When I heard Mayor Giuliani compare himself with Churchill after 9/11 I knew we were in trouble. I knew we were being manipulated. It rehabilitated his career after this unpopular Mayor announced he was going to divorce his wife during a press conference. Shortly afterward, Giuliani went into business to capitalize on the fear of with his consulting business with Bernard Kerik, who would later be convicted as a felon. Its was awful what happened. Lives from all walks of life were lost. Yet, it is also sad what happens with the homeless, people with HIV, with the people of Chile who also have their own tragic loss on September 11, 1973.
Immediately afterward, we traveled to London and visited the bunker where Churchill and the English were pulverized for years, some 4,300 died. Shortly after college I worked in San Francisco with people with HIV/AIDS. Some 19,000 people died in San Francisco during the AIDS years. New York lost some 3,000 tragically with 9/11. And the event is treated as a historical anomaly. It is just not true.
Sadly, we lost a view of the US as a space for freedom, a space for self determination or for religious freedom. We gained the Patriot Act, Extraordinary Rendition, wire tapping, preemptive arrests of activists, and overzealous policing. Sadly, we lost a lot that day. Instead of embracing the world’s good will, we turned our back on that sense of solidarity. Budget surpluses became deficits. We lost the peace dividend. Sadly, it was the beginning of the end for what many people view as great about the US. The global image of the US as liberator of Auschwitz was replaced with an image of Abu Ghraib. The Empire went into decline.
Here as a en entry from Play, Creativity and Social Movements on the days before and after 9/11 when the most vital social movement of my lifetime was consumed. The movement was on its ascent in Quebec during the Free Trade of the Americas Projects of 2001.
LA Kauffman, Mark Leger and David Crane spent the summer of 2001 organizing a new project group, the Masquerade Project, which sought to provide an aesthetic intervention for a Global Justice Movement that was increasingly characterized by images of quasi-militaristic Black Bloc types. “[I]nstead of ‘BOMB-WIELDING ANARCHISTS DUELING WITH THE UPHOLDERS OF LAW AND ORDER,’” the news about the Masquerade would show a far more ambiguous “slippery image—one of queer unique bodies in carnival together and in contradiction to these strange and oppressive police officers... They would present an image of how people in the New World dressed, behaved and cared for one another” (Herbst, 2002).
Similarly, RTS New York started thinking about ways to organize a different kind of block, with a less militaristic presence at the next convergence action in Washington, DC, scheduled to coincide with the IMF/World Bank meetings in mid-September. Under the heading "Big Meeting! Traveling Carnival!" an email announced a meeting at the Charas/El Bohio Community Center to organize a carnival block:
Calling all RTSers, Anarchist Clowns, Radical Cheerleaders,
YaBas, Marching Bands, Puppeteers, Masqueraders and other
kindred anti-corporate globalization protesting freaks....
The call noted Reclaim the Streets/NYC was hosting an open meeting on Wednesday September 5th at Charas/El Bohio Community Services Center to plan for a traveling carnival block to go down to Washington DC on September 29 & 30 to protest the IMF/World Bank Meetings. “Who better than a bunch of clowns to make the point that the humanitarian claims of the IMF and World Bank are a fucking joke?” Steve Duncombe (2001) wrote. “So please come with your ideas, your friends, your sense of
humor, and most of all: yourself. See you there, XOXO RTS/NYC” (quoted in Duncombe, 2001).
That day, September 5th, a crowd of nearly one hundred activists filled a room at Charas/El Bohio where we had met to organize so many other actions. I facilitated the meeting to discuss plans for the IMF convergence. Kauffman announced plans for a concept called the Masquerade Project. She explained the point was to decorate gas masks with sequins to bring a more of a colorful flair to the actions (Herbst, 2002). Others followed with a proposal to have a clown block at the action. “One of the most popular sites on the web is the ‘Kill Clown,’ one observer noted. “People actually like seeing cops beat up clowns.” So they decided not to do a clown army, but instead would put out a call for a “Silly Block” with a time and a place to meet up in Washington. Most walked out feeling like it had been a productive get together. A work session was scheduled for the Masquerade Project the following week. The time of play in a social movement action seemed to have truly arrived.
A Plot Shift
What happened the following Monday, September 11, is now history. As many recall, it was a startlingly beautiful autumn morning. I was trying to get to Hunter College that morning for classes in the doctoral program at the School of Social Work. As I left my house in Brooklyn, someone ran up to me and screamed, “Someone flew a plane into the Twin Towers!” And I thought they were crazy for acting so hysterical. Yet the subway was not working well. And by the time I reached Union Square during rush hour, I was forced to take the bus up to the school on the Upper East Side. Smoke teamed through the air.
