By Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
On the last day of the first decade, I stay home. There are parties across the bridge, but because I have spent five hours piloting a friend to a Stinson Beach visit in a 1992 Honda Accord up and down the S-curves of Highway 1, aka the Throw Up Road, driving across the bridge doesn’t seem so appealing. Instead, I stay home, receive drunken texts from my friends, and lurk on Facebook and Livejournal look at everyone’s Decade in Review posts.
And somewhere in those hours, it strikes me is that this past decade was the one where I became a real adult, and a large amount of what that was about was defined by 9/11.
I am a thirty-four year old mixed-race Sri Lankan queer woman. Sept. 11 put a fine burnish on a mixed-race South Asian diasporic identity I had just started building in the mid 90s. After six years of Desh Pardesh, Funkasia dance nights, finding other tentative jelly-legged mixed-race 70s babies, relearning how to cook Sri Lankan food and writing poetry, two planes slamming into the twin towers and the ensuing storm of racist hatred toward anyone who read as “Arab” or “Muslim,” the attempts to build security culture within our movements, living in trauma and fear of an encroaching gauntlet of hate crimes, ever-worsening legislation that we were sure would lead to mass deportations and all of us ending up in camps polished up my identity, and those of many others.
For better or for worse, some of the bullshit authenticity politics of who was desi enough and who wasn’t fell away. I got less crap talked about me because I was light and half-white and my dad had raised me culturally ignorant when I was also among the brown hordes being second-streamed in the airport, sitting together in one of those little rooms down the hallway. (Where all of us would be spending part of every attempt at air travel for the next decade.) Those of us who had been trying to be almost-white got kicked in the teeth by the reality that we weren’t.
For some of us, this challenge, while sucky, was also an opportunity to pump up the jams of our organizing. Groups like Heads Up Coalition, DRUM, ASATA and No One Is Illegal were populated by radical desi organizers and artists who saw our struggles as interwoven with the struggles of other people of color to be free.
I saw a headline on some website somewhere in the past week that referred to the Oughts as “The Decade of Fear,” and it rang true for me.
The desperation as friend after friend was jumped and beat up, as our parents were afraid to ride the bus or go to the supermarket, the fear as bad law after bad law rolled out- from the PATRIOT act to Special Registration- and bad news, from Shock and Awe despite all of our huge protests to Operation Thread(bare) in Canada, 2001-2005 meant things getting steadily worse, and movements not always ponying up to face it well, in ways that worked for those of us who were the most targeted.
In the late 90s, politically, it’d felt to me that we’d keep having huge demos against globalization and eventually shut down the world. That might be one twenty-five year old’s vision of how radical social change would happen, but it was a common one. Two years after Seattle, when the cops showed up to the poetry reading benefit for the shut-down-the-city protest and yelled at us all that they once the prevention of terrorism legislation passed we’d all be immediately arrested, it felt like the world was going to go to hell instead of being peacefully turned into a god damn community garden.
But at the end of the decade, things changed.
We moved out of the trauma. We became better organizers. We persisted. At the beginning of the decade, I did a zine of queer POC anti war activism because the mainstream movement felt so whitedude. At the end of it, the paradigm shifted. I felt at the center. INCITE really changed the way movements from Critical resistance to the Allied Media Conference to Audre Lorde Project did organizing. The Gossip played on the PA at Macy’s. We lost a lot of people. The deported, the murdered in Gaza, Afghanistan and Iraq, on all the borders. Those losses are real. Yet, some of us really did not die. We put down roots and grew up.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer Sri Lankan writer, performer and teacher. She is the 2009-10 Artist in Residence at UC Berkeley’s June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program, a 2009 Sins Invalid performer and the co-founder and co-artistic director of Mangos With Chili, North America’s only touring cabaret of queer and trans people of color performing artists.