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Buffalo, 9/11 and the War at Home

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On the eve of the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks we take a look at one of the cities in this country hardest hit by the 9/11 aftermath–Buffalo, New York. We speak Bruce Jackson, a professor of American Culture at SUNY Buffalo and editor of the web journal BuffaloReport.com. [includes rush transcript]

As the 3rd anniversary of the September 11 attacks nears, people and groups across the country are planning vigils, peace demonstrations and memorial services for the dead. The anniversary comes as the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq passes the 1,000 mark; the number of dead Iraqis goes largely uncounted but some estimates put the number well above 10,000. Afghanis continue to die, as do US soldiers deployed there. Over the past three years, the lives of millions of Americans have been irreversibly altered. Not just by the devastation of September 11 and the deaths of US soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Immigrants, particularly Muslim Americans, Pakistani Americans and Arab Americans, have paid a heavy price simply for being who they are.

The PATRIOT Act has had a devastating impact in these communities and to the whole institution of civil liberties in the US. One of the cities hardest hit by the 9-eleven aftermath is the city we are broadcasting from today, Buffalo. At least six Buffalo residents have died in the invasion or occupation of Iraq. The city was also home to the "Lackawana Six," a group of Yemeni Americans convicted of providing material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization. One of their lawyers said they pleaded guilty only after prosecutors had dropped heavy hints that they would be declared "enemy combatants" if they didn’t. President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller all hailed the convictions as a triumph for law enforcement. But critics called it an example of the US jailing people for "thought crimes" and "guilt by association." None of the six were accused of planning or engaging in any act of terrorism. Buffalo is also a key transit point for visitors going to and from Canada, which, in this era of a so-called tightening of the borders, has had a significant impact on the city. Today, we look at Buffalo 3 years after 9-eleven.

  • Bruce Jackson, Professor of American Culture at SUNY Buffalo. He is also the editor of the web journal BuffaloReport.com and a frequent contributor to counterpunch.org.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’re going to look at Buffalo, with two guests. We’ll be joined by Gary Earl Roth, who is a professor of English at the University of Buffalo’s Educational Opportunity Center. His son is heading off to Iraq again. But first, we begin with Bruce Jackson. Bruce Jackson is a Distinguished Professor of American Culture at SUNY Buffalo. SUNY stands for State University of New York. He’s also editor of the web journal, Buffaloreport.com, and a frequent contributor to counterpunch.org. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

BRUCE JACKSON: Good to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So, tell us about Buffalo.

BRUCE JACKSON: Buffalo is a city that for a long time has been having economic problems. The major industrial base, the steel mills in Lackawanna, those started going years ago. Manufacturing jobs started going and kept going. There’s been a huge population loss over the last 30 or 40 years. The city was about 525,000 in 1960; it’s about 350,000 now. 27,000 people have left here since 9/11, a large number of them young people, because the jobs that are going are being replaced with lousy jobs, and there are no jobs for young people. So it’s a difficult time. The city has lost a large portion of its tax base. When that happens, any place, city services start to go. We have had to cut back on local police, although there’s been a great increase in federal police in the area. We’ve had to cut back on firemen. We’ve had to cut back on teachers. As young people go, there have been fewer children going to school. So the city school system has been having problems. So it’s been a hard time here.

AMY GOODMAN: As we drove over this morning we passed Buffalo City Hall, right behind it a large F.B.I. facility.

BRUCE JACKSON: Yes. A huge F.B.I. — it’s a new building. It’s a beautiful building. It and its property occupy a city block. The Federal Terrorism Task Force is based here, and — the Task Force has members from the F.B.I., Internal Revenue, Immigration and Naturalization, alcohol, tax, firearms and explosives, I.R.S. There are about five other agencies in it. They get involved in cases, but the actual F.B.I. office itself has expanded greatly. As you said, we’re a border city and what used to be in a way one of our greatest assets, being on the border, now has become a real cumbersome problem. Traffic coming into the country on busy days is often backed up for miles into Canada. Often you will see trucks lined up for two hours — two miles on the Queen Elizabeth Way the other side of the border.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about that number six. Six U.S. soldiers —

BRUCE JACKSON: Yes —

AMY GOODMAN: Dead in Iraq, and the Lackawanna Six, six Yemeni-American men who plead guilty.

BRUCE JACKSON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You have written about this case.

BRUCE JACKSON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what it is they plead guilty to, as we look at what happened in Detroit, high profile arrests, John Ashcroft holds a news conference and now the person free. As we look at what happened in Albany, New York, not that far from here, in the context of the whole United States. Two men, leaders of a mosque, arrested. A big, high profile news conference, John Ashcroft, and then they’re released on bail.

BRUCE JACKSON: You know, Amy, so many of these cases seem to have their most intense aspect in the news conference rather than in the legal proceedings that follow. You mentioned the Yemeni Six, but we have a second terrorist case in Buffalo of an artist, Steve Kurtz, which we might talk a little bit about, too, because I think it involves the same process. They were six young men who went to Afghanistan, and apparently went to a camp at which Bin Laden spoke. One of them may have actually been with him. What exactly happened is hard to tell, because part of the plea agreement was that nobody says anything. The lawyers have been quiet. The families of the young men have been quiet, but one thing no one has ever said was that they did anything or planned to do anything. They made their visit to Afghanistan before 9/11. We were not knowingly in a state of war or whatever it was we became after 9/11. That condition did not exist. They have never given press conferences. So we have never had a chance to sit down and talk with them and say, "What did you think you were doing? Why did you go?" But what we do know is there’s never been any presentation of any evidence of them having done or planned to do anything back here. We have heard that several of them, once they realized what they were into, couldn’t wait to get out of there. So, it was a case that —

AMY GOODMAN: That when they went to Afghanistan and realized —

BRUCE JACKSON: They realized —

AMY GOODMAN: They tried to leave.

