Reflections on 9-11

Five organizers share their reactions to the tragedy.

By Adjoa A. Aiyetoro Dec 15, 2001

What Now?

In the first few weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, ColorLines asked several organizers to share their reactions to the tragedy, how they thought their communities would be affected, and what it will take to move forward.

Toward Racial Healing, Justice, and Peace

By Adjoa A. Aiyetoro

The first thoughts that flashed through my mind as I sat and watched the unfolding of the events on September 11, were of utter shock and disbelief. I saw the buildings burn and then collapse, live on TV, and knew deep within that the lives of thousands of people had just ended. I watched as they showed the Pentagon, again knowing that many people had lost their lives. Why?

I knew that the answer was not as simplistic as some would like to believe. I knew that it just wasn’t because some rich man and his organized group were filled with hatred and jealousy of the United States. I had just left the World Conference Against Racism and had witnessed the appalling conduct of the United States government as it refused to participate in a democratic process of discussing with world governments the sources and causes of racism and, together with these governments, craft programs of action to end the scourge of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance. I knew that this attack, although abhorrent and tragic, was somehow connected to the often arrogant policies of the United States government. I not only saw these policies in action in the WCAR, I have been a student of them in the work we are doing on reparations.

The work to obtain reparations becomes even more critical as a result of these attacks. We cannot allow the pain of the crimes committed against Africans and their descendants to continue to fester. Obtaining reparations necessarily involves revealing the truth about the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, slavery, and the century of discrimination and brutalization of the descendants of the enslaved. It entails telling the story from the perspective of those who are victimized and those who support their fight rather than from the perspective of those who benefited and continue to benefit from these crimes. It entails an honest look at the United States history and requires that this government own its crimes against humanity. It entails talking about what happened, admitting the injury done to Africans and their descendants and developing methods to repair the injury.

Reparations is a critical and essential step toward racial healing, justice, and peace. Perhaps that’s the relationship between September 11 and reparations: military attacks and counterattacks, hunting down and killing "terrorists" will only beget more violence. Perhaps rather than being a call to arms, September 11 is a call to peace, a call for analysis with integrity of the role the United States has and is playing throughout the world in conflicts between and among peoples of the world. Perhaps it is a call to develop true strategies for peace that uplift humankind. On the heels of the WCAR where the slave trade, especially the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, and slavery were called crimes against humanity, perhaps September 11 is a wake-up call that we should not tolerate criminal conduct whether emanating from the halls of so-called legitimate government or the camps of so-called terrorist groups. Perhaps through the horrible violence of September 11, we can heed the screams for justice and peace.

Adjoa A. Aiyetoro is a longtime activist and legal counsel for National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA).

Time for Some Self-Examination

By Michael Leon Guerrero

I broke down and cried the day that the World Trade Center was attacked. I just couldn’t get the image out of my mind of that 767 making that sharp turn into the second building of the Trade Center and exploding. I thought to myself that the people on the left side of that plane for that split second had to see where they were going. What about the people in the building? Thousands of people scrambling to get out–with only 18 minutes since the first plane struck the twin tower. Imagine the terror of being trapped inside the building on the upper floors.

Many people have been saying over the media that Americans will be changed forever by this event. But how will we be changed? President Bush has already declared war without knowing who our enemy is; that we will attack their "safe harbors" and that anyone who does not support us is against us. Members of Congress are already talking about national defense being a "core priority" and will be seeking an additional $20 billion in defense expenditures for this year alone. They add that some of that money will have to come out of Social Security. Our political leadership is talking about the need to retaliate swiftly and viciously–that we need to get "down in the gutter with these people"–justifying assassinations and bombing raids.

At this moment we must really take a deep breath and check ourselves before we move on. We need to examine how this event should really change us. We are about to make decisions that will affect millions of lives around the world for the long term.

Hopefully we will be changed by this event in how we view war and our foreign and economic policies. On September 11, the war had come home to the United States. What we witnessed in complete horror on September 11, 2001 are images that replay themselves on a daily basis throughout the Third World. Rather than posturing and beefing up our intelligence agencies and gearing ourselves up to "kick some ass," we need to ask ourselves at this point: why? Why did this happen?

How many times did the United States invade, bomb, occupy or undermine the political leadership of other countries–Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua, Iraq, Lebanon…? Bombing a Middle Eastern country has become as much of a presidential tradition as the inauguration itself. Clinton bombed Iraq shortly after taking office because the Iraqis apparently threatened former President Bush. Did we ever show the victims of that bombing attack?

And let’s not forget about the horrifying acts of our own CIA. Two nights before the attack on the World Trade Center, "60 Minutes" broadcast the story of Henry Kissinger and the Central Intelligence Agency masterminding the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government in Chile in 1973. This is no mystery. This coup d’etat orchestrated by U.S. political leaders is well documented. The Central Intelligence Agency has trained the armies of some of the world’s most murderous military dictators and terrorists in the arts of torture, assassination and terror. In many cases these are people that we are now calling our enemies.

