Note: Click on links here, here and at end of these notes to read two short pieces I wrote in the weeks after 9/11.
For "Reflections and Resources for Justice on the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11" from the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, click here NNIRR.
Notes from South Africa:
The Journey of September 11, 2001
The main contingents of the march were headed by Arabs and Muslims carrying signs and banners vociferously denouncing the U.S. The Dalit contingents were beautiful, dancing in huge circles, twirling around, gracefully bending and swaying, raising their feet in the air to the cacophony of percussion and sing-song chanting. Tens of thousands marched towards the WCAR conference site, where the governments were meeting. The contingents at the front were met at the fenced gates of the conference with "Hippos," huge, armored personnel carriers, that carried each a platoon of soldiers. I had only seen photos of the Hippos from reports during the anti-apartheid struggle; Hippos rumbling through township dirt roads or soldiers shooting out of them at passer-by's or demonstrators.
The Hippos, metallic, military dark, in Durban looked menacing, with armed soldiers standing with weapons strapped to their shoulders next to unrolled barbed-wire to stop the march. That didn't matter.
The Hippos did not let the march proceed.
The march came to a halt but the celebration - the people walking, dancing, the chanting, the damn loud, rhythmic voices and drumming, the slogans sounding like everyone knew by heart the words to every chant, every call and response -- did not.
The WCAR ended on September 7, 2001. I had an airline ticket back to Johannesburg that evening but I decided to take a bus back to Johannesburg so I could see the country and spend a couple of days to see Johannesburg and visit a dear friend there, too.
I hopped on a very comfortable bus with other fellow migrant and human rights activists from the U.S. and Latin America on board along with a sprinkling of white and black South Africans. The bus took off in mid-morning and we would see unique landscape, reminiscent of the Southwest deserts I know.
A black South African woman sat across the aisle from me; we were both sitting alone. After the bus got on the road, "Selena" came on the TV monitor on the ceiling hanging at the front behind he driver in the middle of the aisle. About a third of the way through "Selena," she turns to me and asks me, "Is that the way it really is in the U.S.?" And I turn to her and ask her, "Is this the way it really is in South Africa?" We both cracked up in laughing and started exchanging stories. I answered no, not really. She replied, no this is not the way it has been in South Africa either. She told me that not all bus-lines were as comfortable or as nice as the one we were on, which under apartheid had been exclusively reserved for whites.
We talked about how different the world could be, after being in a week-long conference that brought together the world's anti-racist movement for the first time.
Somewhere on a stop between Durban and Johannesburg, she got off. Our bus drove into Johannesburg late in the night. A driver from the "bed-n-breakfast" I and a couple of others were staying at came to pick us up. Johannesburg was deserted as the driver drove rapidly back to the house were we were staying.
The next morning I got up and later got a ride to see Johannesburg. This was the second time I had been to Johannesburg. The first time was two and half weeks before, spending three days and nights before flying to Durban for the world conference against racism.
Johannesburg and Matamoros
The only other place I had lived in remotely similar to Johannesburg was in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, the Mexican border gulf state that abuts Texas. Except the inequalities I saw in Johannesburg were maybe 20, 30, 50 times deeper than Matamoros. One of my co-workers and I had stayed at the same place, arriving a week before the WCAR began to do both logistics preparation for our immigrant and refugee rights delegation and to do some sight-seeing.
We called a tour guide recommended by the same driver that picked us up that late night from our bus trip from Durban.
Themba and Jabu, very friendly and brotherly, come to pick us up and take us to downtown Johannesburg and then Soweto. As we hopped into the back seat of their small car, they began telling us that we are in what had been a whites-only district of Jo'burg. They point out to us where prominent anti-apartheid and ANC members live. We pass a house, that's where Joe Slovo lives (or lived?).
The houses are different, beautiful too; before this I had only seen them in documentaries on the anti-apartheid struggles or Hollywood movies, where Denzel Washington played Steven Biko or Danny Glover played Mandela. I had an address of a cultural center or gallery space someone had given to me. We drove there but the place looked boarded up. No artists or poets there.
