Dr. Nadine Naber explores Black-Palestinian solidarity in this excerpt from her forthcoming article in the Critical Ethnic Studies Association journal, Volume 3, Issue 2.
In the summer 2014, as activists in Ferguson, Missouri, faced the military-grade weapons of four city and state police departments—tear gas, smoke bombs, stun grenades and tanks, Gazans were confronting Israel’s heavy artillery shelling, massive use of cannons, mortars, and half-ton to one-ton missiles.[ii] The canisters fired in both Gaza and Ferguson were U.S.-made.[iii] Worldwide, activists began making ideological and human connections, especially in Ferguson and Palestine. Ferguson protesters held up signs affirming their solidarity with Palestinians, while Palestinians issued Palestine solidarity statements, including advice on how to deal with tear gas.[iv]
Also following the summer of 2014, African American delegations to Palestine (or to Lebanon to work with Palestinians)—ongoing since the 1970s–became increasingly prominent.[v] In early 2015, members of the Dream Defenders (the Florida based youth movement that formed in the shadows of the killing of Trayvon Martin) and racial justice groups like the Black Youth Project and Black Lives Matter sent a delegation to Palestine. Indeed, growing solidarity mounted alongside an escalation in state violence in both places, culminating in the Black for Palestine Statement of August 18, 2015, signed by more than 1,000 Black activists, artists, scholars, students, and organizations reaffirming their “solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and commitment to the liberation of Palestine’s land and people.”[vi]
To many, these displays of solidarity appear new, prompting questions of what motivates the sense of connection between such seemingly diverse sites. The most common explanation has pointed to the parallel or similar struggles of Black people in the U.S. and Palestinians. Though separated by space and facing distinct political contexts, African Americans and Palestinians, it is argued, make natural allies given their shared experiences of oppression. To be sure, this narrative of similar struggle inspires solidarity, and Black and Palestinian movement activists have been among the most vocal drawing these explicit comparisons. Consider how residents of Ferguson have used the term “occupied” to describe their economically devastated, predominantly Black town run by a predominantly white, racist police force.[vii] Confronting a row of military-style tactical vehicles, protesters have explicitly evoked the language of similarity: “You gonna shoot us? Is this the Gaza Strip?”[viii]
Yet understanding Black-Palestinian solidarity has not been univocal, though other narratives have received far less attention. Other activists, in both sites, employ a broader global and historical lens to argue that beyond being merely similar, African Americans and Palestinians are, in fact, fighting a common enemy. According to Robin Kelly, many Black activists conceptualize their struggle beyond a [U.S.] nation-based framework of racial justice:
…the Dream Defenders, like some of the activists in Ferguson, are actually, I would dare say, radical organizations—meaning that they don’t see the problem as simply racial discrimination. They see it as structural inequality, they see it is an issue of global power, they see it as an issue of decolonization.[ix]
Among the conjoined forces of global power that structure Black and Palestinian oppression (in different ways and to different degrees) are the U.S.-Israeli alliance; U.S.-led empire building, militarism, and war; neo-liberal economics; and white supremacy. Dream Defender organizer Cherrell Brown argues, “our [Black and Palestinians’] oppressors are literally collaborating together, learning from one another—and as oppressed people we have to do the same.”[x] From this perspective, African Americans and Palestinians should look to one another not because their struggles share similarities, but because their struggles are conjoined—and have been so for some time. There is a growing recognition among activists in both sites that Black people and Palestinians have been hailed, in different ways and forms, into the violence and brutality of global power structures, and share a common enemy—even as that enemy works through different logics in different locations.