Yet, while one CBS program is documenting the dark history of the CIA, the same network is running promotions for its new action series about the CIA called the "Agency." Will the new show dedicate even part of an episode to the immoral overthrow of the Chilean government in 1973, or of Guatemala in 1954, or of Nicaragua in 1990? Will it portray the role that the CIA played in training and supporting the Talibans who now govern Afghanistan–the same government that we are threatening to annihilate? Doubtful. Instead we can expect a glorification of the amazing gadgets that the agency will use and the strong moral character of the show’s heroes.

On the world’s economic scene, the gap between rich and poor has only grown wider in the past 20 years. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been protesting the global economic policies promoted by unjust trade agreements like NAFTA and by financial institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. The World Trade Center was the most visible global symbol of the disparities that exist between the rich and poor of the world. Recent trade agreements and World Bank/IMF policies have helped to displace millions of people in the Third World from their land and forced them into sweatshops around the globe.

The world most certainly came home to us on September 11, 2001. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were brutal, criminal, unjustified, and desperate acts. It is definitely a time for action on the part of the people of the United States. But the action we should be taking is not to start indiscriminate bombing of innocent people or to legitimize assassination, or to persecute Arab and Muslim people. No doubt we will improve security at our airports and sacrifice some of our personal freedoms for safety. But while we are doing this we also need to 1) catch up on the real news of the world and really ask why this happened and 2) to take a really good, hard look at ourselves.

Michael Leon Guerrero is a co-director of the SouthWest Organizing Project

We Can’t Afford to Turn Against Each Other

By Janet Robideau

On Saturday, four days after the horrific events of September 11, in New York City and Washington D.C., I was outside watering my lawn. It was dusk, a warm and beautiful Montana evening. A carload of young males drove by and hollered, "Go Home."

Go Home? What did they mean go home? I glanced around my immediate vicinity thinking perhaps they were speaking to someone else. But I saw that I was the only person there. I couldn’t figure out what these young males had meant. Then I remembered the events of September 11 and realized that these young people had seen my brown skin and made an assumption.

I’ve lived in Montana for 40 of my 50 years and for the first time in my life I have a fear that I have not had since I was 10 years old. That was a time when many stores in Montana had signs in their windows that said, "No Dogs and No Indians Allowed." It was a time when adults I didn’t know would call me terrible names. I couldn’t figure out why these people were so angry with me, a 10-year-old child. Now many are ferociously angry and rightly so, but turning on each other is not the answer. Unfortunately, some people believe that the answer to the problem is to attack any and all persons of color without regard.

Today I’m concerned at what effect the events of September 11will have on the working poor of Montana. We live in a state with the highest percentage of people working two or more jobs to make ends meet. Most Montana jobs pay minimum wage with little or no benefits. Many are forced to turn public assistance and are then forced to endure the wrath and harassment of those citizens who believe people who "are too lazy to get a job are squandering their hard-earned dollars." The majority of Montanans don’t have or can’t afford health care coverage. Many of our working poor are forced to go to hospital emergency rooms for health care because, luckily, Montana law mandates that emergency rooms cannot refuse service to anyone even if they don’t have the ability to pay. Most of these same individuals will end up being sent to collection agencies where their credit rating is ruined. This of course affects their future abilities to buy a home, car, or rent a place to live.

My fear is that individuals and groups with power, who already have ill will toward those labeled as "different," will use that power against the people who most need help. If we’re not careful with our anger at the horrific events of September 11, the anger could be misdirected and the results devastating. Our own people lose because all focus and energy is focused on retaliation and revenge.

We are the country of plenty yet within our own borders are those who are hungry, who can’t access health care, and who don’t even have a roof over their heads. We have crucial upcoming legislation that will help people but I’m afraid that the needs of the people will be overlooked. While I am just as angry over what occurred on 9/11/01, turning our backs on our own is not the answer.

Janet Robideau is statewide coordinator for Indian People’s Action, a chapter of Montana People’s Action.

Meeting the Challenge of a New Political Context

By Dawn Phillips

Since the events of September 11, PUEBLO board, staff, and members have struggled together to understand the events of the day and come to terms with how our work and our lives will be altered by this historic event. The events of September 11 have had personal, organizational, and political ramifications for everyone at PUEBLO. We are dealing with the terror of our Afghani immigrant member and her family as they remain in hiding in their home for the 14th straight day. We are trying our best to answer questions from our members on everything from how the public benefits they receive will be affected by increased military spending, to whether the schools will close in the event of a war, to how soon people who are called for military service can expect to see combat. We have also received calls from individuals reporting hate crimes against their Arab neighbors, and we have had community members question us about why our storefront office does not display an American flag.