I wrote in my journal:
Johannesburg is a mixture of abandoned center, holding on with sidewalk businesses in front of semi-closed buildings. There is nothing to do yet a whole world ready to listen or speak with. The languages are new, different, familiar faces, smiles, the seriousness of East Oakland, a different cultural turf with its metaphors and warnings of the consequences of inequalities tatooerd from the skin upwards. I am shy, I do not want to step out of my bounds. I am a passerby with unrecognizable accented skin. I am colored. I am an "anglo," I fit and don't fit, a mixtery, a mestizo in Africa. A mestizo from another land, uprooted roots, transplantable under any sun. Africa is Aztlan, it might might as well be utopia under the skin of ancestors and wounds.
Johannesburg goes on and on. Different time zones, different continents, different hemispheres, different lands and horizons, yet locked in the same battles to end the tyranny of pigmentation over humanity, the pigmentation of money, of riches, resources, goods, and goodies, jobs, police power, the pigmentation of poverty, of sounds, of freedom. There is no way out of this except redistribution:
The powerful less powerful, the weak stronger, the whites need to learn another language other than the language of their skin; they must learn to open their own doors, work for others, be less white. In the U.S. whiteness, imperial whiteness, showers us all: Redistribution across borders and across color-lines.As we leave the formerly whites-only district, Themba and Jabu take me into familiar territory.
Johannesburg is East Oakland, is Brownsville-Matamoros -- the maquiladorized border, is the Yakama reservation of migrants, is abandoned Detroit, bombed out-defunded Detroit. Johannesburg is internationalist in spirit. We waste by nearby abandoned industrial lots and poisoned pigmentation, dark, darkening toxins. | --excerpt from my journal |
Themba and Jabu take us into the heart of Soweto. They drive us by Mandela's home, now semi-fenced off. There is a thick, tall concrete wall in front of the house. Themba said that this was built after a car-bombing attack took place. He parks the car, we hop off and walk inside Mandela's house. The house is small, narrow halls, small bedrooms; houses I've lived in all my life -- cramped.
Then he drives by Winnie Mandela's home; cordoned off by a tall fences with barbed-wire and cameras to monitor the area around her house. They show us the class stratification of Soweto, you can see it in the housing and the sparse services or lack thereof everywhere. Winnie Mandela lives in the upper middle class area, which looks more like the Matamoros I know. That is, poverty-stricken city abutting a militarized border run by the U.S.
He drives us a bit more and parks again. He wants us to see their local store. We walk along rows and rows of ramshackle homes constructed of tin, wires, cardboard and other materials. I have seen these houses before -- not in a movie but in Matamoros. The local store is what we call a tendajito, a hole in wall store; a room in a house barely stocked, almost empty shelves. Thema or Jabu point out the sparse items there are to buy, if people had money.
In my journal that day I wrote:
Soweto is Matamoros -- colonias and shanty homes with the stench of human waste and pulque, "Zulu beer," dice Themba. Jabu says he'll translate anything we don't understand of Themba who speaks border-English. I feel like an uninvited guest, a party-crasher, or maybe even a voyeur as I walk between their homes made of bits and pieces of wood, corrugated metal, old car parts. These are mosaics, the beautiful architecture of misery in creativity.After the overthrow of apartheid, global apartheid rose up, came into full view. Then 9/11 brought us full circle to the on-going world war three.
Themba says take pictures; but I do not have the heart to pull out my camera (until later) to take their pictures. It would be a violation of the nature of our visit, a drive through to break out of the isolation of a trip to participate in the World Conference against Racism.
We enter a grandmother's house. She offers a sip of the community brew bubbling slowly over a fire, a brew fermenting inside a 55 gallon barrel. She sits, almost waits for us to say something. Then we thank her for showing us her home and walk away back to the car where I take photos of Thema and Jabu. We drive away to the next place to visit in Soweto....
September 10, 2001, evening, we're at the Johannesburg international airport. One of the sisters from Mujeres Unidas y Activas gets bumped up into business class; she's suffering a bad leg injury, can't or won't be able to sit for 18 hours. A doctor's letter says she must be able to lay down or she could suffer grave consequences during such a long air haul.
We hop in board the double-decker jet-plane. We take off and fly for eight, maybe nine hours and we're woken up to land somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, a tiny island that belongs to a former Portuguese colony -- can't remember the name this moment. South Africa found out that their jetplanes couldn't reach the U.S. without refueling. This tiny island was the only place that allowed apartheid commercial liners to land and refuel to avoid falling into the Atlantic.
