9/11: The Fallout
Issue #59, February 2002
Sadeque was wearing red, white, and blue. In the early hours of September 14, the postal worker was heading home to Brooklyn after his swing-shift job as a mail sorter. He was reading a foreign newspaper in a solitary corner of a packed subway car.
Maybe it was his thick beard. His dark brown skin. Maybe it was the foreign newspaper that would soon be covered in blood. Whatever it was, a tall, heavy-set white man stepped to Sadeque and began asking him something about the World Trade Center.
Sadeque has only been in the U.S. for four years, having won an immigration lottery that enabled him to bring his wife and daughters to New York. His command of English still isn't strong. He couldn't understand what the white man was saying. But now this man was in his face, saying something that seemed threatening. Trying to keep his composure, Sadeque groped for the right words, finally saying, "I am Bangladeshi."
Perhaps Sadeque thought that would cool out the threat. It didn't.
The next thing he knew he was knocked to the train's floor. Two or three men — he couldn't tell — were on top of him, repeatedly striking his head. Sadeque tried to use the newspaper to cover himself, but blood continued to seep out of his nose and ears. "Help me! Help me!" he yelled. The other passengers on the crowded car simply stared.
Perhaps the men finally stopped pummeling him, perhaps he was finally able to break away, he doesn't know for sure. But eventually Sadeque got up. His head was ringing. He stumbled to the end of the car, flung open the door, and moved to the next one. He screamed for help as he searched for the conductor. There was blood all over his uniform.
As the train entered the next stop, he looked back to see the men who had attacked him disembark. "When the guys who knocked me left the train, then everybody came to me," Sadeque recalled. "They said, 'We are sorry. We are sorry we [could not] help you.'" One woman gave him a tissue, another gave him a Tylenol, and Sadeque sat there — fearful, confused, and in pain — as the train kept rolling. "The motorman told me, 'Do you need ambulance?' But I had no sense, what could I do? I am alone."
Beyond the shadow of where the World Trade Center stood, there are new fears and targets of racial hatred. The dark fiery cloud of death was still blowing out of lower Manhattan when Arab, Muslim, and South Asian Americans were hit with racial profiling and racially motivated violence. From Seattle to Tampa, Laramie to Mobile, stores and mosques were firebombed. Students were pelted with stones or shot at. Taxi drivers were taken out of their cabs and beaten. White-collar workers were suddenly demoted or fired without cause. Travelers were pulled out of trains and planes or stopped in their cars, and detained by authorities for questioning. Muslim women and girls in hijabs — the traditional head-scarf Islamic females wear — were chased by men who spat on them while screaming things like, "We'll kill you all!"
In the week following the attacks, the South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow, an advocacy group, counted 645 separate media-reported bias incidents against people thought to be from the Middle East. By the end of September, groups that monitor hate crimes against Arabs, Muslims, and Asians had logged nearly 1,000 separate incidents. Nationally, roughly half the tallied incidents were confirmed acts of violence, including beatings, stabbings, and shootings. At least five people were murdered, in places like Texas, Arizona, and California — far from the rubble in New York City and Washington D.C.
Emira Habiby-Browne, the executive director of the Arab American Family Support Center in Brooklyn, New York, said that in the days following the September attacks, her office received dozens of death threats. She removed the organization's sign from the front door and requested police protection. "When something like this happens, obviously people are gonna start taking it out on the people they think did it," she said. "They've been told — in a sense, brainwashed — that these are the people responsible."
On September 11, from the third floor windows of the Al-Noor School in Brooklyn, the country's largest private Muslim school, students watched in horror as the World Trade Center collapsed. "Some of them thought this is the day of judgment, the end of the world," said principal Nidal Abuasi, who quickly closed the school and organized escorts to take the traumatized children home safely. "The main fear was that Muslims will be blamed for a handful of people."
The fears were well-founded. After the attacks, one parent was pushed by angry locals outside the school. Pork chops were flung over the back fence. Across the country, Sikh-, Muslim-and Arab-owned businesses and agencies became targets. In the Midwest, two angry men drove their cars into mosques. Elsewhere, businesses and places of worship were firebombed.
Busy Arab American districts were left deserted. Mosques and social service agencies were faced with a wartime dilemma: having to coordinate aid and comfort for an embattled community, while securing themselves and their property from hate violence attacks. Habiby-Browne said, "We as a community — who are part of the city, part of the society, Americans, taxpayers, voters — haven't even been given the time to mourn, because we have been marginalized and isolated."
In the schools especially, Arab, Muslim, and South Asian American youths suddenly felt the heat of unwanted attention. One afternoon in October, Dhevi Kumar, of the New York Civil Liberties Union Teen Health Initiative, gathered students from across the New York area. Kumar believes that schools are "volatile grounds" where a lot of racial hatred is bred. "That's where rage comes up."
Arab and Muslim students told painful stories of how they're being attacked and scapegoated for the terrorists' actions. Nora Abdel-Nabi, a sophomore at Talents Unlimited High School in Manhattan, began noticing cars displaying signs that said, "Death to all Arabs." Classmates that had never been patriotic before were suddenly saying things like, "Yo, son, we gotta nuke 'em all." She said, "The people who would usually say hello, they try to avoid me [now]. Some kid told me he had no respect for any Arabs. I didn't know what to say to him."
