After 9/11, Listening to the Cityby Abby Scher
Afghan-Americans and Muslim-Americans are so fearful of being targeted by racial profiling and hate crimes, they have become virtual prisoners in their own homes. My family urged me to keep a low profile and not speak out. But how can I stay silent when so many innocent lives have been lost?! What differentiates me from all of those brave rescue workers, volunteers, and activists who are free to speak their minds? Silence will not heal our wounds. It shows no solidarity. Those terrorists must know that their evil acts cannot divide America by race, culture, or creed. We cannot let them win!
Here at the Afghan Communicator, we have made every attempt to ensure that our voices are heard. We gathered young people from our community and wrote a statement that condemned the terrorist attacks. We participated in rallies and demanded justice. We joined teach-ins to better educate people about Islam and the current situation in Afghanistan.
We fear that a war with Afghanistan will cost lives—those of innocent civilians and brave American soldiers...
–Rameen J. Moshref, Afghan Communicator, December 3, 2001,
reprinted in the December 13, 2001 edition of Independent Press Association-New York’s Voices That Must Be Heard (issue number 2).
In September 2001, the Independent Press Association-New York office was only steps from ground zero, a one-person cubical space sharing with two other one-person nonprofits. Along with John Anner, the national director of Independent Press Association (IPA), Andrew White, former publisher of City Limits, a major urban affairs magazine, and Jordan Moss, a community newspaper editor in the Bronx, I’d been working for a year and a half to get the organization off the ground. John plucked me from my job as coeditor of an IPA-member economic justice magazine to staff the effort.
While IPA was a group of national, largely progressive, magazines, IPA-New York was local, a network bringing together independent, centrist to progressive immigrant, African American, Jewish, and other community publications. Both nationally and locally, we were all about print media, supporting print in a difficult economic environment so that a range of voices in the communities they represented would become more powerful. We believed that powerful voice was necessary for us to build ever broader community, form difficult alliances across class and ethnicity, and, eventually, create justice. In a city where 40 percent of its residents were born abroad, the immigrant press was a vital democratic institution informing and representing a large number of New Yorkers. And because 80 percent of the ethnic press is independently owned, it suffered from the broader disadvantages of the non-corporate media that our nonprofit sought to tackle.
That first year in New York was spent just finding the publications and establishing their importance for nurturing civic engagement, community organizing, the strength of local businesses, and other good things people want but can’t or don’t want to pay for. I learned that newspaper people in immigrant, black, and Latino communities were surprisingly sanguine about working with a white Jewish woman, partly because we shared common ground—I also knew what it meant to hold together a publication. For my part, I’d met enough of the editors and publishers of these newspapers and magazines to discover they were and are heroes, doing real journalism when the odds were against them. Many had fled repression in their home countries and truly valued the freedom here, but they also knew a “free press” meant the freedom to starve for your newspaper when your communities’ enterprises couldn’t afford to place much advertising.
We’d found 200 ethnic publications and 24 dailies in this, the most diverse city in the nation, and we published them all in a directory so advertisers, organizers, government officials, and others could reach them. We’d held some thinly attended press briefings with officials like Congresswoman Maxine Waters.
That year and a half was also spent securing local funding and devising a broader strategy of how we’d build the influence of New York’s ethnic media: launching an e-weekly translating their stories into English so that more of the city could hear what they were reporting; and launching an advertising service that would secure major advertising and translate the ads into their home languages to channel much needed revenue to their operations. We knew what we wanted to do, but didn’t yet have the money to do it.
And then the planes hit.
Everyone has a personal story to tell about that moment. I was coming out of the City Hall subway turnstiles to find a confusingly long line of people waiting to use the station’s pay phone. The cell phone towers were destroyed, of course. A woman turned to me crying, saying a plane had hit the World Trade Center and people were jumping. I envisioned a small piper cub hitting the glass.
Once we knew it was terrorists guiding hijacked planes into the towers in the misguided name of Islam, I feared for my neighbors, certain that vigilantes would roam the streets, attacking people they thought were Muslim. We knew IPA-New York had a role to play in challenging the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant story line that could flow from fear. We needed to translate the words of the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Arab, Turkish, and Israeli press of this city so people could hear the voice and spirit of their neighbors. As it turns out, we got the best reporting exposing the post-9/11 roundups and civil liberties violations, which helped us challenge such profiling. We included the New York Israeli press in our new e-weekly because the conspiracy theories suggesting Israelis were the source of the attack were already in the air. In my naïveté, at that moment I did not foresee that law enforcement would pluck South Asian and Arab immigrants off the streets or from their homes and deposit them in prisons without charge.
