Melissa Harris-Perry: All this week, our guests and you have shared your recollections of the September 11th terrorist attacks with us.
Valarie Kaur: I was a kid in college. I was home for the summer and I remember my father woke me up frantic and we sat in front of the TV set and watched the second plane go into the second tower.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Activist Valarie Kaur remembers the horror of watching the televised attacks that day. She recalls her painful realization that this action likely would have personal consequences.
Valarie Kaur: My uncle, my father's brother works a few blocks away from the World Trade Center, and so we were panicked and trying to call him, make sure that he was okay. He got out, but within minutes really, I remember the towers kept falling on this endless loop, and then soon there was this image of Osama bin Laden. I realized that our nation's new enemy looked like my family.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Valarie's family of origin, her community is Sikh American. Sikhism was founded in the 15th century on the Indian sub-continent. The faith does not share a common history or geography with Islam, but these realities were irrelevant to those acting out of a rage-fueled Islamophobia in the months following 9/11.
Valarie Kaur: Within hours, there was news of hate violence erupting on city streets across the country against Muslim Americans and also against my community, Sikh Americans. Many of our men wear turbans as part of our faith, and so we were at the forefront of that violence.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The alarming violence soon became even more personal for Valarie.
Valarie Kaur: Four days later on September 15th, I got the phone call from Arizona that Balbir uncle had been killed. He was a family friend, a Sikh father who was standing in front of his gas station planting flowers when a man shot him five times in the back and called himself a patriot when arrested.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Balbir Singh Sodhi was the first person to be murdered in a hate crime following September 11th. Valarie has spent the years since his murder advocating for the Sikh American community and others targeted and impacted by hate.
Valarie Kaur: For many Sikh and Muslim Americans, we were afraid of the next terrorist attack, and then we were afraid of walking out of our home for fear that we would be killed or beaten or harmed by our own neighbors. When I think about that kind of fear, it is an ancient fear. My grandfather sailed by steamship from India to America in 1913. My family has lived and farmed in California for 100 years.
My grandfather and his generation of immigrants fought for equal rights alongside Black leaders who made sure that we had equal protection under the law. We had this notion of linear progress that our grandparents sacrificed so that we would be more free and there were waves of hate before 9/11. After the Iran Hostage Crisis, my grandfather used to be called "Santa Claus, Santa Claus" when riding around on his horse and buggy in our small farming town, but after the Iran Hostage Crisis, he was called Ayatollah.
After the first Persian Gulf War, there was a wave of hate against us. After the Oklahoma City Bombing where the perpetrator was white, there was a wave of hate and yet every time we thought of these outbursts of hate as aberrations and otherwise forward-moving story.
Even after 9/11, Melissa, we called the hate that exploded across the country against people of color the backlash. When traveling around the country filming these stories, we went from city to city, from home to home, sometimes when the blood was still fresh on the ground and I still thought the documentary that we were making that ended up becoming our first film, Divided We Fall, I thought it was going to be this archive of history, this dark regrettable chapter of US history.
20 years later, that terror has not ended. We are five times more likely to be targets of hate than we were before 9/11. Hate violence never dipped down to the level it was at before 9/11. Now I'm not a college kid anymore, I'm a mother. As I tie my son's long hair in a bun, in a Juda, and I send him to school, I have to reckon with the fact that he's growing up in a nation more dangerous for him than it was for me.
We've let go of that notion of linear progress and instead, I've looked to Black and Indigenous leaders for my hope because if we take colonization and slavery as the true starting point for the history of the Americas and what we have undergone the last 20 years is not an aberration. It is a continuation of what people of color have long had to fight white supremacy on the soil. What gives me hope is to see how Sikhs are now standing next to Black people, Indigenous people, Asian people, Latinx people in one voice saying, "Actually, we can lift our gaze to an America where we all might be free, where we all belong," and that's what's new. That's what's different 20 years later.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's talk about that solidarity because it seems to me that there must surely be at least some moments, particularly maybe in your 20-year-old self or in the communities, again, when you're driving around the country, when you're making that first documentary film, there must be some impulse by at least some folks to just say, "Hey, we are not Muslim. We are Sikh. Let me explain how Sikh is different. Here are the parts of the world from ones we tend to hail, here are the parts of the world where Muslims tend to hail. Please leave us alone. We're not them."
How do you resist that urge and maybe not just you personally, but the community to stoke Islamophobia in order to save one's own self?
Valarie Kaur: There was that impulse in the very, very beginning. There were bumper stickers that some members of our community printed that said, "We are Sikhs, not Muslims," but very quickly, our community realized that it actually didn't matter to the person who was aiming the gun at us whether we were Sikh or Muslim. We fit the image of the perpetual foreigner of the automatically suspect potentially terrorist.
