Like a drop of food coloring in cake batter
I can’t tell this story perfectly and neatly in a hurry. I am leaving things out. I am including things that maybe aren’t important.
I was pregnant, that point in the second trimester where you aren’t quite ready for maternity clothes, and are looping an elastic hair tie into the buttonhole of your jeans to close them. I was twenty-seven and working for Greenpeace, which had its main U.S. office in DC’s Chinatown. We were recent transplants, having moved to DC for my job.
My job at the time was to help environmental campaigns incorporate non-violent direct action when necessary. The organization was preparing for its 30th anniversary. The flagship Rainbow Warrior was on a tour that would take it into Chelsea Piers in New York for an anniversary party on September 15.
I had been scouting a location in New York for a climate-related action, international in scope, with a tandem team from across the ocean. Some higher ups in the organization were hoping to do this around the organization’s anniversary. Because asking people to risk arrest is not something I took lightly, when it became unfeasible, I insisted on changing the date of the action.
But I took so many photos of the area by the Twin Towers in the days leading up to September 11. The images were location scouting photos – buildings, scale, pedestrian access, scenery, crowds. The world had not quite gone completely digital yet, so the photos were 35 mm 5x7 printed pictures.
Somewhere in a drawer in a room in downtown DC, there are fistfuls of photos that show dozens of people sitting in a park, strolling by the towers, taking their lunch breaks in their bright security trader blazers, pushing strollers, living their lives on a beautiful day. I am sure, with 100% certainly, that many of the people who wound up in my photos are gone.
I would have brought the team to the location that Tuesday…and they, being international tourists, would have absolutely gone to the towers.
But the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 had me in the DC office instead getting ready to drive to an international anti-nuclear conference at Sweet Briar College with a colleague from Canada. As I held my coffee watching the monitors in the media department waiting for my colleague, which played news coverage all the time, I saw the first tower on fire. We didn’t register what we were looking at first. Even when the second plane hit the second tower, right there on the screen, the magnitude of what was happening didn’t register. I remember thinking, “They’re never going to find everybody.”
This was before everyone had instant world current events in their pocket.
It’s not like we knew anything about what was happening. I called a department teammate in Virginia and told him today might be a good day not to come into DC. My colleague and I got in her rental car and started driving towards Virginia.
Traffic was jammed in a way I had never experienced in every direction. The rental car radio wasn’t picking up much. There was billowing smoke. The smoke was coming from the Pentagon, which we were passing. Continuing on out of town seemed prudent.
People forget that DC is a real place with real people in it.
What nobody remembers publicly about DC that day is that in the middle of everything, rumors swirled about what had been bombed (I had heard that the capital had been bombed, some other reported explosions), nobody’s cell phone worked, and transportation of every kind ground to a halt. I could not find my then-husband, my child’s father. His office was near one of the rumored explosions. When we got to the college, we would be stuck there for days. All of our international colleagues were in the air somewhere en route, and we couldn’t locate any of them to confirm if they were alive, dead, or stranded. The falling of the towers played on the jumbotron-sized TV screens at the conference center, over and over and over again, like pornography.
Some of our international colleagues got the gravity of the situation. Some did not.
Regardless, we were all stuck there because everyone’s ride was an airport shuttle, and none of those were operational.
The boat was re-routed to Philadelphia. Some of the photos from that day that have been scattered into our public consciousness were taken from the Rainbow Warrior.
I briefly, very briefly, contemplated terminating my very much wanted pregnancy in the second trimester. I chose defiant optimism. I chose it every day. Every year around this time a nervous irritability clouds my mood. The jingoism and casual xenophobia and racism that is so endemic to our being as a country becomes too much for a day or two.
This experience permeates my entire life like a drop of food coloring in cake batter.
What would become the Patriot Act was introduced, and I am one of the rare few who read though the entirety of it at the time, pouring over it at my desk with a highlighter and a ball point pen. It scared the shit out of me. I told everyone I could think of, called the ACLU, and it still became law. The chill on dissent was palpable.
I remember suddenly noticing that every brown person in DC felt like they had to wear an American flag, or put a flag sticker on their car. A coworker lost a family member to anthrax delivered to the post office. DC's regular working people and everyone broker than that are the ones who took the hit financially.
We didn’t become better people as a country because of this.