BRUCE JACKSON: Yeah, tried to leave, and so, it’s a case that existed more, I think, and a lot of people around here think, in the need to have a terrorism case to show that the government was doing something to combat this evil menace than anything that was forestalled or stopped.

AMY GOODMAN: What has it done to the Yemeni community, which is not far from here in Lackawanna. Describe the geography.

BRUCE JACKSON: Buffalo is a city surrounded by 27 other communities. And one of the reasons for Buffalo’s financial problems is there’s been a lot of movement of the middle class to the suburbs, and of young people away from the area entirely. And so that — when people move to suburbs, they take their taxes with them. So, Lackawanna is one of the towns adjacent to Buffalo, and it’s an industrial town. There’s a Yemeni community there. One of the reasons there’s no member of that community with us here this morning is people over there are simply not coming out and talking about things. People are very uncomfortable about what happened. A lot of people are afraid because of what happened. The Yemeni population here is a very law abiding, quiet community. I mean, I think this is the first scandal that I have ever heard coming out of there. People are afraid.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to —

BRUCE JACKSON: It has imposed a culture of fear, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back and we’ll also talk about the Steve Kurtz case, and we’ll talk with another SUNY Buffalo professor, whose son is going to war. This is Democracy Now! On this eve of the September 11 attacks, we’re broadcasting from close to the border, from Buffalo, New York. Stay with us.

[Break]

AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Jackson, you were talking about the Yemeni community.

BRUCE JACKSON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And about this being the first big scandal, if you will, out of it, six men now in jail. They didn’t even go through trial. You can’t exactly say, they were convicted by a jury.

BRUCE JACKSON: No. They took–you’re right–no, they never went before a jury. They all made guilty pleas.

AMY GOODMAN: They were scared.

BRUCE JACKSON: They were scared to death, because, remember, this is a time when Ashcroft and the White House were declaring —

AMY GOODMAN: What was the year, the date?

BRUCE JACKSON: Two years ago, 2002. And the case ended in 2003, the following year in May. People were being declared "enemy combatants" the term, and nobody knew who was going to happen to them. There was a threat that these people could be subject to the death penalty. And remember, we had people locked up in Guantanamo, some of them American citizens. And if I were their lawyer, you know, here you are facing six to ten-year sentence, if you plead guilty, versus a possible life sentence or a death sentence. That was a large part of what went on. So, they never had their day in court.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about SUNY Buffalo and the effect of 9/11 on the academic community.

BRUCE JACKSON: Yeah. It’s not just SUNY, Buffalo, Amy. I was saying before that we have lost a lot of jobs. One of the areas, main industries, an industry that’s doing well is higher education. There’s SUNY Buffalo, there’s the State University College, there’s Canisius College, a number of smaller colleges here. All of us, all the colleges and universities here have a large foreign student population, both, the students who commute down from Canada, and students who come from abroad. All of those programs that are dependent on foreign students have been slowly hit since 9/11. Foreign students are applying less, and students from Canada are coming less because they’re finding crossing the border more and more of a hassle. So, what used to be for them a real attraction, coming to Buffalo and going to school, because the border has now become for many of them a place of hostility and fear, they’re no longer coming.

AMY GOODMAN: And professors as well, research scholars —

BRUCE JACKSON: It’s harder for us to invite people to visit. Where we could before, if we had something happen, and we wanted to convene a group of scholars, if we had the money, we could call somebody here, somebody there, somebody there, and say, come next week, we could do it. Now you can’t count on anybody. We had a new hire in the English Department, for example, who was due to start last year in September. His classes had to start over a month late because he could not come, coming from England. So, it has hurt. It has cut into our flexibility. But it’s also a lot of people who don’t come out of fear, out of inconvenience, out of anger at America, at what America is doing. And it costs us heavily, because students coming here are a part of our intellectual capital. It’s what makes our teaching and research interesting, and we are losing that.

AMY GOODMAN: You are having a visitor come though quite soon. Donald Trump has been invited to —

BRUCE JACKSON: Yes, he has.

AMY GOODMAN: — to give a University lecture at SUNY Buffalo. His speaker’s fee, they offered apparently $150,000, but he refused that and they are giving him $200.000 to give an hour address?

BRUCE JACKSON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a State University?

BRUCE JACKSON: This is an unspeakable event as far as I am concerned. Amy, it is absurd. And I asked the person who is in charge of the speaker series, "Where is this money coming from and why is this being done?" And he said, "Well, the students wanted it." Well, we don’t have to do — that wasn’t a sufficient answer. So I said, "where is the money coming from?" And he said, "The student associations are paying part of it and the rest is going to come from tickets."

AMY GOODMAN: They must have a very large hall.

BRUCE JACKSON: Well, I figured out what they were selling tickets for and I said to him, "It looks to me like you are going to have to sell every seat there and most of them at top price to break even." Because remember it’s not just his $200.000, it’s all the stuff that goes with it. It costs a lot to run a big hall like that, to put on a big show like that. A lot of bodies are involved. He said, oh, it won’t be any State money, but this is one of the stories that we’re going to be keeping on in Buffalo report, because it really did seem scandalous.

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