By Gina Hotta
Remembering 9-11 in America. Images play over and over again of the Twin Towers torn apart, of flags waving and people singing “God Bless America”. These are our sacred icons and stories.
But there are other stories of war and patriotism.
Balbir Singh Sodhi left religious persecution in India for America. He came to California and at last settled in Mesa, Arizona. But, four days after September 11, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot to death while working at his convenience store. “I am a patriot,” yelled Sodhi’s killer Frank Roque, “arrest me while those terrorists go wild.” One year later in San Francisco, Sodhi’s brother was shot and killed when his taxi crashed. His killer was never found.
For the most part voices who could tell stories like that of the Sodhis are silent. They are silenced by war’s mad offspring: that of fear and hate in post 9-11 America. But Valarie Kaur wants to change all that.
Kaur says the Sodhi’s story hit close to home. Both the Sodhi and Kaur family are of Sikh background. And many Sikhs were targeted in the racial profiling after 9-11. Soon after Sodhi’s killing, Kaur and her cousin took off on a road trip across the US to document these cases of hate violence. Kaur’s award-winning film “Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath” is a vehicle for these silent voices to break free and, as Kaur says, “rip open a space” to begin a national dialog about race, war, and, “who counts as an American”.
Kaur’s grandparents are immigrants from India who settled in the rural town of Clovis, California. Kaur was a young college student on September 11, 2001. As she watched the attack in horror on TV, reports of vengeance and backlash came in. And the attacks were often against people who were brown-skinned, wore a turban and fit the stereotype–popularized by American media images–of a terrorist; people who looked like Kaur’s family and friends.
On her road trip across the US, Kaur and her cousin caught all of these voices and images in “Divided We Fall”:
In New York: an elderly Sikh man badly beaten but who didn’t press charges against his attackers because he believed that for the US, “it was a time to heal”.
In California: a woman video store owner knifed in the street, a young boy pelted by lunch boxes and taunted with the names “Osama Bin Laden” and “Saddam Hussein”.
And in Arizona: the family of Balbir Singh Sodhi who called a press conference shortly after his death to draw attention to hate crimes.
Kaur hopes that showing her film “Divided We Fall” throughout the US at the grassroots level will spark a dialog that’s missing on the national political landscape. Towards this goal, community groups are sponsoring the film followed by discussion. In this way, Kaur hopes to help over-come the politics of fear that often permeate national dialogs.
The American vocabulary is full of words that conjure up anger, vengeance, fear. And all are backed up by a wellspring of myths harking back to the days of cowboys and Indians, of yellow and brown hordes banging at US borders while the Texas Rangers ride in to back them all off. Add to this mix, images of men with beards and turbans and it helps to fill the well that might otherwise run dry and expose who’s running off with all the water.
The film “Divided We Fall” gives people the stories, the ways and means of expression to oppose acts that deny the humanity of people like those found in Kaur’s film. “Divided We Fall”, and works like it, create memories and myths that help shape the American psyche.
And there are many new stories now.
Of people who are stopped on trains, on planes, who are denied jobs, put on long lists for deportation and yet, who still believe in the great potential of America. Of men and women who strive to level the uneven playing fields of America and believe in the unlimited possibilities of peace.
But there are few words that describe these actions as up-lifting, as patriotic, as courageous, and there are not enough myths about their deeds.
In America there’s a wellspring of stories to draw from. “Divided We Fall” goes to them to nourish the landscape, changing it into one that will reject the seeds of disparagement and dehumanization.
Balbir Singh Sodhi. One hour before his death, Sodhi donated money to the victims of 9-11. He asked for American flags to put in his store. He was a vehicle for change. In America, will we tell his story? In America, will we remember?