Street politics arrived on September 11th this year. Every year since 2001, the focus of the day had been placed on the ceremonial commemoration of those killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center. This year, dueling demonstrations for and against the construction of the Park 51 Islamic Cultural Center turned Downtown Manhattan into a contested political zone. Only a massive police presence prevented the two demonstrations from clashing as passions ran high. It was as though nine years of pent up collective psychological repression had been unleashed in a few hours.
The End of Consensus
In fact, the annual commemoration ceremonies are not politically neutral. Instead, they are tainted by the original political manipulation that occurred at Ground Zero. When then President George W. Bush stepped into the smoking rubble of the towers and manipulated the suffering of rescue workers and families of the dead by introducing what would become the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq the seal was set. Those who died in the attack were instantly converted from victims of an act of terrorism to standard-bearers for illegal and illegitimate military aggression. The resulting political silence at yearly commemorations ensured that the silent support of military actions made in the name of dead continued.
Today, as the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan are publicly revealed as un-winnable and immoral, the consensus built around September 11th is unwinding. Enter a far-right coalition led by the Tea Party. The resulting formation, funded and directed by conservative elites, is built on the notion of fulfilling American fantasies of global supremacy authored by Bush’s pre-emptive wars. Unfortunately, for the Tea Party and other opponents of Park 51, the dual realities of a global economic crisis and a string of US military failures have soundly defeated such ideas.
Reclaiming an Imaginary Past
Since reality has treated them so poorly, the Tea Party and other uber-patriots have created a political agenda that rests on one part fantasy (US military supremacy) and the other folly (destroying all government intervention into the economy). The latest invention created from these wicked fantasies is the Park 51 controversy – where far-right pundits have accused New York City’s Muslim community of disgracing the victims of Sept. 11th by building a mosque near Ground Zero. Never mind that Park 51 is not a mosque, it’s a cultural center, it’s not really near Ground Zero and we live in a society with religious freedom. Fantasies, even poorly plotted ones, always require the suspension of reality.
What the fabrication of the controversy did do was allow the Tea Party types to connect themselves to a growing international collection of anti-Muslim bigots. Most of these groups are based in Europe where they are achieving dangerous levels of success at the electoral polls and running bigoted campaigns against minarets and calls to prayer. At the anti-Park 51 demo, the symbol of this link was Geert Wilders, a fascist politician from the Netherlands who once demanded that Muslims “tear out half of the Koran if they wished to stay in the Netherlands.” Apparently, the US’s homegrown far-right politicians are not quite extreme enough for the Tea Party patriots. They prefer a bigot with international credentials.
However, what was really being challenged was not Park 51. The Cultural Center is, as the US military might say, “collateral damage.” Anti-Park 51 demonstrators were really contesting the post-Civil Rights prohibition on racial language, discrimination and violence. No one in 21st century America wants to be called a racist. This is one of the victories of the US Civil Rights movement. Yet there are plenty of people who practice discrimination and, in particular, do so on the basis of skin color. Enter Islamophobia – the notion that peoples of Islamic faith should have a restricted ability to exercise their rights and occupy a position so far below full human status that violence can be done to them. And, not coincidentally, these same people are often of a different skin color or country of origin. Opposing Park 51 is a backdoor way to create a new language and practice of discrimination in a post-Civil Rights world.
We should not, however, lay the blame entirely at the feet of the Tea Party types. They have an accomplice. As the old Marxist parable states – “When they play the fiddle at the top of the state what is there to do but dance.” The origins of Islamophobia do not lie with the Tea Baggers, or the patriotic types or even the neo-fascists creeping around these movements. The US government set this process into motion by tracking, targeting and disappearing Muslims during the aftermath of September 11th. The massive expansion of the US security state, along with the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan sent a green light to Islamophobes that said discrimination and second class citizenship was acceptable. Continued military activities such as the drone bombing of people in Pakistan solidifies the notion for the bigots in the US that a Muslim life is worth less and that people with brown skin make acceptable targets.
After the pro-Park 51 march ended, dozens of activists headed to the street corners around the far-right demonstration to encircle it. We wanted to make sure that everyone exiting this march knew that there was mass resistance to the ideas that they were proposing. We carried signs reading, “Yes to Park 51” “We Support Freedom of Religion” “Islamophobia is Racism” and “No one is free while others are oppressed.” New York City street corner politics instantly returned to life as opponents squared off or the curious stopped to ask a question. Spontaneous speeches and loud arguments erupted everywhere harking back to another moment in time when yuppies and tourists weren’t the only ones who dominated the neighborhood.
The anti-Park 51 demonstrators were, in a word, frightening. One older white gentleman responded to the “Islamophobia is Racism” sign by telling me that if it was true, he was “proud to call himself a racist.” This was a stunning demonstration of how quickly the post-Civil Rights consensus could be exploded. I confronted another person by asking them why they would support a rally that gave space to a fascist like Wilders, and he responded by telling me that “his family had died in the Holocaust” and he therefore knew that Wilders wasn’t a fascist. Most did not even know who Wilders was. Another self-described “immigrant” opponent of Park 51 claimed, “WE cannot allow THEM to build a victory-mosque on the ashes of OUR people.” In between, there were nods of approval from tourists who had been scared by the right-wingers, smiles of solidarity from Muslim passers-by and encouragement from fellow activists headed home.
While these rhetorical battles raged, the families of the victims of September 11th walked up and down the blocks of Downtown Manhattan. Some seemed lost, as lost as the shell-shocked people streaming out of downtown Manhattan on that tragic day. Others seemed worn down by the ritual formality of so many years of commemorations that were now divorced from the loved ones they lost. Many streamed into the local bars to escape the chaos of the political debates and wash away the terrible memories of that day. Few seemed interested in engaging in discussion, much less debate.
A New Moment
A political rubicon has been crossed. September 11th will never be the same. Certainly, Park 51 needs to be built in Downtown Manhattan. This line has clearly been drawn and the stakes are too high to turn back. A victory on this issue can be an important part of reversing Bush’s Sept. 11th military consensus that President Barack Obama has now expanded into a gruesome drone war on the people of Pakistan. Park 51 might be a building block for peace and a necessary re-affirmation of the right to religious freedom.
A larger struggle to contest the meaning of Sept. 11th has also been initiated. Park 51 is one small part of this. The question remains whether Downtown Manhattan becomes, as one fellow activist described it, another Dresden, Germany where far-right groups gather each year to try to draw strength in order to launch new projects of xenophobia and militarism. Alternatively, as those of us who supported the Park 51 project today hope, the area around Ground Zero could become part of a new peace consensus that places real limits on the ability of the US military to act and aims to end a culture of militarism that has destroyed so many lives throughout the world. We are a long way from this today with plenty of political battles ahead. And, it seems that September 11th will be a day to fight them.
BILLY WHARTON is a writer and activist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine, Counterpunch and In These Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org