— Wage BEAUTY (@wagebeauty) January 5, 2015
The internationalist understanding within current Black solidarity with Palestine continues the legacy of 1960s radicalism.[xi] The political understanding of the 1960s—which has its roots, in turn, in the 1930s—recognizes African Americans as confronting internal colonialism and standing in solidarity with other colonized peoples, including Black South Africans, struggling against white settler regimes in the context of imperialism.[xii] Black struggle in the U.S. is located as sort of Third World within, highlighting the connections between racialized and classed ghettos and prisons in the U.S. and those struggling against colonialism, white supremacy, and imperialism in other parts of the world.[xiii]
While earlier strands of Black radicalism supported the idea of Zionism on the basis of its claim to strive for land and self-determination, by 1967, Black radicals began asserting solidarity with Palestinian people as an oppressed Third World nation, while questioning the image of Israeli vulnerability.[xiv] Israel’s capture of the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem caused Black activists, like those in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to view Palestinian struggles against Israel as similar to other decolonizing movements. Mounting Black solidarity with Palestine during this period was reflected in Black Power’s adoption of pro-Palestine resolutions in 1968, and published in the New York Times in 1970 titled, “An Appeal by Black Americans Against United States Support of the Zionist Government of Israel,” and the 1972 Black political convention in Gary, Indiana, where nearly every sector of Black political actors, from revolutionary nationalists to elected officials, agreed to a stance (albeit an extremely tense one) in support of self-determination for Palestine.[xv]
Black solidarity with Palestine emerged out of the Cold War context and the neo-colonial projects that destroyed anti-imperialist liberation movements in most of Africa and internationally.[xvi] These and other global alliances grew out of the analysis that the Cold War sidetracked liberation movements and processes for most African countries; that liberation movements were being co-opted by military and corporate elites, finance capital, and efforts to control resources and create the new imperialism. Within this internationalist frame, South Africa and Palestine were considered central sites of Western neo-imperialism and, as such, were identified as locations whose struggles were intrinsically connected to all forms of anticolonial critique.
Black solidarity with Palestine continued into the 1970’s. Cedric Johnson, author of Revolutionaries to Race Leaders explains that although it eventually lost its taken-for-granted status as a central component of African American political understanding, it has continued to resonate within activist circles and wherever anti-imperialist sentiment circulates[xvii]—providing the foundation for the resurgence of such solidarity today. Four developments in the relentless expansion and intensification of U.S. imperialism have helped revive Black-Palestinian solidarity today: (1) the increasing militarization of police in the U.S.; (2) the training of U.S. police in Israel; 3) the growth of the Zionist movement within the U.S. and its repression of resistance movements; and (4) the removal of key resources for survival from poor communities of color in the U.S. to fund the U.S. war machine. As Black activist and signatory of the Black for Palestine statement Khury Petersen-Smith puts it, “The U.S. and Israel make the connections for us…the same urban police departments that harass, brutalize and murder black folks here train with Israeli law enforcement—who oppress Palestinians….[meanwhile] funds for Israeli weapons are resources diverted from black neighborhoods in desperate need.”[xviii]
The framework of “sharing a common enemy” cannot blindly assume unity on all fronts, especially considering the important differences between Black and Palestinian struggles, historical contexts, and realities. Also, we must diligently defy situations whereby the very forces African American, Palestinian, and Arab activists are fighting to dismantle together, like white supremacy and capitalism, contribute to the ways sectors of Arab American communities have become complicit in the structures that normalize the exploitability and disposability of Black lives. Noteworthy, women of color and queer of color activists have been at the forefront of some of the most transformative solidarity work that has committed to ending the symptoms of racial capitalism both between and against our communities–from the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association’s dialogue on difficult issues between Black and Arab women in Seattle in 1994 to the Southwest Youth Collaborative’s (SWYC) work on Juvenile Justice and post-9/11 related war and racism in Chicago and the Black Lives Matter movement’s insistence on centering the lives of people marginalized within Black Liberation movements; the recent struggle against the Loyola University administration that brought together Black students, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the Middle East Student Association; and papers like Robyn Spencer’s intersectional feminist analysis of Palestinian and Black liberation presented at the American Studies Association annual meetings in 2015. There remains so much more work ahead, like challenging transactional models of solidarity (i.e. establishing Black-Palestinian solidarity in exchange for legitimizing the Palestinian struggle); broadening solidarity beyond the “already converted;” working intentionally through day-to-day relationship building towards an organic coalitional consciousness and life-long relationships as opposed to short-term victories; developing strategic, grassroots projects to eliminate anti-Black racism in the intimate spaces of neighborhoods and living rooms of all communities—including standing up when inter-racial marriages are banned among Arab Americans; showing up when any of us are colonized, sexually assaulted, intimidated, brutalized, or killed; and continuing to figure out the fine, but critical balance between struggling within and between our communities while expanding our joint struggles and solidarities.
Nadine Naber is a scholar-activist and associate professor in Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is author of the book Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism; co-editor of the books Race and Arab Americans; Arab and Arab American Feminisms; and the Color of Violence; and a member of the Rasmea Odeh Defense Committee.
[i] I am grateful to Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang, Kim Greenwell, and Michael Muñiz for their fabulous editorial work and to Kristian Davis Bailey, Cedric Johnson, Camille Odeh, Barbara Ransby, Robyn Spencer, Alice Kim and the Praxis Center for their engagements with these ideas.