We are told that we may be able to get off the plane to stretch our legs. Everyone is excited, to say we touched the ground of another free African country. No such luck. Another jumbo jet had landed before us and its passengers had gotten off the plane already. The tiny island airport could not handle another plane load of people, not enough space.
We wait in our seats for at least an hour. The jumbo jet is refueled; we take off. Next stop is another island, New York City.
September 11, 2011 NYC
We land in NYC about 5:00 a.m. I have four bags and a couple of suitcases. The bags are filled with posters, documents and other conference paraphanellia. I have less than two hours to clear customs and check in for my non-stop United flight to San Francisco. I spend more than one hour in lines, get my bags through customs and rush onto the sidewalk where I have to catch a bus to United, somewhere else in the airport. I am sweating; the morning is already hot, humid, my shirt is soaked. I rush. I have trouble handling so many bags, including a nice conference bag filled with small gifts, including a fancy-looking silver corkscrew set.
I finally make it to the United counter, check-in get all the bags on and I rush to the gate, make sure I know where it's at. I go to a nearby shop, buy soap, underarm deodorant and toothbrush. I plan to wash up once the flight is underway.
Our gate calls us, we get on board; it's about 8:15 a.m. The jet-plane taxis onto the runway. The plane stops and the pilot makes a stunning announcement. The plane turns around; and the pilot makes another stunning announcement. Voices get loud, angry words are spoken, not just angry words, racist epithet after epithet are loosed. We deplane and are told to wait by the gate so that we'll know when we'll be boarding again. Then we are told the flights, all of them have been cancelled. All hell breaks loose. What does that mean? You have to get your bags. You have to get out of the airport. Thousands of us are being pushed by security teams to exit. I plug in my cell phone to charge it a bit and call home. I tell them: turn the television on.
Outside the airport, I run into other colleagues also returning from South Africa. We make a plan on the spot. Let's rent a car and go to the Bronx, where other members of our delegation live and have already arrived. We can crash with them. I collect more bags and sit on the front of the airport, the passenger drop-off area. I can see two large, dark plumes of smoke. Everyone is staring at the horror of the Twin Towers burning before our eyes. I cannot even imagine what the situation is like near the towers. I wait for what seems like hours. Then I notice the plumes of smoke turn from dark to grey; I imagine now the fire has become a chemical fire, explaining the change in color of the smoke. But that was not the case; the towers were collapsing.
At last my colleague arrives; she's driving a red TransAm. She said it was this car or a convertible top jeep. We pack all our bags and start the drive of our lives. We try to get to the Bronx following the signs out of La Guardia. Very quickly we run into gridlock; the radio says the bridge is being closed. She drives off and we are driving on a broad avenue and streets that take us all the way to what seems to be the Atlantic. We turn around and drive in circles. We stop at Radio Shop so I can buy a car charger for my cellphone. We continue driving in circles.As we drive through neighborhoods and shopping districts, lost, we run into police roadblocks and police or guards shooing away cars from a hospital. We keep going in circles and decide to drive all the way around the city, cross the Verrazano bridge and head north and cross on the George Washington Bridge and head into the Bronx.
When we finally get on the highway we cross the Verrazano, almost abandoned. We drive by aas men with rifles and guns drawn are forcing Latino-looking men off a white van. We continue on the Verrazano. Over our left we see a huge, ashy spewing hole, in the center of New York, where the twin towers stood. I did not have the heart to take photograph. We were devastated to finally see what we had only seen from afar or on TV.
We decided to drive home towards California instead. During those first few hours on the road west, we ran into caravans of ambulances and firetrucks heading towards NYC. we saw white field tents set up on the side of the highway, waiting for casualties? We drove and drove for the next five days across a transformed and traumatized United States, spewing hate across the airwaves and getting small but generous warnings here and there from whites who feared for our safety.
Here's two short pieces, an essay and an editorial I wrote in the weeks and days following our journey across the U.S. from 9/11 and an excellent resource kit on 9/11 from the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR):
Anti-Immigrant Racism and the Media
No Nation of Immigrants Would Treat Immigrants This Way
NNIRR's "On the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11: Reflections & Resources for Justice"
Photographs of NNIRR's mural-banner for her Immigrant and Refugee Rights Working Group, national delegation to the World Conference Against Racism. Painted by Daniel Camacho.