reporter's notebook is drawn from these experiences.


Crown Heights is home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean. At a corner building opposite a subway station tomatoes, corn, peppers, okra and beans thrive in a small garden. Hundreds of people are on the streets shopping on Saturday afternoon. Restaurants, vegetable and fruit vendors are busy. Familiar smells of ginger, plantain and curried goat spice the air. The workings of U.S. imperialism have forced many here from their impoverished homelands and many have direct experience with the horrors caused by this horrible system.

People went out with giant posters of the RCP statement and the RW centerfold featuring photos of destruction caused by U.S. aggression around the world. These posters were donated by an immigrant from the Middle East.

As he looked at the pictures one man said: "Something like this was bound to happen here because the U.S. government have gone and damaged other people's countries. They bombed Iraq for no reason. I'm not saying I'm glad it happened --two wrongs don't make a right. But by attacking other people they brought it over here."

A Trinidadian woman said: "It's America's foreign policy that's responsible. I'm referring to the different countries that they send their troops to... I call them a strong-arm bully. Take Grenada--they sent their troops to dominate and bomb. They do this to smaller countries. When they do this it's innocent people that die.... I'm not in support of the U.S. sending young people to lose their lives. It will be destruction everywhere for the Afghanis."

Harlem is known as "the capital of Black America." African Americans from different classes live here, along with some immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. As in most neighborhoods where oppressed and proletarian people live, we noticed far less American flags than downtown Manhattan. A few vendors had flag T-shirts or red, white and blue scarves. The chain stores had the most obvious displays of U.S. flags.

A student pointed to the RCP statement and said, "I realize what they are saying is true. It's not them people in the Middle East's fault. It's the United States' fault....Why do they hate the United States? Why do they want to get back at the United States or kill so many innocent people? You have to go back in time. It didn't just start now. The United States has always been in other people's back yard. They're always minding somebody else's business. And this is what you get as a result. I'm sorry so many innocent people died. I feel the pain, you know what I'm saying? And it's only because of the government. That's why these people died. And a lot of the people don't know the truth--it was the government here in the United States that caused all of this because of greed."

A street vendor said: "The United States is minding everybody's business, trying to institute their policies and imperialism across the world. It's not right. What we went through on September 11 is a horrible thing. Other countries go through that every day because of the United States."

A Puerto Rican minister in the Bronx put the RW centerfold on the altar while Spanish copies of the statement were passed out among the congregation.

A Contradictory Situation

While there are less flags in Harlem, some people here have been influenced by the government's argument that "We should unite as Americans to respond to this attack." And some people told us that they support displaying the U.S. flag as a way of "honoring the victims" and "showing the terrorists that America is united." Many are scared there could be another attack--possibly with biological or chemical weapons. One woman said she can't sleep because she's worried more innocent people could die--maybe people she loves or herself. Quite a few we talked to said they support U.S. government "retaliation against those responsible." And many, even among those who believe the U.S. government is responsible for what happened, believe that some kind of retaliation by the U.S. is necessary "to prevent future attacks."

A few African Americans we met in Harlem made a point of referring to themselves as "Americans" and were wearing red, white and blue ribbons or pins. A few said things like, we should "get all the immigrants out of here" and other ugly chauvinist remarks about Arab and Muslim people. And some immigrants said things like "America is the land of opportunity" and "we need to protect our nation."

In the face of this many people who oppose the government's plans for war told us they feel isolated and afraid to speak out. A Black woman told us about a conversation she had with a Jewish coworker: "She said the most frightening thing about what's going on is that it's like what happened with Hitler. Hitler was able to kill millions and millions of Jews because the whole world was silent. She said many Americans do not want war but they're afraid."

I met a young African American woman with a red, white and blue ribbon on her bag. When I said the government wants people to wave the flag in a show of patriotism to support their plans for war she interrupted: "We're representing America. We're showing people that we love America and we love our people. That's why we're holding our flags. We not saying go kill nobody. No!" She looked at the poster in the RW and was shocked: "I didn't know that America bombed all them countries right there. A lot of innocent people died here. But a lot of innocent people died in other countries, too." She walked away with a copy of the RW and the party's statement.

One of the things we found was that it is possible to change the terms of debate. Many people wanted to talk -- even people who had big disagreements with us. Overnight people have been jolted out of their daily routine and are agonizing over heavy ideological and political questions. When revolutionaries have gone into the midst of this situation and argued for the truth it has had a dramatic effect on the discussion.

In Harlem we met an African American computer professional who worked on the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center at Cantor Fitzgerald--where everyone who was at work that day died. He's alive because he wasn't at work that day. He said he was angry when he first saw the RCP's statement, but then came back and told us: "My initial reaction was although they make sense why would they not want action taken considering the losses? I have a personal stake in this because I worked in the building. My friends and family also worked in the building.... I've kind of joined, maybe blindly and ignorantly, America's march towards 'let's get 'em...' This information that you've published and listening to you has helped me view this from another perspective as opposed to just blindly marching to the sound of war or the acts of war, just blindly marching forward with that intention -- which is really just fueling my anger and my pain. This has at least, if nothing else, enabled me to stop and think. This to me is like an invitation to think. And that's probably what I need right now."

