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."
He refined his "pan-brown" philosophy at Wesleyan, where he met fellow hip hop enthusiast Victor Vazquez at a dorm for students of color. Together with a Stuy classmate, Ashok Kondabolu, the three formed Das Racist. A novelty hit, "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell," struck Internet gold in 2008, but it was their surreal and hilarious take on race in the 21st century that eventually turned them into a critical sensation. They've been profiled everywhere from The New Yorker to GQ India, and Rolling Stone named their song "hahahaha jk?" one of the 50 best tracks of 2010. Anthems like "All Tan Everything," "Who's That? Brooown!" and "Puerto Rican Cousins" riff on the same themes that have fascinated Suri since high school, including Americans' inability to distinguish between different ethnic groups.
From the outside, it's hard not to read into Hsu's career choice as well -- Army officers with both a Stuyvesant diploma and Harvard degree aren't exactly a dime a dozen -- but he downplays the connection to 9/11. He developed a passion for development as an undergraduate, but ultimately decided to enter the Army over pursuing a Ph.D. in economics. In 2008, he was shipped to Iraq to lead a rifle platoon in the Sunni triangle. After a few months of patrols and raids, his battalion commander took note of his interest in local government and tasked him with leading development projects for an area roughly the size of Delaware. His proudest achievement was helping launch the region's first local radio station.
"At the time there was no sub-national media outlet in our province, which is crazy -- it was like New York not having any print media or TV," he recalled. "A lot of the residents obviously wanted to see what was going on in local government and we though that this was a good way to do that."
The project in Iraq's Salah ad-Din province -- birthplace of Saddam Hussein -- bore more than a passing resemblance to what Hsu and Suri both consider their biggest accomplishment during their years at Stuyvesant: a student TV news program to keep kids informed about their school government.
Things truly came full circle earlier this year when Hsu returned home from active duty and reached out to Suri to reconnect. Initially, Hsu wanted to discuss his new project -- a plan to transform the Willets Point area around Shea Stadium into the site for a high-tech campus. City Council members in the borough have been enamored with the idea, and he's founded a nonprofit to promote his dream full time, Coalition for Queens. He hoped that Suri, a lifelong Queens resident, might have some advice on reaching out to community leaders.
Last month, the two began working on another joint project: a candlelight vigil to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 for Stuyvesant students who were in class that day. Suri says his high school experience has been on his mind more than usual lately. The death of Osama Bin Laden brought back painful memories of seeing a classmate in a hijab taunted on the day of the attacks and inspired him to pen an essay on the topic for AlterNet.org. The art for Das Racist's latest single, "Michael Jackson," depicts a silhouetted jet headed towards two buildings, a pair of explosions, and a lit bomb. Suri even has a tattoo of a plane on his arm, in part as a reminder of 9/11.
Returning to school grounds proved difficult, however. Hsu wanted to make sure they had the proper permits for their gathering, but their old principal, Stanely Teitel, said there were too many logistical problems and that they'd have to pay to use the space. "It's been frustrating," Hsu said. "I'd think he would understand why students would want to be there."
Suri suggested ignoring city and school authorities entirely. "My opinion is let's just do this and get together," he said. "If we get kicked out, whatever, we'll go to the next spot."
The conflict caught the attention of the local press, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer managed to broker a deal with local officials to hold the event in Stuyvesant's auditorium.
Teitel, for his part, never understood what the big fuss was all about.
"They think because they were here they can just come in, but they don't have rights," he told local blog Gothamist. "Why would they want to relive that day? I certainly don't want to relive that day."