Standing for solidarity from Gaza to Ferguson

April 28, 2016

Eric Ruder reports on an ongoing tour seeking to forge ties of solidarity and struggle between the Black and Palestinian liberation movements.

HUNDREDS OF people attended five April meetings of Toward Justice: The Black/Palestine Solidarity Tour, turning out to events in Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City to hear an impressive lineup of speakers make the case for unity and struggle.

The tour grew out of the 2015 Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine, which was co-authored by Khury Petersen-Smith, a speaker at each of the tour stops, and Kristian Davis Bailey.

The activists behind the organizing of the tour decided it was urgent to bring together local organizations and activists to discuss collaboration among grassroots organizations precisely because some on the left question the strategy of solidarity, arguing that unity invariably leads to co-optation, marginalization or subordination of one cause in favor of another.

"The question of Black-Palestine solidarity excited people and opened the door to questions around solidarity in general: between immigrants and people born here, between white folks and people of color, and of the whole working class around the world," said Petersen-Smith as he explained the motivations for the 2015 solidarity statement, as well as the tour.

Speakers at the solidarity event at Columbia: left to right, former Black Panther Aaron Dixon, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine member Jannine Salman, and tour co-organizer Khury Petersen-Smith
Speakers at the solidarity event at Columbia: left to right, former Black Panther Aaron Dixon, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine member Jannine Salman, and tour co-organizer Khury Petersen-Smith

"Solidarity is both attractive to people and contested in the movement. So it was important to have a space where we could talk about the fact that it is possible, and strategize for how to build it."

Speakers included Aaron Dixon, a co-founder of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party; Boots Riley, lead vocalist for The Coup and a lifelong revolutionary; Palestinian poet and activist Remi Kenazi; Petersen-Smith, a member of the International Socialist Organization as well as co-author of the earlier solidarity statement; Palestinian-Syrian activist and socialist Wael Elasady; and Majd Quran and Jannine Salman, members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Stanford University and Columbia University, respectively.

AT THE tour stop in Palo Alto, California, on the campus of Stanford University, Boots Riley summarized some of the basic challenges facing anyone interested in trying to challenge injustice:

This society is all about taking a lot of large problems and making us think they are individual. We are told you better figure out what classes you are going to take in college so you can get a job. You better figure out what tie you're going to wear to that interview. You better figure out how to not be homeless because obviously the folks who are homeless made some bad decisions. All of our problems are individualized as a way to keep us from looking at the bigger picture.

Similarly with struggles. There's always conversations going on--not just between Black and Palestinian, but everyone. The Black struggle should be separate from the Asian struggle, and what does that have to do with Latinos? And there are folks in each of those groups that will have compelling arguments about how different everyone is. There are differences--obviously. But this both serves and comes out of a lack of analysis.

That analysis is not something that you're just born with, but we've engaged in many struggles and been afraid to put out this analysis for fear of not honoring that particular struggle. But if we're not putting out an analysis of how this system works, it's hard for someone to see, for example, why education isn't really the key to fixing the economic problems of the world. We get inundated with the details of how poverty works, so we're not able to see the bigger picture...

Similarly, we realize that those in power under capitalism rely on this same [fragmentation on our side]. So we need to start looking at ways to unite, as opposed to reasons why we should be working separately from each other. That's the key when we talk about struggles against racism that have turned more radical. It's been in these situations where you start seeing radical transformations being attempted all over the world, and people start seeing the need for solidarity.

Speaking in Oakland, Aaron Dixon explained how the Black Panther Party sought to forge ties of solidarity to other organizations and struggles:

Huey P. Newton, the leader of the Black Panther Party, made the statement that the police departments occupy our communities like troops occupy foreign territory. That is the platform on which the Black Panther Party moved forward in creating our liberation movement. We understood that we were being occupied just like Palestine was being occupied.

A lot of people don't realize that the Black Panther Party and the Palestinian liberation movement began right around the same time. And in the Black Panther newspaper, we had an international section, and that's how most people in the Black community learned about what was happening in Palestine--through our newspaper.

We were taught in the party that power is the ability to define phenomena and make it act in the desired manner. That meant that whoever controlled the message, whoever controlled the media, whoever was able to define what was happening in the community had the power.

That's why it was so important for us to have our newspaper, and at one point, we had a circulation of 250,000. And every member had to go out and sell 100 papers every day, because we understood that we had to let the people in the community know what was really happening.

ALSO SPEAKING in Oakland, Wael Elasady explained how the law-and-order rhetoric directed against the civil rights movement some 45 years ago also served as the foundation for the demonization of national liberation movements as nothing more than terrorism.

