Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 November 2019

Americans of colour find common cause with Palestinians

Americans of colour and Palestinians are building on a decades-old connection to create a modern solidarity movement

US activists spent a whirlwind 2 weeks travelling through the Palestinian territories. Erik Paul Howard
US activists spent a whirlwind 2 weeks travelling through the Palestinian territories. Erik Paul Howard

On a warm night in August, a group of American activists gathered in a small flat in Haifa, Israel, spreading out on sofas and sitting on the living room floor, anxious to hear about the experiences of Mahmoud Jreri, a Palestinian artist who created Palestine’s first successful hip-hop group.

The activists were people of colour engaged in their own struggles for liberation at home, who had travelled nearly 6,000 miles to visit Palestinian cities and learn about the plight of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

What these fifteen activists would soon realise were the shared struggles of the Palestinian community with people of colour in the US.

“When I was young, I watched a few videos of African American artists,” Mr Jreri told the group. “One of them that I still remember was Tupac’s Holler If Ya Hear Me.”

“I didn’t understand English back then, but the images talked to me because it was the same thing I was feeling in my neighbourhood. It’s a different country, there is different police and a different uniform, but it’s the same violence,” Mr Jreri continued. “You have people who can just kill you because of who you are.”

The activists visited checkpoints. Erik Paul Howard
The activists visited checkpoints. Erik Paul Howard

The aim of the group’s two-week journey was to build solidarity between oppressed minorities, people who face systematic hurdles such as mass incarceration and police violence in places as far apart as Detroit and Hebron.

Najwan Berekdar, a Palestinian from the Israeli city of Nazareth, has been helping to bring American delegations to meet with Palestinians for the past several years. She collaborates with the group Dream Defenders, a Florida-based activist group that aims to abolish prisons and promote multi-racial organising. The group invites American activists and artists of colour to attend the annual delegation, which has been running for four years.

Ms Berekdar leads the trip with the energy and discipline of a general, ushering the exhausted Americans from one meeting to the next and shouting words of encouragement during long bus rides between cities and past Israeli checkpoints.

“When I started running this delegation it was the first time I could link these common struggles and connect with other communities in the US that are facing settler colonialism and discrimination and racism,” Ms Berekdar said.

Mr Jreri, who has travelled extensively since the 1999 formation of his band DAM, noted that he had visited American cities like Baltimore and Detroit and noted that black people there often live in worse conditions than the Palestinians. But Palestinians living in cities like Jerusalem and Hebron are stopped and frisked regularly by the police, and hundreds are rounded up every night and put in prisons.

In 2016, Israel passed a new stop and frisk law which Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, says allows the police to conduct “arbitrary and invasive searches of Palestinians,” particularly in East Jerusalem.

In the US, black Americans are 5.9 times as likely as white adults to be imprisoned, non-profit for a fairer criminal justice system,Sentencing Project, found. In the West Bank, prisoners’ rights organisation Addameer estimates that 40 per cent of Palestinian men have been to prison. Many are held for long periods of time without charges, the charity claims.

“I see parallels between the way Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship are treated and black Americans. The laws are facially neutral but you’re treated differently,” said Marc Lamont Hill, an academic and media figure who famously received backlash for advocating for Palestinian rights in the US.

The group encounters an Israeli soldier. Erik Paul Howard
The group encounters an Israeli soldier. Erik Paul Howard

“Some of the things here remind me of the US in the 1950s and 1960s,” Mr Hill, who travels to Palestinian communities regularly, added.

The black-Palestinian solidarity movement has a storied history premised on the idea that systems of oppression share commonalities, and that solidarity can be a tool to strengthen liberation struggles across borders.

In 1964, Malcolm X, a civil rights leader and an opponent of Zionism, was one of the first African American leaders to meet with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation after it was founded that year.

Fifty years later, in 2014, protesters around the world drew connections between the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, where a policeman killed a black 18-year-old named Michael Brown, with the war in the Gaza strip. They attended protests and chanted for liberation from Ferguson to Gaza.

That same year, when an American man was acquitted of the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin, Palestinians passed around photos of the victim in a show of solidarity.

The 19 activists, funded by the Hassib Sabbagh Foundation, visited Palestinian communities at a time when the fate of the Palestinians as a whole hangs in the balance. Israel has held two inconclusive elections over the past six months and in an effort to garner political support from the right, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to permanently annex parts of the Palestinian-controlled West Bank if he were to form a government. Mr Netanyahu claims that he has the Trump administration’s blessing for this move.

Back in the US, President Trump has attempted to ban people from Muslim-majority countries from entering the US and appeared to give tacit support to Israel’s claim over East Jerusalem by moving Israel’s US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Domestically, he has been accused of insulting communities of colour by calling the city of Baltimore, where around 62 per cent of the population is black, a rat-infested city where “no human being would want to live.”

The trip may have highlighted the similarities of their oppression, but also informed the American visitors about the realities of living under a military occupation.

“Seeing Hebron, where this non-Palestinian, who is in his late teens, was telling people who are adults, who have lived there their whole lives, that they can’t go on the street, completely changed my understanding of this work,” said Jabari Mickles, an American activist who was among the delegates visiting Hebron, describing an interaction he witnessed between a young Israeli soldier and a Palestinian resident.

Ultimately, the delegates hope the trip will inform their work for social justice back home. Valencia Clay, an artist and educator based in Baltimore, says she hopes to “build the consciousness of her students.” Mr Mickles, a videographer, created a short film about what he witnessed in Hebron. Dream Defenders launched a social media campaign to raise awareness about the issues Palestinians face.

And the Red Nation, a left-wing indigenous group that sent one of its members on the delegation, released a statement calling Palestine “the moral barometer of indigenous North America.”

Rachel Gilmer, a member of the Dream Defenders, said that drawing parallels between the issues Palestinian and black communities face would help her work advocating for policy changes at home.

“We need to make a much more explicit connection between all of the money we spend on war and criminalisation abroad, and how there’s a direct connection between that and the lack of investment in our communities,” Ms Gilmer said. “I think it’s one thing to be in solidarity on an ideological level, but on a strategic level we need to think about how an internationalist perspective changes the way we think about targets.”

Updated: October 9, 2019 02:12 PM

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