In 2003, on the eve of the second anniversary, I wrote a piece about how it felt right after September 11th, 2001 — that date thousands of people died, and, in various and profound ways, the lives of virtually every one of us in the United States and throughout the world were altered. The events of that day – aircraft intentionally targeting buildings in NYC and D.C. – changed U.S. and international history. Whether you knew someone who died or not, you were personally affected. Soon after, wars were launched and policies were ushered in that would have been quite difficult to implement prior.
For those of us in New York City on September 11th and who spent time here in the weeks afterwards, there was something else we experienced. In the aftermath of tragedy, something broke open. There was a raw, vulnerable, almost gentle feeling in the air. Even riding the subway there was a quiet bond between passengers. It’s harder to recall now but almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this experienced it.
It was something so intangible that if I didn’t write about it, there would be no way to know it even happened. It’s not generally reported in the media and the rush to war happened so soon afterwards that it’s almost unrecognized in any public reflection of that time period.
What reminded me and caused me to write about it was, when, on September 10th, 2003, I encountered a photography exhibit, “Words Fail,” by Richard Law at a church in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I didn’t intend to walk in and yet I couldn’t avoid the pull inside. Law’s goal was to recapture what it felt like on September 12th; the next day, featuring photographs he took around the city at that time. His exhibit called up the feelings I’d felt and experiences I’d had, causing me to revisit and remember. Law documented many of the heartbreaking “Missing” signs that were posted everywhere you looked throughout Manhattan; as well as pictures of Union Square, filled with flowers, candles, signs, calls for “peace.”
Walking through the exhibit, viewing the “missing” signs, I was struck by how beautiful everyone looked. In the days afterwards, the signs implied that the “missing” were somewhere and would possibly be found. These photos weren’t their “promotion” head shots or what they looked like going to work in the World Trade Center. These were personal. Something about the handmade quality of those “Missing signs” reminded me that someone connected to the person prepared this — Written in magic marker above the photo or typed on the paper was everything they knew about this man or woman on a piece of paper. Weight, height, age, profession, family, and interests were all recorded to identify the missing. Blocks & blocks of city streets were designated for flyers with specific locations taking precedence — St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Village(since shuttered), the Armory on Lexington Avenue, Grand Central Station, Union Square.
9/11 caused me to get involved in activism in NYC in a different way. In 2001, I was still new to being “an activist.” My background was primarily as a music publicist, having only more recently left my full-time job after working in the music business for over 10 years representing high profile rock artists. I’d been involved with grassroots environmental advocacy for about a year and was still figuring my way around with much to learn. 9/11 caused me to look at war, not an easy topic to take on, particularly in light of what happened on that day and the atmosphere that followed.
On September 12th, I traveled by subway into downtown Manhattan from Brooklyn to meet up with hundreds of people at a community center to discuss what was going to happen next. Those of us who gathered wanted to enter into the debate (if there even was one). In that large auditorium in the Charas Community Center, a former public school on 9th Street on the Lower East Side, I encountered a different form of activism and activist. A core group had met up on September 11th despite closings of subways and bridges and the overall environment in the city. They had roots in the direct action movement with a very thoughtful tone put forth aimed at outreach and dialogue. To a newbie like me, they seemed edgy and arty. They were ready to put themselves on the line.
Meetings were held weekly at Charas. It became a place to think through strategic, historical, political, and emotional issues in a fluid, dynamic way. People from all walks of life came; all races, classes, ages, and backgrounds. The group was set up to be non-hierarchical; there were “points of unity.” If you felt something was wrong, there was something called “in the moment-stop” and a person could bring their issue up to the group and it would be addressed. These ideas changed the way I worked with others and how I viewed activism in general. This experience caused me to look at everything differently. I was very much inspired by people coming together and there was an almost magical unity at that time. (Others, more seasoned, may remember these meetings as harder to bring together a new, diverse group of people.)
A name was finally settled upon – War Is Not the Answer. The meetings became a space for those who were trying to navigate a media environment where if you were against war, it often felt like you were the only one. No alternative views challenging the Bush Administration were presented in the news. Just old war generals who supposedly had all the answers. Hundreds of people were inspired to participate in those early months. Word spread via word of mouth and the internet.
Another location people congregated was at Union Square in downtown Manhattan at 14thStreet, the entire first week after September 11th, and then particularly on Friday evenings. The George Washington-on-a-horse statue at 14th Street offered up the word “PEACE” scrawled across it in bold chalk, amidst the candles and the flowers that adorned the plaza below it. There existed the true spirit that honored the people who died that day. It was a spirit that did not deny the knowledge that people die elsewhere in large numbers & often many of us know little about it or else pay no attention. It was a spirit that knew that any day now people would die in the name of ”revenge” of 9-11, somewhere else, far away.
On September 21st, ten days after September 11th, there were thousands of New Yorkers on the streets for an anti-war march announced just three days prior via the internet. A feeling of risk and also excitement co-existed with a need to be there. (No permit, we held back the traffic ourselves, until police arrived, and even then.) There were people who found it was disrespectful and then there were people who, you could see it on their faces, felt relief that they were not alone in protesting war as the sole and inevitable response.
Later that night, a scroll on CNN reported:
Hundreds of people marched peacefully from Union Square to Times Square to demonstrate against U.S. military action in the wake of terrorist attacks that leveled the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, killing thousands.
As if people did not know. It was further evidence that to question war – and the official government ‘line’ – was immediately followed in all the media by a reminder of the tragedy of the event.
As hard as it is on some level to believe 10 years has gone by, if I had not written some of these thoughts down, it would be all too easy to forget. Somewhere archived is the original War Is Not the Answer web site and, as I wrote this, I searched for my old flyers and meeting notes which exist in a folder somewhere but, alas, I could not locate them. Our old meeting spot, Charas, the community center located in an old public school, was evicted in December 2001, after existing in that spot for 20 years long before the Lower East Side was a ‘go-to’ destination. The building was sold to a developer by the Giuliani Administration. (It still sits vacant to this day). Everything seemed to change after that time, in just a few months. By December, there was a whole different feeling in the air.
I suppose that eerie but comforting calm, the connectedness New Yorkers felt immediately afterwards, when everyone was scrambling to help in some way, would have had to dissipate over time. Yet it always felt as if it happened too soon, too fast. Before we had all processed what we were thinking or had even had time to reflect, our government started using words like “revenge,” “war,” “dead or alive.”
In the midst of extreme tragedy, there was a perceptible feeling: the world could change and we would help change it. What happened next could have transpired in a much different manner but a war response and the cycle of violence is as ingrained it seems as old war generals are on traditional media. It’s hard to say how long the initial feeling lasted… was it days? Weeks? How many? It was long enough to be memorable but too short to change the course of things to come.
Top Photo: Flatbush Gardener