Salina Ali, a soft-spoken senior at Richmond Hill High School in Queens, watched news at home with her mother and grew angry at media coverage of Palestinians, allegedly celebrating the attacks. "I can understand why people are angry about it. We're also angry that the media would actually show that, because it triggered a lot of anger," she said. "The people that saw it, it made them angry and want to feel like they should go out and hurt someone or take revenge."
She began worrying for her family's safety and begged her mother not to wear her hijab outside the house. Although Salina does not regularly wear a head-scarf, her faith was now a public issue. She said, "I felt really uncomfortable in my classes. My history teacher talks about Afghanistan and the war and Muslims. I just sit there and everybody knows that I'm Muslim. I actually got into an argument with a student. He started saying, 'You Muslims, it's because of you kids that we got attacked.' One day it's okay, I feel like nobody's making any comments. But a few days later, it starts up again."
As October began, the quantity and severity of hate incidents seemed to wane, but there was a sense among Arabs, Muslim, and South Asian Americans that tension, suspicion, and fear were settling in for a long stay.
Pollsters found that a majority of Americans favor the racial profiling of people who look Middle Eastern. But many were surprised at just who seemed to be supporting racial profiling. According to a Gallup poll, African Americans favored racial profiling at higher rates than whites, 71% to 57%. "Maybe for the first time, Blacks and Latinos are seeing themselves eye to eye with whites," said Sin Yen Ling, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "It's 'United We Stand' — except for Arabs, South Asians, and Muslims."
Civil liberties advocates, who mobilized to turn racial profiling into a presidential campaign issue just the year before, saw years of work rolled back after September 11. As activists held heated debates in which wartime patriotism seemed to reset the parameters of discussion, some organizations quietly abandoned their anti-profiling agenda. "The momentum has changed," said Ling, who has been documenting incidents of hate violence against and racial profiling of South Asians.
Van Jones, the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, added, "Racial profiling has been legitimated in the minds of the public and in the practice of law enforcement in a way that would have been completely unacceptable even a month ago."
On Monday, September 17, Dr. Siddharth Shah, 29, arrived from New York City to visit a terminally ill friend in Kansas City. As he and his South Asian friend drove from the airport, they were stopped by a Missouri state trooper. The trooper told them he was stopping them for a loud muffler. Then he cited a quick lane change. Finally he asked for what he really wanted — their ID's. "I'm just giving you a warning," the cop said. "I don't mean to give you a ticket."
Another officer pulled up and together they did a computer check. It seemed to take a long time. When the cop returned to the car, Shah asked why they had been stopped. The cop answered, "I think you'd agree if I didn't do this, I wouldn't be doing my job." Somewhat embarassed, the cop released them and admitted, "This is a great lesson in diversity for me."
The next day, when Shah tried to depart from Kansas City International Airport, an announcement came over the p.a. system. "There has been an equipment change which will require the shifting of some seats. Would Mr. S-H-A-H please come to the desk?" When Shah went to the desk, he was met by a police officer and an FBI agent who took him to a windowless room and began interrogating him.
They asked where he had been born, if he was a citizen. Shah had been born in Houston, Texas. They asked him why he was leaving so quickly. He explained that as a doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, he had very little time off. They asked for his physician's badge, and he produced it. They replied, "We're very sorry. We're responding to the airlines' worries. Your name is on a list of Muslim names."
Shah laughed at the memory. "My first name points them to me probably being Buddhist, Jain, or Hindu. And I explained to them, 'Did you know that Shah is the second most common last name among Indian Americans?' The agent replied, 'I'm sorry. We're very ignorant about your culture. I'm sorry for your inconvenience.'"
"I was led away from passengers and they're not gonna think I was inconvenienced," Shah said. "I can't tell you how hard it is to get on a plane with people who saw you get led away by the authorities."
On the streets, many worried about inner-city racial flashpoints, where Blacks and Latinos came into contact with Arab, Muslim, and South Asians. As reports of firebombings and shootings circulated across the nation, they asked themselves, what if the bill for all the daily humiliations — like being unable to catch a cab or being profiled and harassed while shopping in the corner store — had come due on September 11? Boycotts or protests now seemed meek. Cries of "Fuck them towelheads" could, absurdly, seem patriotic.
American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee communications director Hussein Ibish agreed, "There is that [kind of] tension in some places [like] Florida, Detroit, Cleveland." Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, Van Jones says, some emotions ran hot. "You do have Black and Latino youth who have the real experience of, depending on the store, either being treated real cool and getting along with Mr. So-and-So, or having muthafuckas call the cops and being rude and looking down on people."
Before a friendly game of football in Fort Greene Park, Black and Latino teens from Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School talked about the Arab-run stores in their neighborhoods. "Ever since the bombing happened, people have gotten agitated to a higher level than what anybody ever dreamed," said Miqueo Rawell-Peterson, 17, of Far Rockaway. "The Arabs around my house just closed shop and moved on. I don't know where they've gone."
