MONDAY, NOVEMBER 5, 2001
A bike messenger speaks:
You’re in our world now
On September 11 everything changed for all
Americans. As SF Chronicle columnist Chris Matthews observed, up
until last month America was a country of our own making. Even our
catastrophes, such as Vietnam and the Civil War, were of our own
making. “This was the first time something was done to us,” he
pointed out. His observation is like many that have been made
privately and publicly since the mass murders. These statements
reflect the anxiety of a new and sudden insecurity felt by many
There is something I must tell those Americans.
You’re in my world now.
Well over a month has passed since the attacks on
New York, the Pentagon, and Flight 93. Many people say these attacks
have united us as never before. I believe that’s true. But not
just for the reasons we’ve been told.
Before September 11 there were two Americas. One
was the America that is well known: wealthy and comfortable . . .
and secure. The America that recorded the longest-running economic
expansion of its history while increasing the gap between the poor
and the rich. The America that believes the corporatist way of life
has been approved by history.
That comfortable America is now insecure.
In the other America there was never any such
thing as security. The awareness that I may be brutally killed on
any day sits quietly in the back of my mind yet subtly pervades my
thoughts and even my actions.
I am a messenger. But much of what I say applies
to all of us in the other America. My insecurity is dramatically
revealed to me, but it is just as real — and usually more so —
for too many other citizens of this land. In recent days Americans
of Arab and Afghan descent have faced violence. Sikhs, Latinos, and
— most ironic — Native Americans face the same violent bigotry
because racists are too ignorant and lazy to distinguish among
brown-skinned people. And for too many African Americans things are
still as they were over 40 years ago, when Norman Mailer wrote that
“no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that
violence will not visit him.” In factories many Americans must
work at dangerous and dirty jobs in an atmosphere of lax safety
regulations. Gay Americans are assaulted every day in unprovoked
attacks all over America — even here in San Francisco. Girls and
women of all ages are raped.
No doubt many of these Americans remember that
they have never had the security that the comfortable Americans now
miss. Their stories must be heard by those who are — or were —
But today I will speak about only a few of us —
Before you dismiss us as being too few, remember
that we exercise influence far beyond our numbers. After all it only
takes one of us to anger a whole block or more of frustrated drivers
even when we move safely and legally. Before you dismiss us as being
too immature, know that we consider you to be the spoiled brats
causing our country’s transportation problems. And before you
dismiss us as being too arrogant, I ask you to look at yourselves.
Benjamin Franklin stated that those who are
willing to sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither.
Apparently that admonition doesn’t apply to the comfortable
America. The comfortable America wants security AND freedom . . .
along with wealth. And for too long the comfortable have gotten
these things without paying the bill.
The bill is overdue.
In recent days Americans are asking themselves why
a group of fanatics on the other side of the world hate us. To
answer that question, we’ve finally begun to examine our foreign
policies. While we’re at it, we’d better look at our policies
here at home. These policies will not explain why somebody over
there hates us, but they will explain something more important: why
we’re divided over here and therefore that much more vulnerable to
attack by those who hate us.
Each day each bicycle messenger must “share”
the road with thousands of vehicles that crowd our space, foul our
air, and threaten our lives. And that’s at the very least. By the
time a messenger reaches 40 — IF he reaches 40 — he’ll have
been to more wakes and funerals than most people in their 70s. The
terrorism that drivers inflict on the cycling minority certainly
should not be compared to the tragedies of September 11. But we must
face the fact that those two terrorisms are related and have helped
make all Americans vulnerable to our enemies. The terrorism caused
by excess and extreme driving ironically fuels the terrorism of bin
Laden and his ilk. Ever wonder where bin Laden’s wealth comes from
? Do the common sense. Bin Laden’s inheritance (estimated at $300
million) comes from his father’s construction contracts in the
Saudi OIL fields. Recent news stories report that one to two MILLION
dollars are sent to bin Laden each month from his donors in Saudi
Arabia alone. You can probably figure on similar amounts coming from
his admirers in other OIL states as well. And where do his followers
in Saudi Arabia and other OIL states get their money? From American
car drivers every time they fill up at the pump. The American
addiction to automobiles and OIL which has already caused so much
death and destruction literally fueled the attacks on September 11.
As Jesus Christ says, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”
The comfortable America regrets its lost security.
I ask you: Do adults deserve security or do children? If we deprive
children of security — and we have — by what right can any adult
claim security? Children of the other America are under attack from
the beginnings of their lives. In infancy, they have no guarantee of
health care. In youth, they grow up in a society that spends more on
prisons than on education. In school, they have less chance to learn
and more chance to be murdered. In divorce, they have no rights. And
it is a stark truth that in neglecting the problems of the other
America, those problems — like a cancer — have only grown and
have now breached the gates of the comfortable America. Columbine
showed us that. As the Biblical prophets emphatically warned: A
society that neglects its own children digs its own grave.
The comfortable America must now learn to live
with fear. This is a bitter truth, but it is better to live WITH
fear than to live IN fear. As Mark Twain observed, courage is the
mastery of fear, not the absence of it. We in the other America can
tell you something about living with fear. First of all, don’t
fear what MAY happen as much as what IS happening. Fear of what MAY
happen is the first excuse for taking away our Bill of Rights.
During World War II many feared what Japanese Americans MAY have
done and used this flimsy excuse to imprison the parents, sisters,
and children of some of the most heroic soldiers in our nation’s
The comfortable America that laments its lost
security must realize that it has endangered the other America as
well as its own children. Now the comfortable America is also
endangered. But as the Chinese teach us, danger is opportunity. The
dangers of September 11 united us as the comfortable America joined
the other America in learning once again that security in this life
will always be an illusion. The martyrs — I refuse to call them
mere victims — of September 11 were from the comfortable America
and the other America. Let their martyrdom unite us all in one
America. Now we must reinforce this unity to end the injustices
endured by the other America as well as to find the solution to
weaken the terrorist threat. Indeed, one will not happen without the
The image of September 11 that I’ll always
remember is not of two towers falling. It is of two people walking.
One is a white man in a business suit and the other is a black
woman. Both are in flight from the destruction. They are covered in
ashes and the man is grimacing. But they give me an impression of
determination, not defeat. And as they escape the danger, they are
holding each other’s hand.
In recent days “God Bless America” has been
getting a lot of play — and rightly so. This song was written by
Irving Berlin, an immigrant who rose from the slums of New York City
to become America’s favorite songwriter. This song inspired
Americans to overcome the hardships of the Great Depression and then
World War II. But there’s another inspiring song from that era
that we should be singing: “This land is your land, this land is
my land.” Woody Guthrie’s song still speaks to both America, in
the hope that finally at long last we will become one America.
Williams is a veteran San Francisco
bicycle messenger whose routes cover all neighborhoods in the city
and occasionally out of town. He is a member of ILWU Local 6. An
earlier version of this article appeared last month in “Cognition,”
the newsletter of the San Francisco Bike Messenger Association.