People who we argued and debated with, including those who really disagreed with us, thanked us for being out there. Almost everyone took the RCP statement to read. And a number bought the RW to read the articles about protests against war and other information that the mainstream media has lied about or censored. One Black youth who bought the paper said, "They don't tell us what's going on. They only tell us what they want us to know."

The response in Harlem reminded me of the kind of mass debates that went on in Union Square. In the days after September 11, Union Square became a central place where thousands of people came together to grieve and discuss what caused this horrible tragedy. Thousands of pictures of missing family members, candles, bouquets of flowers and signs covered every surface. Teams of people took the RCP statement and the large centerfold poster out here and many hundreds of people got into debate about the party's statement.

Vietnam veteran and RCP supporter Joe Urgo told me one story that gives a flavor of what this was like: "I was handing out leaflets. I'd say: 'The horror that comes from this horrible system -- read the leaflet -- look at the photo display -- mourn the dead but stand with the people of the world.' Every 10 or 15 minutes somebody would get into an argument with me. This skinny Vietnam vet covered with his medals got in my face. I understood that as bad as this guy was, he is not the enemy. I worked my way around him and kept leafleting. My voice started to get louder. I talked about how the United States bombs and kills people all over the world and how millions of people around the world hate the U.S. and now they've brought that madness down on this country. The guy followed me around: 'If you don't love it, why don't you leave it!' I said, 'You know, I used to say that before I went to Vietnam.'

"He leaves and 40 minutes later he comes back with a huge Vietnam vet three times his size. This guy walks up to me, pulls off his bag and gets right up to my chest. I looked at him and said you're not my enemy, I'm not going to fight you. I turned around and started leafleting people again. Now there's such a big crowd he's arguing with a whole bunch of other people of different nationalities. Now you've got groups of people yelling and debating." This kind of thing happened to everyone who went out with the statement in Union Square.

On Thursday, September 20, in the middle of the night--in a profound show of disrespect for the people who died and their families--the city removed ALL the messages, artwork, banners, candles, flowers and prayer cards left by surviving family members and others in Union Square. All the informational leaflets posted by relief agencies and peace and justice groups are gone--ripped down, swept up, bagged and trashed. Spray-painted messages were removed with high-powered steam equipment.

It's Not Our War

Black people have been the targets of intense police brutality and racial profiling in this country. Most people we met in Harlem and Crown Heights were angry about how Arabs and Muslims were now on the receiving end of the same kind of racist attacks Black people suffer in America. One Black man said, "Right now in the United States the Arabs are the new n*ggers, you know? They got off our neck for a little while and then they got somebody else to do it to."

Most people said they don't support the war the U.S. government is planning. Even people who said they support some kind of "U.S. retaliation" don't want to see a war in which thousands more innocent people are killed. One man in Harlem said: "I feel sorry because I lost my best friend in the World Trade Center. I guess Bush is figuring he can use our grief as revenge. They're trying to get us to go to war for something that is not really our fault and basically we had no business being over there in the first place. They sending all our people out there to fight for a war that's not even ours."

Many of the people we met in Harlem have relatives in the military. One woman told me: "They say we America. But guess who's on the front lines? Minorities. My brothers are over there in the Middle East. And I don't think that's right. This country is [nothing but] a bunch of racism.... Afghanistan is a poor country. They don't know what it is to have drinking water, to have the freedom to go shop, to wear shoes. For us to bomb them would be totally wrong. If you listen to the voices of the people, a lot of us don't want war."


Across the city thousands have continued to organize and speak out against "America's New War." Over 3,000 people packed a peace program at Riverside Church. Hundreds have met to organize protests against war, repressive government measures and racist attacks against immigrants and people of color. On Friday, September 21, 5,000 marched from Union Square to Times Square. And on Saturday, September 29, even though many activists in New York had gone to Washington, DC to demonstrate against the war and racism, 500 people marched in Manhattan. Activists have begun to spread the word--demonstrate at Times Square at 5:00 p.m. the day after any U.S. military action, noon if it falls on Saturday or Sunday.

In the midst of all this, and in neighborhoods all over the city, over 25,000 copies of the RCP statement "The Horrors That Come From This Horrible System" have been distributed. Revolution Books has a window display with a huge copy of the RW centerfold, the RCP statement and a large candle in honor of the victims. One day a woman stood and read the statement. A staff member went out and handed her a leaflet. She said "thank you" and then turned, tears pouring down her face, and said, "This is the best memorial I have ever seen."

Global oppressors can't deliver justice!
International bullies can't protect the people!

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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