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."