IPA-New York’s web publication would become a city-wide platform for sharing reporting on these and other issues facing immigrant New York, and a must-read by mainstream journalists and government officials. Journalists from the New York Times and National Public Radio would pick up stories and re-report them for their audiences. Our budget would explode to $320,000 in 2002.
Our grand ambitions would eventually be realized. But on September 11 I was still working part-time, supported by a grant from the New York Foundation. Just weeks before September 11, we’d received funding from New York Community Trust (NYCT) to launch our advertising service, allowing us to retain consultants. We seemed to be getting nowhere with the Ford Foundation and other national funders to support our e-publication translating the immigrant press. Enter the September 11 Fund.
The strength of New York’s philanthropic and civil service community came together in the September 11 Fund. It quickly gathered knowledgeable program officers from the city’s foundations to help strategize and deploy the money to support New York’s economy and communities. That the economic fallout of the attack was not worse is in part thanks to the Fund. It was up and running long before FEMA was on the scene, and FEMA took its lead when it finally distributed funds directly.
After the attacks, I got a call from Pat Swann, our program officer with the New York Community Trust who was working with the September 11 Fund, which the Trust founded with United Way of New York City. She knew what we were capable of and helped me think through what we were ready to do: not only launch our e-publication, which we called Voices That Must Be Heard, with 9/11 funds, so that New Yorkers would become more aware of their Muslim neighbors, but also place ads in scores of immigrant and other community publications with emergency information about where to find help—including counseling and immediate cash assistance from the Fund. These would be translated into their home languages and channel hundreds of thousands in much-needed advertising revenue to the publications. Who knows what it meant to the Spanish or Russian-speaking, Farsi or Creole speaking New Yorker to see an advertisement reaching out to them in their own language, saying we want to help you.
And with the NYCT grant for the ad service and that initial $80,000 from the September 11 Fund, we did it. We hired Maria Bonilla, a former singer from the Dominican Republic who was an administrative wonder. A former ad assistant at a Latino weekly that had just gone under, she found us a larger office, set it up with phones, computers, and furniture, and then worked those phones, securing rate cards from newspapers and placing the often full-page advertisements in the publications. We hired a young woman, Gillian Andrews, who helped me track down the nonprofits and government agencies that could give aid in the home languages of New York’s communities which we listed in the advertisements. And our relationships with the city’s labor press found us Dania Rajendra, a recent college graduate with an organizer’s sensibility to help build a network of translators and edit Voices That Must Be Heard.
By November, Maria Bonilla began placing $100,000 in ads in 70 publications translated into 17 languages with funds from the September 11 Fund, American Jewish World Service, and Safe Horizons. Safe Horizons told us it was swamped with phone calls after we placed its ad in 50 newspapers with its multilingual hotline number, funded by the September 11 Fund. We learned from our publishers in the black, Latino, South Asian, Caribbean (et al.) press that ad sales dropped 30 percent after 9/11 and that these emergency ads really kept them afloat in a dark period.
By late November, Voices That Must Be Heard was being published. The first issue was heavy on editorials from communities reflecting on the attacks. We ran editorials from two different Arabic language papers with two different viewpoints. Al-Manhassah Al-Arabeyah wrote: “In this era of globalization, the constructive geopolitics of peace should replace the destructive geopolitics of war.” The Arab Voice out of Paterson, NJ wrote, “We can’t give in to those who wish us harm in a country where we started to taste the sort of freedoms we were denied in the Arab world for such a long time.” We also posted information from the ACLU about the proposed new surveillance powers then before Congress that became the Patriot Act.
Here is another article from the second issue, translated from the largest Bangladeshi paper in the city by an editor from the second largest Bangladeshi paper in the city:
Hate Crime Suspect Asks for Forgiveness at Mosque
Via Weekly Thikana, 30 November 2001. Translated from Bangla by Moinuddin Naser.
A man accused of committing a hate crime returned to the neighborhood where the incident took place to apologize.
“What I have done is unpardonable,” Raf Gibler told the members of the Ditmars mosque in Astoria. “I have committed a grave mistake.”
In early October, Gibler came to the Shahjalal mosque while drunk and shouted racial epithets at the devotees. Then he kicked the door of the mosque. Police arrested him, but he was released on bail.
The leaders of the mosque’s committee said they had pardoned him on behalf of the community, but the rest will be decided by the courts. Gibler said that he would accept the punishment, whatever it was. .
When the reporting on the detentions was not happening quickly enough, we commissioned an original article from a Pakistani-American journalist who worked with Multinational Monitor and other national progressive press:
Pakistani Detainees Speak Out
Via Special to IPA- New York, 3 January 2002.
