When the terrorist attack hit the World Trade Center on the 11th of September, rescue workers and ordinary people reached out to help their fellow human beings without regard to race, nationality, or economic standing. They saved those who could be saved, and many died trying to save others.
The horrible events of 9/11 brought people together. But now there is an effort to destroy that unity. The statue planned to commemorate firefighters lost at the World Trade Center has generated much controversy and some thoughtful discussion.
Should the monument depict a team, made up of an African American, a Latino, and a white firefighter raising the U.S. flag, as proposed by the artists? Or should it show three white firefighters, as in the news photograph of the World Trade Center flag-raising which suggested it?
In our society this is a serious question, and its importance has been multiplied by the right wing’s use of the issue to open new attacks on equality, unity, and anti-racist ideas.
Radio talk shows are filled with their venom. This is another attempt to divide us into whites (who presumably sacrificed and suffered) vs. the “others” (immigrants, Blacks, Moslems, etc.), who are presumably dangerous and certainly no help.
It also leads directly to another serious question: Why are the percentages of African American (2.7 to 3.0) and Latino (3.0) firefighters in New York City so far behind their proportion of the city’s population and so far behind those of firefighters in other large U.S. cities?
Why have the numbers of Black and Latino firefighters even fallen below the levels of the 1970s? Why has every city administration allowed this corruption to infect a whole department, one that is often in the public eye?
First, the statue. The three firemen did not raise the flag to themselves nor does the monument honor them. They were honoring the 343 firefighters, including 12 who were Black and about 12 Latino, who lost their lives that day.
By extension, the statue memorializes all rescuers who were killed or put themselves at risk and the victims, men and women of practically every race, religion, and nationality, they were attempting to save.
Those who attack the proposed statue as not being historically accurate conveniently forget that most sculptured monuments try to represent ideas and emotions rather than depict “frozen in time” reality.
Statues of generals and kings, often for no good reason, are far from exact representations. Ellis Henican’s thoughtful column (Newsday, Jan. 18, ’02) on this controversy considered how journalism and art, both fruits of human creation, go by different rules. He is right when he says that, for the artist, “Reality is for building into higher levels of truth.”
But while he endorses the proposed statue for honoring all who gave their lives, he misses the most important part of the “higher truth.” He misses the need for justice.
Others say let the Fire Department go ahead and put up a statue of white-only firefighters. It is a fitting and historically accurate monument to the department’s failures to fight racism and end discrimination in hiring, they say. I cannot agree.
Such a monument may be used to justify racism rather than condemn it. What will be its message when the hiring pattern is corrected (and it will be) and the complexion of the Fire Department reflects that of New York City (and it will)? It will be as out of date as the statues of slave-owning Confederate generals. Let us build a monument to last and let it be a demand for justice.
Bill Davis is head of the Communist Party of New York State. He can be contacted at BDavisCPNY@aol.com.