On September 11, 2001, I got out of the subway at 14th st and 6th avenue, just as the first plane hit the tower. As I walked up the subway stairs onto the street, New Yorkers were standing in the intersections, on the sidewalks, and doing something we never do – looking up, pointing up. The sky was crystal clear and smoke was rising from the gash where the first plane had crashed through. I didn’t even know there was a plane, I called my husband on the corner payphone, “looks like someone bombed the World Trade Center again.”
I was supposed to be at the WTC that day, all day. Nope, I am not a world financier or one of the 1000’s of retail and service workers that worked there. I am a union organizer and we were organizing drugstore workers. One of my biggest stores was in there. Our team had made a plan to spend all day in the WTC store, talking to workers about how labor is stronger when we work collectively together against capital. But first, a staff meeting, that’s why I was at the corner of 14th and 6th. One of our team had agreed to get there early and cover the 3rd shift/1st shift transfer at 8am. SHE was there that morning. Our cousins were there too, 2 blocks away, where they lived. After I got to the office, I spoke to them, they were OK, but then they disappeared after the towers fell and we didn’t know where they were until many many surreal hours. (turns out they were evacuated to an island in the NY harbor by the coast guard). My co-worker, made it back, safely too.
Much of that day I experienced like the rest of the world – watching it on TV – too afraid to go out, what would be next? Union Square? For me, the unusual part of my story was after September 11. The press all wrote about the reopening of wall street as the heros of the capitalist world, entering the caverns of doom to ensure that we can continue consuming and producing. But no one wrote about the other workers who returned, the drugstore chain we were organizing had at least 10 stores, in the now militarized zone below canal street. And these minimum wage workers were all told to return to work, their pay docked for all the days the stores had closed. My teammates and I still had to go talk to and organize them, we had a union election coming and we had spent months on this.
At the military check point, we presented a letter on union stationary that said we needed to enter as worker representatives, and they let us in. We entered a week later, the world was covered in ash, the smoke was still rising from ground zero. The minimum wage drugstore workers were there too, mostly immigrants, mostly people of color, the stores were covered in ash too, and they were assigned to sweeping the toxic, unknown substances into garbage bags. They had no protection, nor did I for that matter. We all used paper masks that the drugstore sold, or sometimes bandannas to try and protect our lungs. In between store visits, my co-worker and I took refuge in Starbucks, yep that was opened too, it was the only place you could go and not smell the eye searing, acrid burning from ground zero that had settled over all of downtown like the grey ash that filled every telephone booth, every store. In the Starbucks, it was just us, wall street types, workers, and rescue workers. The next week, the streets had been bleached.
The other day my kids heard the word terrorist and they asked me what’s a terrorist. And I realized that we had never used that word in our home. And I stepped back and asked myself why. Terrorism and the word terrorist is coined by the victor, the colonizer the one with the upper hand. What exactly does it mean? I think most people would say that a terrorist is a person who uses deadly violence against unarmed civilian towards a political end. So how does the violence inflicted by a “terrorist” differ from drone strikes that kill civilians in Afghanistan? Would we agree then the KKK, an organization responsible for the lynching of 1000’s of Black Americans in the South is a terrorist organization? Or how about the NYPD that has also killed 100’s of unarmed Black and Latino Americans, or if not killed, then subjected them to humiliating state violence in the guise of unwarranted stops and frisks. The coordinated attacks on Muslims and Sikhs in this country, is this not terrorism? Or is a terrible, single, unconnected act of violence by one solitary, deranged person, as this press would paint it? It seems that in our current vocabulary, there is state sanctioned violence,there are seemingly random acts of violence (usually perpetrated by a lone white man with military type weaponry) and there is terrorism, which is usually defined as perpetrated by Muslims, environmentalists, anarchists, communists, Occupiers. I remember as a child learning about the US government putting Japanese Americans into concentration camps during wwii, as threats to national security. As a young, Asian-American I was appalled, I would never have allowed that, I thought. And now I see how it happens, how we allow it to happen, and how the label of terrorist and terrorism has been one of the bricks on that dangerous path.
During those weeks that passed the graveyard of WTC site, I used to feel truly bereft, thinking about all the souls who couldn’t be buried and were left alone all those nights. Then I went to a Jewish Sukkot ceremony. Sukkot is essentially a harvest celebration. You are supposed to eat all your dinners outside, in a structure that would allow you to still see the stars and the sky. That night under the Sukkot shelter, as I listened to the Rabbi, I realized that all those poor souls whose lives had been so violently cut short, were not all alone, but cradled in the arms of our mother and the night stars shone down on them and the earth held them close. And I felt at peace with that realization.