[ii] Jonathan Cook, “Is Gaza a Testing Ground for Experimental Weapons?,” The Electronic Intifada, January 13, 2009, accessed February 1, 2016, https://electronicintifada.net/content/gaza-testing-ground-experimental-weapons/7969
[iii] Alex Kane, “Weapons Fired in Ferguson Come from Companies Supplying Israel, Bahrain and Egypt,” Mondoweiss, August 19, 2014, accessed February 1, 2016, http://mondoweiss.net/2014/08/ferguson-companies-supplying/; RT, “‘Less-than-Lethal’ Ammunition Makers Profiting Off Unrest from Ferguson to Israel,” RT, August 19, 2014, accessed February 1, 2016, https://www.rt.com/usa/181428-ammunition-tear-gas-ferguson/
[iv] blackpalestiniansolidarity.com, “About: Black-Palestinian Solidarity,” Black-Palestinian Solidarity, 2016, accessed February 1, 2016, http://www.blackpalestiniansolidarity.com/about.html.; Bassem Masri, “The Fascinating Story of How the Ferguson-Palestine Solidarity Movement Came Together,” Alternet, February 18, 2015, accessed February 1, 2016, http://www.alternet.org/activism/frontline-ferguson-protester-and-palestinian-american-bassem-masri-how-ferguson2palestine.; Robin D.G. Kelley, “Another Freedom Summer,” Journal of Palestine Studies 44, no. 1 (2014): 29–41.
[v] According to Keith Feldman, “there was a flurry of delegations (mostly to Lebanon to visit PLO and refugee camps) in the summer/fall of 1979/80… the organization, the Arab American University Graduates (AAUG) supported at least one of these trips (Feldman, personal communication, 2016). Also see Alex Lubin’s discussion on Huey Newton and Malcolm’ X’s trips to the region. 2015. Geographies of Liberation. University of North Carolina Press.
[vi]blackpalestiniansolidarity.com, “About: Black-Palestinian Solidarity.”; blackforpalestine.com, “2015 Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine,” Black Solidarity with Palestine, 2015, http://www.blackforpalestine.com/read-the-statement.html.
[vii] Heike Schotten, “Analysis: Racism and Rhetoric from Ferguson to Palestine,” Ma’an News Agency, January 22, 2015, accessed February 1, 2016, http://www.maannews.com/Content.aspx?id=755659.
[viii] Rania Khalek, “Israel-Trained Police ‘occupy’ Missouri after Killing of Black Youth,” The Electronic Intifada, August 15, 2014, accessed February 1, 2016, https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/rania-khalek/israel-trained-police-occupy-missouri-after-killing-black-youth.; mattdpearce, week of August 17, 2014 “Cops warn the crowd. The photog’s gas mask comes out. Someone is chanting “Gaza Strip.” #Ferguson” accessed February 1, 2016, https://www.instagram.com/p/rn68uHEQUM/.
[ix] Kane, Alex. “The Growing Ties between Black Lives Matter and Palestine. http://mondoweiss.net/2015/01/between-blacklivesmatter-palestine/
[x] Bailey, “Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter & Ferguson Reps.”
[xi] Kelley, “Another Freedom Summer.”; See Carl C. Chancellor, “How #BlackLivesMatter Deeply Connects to Black Power Movement,” USA Today, February 1, 2016, accessed February 2, 2016. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/02/01/black-lives-matter-black-power-movement/78991894/. Especially note Patrisse Cullors’ discussion.
[xii] Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2002). Cedric Johnson, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).; Keith P. Feldman, A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
[xiii] Feldman, A Shadow over Palestine; Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).
[xiv] Kelley, Freedom Dreams; Johnson, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders. Feldman, A Shadow over Palestine.
[xv] Johnson, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders.; Kane, “The Growing Ties between #BlackLivesMatter and Palestine.”
[xvi] Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, “Third World Round-up: The Palestine Problem: Test Your Knowledge,” SNCC Newsletter 1.2 (July-August 1967), pp. 5–6.; Kelley, “Another Freedom Summer.” Keith P. Feldman, “Representing Permanent War: Black Power’s Palestine and the End(s) of Civil Rights,” New Centennial Review 8, no. 2 (Fall 2008), pp. 210–21.
[xvii] Cedric Johnson, personal communication, 2015. Also see Johnson (2007).
[xviii] David Palumbo-Liu, “Black Activists Send Clear Message to Palestinians: ‘Now Is the Time for Palestinian Liberation, Just as Now is the Time for Our Own in the United States,” Salon, August 18, 2015, accessed February 1, 2016, http://www.salon.com/2015/08/18/black_activists_send_clear_message_to_palestinians_now_is_the_time_for_palestinian