Angry that the city could not handle an accident that sounded like a little air traffic confusion, I took the nearest bus up to school. As more passengers got on the bus, it became one of those communal New York moments. Different passengers brought different bits and pieces of information into the commute. When a man walked up and proclaimed, “They also hit the Pentagon,” I stopped thinking it was an air traffic accident. “Now I’m starting to get scared,” said another rider, echoing what many felt. “Now I just want to go home.” I felt the same way looking behind me at the smoke rising from downtown. One woman on the bus was convinced Osama Bin Laden did it. I scolded her for rushing to judgment. There would be a lot of rushes to judgment in the days and years ahead. Within the duration of the bus ride, both of the twin towers would collapse.
All at once, the movement of movements faced the end of play. Kauffman (2001) wrote a dispatch for her email column stating that “everything has changed” and the Masquerade Project was scraped. And Kauffman gave the gas masks to the relief workers digging through the wreckage downtown. “It's now official: In the wake of the September 11 disaster, the IMF and World Bank have indefinitely postponed their planned late-September meetings, and the raucous street protests that were to greet them have effectively been canceled.”
That September 12th at about noon in Union Square, the day after the attacks, we all sat in the park. September 12th, a group meeting was called for many who had been involved in the actions. Some RTS people arrived; Jason Grote and LA Kauffman was there; Andrew Boyd, Priya Warcry, a few ACT UP folks, and some others who met in the grass at Union Square. There was a huge cloud of smoke coming up behind us. Everybody was shell-shocked. Kauffman had buttons she’d made which plead, “Our Grief is Not a Cry for War!’ We talked about the need not to blame Islam. Some talked about ways to get downtown to help, even if they were not wanted. Others called for direct action. And a group from C Sqaud planned to go downtown. And Kauffman declared, “The Global Justice Movement has got to become a global peace and justice movement.” It was the first time I’d thought of, wow, I guess this is where we are going to have to take this thing. “That was such a haunting meeting,” Kauffman (2004, p.382) recalled in an interview a few years later. “The smoke from Ground Zero got closer and closer until that horrible stench surrounded us and we had to flee. We went and re converged in the back of the New York City Independent Media Center because you couldn’t breathe.”
A second meeting was scheduled for later on that night at Charas. I stayed home and had dinner in Brooklyn. Jason Grote attended second meeting. By that evening, many were aware that things had changed. Grote and I talked about the end of that spirit of rambunctious possibility: “I think that everybody was traumatized… I saw you that day (September 12) and people were meeting in Union Square and the smell was in the air. And the thing is, too, that the hair-shirt left never really went away.”
There were always those who were hostile to more flexible or pragmatic approaches to organizing. This antagonism dated years before September 11th. Yet, after the bombings, dourness came roaring back with a vengeance. It was particularly on display at the September 12 meeting at Charas/El Bohio. Grote recalled:
But part of what happened in the meeting that day, at the earlier meeting at Union Square, there was a mass shrine. Someone had put a flag of the earth in George Washington’s arms. And there was a very active and vibrant peace movement happening there that was really holding the mourning, the grieving that was going on. Even there was debate there. There were American flags there. But it wasn’t hostile. It was divided. It was very civil. People were talking. Some people were taking photos and I understand paranoia, but it was a weird activist hostility. And I was thinking, here are people having a really constructive not hateful response, and these are the people who are supposed to be the left. And they are full of anger. The day that it happened I was feeling ambivalence too. Here we are fighting global capital, the WTO, etc… At the time I had a really hard time figuring out my own feelings and fantasies of ‘smash the WTO’ with this. It wasn’t rational. It was a gut thing. John, who was involved with RTS, was asking people how they were feeling and he wrote to the [email] list saying, ‘let’s not forget that we got into this because we wanted to alleviate suffering.’ And I needed to hear that… And the next day, there was a meeting about a people’s response to this at Charas... There was a lot of talk about what we could do in the face of a lot of helplessness and futility… The strategy of play didn’t seem to fit with this...That sort of humorless hair-shirt left came roaring back.
Grote would drop out of organizing after the Charas meeting.
The week after September 11, Kauffman (2004) busied herself with a frenzy of organizing. All the while, Union Square was becoming a space for peaceful remembering with art and stories and pictures on the sidewalk to accompany the often poignant “missing” signs all over the city seeking information about lost loved ones who were probably not going to be found.
Tomorrow 9/11/2011 I’ll be at Union Square at 2 PM celebrating peace once again, I hope to see you there.