It didn't matter to them what we called ourselves. The violence would explode anyway. What I saw in interview after interview was how Sikhs resisted that initial impulse because they went back to their ancestors and said, "Well, our ancestors were known as warriors, as [unintelligible 00:07:12] Sage warriors, the warrior fights, the Sage loves. It's a path of revolutionary love. We have stood up for other religious minorities in India for centuries and so why should we throw another community under the bus on this soil?" That initial impulse was overridden by reaching back to the love ethic at the heart of our faith.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Love can sound like a weak or anemic word and a weak and anemic response to the kind of violence that you're talking about. Why go to a love ethic?
Valarie Kaur: I'm with you. I'm a lawyer. Every time I heard someone stand up on a stage and say love was the answer, I would roll my eyes. Love in the face of institutions that perpetuate injustice. What do you mean? Honestly, Melissa, it was my own existential crisis after my son was born realizing that with every film, with every loss, with every campaign, I thought we were making the nation safer for the next generation and then to reckon with the fact that we need more than sound government. We need more than just policy.
What we need in America is a shift in culture and consciousness, a new way of being and seeing that leaves no one behind, a revolution of the heart that our maladies is not just a political one or an economic one. It's a spiritual. It's a cultural one.
What I saw, every time I've seen people of color on the brink of despair. I've seen the love ethic show up as this muscular robust force. Love is more than a rush of feeling. Love is sweet labor. It is fierce, bloody, imperfect, life-giving and when communities in the face of oppression are able to show up with that kind of love to sustain longevity and courage in the face of ongoing oppression, it's life-giving.
I remember the last interview I did was when I first really learned this. I had traveled across the world to see the widow of Balbir Singh Sodhi. At this point, people were telling us to go back to our country. I was starting to feel a bitter despair spread through my chest. When I found her in the village, she was dressed in white, the color of mourning. I had this long list of questions. I could only set my questions aside and weep with her and then I asked her, "What would you tell the people of America?"
I was expecting that despair, that reproach. She said, "Tell them, thank you. When I went to America for my husband's funeral, they came out in the thousands, Christian, Jew, Muslim. They did not know me, but they cared with me. They wept with me, they chose to love me. Thank them for their love."
Melissa, that moment saved me and it still saves me because Balbir Singh Sodhi's name it's not known to the nation now 20 years later. His story is not known even though it should be. Yet, in that small community, they told the story well, well enough for people to show up and weep. It didn't stop the violence, but it did heal this widow's heart so that she could go on.
Since then, the Sodhi family and Rana Balbir, uncle's younger brother, has insisted on this love, even reaching out to his brother's murderer, a few years ago, to forgive him and begin this process of reconciliation. He refused to create another us and them, he refused to let anyone outside of his circle of care, and I keep thinking if we could do that as a nation, wouldn't that be revolutionary?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Indeed, we're now in a space where we may need to do that as a nation. Not that we haven't, I guess, always been there, but I'm wondering about your thoughts as the final members of the US military evacuated from Afghanistan. Both your thoughts about what you think may happen next, but also, what might be possible perhaps not in a linear way, but in that revolutionary love way as you've written about.
Valarie Kaur: As I've been watching Afghanistan, I've been holding this question in my heart, "The future is dark. Is this the darkness of the tomb, or the darkness of the womb?" It is both. We have lost so much in the last 20 years. The gas station where Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed is the second ground zero. It's the ground zero for all the people who have been killed and harmed by the way our nation responded to 9/11.
In hate violence at home, in state violence at home, and in the wars on terror abroad, and we can see how that decision to divide the world into us versus them to respond to aggression with enormous aggression, we can see looking at Kabul how that has failed. Yes, it is the darkness of the tomb and then to sit with that grief and with that rage and with that trauma, and to lift your gaze, and to see what is emerging now that perhaps was not emerging before.
What if this was the darkness of the womb? What if this was the first moment where America woke up to welcoming refugees? What if this was the moment where we learned from the lessons of two decades and chose to value human dignity above all, to not let fear hijack us anymore? What if our America is not dead, but a nation still waiting to be born?
In birthing labor, progress is cyclical, not linear. It's a series of expansions and contractions. I don't know how many more turns to the cycle it's going to take before we birth an America where we are all safe and free, but I know that I want to show up to do my part in the labor. The way that I have found longevity, strength, solidarity, dignity, and that is if I show up with love, the kind of revolutionary love.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Say his name, Balbir Singh Sodhi. Is there a marker where he was killed?
Valarie Kaur: At the corner of the gas station at 80th and University in Mesa, Arizona, there is a plaque where he was killed. Every year, the family turns this gas station into a sacred space. We sing our prayers as the sun sets, and we say his name, and we remember all who have been lost to hate. We'll be gathering again there on September 15th, and this time, we're taking people with us.
We'll be live streaming it and bringing a book of prayers and people can join us at 911hub.org. At that second ground zero, we'll have the courage to reckon with our past and taking Balbir uncle's memory in our hearts to lift our gaze and reimagine the future.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Valarie Kaur is a Civil Rights Activist, author of See No Stranger, which was recently released in Paperback, and the leader of the Revolutionary Love Project. Valerie, thank you so much.
Valarie Kaur: Thank you, Melissa.
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