I have never worn a flag pin. I own an American flag that was presented to my mom by the Tuskegee Airmen, Philadelphia Chapter, at my dad’s funeral. I come from the generation that was more apt to burn flags and draft cards during the Vietnam War, than wear them. I too have been associated with groups that were on J. Edgar Hoover’s favorite hit lists. The recent "tarring" of Barack Obama for socially knowing William Ayers, and his wife Bernardine Dohrn is chilling.
My husband and I live upstate New York, two hours from New York City in an area that is an odd mixture of hard-core Republican’s, Green Party members, aging Woodstock hippies and an assortment of Democrats.
I was working in the World Trade Center when we decided to move upstate, from our home in Astoria Queens, NY. We wanted more space, I wanted to garden and grow veggies, and we couldn’t afford to buy a house in the city. So we searched for an affordable home and found a fixer-upper for sale – cheap - two hours away from Manhattan. My husband was able to change jobs to a place nearer to the new house, but I didn’t have that luxury. After relocating I continued to commute to work early in the morning to make it in to my office, located on the 16th floor of 4 World Trade Center.
One morning, in September of 2001, I got up at 4:30 AM to get ready for the long 2 hour drive in. Before leaving I heard a strange grinding sound from our cellar. County homes often don’t have basements; ours had a cellar with a sump pump. For those of you not familiar with sump pumps – they are used to pump out ground water that accumulates under the house. I investigated and saw smoke; the grinding noises were the sump pump burning itself out. I figured out how to shut it down, but water started to flood over the boundaries of the sump hole and flood the cellar. I woke up my husband and told him to call a plumber. I had to leave or I’d be late for an early morning meeting with my boss.
My husband is a musician and blissfully un-mechanical. He looked at me with dismay and said "what plumber do I call? I explained patiently that he should look in the yellow pages and find one, but that task proved too onerous and with exasperation I found the phone book and started to make calls myself. All I got was answering machines. Meanwhile the water in the basement was rising up – threatening to flood into our hot water heater. We both rushed to get buckets and started bailing. In between bailing and many trips up and down the steep cellar stairs I got more and more worried about missing my meeting at work. I realized I wasn’t going to make it in. I called and left a message on my boss’s voice mail that I would be late.
At one point, while I was still in the cellar, my husband hollered down the stairs to me saying "Denise, you aren’t going to have to go to work this morning." Aggravated with the damned pump that I was still cursing, I asked , "Why? Did Sherry (my boss) call?" "No", he replied, and then said "An airplane just hit your building." I laughed. Very funny, ha-ha, and picked up yet another bucket to hand up the steps . He looked grim, and said somberly, "Come up here and look at this." I wiped the mud off my shoes, trudged up the steps and walked into the living room where the TV was on. I normally put it on to NY1 to figure out how bad the traffic would be for the morning drive. There was a picture of smoke and flames and the Twin Towers and a hysterical announcer reporting that a plane had struck the North tower. As I stood and watched reports came in of a second strike and the rest is history.
In horror, frozen in front of the set we watched and cried and I frantically attempted to call my co-workers. No phone calls made it through. All circuits were busy. At the same time I started receiving calls on my cell from our other office in Puerto Rico, from co-workers who made it out of the building and from others who had arrived on the scene before heading into the building that was now crumbling to the ground. The next few days were a blur, of horror, of pain of tears for those lost and of mourning and attempts to realize the enormity of it all. But something else was happening too; a massive mobilization to counter the threat of another attack by nameless faceless demons from "the axis of evil."
Our small town is located not far from the Ashokan Reservoir one of the largest reservoirs in New York State that supplies the water to NYC.
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the city and state decided to permanently close the spillway road to vehicular traffic as a security precaution. This has added a great deal more traveling time and distance for those on the south side of the reservoir to reach locations to the north. The city compensates the local school district for the extra fuel costs its buses have incurred. The Reservoir Rd. causeway, however, is still open.
Large Huey helicopters began to circle our skies. Businesses near the reservoir were deserted. No customers. The hunt for other "terror cells" went into full swing. American flags went up on all the homes in the area – at half-mast. Any home without a flag was under suspicion.
Jingoistic statements were heard on local radio; we have hate groups up here, as well as liberals. But even the tone of the liberals was getting ugly. I stopped in to check with our local gas station guy to see if he was okay ; because he’s a Pakistani. He said he was fine , hadn’t had any weird responses but that his cousin in a neighboring town had closed shop and stayed home. He had been spit upon and threatened by some locals. "Dirty Arab terrorists... go home".
My husband is a musician, as I said before. He plays Afro-Cuban drums in local jazz band and for tambors in the city. One night, he left for a gig near Woodstock, loading his drums and other instruments into the station wagon, accompanied by a fellow drummer up from the city.
When he got home later that evening he, and his friend were shaken and angry. They had been stooped by state troopers, pulled over at gun point and he had to get out of the car on a dark road and face cold hard angry armed guys, who moved him away from the car and then shone lights on the contents of the trunk area. Slowly he handed over his identification, careful not to make any odd moves.
Unfortunately for my husband, his first name is Nadhiyr. Oh yeah, his last name is Velez, but he was wearing a kufi (skull cap) which he usually wears to gigs, or some other similar African head covering and he had a goatee, mustache, is tall, with a fairly hooked nose and looks like a cousin of Osama.
His buddy, the other drummer, also slightly olive-skinned, was wearing similar garb. Though his buddy looks like what anyone would describe in the city as a "Boricua typico" ("typical" Puerto Rican) on that evening two Puerto Ricans became potential Arab terrorists.
As soon as they both opened their mouths and started talking – New York accents, and the officer had probed the duffle bags finding only drums, not explosives or weapons, they were allowed to leave and drive home with a warning that "maybe they shouldn’t be driving late at night. " Shaken by all of this, I dug out tee-shirts that we have from Puerto Rico with the PR flag and slogans on them like "Puerto Rican and proud". My husband shaved off his goatee, and mustache, cut his hair short and for the first time in our leftist lives got magnetized American flag stickers to put on our cars.
We unwrapped my dad’s funeral flag, folded carefully and lovingly away in a cedar chest, unfolded the triangle, and hung it up on the front porch. Not in honor of those who died, or my dad, but as a defense from the suspicions of neighbors.
Am I angry and bitter about this? Yes. Was it something that we needed to do at the time? Yes. For the first time in many years I was afraid of my neighbors. I hadn’t felt that way since I was a young person moving into an all white neighborhood in Queens when crosses were being burned to keep "us" out, or as a kid in the south when my dad armed himself to confront the Klan, which I discussed here in a diary called Strange Fruit Revisited.
Junkyard Dem posted a diary here The New McCarthyism the other day asking if this new jingoism was an echo of the McCarthy period. "Are you now and have you ever been" seems to be the litany of new right attacks on Barack Obama.
I’m used to the "driving while black" problems here in the US. I have lived with them all my life. The problem is that now we also have to face driving while looking "Islamic", whatever that means. On my most recent trips to speaking engagements around the country, I’ve noticed that I am always the person pulled out of line to go through the most intense security. I sigh, submit, and accept that I will always be "the other" here in my own country.
We kept the flag decals on our cars for two years. Finally, I took them off. I now have a bumper sticker that reads "Anthropologists for Obama". Let’s see how that plays out.