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How 9/11 Kneecapped a Movement

Issue 266

The smell of the “Pile,” the media elevation of Rudy Giuliani to near-sainthood and the sudden disappearance of the global justice movement are memories I would like to forget but can’t.

Rico Cleffi Sep 10

As part of its official 20th anniversary remembrance, the 9/11 Memorial has launched a “Never Forget Fund,” which promises a “new way to never forget.” As if anyone who was in New York on that day could forget. Of course, the 9/11 Memorial, with all its never forgetting, has a very selective memory. The 9/11 Memorial would probably like the public to forget its own controversial history, a story of top-heavy executive salaries, pissing off families of 9/11 survivors and a very limited, often Islamophobic reading of history. And much as there are valid reasons to remember 9/11, I’d be content forgetting a lot of what has stuck with me. The smell of the “Pile,” the media elevation of Rudy Giuliani to near-sainthood — things like that I’d gladly erase from my memory bank in an instant.   

I knew the area around the towers well-enough; I worked at a nonprofit down on Broadway and Leonard at the time. I had joined in “shut down Wall Street” marches that never shut down much of anything. They were often tepid affairs with more than a few sectarian front groups involved. Down in the sound canyons created by all the imposing towers, the chanted slogans tended to evaporate up into the stratosphere unheard. Manhattan’s stark, indifferent skyline always seemed completely impenetrable. 

There are a few famous pictures of NYC newsstands the day after 9/11, every publication’s cover with the image of the burning towers. No one talks about the headlines on the morning of the attack.  Both The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times carried major stories on the “anti-globalization” movement (though no one in the movement used that sobriquet, we generally considered ourselves broadly anti-capitalist). The FT’s story carried a headline announcing “Capitalism Under Siege.” The ruling class was still shook after 30,000 protesters had encircled a World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in November 1999 and shut it down, catalyzing a series of mass protests wherever the heads of major global institutions tried to meet.  Momentum had been building for major actions against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in late September. Plans were in the works to shut down Wall Street for real later that fall as a part of a global day of action targeting the world’s major stock exchanges. This was unnerving to the elites who run society and exhilarating for those of us who were active in these efforts.

Illustration: Gary Martin.

Nine-Eleven took most of the momentum out of the movement. The most-direct attack ever carried out against the most blatant symbol of capital’s power set off a chain of events that nearly crushed the anti-capitalist upsurge. Everyone knew the U.S. response was going to be a war on Afghanistan and that Bush/Cheney would use the tragedy to get their Iraq War. The Left turned its energies toward figuring out how to respond to the near-inevitable carnage before it happened. 

So many bad takes were proffered in the media that if you stacked them all on top of each other you could dwarf the actual Twin Towers. More than one elite intellectual used 9/11 as an excuse to finally pivot rightward. Liberals responded the way they usually do, with wishy-washy navel gazing. A New Yorker writer claimed the attacks “reinstated a conceptual category of New York life that has, in recent years, become almost entirely meaningless: the uptown-downtown divide.” “Inside job” theories (often anti-Semitic, always unsubstantiated) spread faster than Covid at spring break. One popular leftist writer claimed the victims were “little Eichmanns,” ignoring the fact that the majority of people who keep capitalism going are not the ones running it. Activists probably spent too much time arguing over to what degree chickens were coming home to roost and not enough figuring out what to do next. 

Some on the Left felt it was too soon to protest in the weeks after 9/11. There was at least one anti-war demonstration where organizers urged everyone to wear all white and march in total silence. Everyone was just reeling, trying to figure out how to regain some of the momentum that had been kneecapped by 9/11. 

I vaguely remember the first big demo against the war on Afghanistan. Thousands turned out and It felt good to be protesting again, but like most of the demonstrations I attended during the Bush/Cheney years, there was that recurrent feeling of futility. Bush famously commented in the run-up to the Iraq War that he didn’t care that millions had protested because he didn’t take direction from “focus groups.” 

One 9/11 memory I would like to never forget is seeing Mos Def on lower Broadway, on a BMX bike. He was talking to a group of young Black and Brown men, arguing passionately against signing up for the military to avenge the attack. This other great memory I have is of thousands of people taking to Union Square. The crowd spontaneously turned the steps into a soapbox. The vibe was mostly (but not entirely) anti-war. That was the first time I saw anything nearing that level of direct democratic communication. I wouldn’t witness anything similar until Occupy Wall Street came around. 

After 9/11, so many bad takes were proffered in the media that if you stacked them all on top of each other you could dwarf the actual Twin Towers.

When Occupy erupted a decade later, I felt a sense that things could really change. It was the first time in my life that I witnessed an actual mass movement. The rage we had felt against our plutocratic system that was quieted by 9/11 finally seemed to be shared by the larger public.

It was a profound period when millions of people opened up spaces that had been previously unbreachable. There were some real glimpses of what life could look like beyond the grip of capital/money/work/the state. It wasn’t just leftist activism that resurfaced, though. Many of the worst reactionary strains given succor by 9/11 were also present from the first days at Zuccotti Park. I encountered anti-vaxxers, anti-Semitic conspiracy loons and all the rest. They weren’t the majority but they had enough of a presence that they were able to recruit others and infect the general discourse. I was there when Michael Moore first came down to Zuccotti and was accosted by a group of Ron Paul libertarians who surrounded him, screaming “die socialist scum!” Great as it was to see the emphasis on non-hierarchical forms of organization, Occupy fetishized anti-authoritarian process to the point where actual authoritarians were allowed to make inroads. That’s not the reason OWS failed, though it was a significant failure of the movement.

These are the bits of history we keep lodged somewhere deep within us, the stuff we sometimes dredge up in too-vivid, sleepless hours. The chroniclers of the official narrative can keep their gift-shop-gloss version of history and the newest ways of never forgetting. I’m sticking with the memories I’ve got until old age or the creditors come and eventually take it all away.

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