The U.S.-Israel relationship gets forged in the 1970s as partners in counterrevolution against what was a global uptick in struggle. The counterrevolutionary offensive and violence against national liberation movements, like the Palestinian movement, had its counterpart domestically with the attacks in the U.S. against the Black liberation movement. It's interesting to read what U.S. leaders were saying at the time. They didn't see these as two separate attacks, but as part of one and the same effort.

A lot of people are familiar with the way in which they justified the attack on the Black liberation struggle, as Michelle Alexander explained, by using law-and-order language. They couldn't be outright racists anymore, so they sought to criminalize the Black population.

But this was actually done as part and parcel of an attack on anticolonial struggles. So at a lecture at Kansas State University in 1970, Nixon condemned the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)...asserting that the PLO was part of a wider wave of global radicalism plaguing societies around the world.

Nixon said the PLO's actions had sent "shock waves of alarm to the spreading disease of violence and terror and its use as a political tactic." He went on: "America at its best has stood steadfastly for the rule of law among nations. But we cannot stand successfully for the rule of law abroad unless we respect the rule of law at home in the United States."

So this law-and-order framework was both a domestic framework, but also an international framework used against a lot of national liberation struggles as well. This framework led to mass incarceration and professionalization of police in the U.S., and as a policy, it was carried out internationally and increased the coordination of the intelligence agencies of various allied Western states. As a result, national liberation struggles were no longer referred to as national liberation movements but simply as terrorist movements.

So two of the defining characteristics of our neoliberal period--the New Jim Crow and the war on terror--come out of this very crucial moment in history.

AN ENTHUSIASTIC and multiracial crowd of more than 100 attended the tour stop at Columbia University in New York City on April 21. The event was especially well-timed since there are currently three ongoing efforts calling on Columbia to divest certain holdings--from Israeli apartheid, the prison-industrial complex and the fossil-fuel industry.

Activists at Columbia have consciously sought to find common ground and explain the way in which their struggles reinforce one another. Earlier this year, for example, Columbia's Black Students Organization issued a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle on campus in a post on its Facebook page:

As Black students at Columbia and Barnard, we have witnessed the many faces of oppression and we have heard it called by many names. We are aware that our own fight for humanity is not the only that occurs here. We acknowledge the many intersections that lie between the plight of indigenous people worldwide and that of Black communities within the Diaspora. Our struggle is one of many in the larger scheme of global systems of oppression.

Today, the Black Students' Organization stands in firm solidarity with Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace, and Columbia University Apartheid Divest during an active and ongoing struggle to end Columbia University's investment in Israeli Apartheid and, conversely, the mass mistreatment of Palestinians from Palestine to the United States and everywhere in between. We are all too familiar with the pain that accompanies living within an institution that invests in the demise of our own people.

The BSO condemns any co-optation of the Black liberation movement to promote settler-colonialism and a state that perpetuates apartheid. The decision to relate the experiences, past and present, of Black people in the United States in order to further the Zionist movement is, both, misinformed and a blatant subversion of the work that continues to be done in the name of true equity.

Petersen-Smith expanded on this idea during his speech:

When we talk about Black-Palestine solidarity, I don't mean between Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas--both of whom have been enthusiastic partners in Israeli apartheid. Obama, for example, has presided over lives of misery for Black people here, and he has pledged his unwavering support to arming and strengthening Israel, even as the occupation of Palestinian land and the denial of basic rights to Palestinian people grinds on.

I want to talk about the need for class solidarity. The Occupy Movement gave us the term the 99 Percent. We know that the 99 Percent cannot be free without Black liberation and Palestinian liberation.

As Elasady put it in his Oakland talk, activists have to grapple with the debate about solidarity as a strategy, given the formidable power of the U.S. and Israel:

We are up against the most powerful organized state and ruling class that the world has to offer, and they are willing to go to great lengths to stop these struggles that they see as challenging their power. This means that solidarity is central for us; we simply cannot win if we don't fight together.

And it's important to understand that solidarity is not automatic. We've been living under 30 years of neoliberal ideology, and what that ideology tells us every single day is that each one of us is on our own. You pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You can't rely on anyone else to go out there and fight for you. So we have to organize and argue for solidarity. It's not an automatic process, and it's something that we have to figure out how to win.

For those interested in further discussion of these issues, the Socialism 2016 conference in July in Chicago will feature a session on this topic featuring Petersen-Smith and Ali Abunimah, author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, among others. In the fall, the tour will likely continue. If you'd like to help organize a tour stop at your campus, union hall or other activist space or get more involved in Black-Palestine solidarity efforts, send a message via the website for the 2015 Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine.

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