At a high school near Ground Zero, the attacks sent the student body president and vice-president on very different life paths
Left: Jukay Hsu (courtesy of Coalition for Queens); right: Himanshu Suri (courtesy of Das Racist)
Just after the first tower fell, Stuyvesant's student body president, Jukay Hsu, and vice president, Himanshu Suri, fled Lower Manhattan, walking up the West Side Highway to escape the smoking wreckage just blocks from their school.
Ten years later, Hsu, 27, has returned home from a tour of duty in Iraq by way of Harvard ROTC. Suri, 26, now known by his handle "Heems," is the frontman for the critically worshiped rap group Das Racist, where he riffs on life as a brown-skinned American as part of a sui generis style he's dubbed "post-9/11."
The two didn't have much in common back in high school, either. But after the attacks, they were suddenly thrust together before 3,000 students, including myself, a junior at the time. Stuyvesant had been closed for two weeks while emergency workers, soldiers, and an alphabet soup of federal agents locked down the world's largest crime scene. At last, we were given a temporary space at Brooklyn Tech, where Hsu and Suri greeted us for our first school assembly since the attack.
When Hsu took the stage, he reassured the students that things would soon settle, offering us a quick primer on how to get around Brooklyn Tech. A longtime youth coordinator for the Red Cross in Queens, he had returned to Lower Manhattan in the days after the attacks to direct hundreds of volunteers as they set up shelter for visiting emergency workers and distributed donated supplies. "I remember feeling such a strong sense of community in New York," he said of the experience. "Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds really came together to try and help each other and I really saw that at the Red Cross."
For Suri, however, the previous two weeks had been spent in fear. Like many Stuyvesant students, he and Hsu, both come from immigrant families -- Suri's parents are Punjabi while Hsu was born in Taiwan. After the attack, Suri's mother and father each begged him to stay in the house. "They didn't think it was a safe time to go out," he recalled. "They'd say, 'Hey, be careful, they're killing those Indian kids out there.'" Things only worsened after Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona, was gunned down in a hate crime on September 15.
Following Hsu at the assembly, Suri delivered a raw and rambling speech about "not being an asshole to or beating up Muslims or those who may appear Muslim," as he later described it in an essay. His words made an impression: the school paper's 9/11 edition, published in the New York Times, mentioned it twice -- including a fact check of a false rumor he had picked up online about "a man [who] was beaten to death in public" and "two women in Flushing, Queens [who] were killed."
The pair's differences surfaced again when students returned in late October to Styuvesant's Lower Manhattan campus. For weeks thereafter, students were required to flash badges at military checkpoints to get inside, and some kids wore masks to filter out the burning chemical stench. Things took a more martial tone inside the school as well: the administration now demanded that students remain inside the building at all times and brought in new security officers to prevent groups from congregating in the halls.
The two student leaders pushed back against the changes, but clashed over their methods. Hsu suspected that the administration was exploiting the tragedy to impose its own long-desired policies, but he wanted to work within the system to patiently turn the tide. Suri, however, wanted to take to the streets. "He was much more about organizing and leading a revolt -- he'd say, 'This is bullshit!'" Hsu recalled. "We had had a lot of tension because of it."
Ten years later, neither is completely sure how 9/11 affected him. "I can't afford therapy," Suri jokes. The connections are clearer in his case: he credits the attacks with planting the seeds of racial consciousness that would eventually define his rap aesthetic. "It was the first time there was a feeling of pan-people-of-color for all the South Asian people, the Pakistani kids, the Indian kids," he said of that period. "It was the first time we made jokes about it amongst each other, referring to ourselves as brown, in order to cope."