“How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ‘n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer is blowin’ in the wind, my friend
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
No, I was not present in America when the anti-war movement peaked in the sixties. No, I was not around when Dr. King marched in Selma, Montgomery, or Atlanta during the glorious days of civil rights struggle.
But I was a part of that glory, when millions of Americans again descended on the streets of New York, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For months and for years, they marched and rallied in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Houston, and all the big cities and small towns across this vast land. I was a part of it. My wife was there with me. Our daughter, who saw the destruction of the World Trade Center from less than a hundred yards away, came with us with her high school friends. They witnessed barbarism by a gang of fanatic terrorists; from their school building, they saw the burning towers collapsing and desperate people jumping to their death. They saw their school used as a temporary triage center where they started bringing in the gravely wounded.
Now we were all gathered for a purpose. We were protesting against terrorism – of any kind, whether by religious fanatics, or by a state. We were protesting against the new war on Iraq and Afghanistan, the blanket bombing and destruction of two ancient civilizations to rubbles, and the establishment media’s glorification of it. We were protesting against the new violation of human rights in the name of fighting a war on terror, right here in the USA.
Brooklyn For Peace
I first met Brooklyn For Peace members immediately after the tragedies of 9/11, when the wound of the attacks was raw and tender in the minds of New Yorkers, when people were looking for an answer to the causes of the tragedies, when even a city of tolerance and diversity was getting restive. Brooklyn For Peace was one of the first grassroots community-based organizations that rallied people for peace and tolerance. It was a very difficult time: Muslims, Sikhs, and people who “looked like Arabs” were falling victims to violent hate crimes. Moreover, the federal government, immigration agents and the FBI were entering Muslim neighborhoods, and taking away hundreds of innocent Pakistani, Arab and Bangladeshi immigrants on suspected terrorism charges. Local activist Mo Razvi and Bobby Khan told me that least twenty thousand Pakistani people from Brooklyn’s Midwood area – all ordinary, hardworking families – had decided to leave America once and for all. Street violence on one hand, and government repression on the other, made their lives unbearable; they couldn’t take it anymore.
NICE (No, it’s not in France!)
I became involved with these immigrants and their predicaments because of my new job as a community organizer at a small, grassroots organization called New Immigrant Community Empowerment. My organizing experience from the long-forgotten India days now came in handy, although for a completely different purpose; NICE’s founder-director young activist-lawyer Bryan Pu-Folkes and I found great colleagues in each other. We had a whole bunch of young, energetic activists on our team. Very soon, NICE became a household name to New Yorkers for its round-the-clock activity as the only de facto community task force working against the many hate crimes shattering lives. There was a spree of violence taking place against working class immigrants – all immigrants. We worked with a Belarus family; the man was beaten to death when he was coming out of a bodega late at night. He lived alone; his wife and children were in Belarus when he was murdered. We went, along with members of the Russian-Belarus community, to meet and console the family when they came for the man’s funeral, and brought them over to a community meeting to meet with politicians and press. I was surprised that the poor widow, in mourning, actually attended the meeting despite her devastating loss.
I met Amanda, a Latina woman from Colombia. Her husband was an Arab. One morning, armed FBI agents stormed Amanda’s Sunset Park, Brooklyn house when she was away at work, shackled her husband, and took him away at gunpoint. They kept him in various jails for over a year; frightened his wife to death and made her run around—and then the immigration department deported him back to his native country. The man’s only crime was that he looked like an Arab, and immediately after 9/11, he was playing a “violent” video game at a parlor and some “patriotic” onlookers noticed that the game showed tall towers burning down. They called the police.
Amanda and her husband did not see each other ever since. At least, that was when I spoke with her the last time.
Land of Freedom?
Brooklyn, New York