Three Days in September: 9/11, Biko, Attica
Jay Leiderman, 9/11, 2011
Today is September 11th. Many people today think that this very day, 10 years ago was the worst day in American history. As it is the event that defined my age, and I wasn’t alive during Pearl Harbor or when South Carolina seceeded or Lexington and Concord and the like, I could certainly be easily persuaded to agree that 9/11 was the worst day in American history. September 11th, 2001 is the first of three days in September that should all be a part of our consciousness.
Likewise, years later, I still search for context; a big picture. 9/11 spawned what has come to be known as the “War on Terror.” Prior to that, the U.S. saw it’s role as the “World’s Policeman.” War on terror/World’s Policeman: It’s the same basic concept with some new packaging. The most striking thing in the evolution of this concept is that instead of the periodic conflicts that pervaded the past: Grenada, Panama, Libya, Serbia, etc; we have had perpetual war since soon after 9/11. It appears that the war hawks are again beating the drums of war that will lead the U.S. back to Iraq.
What have we learned? What were the root causes? Many assign this to radical Islam and an intractable and, as we see it, irrational belief that the U.S. is the “Great Satan.” It is hard for Americans, indeed almost all of the world’s rational citizens, to agree that foreign policy decisions made in Washington should have been revisited with vengeance on the citizens of New York in such a brutal and indiscriminate way. A view that none are innocent and all deserve to die seems a totally irrational to view to most everybody on the planet. One even wonders if the people who planned and executed the acts still believe in them, considering the aftermath. In other words, do they still see their actions as rational and necessary to achieve their ends?
Be they Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan or other, fundamentalists, like sociopaths, are hard to understand, and impossible to argue with. They fixate and target. Any person with a reasonably sized public profile will have someone that hates them. They will have someone that obsesses on them. Multiply that by a populous and that is what an “enemy” country faces. Accordingly, countries have hordes of detractors always. It is not my purpose to delve into that in this piece. Fundamentalist beliefs are what they are. The U.S. is a great power and will attract great fixations always. Radical Islamists hate many, and the Great Satan is atop every list. Irrational doesn’t always mean crazy, but it does always mean that until a rationality sets in, there can be no meaningful dialogue between the irrational and rational, as each side will view the other as irrational.
I don’t pretend to be able to simply and succinctly discuss the root causes of 9/11. I write today to share that I often see this day as the beginning of a trilogy of days that should prompt thought among us.
I find it interesting and worthy of thought that 9/11 comes a day before Steven Biko, a teacher and respected anti-apartheid community leader, was killed, dying in Pretoria after enduring a nearly month-long beating by police in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1977. Nelson Mandela said they had to kill Biko to prolong apartheid. That could be true, but it was also a flash point that brought the South African struggle more publicity on the world stage. It could, in some ways, be seen as the beginning of a more than 15 year rise of slight amelioration after slight amelioration, ever growing; seeing the Nobel Peace Prize given to Desmond Tutu, the release of Mandela, and ultimately culminating in the true imprimatur of equality: racially unbiased elections. I wonder if anyone on September 12, 1977 could imagine President Mandela. I hope all that reveled in a Mandela presidency understood that the blood of Biko was one step in the ladder that ascended toward the end of apartheid.
So powerful were Biko’s words that “He was banned by the apartheid government in February 1973, meaning that he was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time nor to speak in public, was restricted to the King William’s Town magisterial district, and could not write publicly or speak with the media. It was also forbidden to quote anything he said, including speeches or simple conversations.”
Steven Biko died on September 12, 1977 from his injuries inflicted at the hands of police in South Africa. He had been interrogated for 22 straight hours upon his arrest, then beaten into a coma, chained to a radiator, denied medical care and ultimately succumbed to his head injuries. The police claimed he had perished from a prolonged hunger strike. They wished to silence his voice and stifle the anti-apartheid movement. That is why he died.
Biko’s passing on 9/12 is a great reminder of what could be. South Africa healed their horrific rift, at least for the greater part, in a remarkably shore time. To the extent possible for each individual, the oppressed forgave the oppressor and the oppressor soon came to see the oppressed as an equal. There was a great degree of forgiveness. Healing. This was accomplished without punishment or even atonement. Alas, a hope arose for not only the enduring future of South Africa, but in some very real and profound senses, a model for the resolution of conflict.
Can the lessons of South Africa’s transcendence of apartheid be applied to the hate that pervades both sides currently waging the “War on Terror”? Time will tell, but it sure doesn’t seem so at present. Maybe this is the greatest question of our age: how do we move forward and live in a secure world without the constant threat of force being applied by people who disagree with a way of life? Does the aftermath of 9/12 provide guidance to attacking the root causes of 9/11?
Maybe for future answers we can again look to the past to see if we have learned anything from a different struggle involving a ruling population and a subjugated population.
Day three of three days in September takes us back to America and a different kind of conflict. The late 1960’s saw the birth of the prisoner rights movement that swept quickly across the nation. Another death of a vocal political leader, another flash point. This time it was George Jackson. He was murdered by guards at San Quentin prison in California, allegedly in retaliation for the deaths of guards that occurred in a prior riot. Two weeks later, on the other side of the country in New York, perhaps the most famous prison riot in history occurred at Attica State Prison. We should know more about Attica than that it was a rallying cry used by Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon.”
The prisoners at Attica State Prison negotiated for better conditions, more equality, less brutality and more prisoner rights. For basic civil rights. Basic human rights. It ended in a bloody mess on September 13, 1971.
After four days of negotiations beginning on September 9th, the talks between prisoners and NY Governor Rockefeller broke down. The powerless could only go so far in forcing those in power to make concessions. On the morning of September 13, 1971, force was applied by the State and 39 people died.
In 1971 Bob Dylan, reviewing these events, said: Sometimes I think this whole world is one big prison yard. Some of us are prisoners, the rest of us are guards.
Did prisoner rights improve? Was there less racism in the American judicial system? We have the benefit of more than 40 years to look back and see what was learned, and what the results were of the whole prisoner rights movement.
How have the prisoners and the guards fared?
One of the most obvious things we see is that the prison population in the U.S. has exploded since 1971. “Tough on crime” laws made the U.S. the country with the highest gross and per capita prison population in the world. A dubious honor, to be sure.
New prisons were made that were more secure. Inmate movements were restricted. Rights and privileges were slowly taken away. College courses, weight benches, conjugal visits are all but lost to prison history to the point that one wonders if they will soon pass into legend. Time is harder. The real legacy of Attica is places like Pelican Bay and ADX.
The prison population may have exploded, but did the demographic change? Not really. One profound change is that we no longer lock up predominantly black men. Due to a shift in population, the U.S. boasts a racially bloated prison population of brown men alongside black men. This is not at all a change that displays positive growth.
9/13. 39 dead. Did we learn anything? Can we apply the lessons of the aftermath of Attica, wherein we actually saw more oppression, the aftermath of Biko, were we eventually saw healing and a way forward, to the present perpetual “War on Terror”?
For three days every September, these are the thoughts I have. These are the questions I ask myself. Today I share these thoughts with you.
You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire; once the flames begin to catch the wind will take it higher. ~ Peter Gabriel “Biko“
What fire will we let burn higher? Are we fanning the flames of hate or setting alight a greater path to freedom and understanding? You tell me, I don’t know.
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Thanks for indulging my ramblings on a day such as this. If you agree, disagree, hate me or want to talk more about it, hit up the comment section.