September 11, 2001 feels like another lifetime ago. It was a day and a month filled with sadness, bravery, collective solidarity, resiliency but unfortunately also a lot of ugly xenophobia and racism.
Watching the towers collapse one by one from my rooftop, hearing from friends how they witnessed people jumping to their deaths from the towers, seeing young people taping posters with photos of their parents’ faces up at Union Square, having to carry your passport at all times because the military had set up checkpoints on several corners around our block. It was incredibly surreal. It felt like you were an extra in an apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster.
There was, among a majority of New Yorkers, a sense of coming together and mutual support in those immediate weeks following the terrorist attacks. People were looking out for each other. I remember running into Una Osato who was putting up flyers all over downtown Manhattan, challenging people not to engage in Islamophobic rhetoric and reactionary behavior and to look out for friends and community members who might face the brunt of the anticipated backlash. My mom went to Union Square to document all of the heartbreaking and beautiful memorials that people had erected around the park. I organized a meeting for the first time in my life — a discussion with about 20 friends and family members about what had happened that day, the political history of Afghanistan and what we could expect from the Bush administration in the months to come.
The backlash came. It came locally, from longtime residents who, living in a large, diverse city like New York, should have known better. There were attacks against local businesses owned or run by Middle Eastern, Arab and South Asian workers. Cab drivers were facing daily harassment and felt the need to fill both the inside and the outside of their cars with American flags in their valiant efforts to continue to make a living for themselves.
I remember walking down Broadway with a good friend of mine at the time. We wrote graffiti together and hung out a lot. He was a slightly older Puerto Rican dude who grew up in Bushwick and he would take me to all of the train yards and rooftops that I would have never have had access to or was too scared to go to by myself. He was a tough guy, someone you felt comfortable with wherever you traveled. We were walking down Broadway and we start talking about Bush potentially bombing Afghanistan and he said, “If it was up to me, I would bomb all those sand N*****S and get it over with.” I remember being so shocked. I tried to talk to him about it but he clearly felt strongly and got agitated every time I pushed back. That was the last time we ever hung out. I wasn’t sure how to engage him and I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to hear any of my friends talk like that.
Of course, much more importantly, the backlash culminated on the national policy level. The United States bombed Afghanistan that fall, creating both a humanitarian crisis and actually worked to strengthen the most reactionary political forces within Afghanistan. I remember being part of a candlelight vigil calling for peace at Union Square in the weeks following 9/11 where a person next to me was spit on by an older white woman who was cursing at us for “protecting the terrorists.” This would be a common occurrence at vigils and protests in the months to follow. The next 18 months were a steady drum beat towards invading Iraq under completely false pretenses.
When a group of us occupied then-Senator Hillary Clinton’s offices and forced a one-hour face-to-face meeting with her to discuss her foreign policy positions and Iraq in particular, she ended our meeting with a five-minute monologue about how she “had been in New York City on September 11t” and “because of this we have to make sure that the terrorist don’t win.” In other words, Clinton was attempting to use here New York City “street cred” to vote in favor of the Bush war resolution. This is what passed for sensible discourse within the liberal political establishment and among way too many voters at that time. On March 19, 2003 the U.S. did invade Iraq, aided by the pro-war votes of New York Senators Clinton and Schumer. And of course we are all still feeling the consequences of that disastrous endeavor.
September 11, 2001 was an incredibly sad day. Sad for the victims and their families, those kids posting up photos around the city wondering what happened to their parents or friends. It was also a sad day for the world, a day that arguably caused hundreds of thousands of other families to lose their loved ones. Families in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen, in London, in Madrid and also for all the migrants who have since been abused and mistreated by the bloated new law enforcement agencies spawned by 9/11: The Department of Homeland Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.
Let’s do what we can to honor those memories as well as the memories of the genuine solidarity that was exhibited by so many people following the attacks on 9/11. Let’s continue to call out the pathetic and reactionary attacks on brave advocates like Rep. Ilhan Omar, someone who on the anniversary of 9/11, has to again face unsubstantiated, racist attacks, as families of the victims evoke her name at today’s ceremony. We live in scary times, but those were scary times too. Let’s keep fighting to be better!
Max Uhlenbeck is a licensed master social worker, a poker player and a native New Yorker. An earlier version of this article appeared on his Facebook page.