15 Years of Justice: Striving for One America

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This post was written by OneAmerica Executive Director Rich Stolz:

Ever since OneAmerica’s Annual Celebration this spring, we’ve been drawing together stories and quotes to reflect on some of our community’s victories and successes over the last 15 years.  There’s much to be proud of, much to reflect on, and still so much to be done.

This compilation of reflections about 9/11 by Muslim, south Asian leaders and allies curated by Deepa Iyer is one jumping-off point to consider when reflecting on where we are as a nation fifteen years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

I still remember where I was on 9/11.  That morning I was just digging into work in Washington, DC when a colleague in my office told me I should check out the news.  I saw images of the World Trade Center collapsing and a wing of the Pentagon in flames.  I recall feeling dread for friends and loved ones where I lived and in New York City.  I recall wondering if and when the next plane might strike.  I remember there being no cell phone service available as I walked home across the city, which was essentially under shut down.  

I think it was that evening that I walked down to the US Capitol to join hundreds of others at a spontaneous vigil to remember the victims of the terrorist attacks.  I remember seeing so many colleagues and friends there, and I also remember being so struck at how diverse our crowd was.  As corny as it might sound today, together people spontaneously sang songs like God Bless America and Lee Greenwood’s I’m Proud to Be An American, and I sang along with gusto and tears in my eyes reflecting on the heroism of thousands of first responders and volunteers who risked their own lives to save their fellow Americans.  Countless Americans of every nationality and religious background felt called at that time to enlist in the military and to serve their nation.

As a student of civil rights and immigrant history, I could feel the nation emotionally and psychologically shifting toward war and vengeance.  In a matter of days, Congress had authorized an endless war against terrorism, beginning with the invasion of Afghanistan.  The United States government quickly began a registration program for Muslim men, seeking to identify potential terrorists already living in the United States in clear violation of basic principles of due process and civil liberties.  Across the nation, news reports began to filter in about angry and frustrated Americans taking out their rage on innocent Muslim, south Asian and Sikh community members in a wave of harassment, intimidation and hate crimes.  Some may also remember that promising joint efforts by President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox to legalize the status of millions of undocumented immigrants were put on hold indefinitely.

It was in this context that OneAmerica, then known as Hate Free Zone, was born.  Hate Free Zone, founded by Washington State Senator Pramila Jayapal, was a community response to the backlash against immigrant and refugee communities seeking to uphold fundamental principles of due process, civil liberties and human rights, and core values, like democracy, justice, interdependence, and love.

Today, it often seems that we haven’t progressed as far as we must.  Fear and polarization dominate our nation’s political climate. Though some of the worst post-9/11 violations of due process have been repealed, the growing surveillance state continues to chip away at fundamental constitutional protections, while the rights of migrants continue to fall victim to a frustratingly bureaucratic and unaccountable immigration enforcement system.  In the midst of a volatile and polarizing presidential election, rhetoric demonizing immigrants and refugees – and resultant incidents of hate crimes – continue to take center stage.

Yet today, people of color, and Latino, Muslim, Asian American and immigrant and refugee communities appear poised to have a greater impact on our elections than at any time in our nation’s history.  Candidates, like Pramila Jayapal, are running for Congress with the intent to represent communities that have been long marginalized, but are on the cusp of demographic majorities. And grassroots movements led by people of color are exerting unprecedented influence on politics in Washington State and across the nation.

As a community, we must always choose hope and love over fear and anger.  We must organize, mobilize and have the courage to learn and lead from our values.  And we must struggle, together, to always hold ourselves accountable to the fundamental principles that guide our vision – justice and democracy – in the face of fear, terrorism, injustice, intolerance and racism.  To this end, we must always draw from our own well of community, humility, resourcefulness and sacrifice, and find strength in each other.

Our path to greatness as a state and as a nation is best found in the resilience and diversity of our families and our communities.  And just as we were called on 9/11 to serve our nation, we are called once again, to not only protect the nation we call home, but to demand more of each other – through action, and sometimes in dissent – to live up to a vision of America in which we all belong.

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