On a political level, we are closely tracking new laws that we believe will have far-reaching impact on our work. We see the country being dragged into a new protracted conflict, the next Cold War, another War on Drugs. We see this threat of "international terrorism" being used as a pretext to erode civil and human liberties of the communities we work in and care about. We see a dangerous political climate being created where any form of criticism against our political leaders and governmental policies is seen as treason to be crushed immediately and decisively. We believe that groups like ours who use direct action tactics will face a response from law enforcement more closely associated with the violent repression of the ‘60s mass movements, rather than the benign tolerance that most groups have grown accustomed to in the last decade or so. We see the terrain of our organizing and the parameters of the non-profit world that we operate in changing dramatically as a result of all this.

As each day passes, our analysis of this new environment deepens, and we are slowly formulating our response. We have involved most of our members, all our staff and our board in developing a shared analysis of the recent events and their impact. We are developing a long-term plan to further educate our members about U.S. foreign policy and the relationship between international and local struggles. We are talking to our allies and attempting to develop a broader strategy to work jointly on addressing the new conditions that will make our work even harder.

While we see a significant change in the world, we are also realizing that just as many important factors have not changed at all. The conditions and realities that gave rise to PUEBLO’s police accountability work still exist, our Social Service Department still needs to stop criminalizing welfare recipients, and our schools are in no less need of improvement. The multiracial, multicultural, intergenerational model of organizing that PUEBLO is striving to build still has incredible relevance, maybe even more now in this new political climate. It is slowly becoming apparent that once again we are faced with the challenge of crafting new and more effective strategies to meet our political context. We have to reach and influence even more people, do even more effective political education work, and build coalitions that reflect even higher levels of political unity. Approached in a critical and strategic manner, the events of September 11 could be the critical kick in the pants that the progressive, social justice community needed to take our work to a much-needed higher level.

Dawn Phillips is executive director of People United for a Better Oakland (PUEBLO).

Reassessing Strategies, Not Principles

By Jeremy Lahoud

As an Arab American, after initial reactions of shock and disbelief at the airplane attacks on New York City and Washington, one of my first thoughts was, "God, please don’t let this be an attack by Arabs. If it is, then all Arabs and Muslims will become worldwide targets.

Remembering the phone threats received at the Arab American Community Center in Chicago following the Oklahoma City bombing and after news reports began releasing names of Arab suspects in the September 11 attack, the Arab community in the Chicago area braced itself for an all-out backlash. There have been many awful stories about anti-Arab and anti-Muslim assaults, hateful phone calls, and pro-American protestors marching on local mosques in the Southwest suburbs. But I have been impressed by the numbers of concerned phone calls we have received in solidarity with the Arab and Muslim communities from friends, allies, and even strangers. Especially on the southwest side of the city of Chicago, a predominantly Latino and African American neighborhood where I organize, we have witnessed solidarity, friendship, and level-headedness.

After several days, my feelings turned to anger. Anger at anyone who would orchestrate such an attack that destroys so many human lives. And anger because the attacks will be used by global leaders, elected politicians, and "average Americans," as a smokescreen to repress, demean, and attack legitimate movements for liberation and social justice. I’m angry at whoever orchestrated and perpetrated the attacks, because they will have a deeply negative effect on progressive movements throughout the world and in this nation, including the movement for Palestinian self-determination. Those of us involved in the Palestinian movement and other progressive movements for racial justice are worried about how we might be perceived if we talk about the role of the U.S. in Palestine and the Middle East or if we continue to criticize U.S. racial policies.

We need to be prepared for a "war on terrorism" that could have global effects very similar to the "war on drugs" and the "war on crime." We are quite aware of the negative impact that these "wars" have had on communities of color in the United States. What does the coming "war on terrorism" mean for poor people of color in nations that the Bush Administration feels have "harbored terrorism"? (The government of Israel has already seized the reaction to the attacks as the "golden opportunity" to re-establish military occupation in most of the West Bank and Gaza.) What will it mean for our struggles for racial justice at home and globally, especially when we are dealing with an administration that arrogantly boycotted the World Conference Against Racism in Durban?

We need to develop a progressive, Left position on the attacks that incorporates a compassionate analysis. We have always put forth an analysis and a critique based on compassion. We must be prepared to do so even more in the coming months. If political repression increases, shouldn’t we be willing to speak out against a global "war on terrorism" that threatens and endangers innocent people’s lives? How will the Bush Administration use the "war on terrorism" to deflect discussions about education, welfare reform, immigrant rights, criminal justice, or any number of racial justice issues in the United States? Shouldn’t we be doubly committed to speak out for racial and social justice at home? We need to reassess our strategies and tactics, but not our basic principles.

Jeremy Lahoud is a youth organizer for the Generation Y/ Southwest Youth Collaborative.