Another World is Possible
by Ra Ravishankar
September 20, 2002
past is prophetic in that it asserts loudly that wars are poor chisels for
carving out peaceful tomorrows ... How much longer must we play at deadly war
games before we heed the plaintive pleas of the unnumbered dead and maimed of
-- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Profound, but probably too profound for our warmongering rulers. Nevertheless, particularly relevant in these seemingly hopeless times. Rather than alleviate the pain of the 9/11 victims' families, the US War On Terror has only furthered human suffering. Rita Lasar, who lost a brother in the WTC attacks and visited Afghanistan after the bombing started, termed it Ground Zero Two. How much longer do we wait is the question that peace groups all over the world have been asking. With the first anniversary promising more shows of naked patriotism and ramblings about fighting the evil forces, peace groups in the US stepped up a gear. "We don't want the first year of commemoration of the 9/11 tragedy to be used to call for more war and violence," declared Kelly Campbell, co-director of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based group encouraging and publicizing many 9/11 related events.
Here in Urbana-Champaign (Illinois), the Anti-War Anti-Racism Effort (AWARE) organized a peaceful protest Another World Is Possible to commemorate the first anniversary. Our aim was to protest the escalating war on terrorism especially the plan to invade Iraq, the erosion of Civil Liberties by the current administration, and the deliberate misinformation on these topics produced by mainstream media. Just in case our intentions might be misconstrued, we declared: "We too mourn the victims of 9/11, and we also mourn the victims of U.S. warfare. Our protest is an addition, not a substitution, for outrage at the atrocities of 9/11"
On the said day, we gathered at noon where another group was commemorating 9/11 the official way. Ours was a silent protest, with our flyers and posters doing all the talking. While they lavished praise on American democracy, "The Founders Would Weep," proclaimed one of our posters. They played out a speech of George Bush, and we cautioned - "Don't let Bush use 9/11 for War with Iraq", "What did You do to Prevent World War III". "This war is for oil: Know that" said another. There were also placards showing the worst affected due to the sanctions against Iraq - children. A 1999 UNICEF report put the death toll of children at a stunning half a million, two successive heads of the U.N humanitarian programme and the head of the World Food programme resigned in protest. Madeleine Albright, the then U.S Secretary of State quipped, "We think the price is worth paying!" And the U.S mainstream media did what it does best - obfuscate. It will therefore be no surprise if some of those who saw these placards had never known the extent of damage. Isn't emphasizing the ravages of war an essential part of the message that "war isn't just another football game"? There were also flyers about the U.S aid to the racist Israeli regime, something which the mainstream media loves to ignore.
I stood along with the AWARE folks holding a sign - Let's oppose war - all the while marveling at such a coexistence of humane introspection on the one side and unbridled arrogance on the other. As my eyes continued to feast on the colourful posters, I chanced upon one that pleaded my case - "Immigrants aren't the problem". I was immediately overwhelmed with gratitude and guilt. Yes, guilt. Not only for my utterly insignificant, if not altogether negligible role in this protest, but also because I was undecided till the very end about whether I should play the copybook good immigrant and stay back from any activity critical of the establishment or risk joining them and possibly get berated for my ingratitude (though I know I'm being more of an ingrate by staying silent). My mind also went back to my first ever rally, organized by the very same folks protesting the secret trial of a student who had been detained on a technical visa violation. Incidentally, and I am not suggesting anything here, he was a Muslim and a Palestinian activist! Though he had no criminal record, the FBI had opposed his bail plea claiming it wished to present secret evidence, evidence that the student and his counsel wouldn't have access to! Successful protests here and in Chicago ensured his release on bail, and the dropping of the secret' evidence proposal.
For the moment, I came back to where I was. I thought it will be more appropriate for me to plead my (and that of scores of fellow-immigrants') case myself and so exchanged placards with the gent holding that sign. Our protest continued till the official one ended. The response was heartening, and my fears of being berated went unanswered (not that this really mattered!). All I got was a couple of 'thumbs up' signs, and words of appreciation from a few. There was the odd quibble about how we're condemning the country on a day of remembrance. But then, as event organizer Rob Scott said, "What we were fearing is that Sept. 11 would turn into a holiday for America's innocence. We don't think we're innocent." The protestors then marched to the FBI office, and on the way fell on their knees in front of a local newspaper office to plead loudly for some coverage! These wonderful people may never make it to the front pages of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but they have made it to my heart. They make me feel welcome, in an atmosphere best summed up by a fellow South Asian (Anushiya Sivanarayanan) as: "To the security guards at the malls, airports and theme parks around the country, I look like the sister of the nineteen hijackers."
Needless to say, AWARE is only one of several such efforts to stand up for civil liberties and the rights of minorities in post 9/11 America. Notwithstanding our general apathy as a community to the black American cause, famed civil rights activist Angela Davis exhorted her supporters to "speak out against racial profiling directed at Arabs, Middle-Easterners, Muslims and South Asians." Isn't it time for us South Asians to reciprocate and join hands with such folks? Lets stick out our necks, not only because they're in danger anyway.
"First they came for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up,
because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up,
because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me."
-- Rev. Martin Niemoller, 1945
Note: I owe, at least in part, my belief in the possibility of South Asians uniting towards a common cause, to the successful taxi strike in 1998 in Guiliani's New York. And this when South Asia was being swept by a wave of unprecedented nuclear jingoism!
Ra Ravishankar is a Doctoral student in Electrical Engineering at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org