By Susan O’Halloran
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, demonstrations against Muslims arose in different parts of Chicago. One group of Chicagoans on the southwest side of the city decided to support their Muslim neighbors. This support grew into a massive rally and teach-in at Chicago’s Navy Pier. Sue witnessed people willing to learn from and about each other and how much taking a stand could mean.
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- Why don’t we hear the stories of what is working?
- The teachers taught the students about other times in history when people were stereotyped and scapegoated. Give an example of what they might have taught.
- Were the adults correct in keeping the students away from the (peaceful) demonstration of support? Was their alternative way to involve the students effective?
- Why is it important to show support to groups of people who are under attack?
- September 11, 2001: A Record of Tragedy, Herosim and Hope by Editors of New York Magazine
- Crossing Cultures
- Muslim Americans/Muslims
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
- Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Two days after the tragedy of September 11th, 2001, Sister Margaret Zalot, principal of Maria High School, found herself in trouble. She was driving down east on 95th Street when she unwittingly drove right into an anti-Muslim demonstration. Crowds were milling about, cars would zip across the intersection at 95th and Harlem. Then across again and again and shouting, “White power!” They held signs that said, “Choose what side you’re on.” “This is the beginning and the end.” They were just ignoring the police. They were trying to keep all that traffic going but pretty soon everybody just kind of ran their cars into the middle, just took the intersection over. There were guys in the back of pickup trucks, huge American flags with long poles, looked like jousters ready to ram somebody. And she found herself caught in the middle of all this.
Took over an hour and a half to get through that gridlock. Now just the night before, this angry mob had marched on the mosque at 92nd Street. Only because the police got there moments ahead and threw up barricades did it keep the windows getting broken or maybe worse. I’m sure it was fresh in the police people’s minds because just a few years earlier the Federal Building in Oklahoma City had been bombed. And two days later the mosque in Springfield, Illinois was burned to the ground. So they saved that mosque but the demonstrations went on and on. And Sister Margaret Zalot finally got home safely but she remembered that saying, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” She’s like, “I’ve gotta do something. What can we do? Oh, what we can do?”
So she went out and she found some other people with the same concern, the same sense of urgency. She went to swop… S.W.O.P, Southwestern Organizing Project. This represented 27 community groups on the southwest side of Chicago. And they were also asking what can we do? It didn’t make sense to meet violence with violence? What can we do? They came up with a brilliant plan. They said, “Lucky the police got to that mosque with the barricade just in time to save it. We’ll make a human barricade.” What they decided to do was next day… was Friday, like a Sabbath for Muslims, Friday afternoon prayer, Jumuʿah prayer. They said, We’ll make a human barricade around the mosques and we’ll protect the people inside.” And that’s what they did.
Now some people didn’t even know there were mosques in their neighborhood on 63rd Street. You know, you can just not pay attention to something that doesn’t concern you? And these are little storefront kind of places of worship. But the next day, even though it was a workday, Friday workday, 150 people showed up. And they stood arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder and they had signs from their religion like, “Pax Christi,” Peace and Christ, or “Shalom,” the Jewish tradition word for peace. And people were so glad that they were there. In fact, a newspaper accounting talked about the president of one of the mosques saying how much he appreciated the people being there. How Islam does not teach that kind of violence. That they were all grieving over the tragedy of 9/11. And certainly, the president of that mosque, Khatam Pharez, was grieving because his cousin was on the 82nd floor of the World Trade Center when that first plane hit that first tower.
And the paper also talked about this young man on his way to Friday prayer when he saw all these people demonstrating in front of the mosque. Well, he knew about the threats to his mosque, there were death threats , and should he go? Was that the smart thing to do? Should he go just back home? And all of sudden one of the men turned around. It was an older man with snowy hair, and on the sign he was carrying, it said, “As-Salāmu Alaykum,” the Arbic blessing; peace be unto you. The young man knew those people in front of his mosque weren’t there to hurt him but to protect him.
Well, unfortunately, the violence continued that next week after 9/11. So, the people decided that they were going to have a circle of peace again. And Sister Margaret Zalot, principal of Maria High School, had gone back to her school that whole week. And they suspended many classes and worked with the kids. They told them stories about, through history when people have been turned against each other, when people have been used to hate one another to somebody else’s benefit. So, maybe if kids heard these stories, they’d think. So they couldn’t be used against anybody or any other group. And then they told them stories when people had stood together and the kids really learned. Because when they heard Sister Margaret, they got it! Some of the teachers were going back the second time to make circles of peace. You can imagine what they said. “We want to go, too! Come on, you’re teaching us about justice and standing together and universal diversity. We’re gonna go too!”
But these really were dangerous times after September 11th. The teachers couldn’t take the students somewhere there might be violence. So, they came up with an alternative because they didn’t want to discourage the girls. They said, “Why don’t you write letters to your Muslim neighbors? Tell them how you feel.” So, that next Friday, double, triple the crowd showed up at those mosques to make their human barricade, their circle of peace. And when those folks came out from prayer that Friday, they were handed letters from the Maria High School girls. And the letters said things like, “You are our neighbors, we love you. We stand by you and for you.” And people read those letters out loud and, I tell you, there wasn’t a dry eye off the street. People were huggin’ and crying.
Well, through the months of that winter 2001 and 2002, Southwest Organizing Project joined with community groups from all over Chicago and decided to have a Muslim/non-Muslin dialogue. But, you know how winter can be any who live in the north. Oh my goodness! You get a nice day and everybody just wants to be outside. It was one of those kind of days, a Sunday afternoon. They wondered would anybody show up to talk perfect strangers on a beautiful day in Chicago? They had rented Navy Pier Ballroom. What if there was nobody coming at all and it was empty? Four thousand people showed up to share, to dialogue and even the high school girls modeled how to talk and dialogue with each other. They asked each other questions and, I remember, the Maria High School student asking a girl from the Islamic school, “You know, I have to admit, I saw those hijabs, those headscarves you wear, and I thought it was kind of weird but then we girls got talking. You know, you can have a bad hair day, that hijab would come in handy.” And the Islamic girl said back to her, right in front of everybody, “You know, you have bad hair days, we have bad hijab days. Sometimes you just can’t get those scarves to sit on right.”
So they would model or they would have some other people come up from Southwest Organizing Project would model talking to each other. And then we in our small groups, they’d give us a discussion question. Well, you can imagine the noise in that room with four thousand people! You had huddle in close to hear each other. I had a Muslim man, I had a teenage boy from the northwest side, I had two cab drivers who just heard about it and came driving on in and we huddled real close. As we shared our lives and our hopes and our dreams, it’s like the energy just emanated out of Navy Pier up and down the lakefront, all across Chicago. Because after that all, the white power and other demonstrations just stopped.
What does it take for ugly history not to repeat itself? It takes people who are willing to go and stand in front of places they’ve never been, to protect a religion they’ve never practiced, to listen in their classrooms or in their community groups to different people’s stories so that we can cut through all that ignorance and fear, so that we can speak and we can celebrate the truth. We are one.