“We are not criminals, but we are treated as such. We do not even know what the future holds for us. We are not certain whether we will ever be freed, deported, or remained jailed.”
The man being treated like a “criminal” is one of about 200 Pakistanis being held on immigration violations in the Passaic County Jail in Paterson, New Jersey. For the first time, civil liberties and immigration lawyers say, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is selectively enforcing its laws, not to control immigration but to pursue a criminal investigation. Nor are the laws enforced always so clear.
In the same issue we ran this article from an English-language paper based in Queens. Nine years later, Mohammed Jehangir, the talented editor of this publication, joined the staff putting out Voices That Must Be Heard every week.
Muslim Detainees in New Jersey End Hunger Strike
Via Pakistan Voice, 7 December 2001.
A group of seven Muslims held in custody since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks has ended a hunger strike it called to protest their continued detention.
We found subscribers by combing Bacon’s, a media directory, and then spamming mainstream journalists with Voices e-mails. Word of mouth led to even more journalists asking to subscribe. We sent invites out through various listservs, immigrant rights and labor organizations, and social service agencies: government agencies like the city Department of Health, the mayor’s office, and the state Attorney General signed up.
In February, with the additional help of the Katherine and David Moore Family Foundation, we had enough money to publish weekly and we expanded to include articles from a broader range of New York’s press, including the Latino, Russian, and Haitian American press. By that time, we had also set up an editorial process where the editor solicited story ideas from the editors and translators on Friday. Then she and I would invite a different editor to work with us in selecting the ones to translate and publish. And finally we would publish the weekly on Thursday.
Stories could be about protests against detention of South Asian immigrants by the INS, or a reflection on the war from an Afghani magazine. After our mandate expanded to include the full range of press, we ran a story from a Russian paper on welfare reform’s impact on immigrants, and a story on the scarcity of translators at hospitals by El Diario/La Prensa.
Our outreach and word of mouth won us subscribers from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, New York’s English language dailies, all of the staff of the New York Immigration Coalition, and other advocacy groups like Families for Freedom or Desis Rising Up and Moving ,which regularly circulated our articles on its member listserv. The Justice Department called us about a story we translated from Bangla Patrika about the racially motivated killing of a Bangladeshi man in Atlanta. In April, we heard from Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force in Maryland wanting to investigate a story we translated from Pakistan Post about the shootings of three Sikhs in Houston. When Hoy ran a story about the Arab community in New York, we took some credit for its interest. At a training for lawyers, the Legal Aid Society distributed our original story from January on how the civil liberties community was organizing to help immigrant detainees. Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund told us they used our articles in their work as lawyers defending immigrant communities. Jobs with Justice loved it when we published labor stories involving its campaigns.
We knew it was becoming popular when the Washington Post reporter called on our week off and wondered why Voices wasn’t in her e-mailbox. The New York Times invited editor Dania Rajendra to meet with its metro staff (and she chided them to do a better job and cite the original reporting when they stole stories from Voices). Years later, the Times republished stories officially in one of its Sunday sections. And we saw some stories with real legs, like articles about the flight of Pakistanis to Canada and the closing of Pakistani businesses in Brooklyn, which were drawn upon by the Newark Star-Ledger, New York Times, and All Things Considered (which actually credited the original reporters!).
Our membership was growing, and our press briefings—in January on post 9/11 detentions and the Patriot Act’s impact on immigrants, on February 15 with the September 11 Fund and United Services Group on available aid, and in August with the U.S. State Department on the visa lottery—were well attended and generated access for immigrant editors with newsmakers. We nurtured cross-reporting about other immigrant groups. The most liberal Russian language paper, the Russian Forward, covered the round up of Pakistani and Arab New Yorkers based on one of our press clubs, and won an “Ippie” later that year in our first ever Independent Press Awards. Within a half year, Voices That Must Be Heard began publishing journalism from all New York’s communities, not those in the hot seat after September 11, and it continues to do so to this day, now under the aegis of the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism under the name Voices of New York.
It was a fast moving time. I’d like to think Voices That Must Be Heard contributed to the mighty sense of humanity many New Yorkers felt after September 11. Editors from targeted communities knew at least some people wanted to hear their stories, challenging the isolation they must have felt. Mainstream journalists learned there was a lot more they needed to know about New York’s diverse neighborhoods. I like to quote Rabbi Bob Kaplan who said Voices “changed the way information moves in this city.” We called our directory of the ethnic press, Many Voices, One City, and we meant it.
ABBY SCHER was founding director of Independent Press Association-New York from 2000 to 2005. She is a sociologist and journalist living in Brooklyn.