Still, the youths wondered if many storeowners sided with the terrorists against America. Edwin Ortiz, 17, of Far Rockaway, a Salvadoran whose cream-colored skin could make him look Egyptian, said the Arab clerk at his neighborhood bodega seemed happy about the attacks, smiling at him as he purchased a newspaper displaying the burning World Trade Center towers. While many storeowners had taken to hanging flags on their store windows, Louis Johnson, 18, of East New York, believed "it could be a front."
Then the talk shifted to police. The youths said that the September 11 attacks had forever changed their perceptions of cops. "I guess we've become a little more at ease with the policemen," said Rawell-Peterson. "We realize what they've done. They were the first to the World Trade Center, besides the firemen. Now we look at them more as heroes, instead of I guess what you would say, enemies."
Louis said that cops used to harass him whenever he'd enter the subway station at Atlantic Avenue, located at the border between Fort Greene, a predominantly African American neighborhood, and Cobble Hill, one of New York City's largest Arab communities. "Now, it seems like they don't really bother us. They stop everyone that has Middle Eastern features," he said. He adds that there is a new fear in the subway station. "Everyone is still afraid to go on the train. I'm scared to go on the train because you don't know if the guy next to you has a bomb just waiting for it to go off."
But across Flatbush Avenue, on the Arab American side of Atlantic Avenue, there were different fears.
On the Sunday following the attacks, a thousand people gathered in Brooklyn for a silent candlelight peace vigil. Jawad "Lefty" Saleh, a 21 year-old rapper, led a small group of Palestinian Americans who decided to participate in the somber memorial. Since most folks in the crowd looked like standard-issue hippie peaceniks, Saleh and his crew definitely stood out in their Mecca and Ecko gear. They could have passed for a long lost tribe of Latino B-boys.
Although everybody in the crowd was on the peace tip, Lefty had a special reason — he was there to mourn.
Immediately after the attacks, Arab and Muslim businesses in his neighborhood were threatened by carloads of angry males, and pelted with bottles and bricks. For three nights, Lefty and his three brothers rolled deep with their crew, patrolling all night on Atlantic Avenue. But their patrols were as much to prevent the homies from starting a street fight that could easily escalate, as they were to protect the block they called home.
Until September 11, the 'hood around Atlantic Avenue — with its restaurants and rug stores, markets and mosques — was largely peaceful. Arabs from the old buildings on Atlantic and Blacks and Latinos from the nearby projects had mixed easily, hanging out together, and going to the same clubs. Now shit was tense. Lefty had been born and raised in this 'hood. In annual trips back to Jerusalem, he had seen what war was doing to his family in the Holy Land. Now his streets were undergoing their own kind of destabilization.
Now, old Black and Latino friends were stepping to him and his Arab friends, calling them "Arab bastards" and "sand niggers." "Back in the days, I would have been like, 'Yo, I'm about to get him,'" said Lefty. "I'm not like that no more. You want to make your remarks? Make your remarks. A lot of pain going on." He was urging his homies not to respond to the new hostility, lest something start that couldn't be taken back. "As long as there's no physical contact, turn your face away," he told them. "'Cause when people are ignorant, people are ignorant. Can't change that now."
In the middle of a massive crowd on the Brooklyn Promenade, surrounded by his crew, two blocks from his apartment — it was the only place in the world for Lefty to mourn. As an imam chanted a prayer for peace, Lefty looked across the East River. There, against the red sky, a small plume of smoke drifted up where the Twin Towers had once been. "I just have to live with it, 'cause it's a tough time," Lefty says. "I had people in the World Trade. Imagine mourning over people at the same time the whole world is going against you."
Us against the world. At one time, it was a slogan that united the hip-hop generation against the culture war, the war on drugs, the war on gangs, and the war on youth. Now the generation has been torn apart by a war much bigger than hip-hop.
But Van Jones believes that the hip-hop generation has an important role to play. "Hip-hop has a special responsibility to educate the youth," he says. "All of a sudden Black and Latino youth are being considered Americans for the first time, in opposition to this new 'other' of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian people. I think that it's gonna require a whole new level of maturity and leadership for us not to jump on this bandwagon."
As Sadeque heals, he continues to pray five times a day. He can open his mouth now, although sometimes when he eats, sharp pains erupt in his right ear. When he kneels, he has a new prayer. He says, "I don't know what is happening in the future. I cannot imagine. We need peace now, no war. But I pray all of the time. May God bless America. May God bless all of us in the world."
Sadeque's name has been changed to protect his identity.
Jeff Chang is working on a cultural and political history of the hip-hop generation entitled Can't Stop, Won't Stop (St. Martin's Press, forthcoming). He lives in Brooklyn and pines for Berkeley. This version of "The Fallout" expands the original, which appears in the new collection of 9/11 writing, Another World Is Possible: New World Disorder (Subway & Elevated Press). <www.antherworldispossible.net> Bad Subjects thanks Billy Wimsatt and Jee Kim for their permission and effort to run this revised article.