The Fascinating Story of How the Ferguson-Palestine Solidarity Movement Came Together
Only recently, America imagined that it had entered the “post-racial” era. But with discourse on social injustice spreading across the country and forcing a discussion in the corporate media about everything from mass deportations to Islamophobia to police brutality, it is clear that phrase represented a pipe dream.
You only have to look to Ferguson to see why. This suburb of Saint Louis has become the epicenter of nationwide protests against hyper militarized police forces that target communities of color. And I have been there since the beginning, watching them unfold against a backdrop of police violence targeting the poor and people of color.
In one of the most amazing shows of solidarity, the people of Palestine and Ferguson are reaching out to each other because they are fighting a common system of injustice, control and racism.
I speak about this connection from personal experience. I am a Palestinian-American who has lived in both Jerusalem and in Ferguson. I have lived under the racist regimes of both cities and know first hand the sense of occupation that both populations experience on a daily basis.
The Ferguson protests have highlighted a racist system by kindling a worldwide conversation about police brutality, a conversation sparked by the execution of Mike Brown at the hands of an officer in the Ferguson Police Department. The police’s hard-handed reaction to protests made it inevitable that people around the globe would draw similarities between the people of Ferguson and the ongoing struggles of the people of Palestine. Both movements would have collided at some point.
But “Palestine 2 Ferguson” manifested itself from day one.
Linked Oppression, Linked Struggle
In August 2014, Palestinians reached out via Twitter with advice to protesters on how to protect themselves properly from chemical agents. These Palestinians were veterans of the weekly protests in occupied towns in the West Bank like Nabi Saleh and Bil’in. They had faced the teargas, rubber coated steel bullets and even live fire that the Israeli army used to crush unarmed demonstrations. They had served as lab rats as the Israelis tested weapons and methods of repression they would later export to American police departments. While Palestinians were tweeting out that advice and support, instructing Ferguson protesters on how to wash teargas residue from their eyes and how to make a gas mask from Hawaiian punch bottles, bombs were raining down on the Gaza Strip and demonstrators were cut down with live bullets at the Qalandiya checkpoint that separated Ramallah from Jerusalem. In one picture shared widely on social media, a resident of Bil’lin, Hamde Abu Rahme, held a sign reading, "The Palestinian people know what it means to be shot while unarmed because of your ethnicity." He concluded the sign with the hashtags #Ferguson and #Justice.
That was a very powerful statement of solidarity, and it showed that oppressed people could make alliances across oceans and heavily fortified borders in a joint struggle to achieve justice. Before August 9, the day Brown was killed, many Palestinians didn't know the struggles African Americans and other minorities faced in America, and many African Americans didn’t know much about Palestine. But in the assault against peaceful protesters following the murder of Mike Brown, the system made a huge mistake. It wound up uniting people from all across the world who were sick of violent police repression and the impunity that their oppressors enjoyed. More importantly, it exposed how America and Israel share values of ethnic cleansing and discrimination.
It is no coincidence that the United States of America and Israel claim to share certain values. Both nations are expert practitioners in ethnic cleansing and colonialism. In 1948, Israel stole Palestine from her natural inhabitants in a series of events in 1948 referred to as "al Nakba," which means “disaster,” "catastrophe, "or "cataclysm." With 750,000 indigenous Palestinians driven from their land and homes by Zionist militias, they scattered all across the world as refugees, with some fleeing north into Lebanon, some to Jordan, and some south to the Gaza Strip. After the founding of Israel in 1948, laws were passed preventing Palestinians from returning or reclaiming the property from which they fled. The descendants of those Palestinians are still waiting in refugee camps to this day - waiting for their right to return.
During this time, the first civil rights movement in the USA was just getting underway. The hundreds of years of enslavement and oppression of people of color exposed the hypocrisy of the United States. White supremacy (the idea that the white race is inherently superior and therefore entitled to legal and economic privilege) was a cancer within American culture. People of color were forced to use separate facilities, schools, and housing. Every aspect of American life was segregated by race, if not legally than through practices like residential redlining in northern cities. The civil rights movement ultimately succeeded in winning more freedoms for minorities. But this "freedom" was short lived. With every right they gave, the U.S. government figured out systematic ways to take them back.
In the United States, political supporters of the so-called war on drugs made blacks synonymous with criminals and thugs, justifying the mass incarceration of young men demonized in the media as “super predators.” In Palestine, indigenous people resisting their occupation were branded as “terrorists,” hell bent on Israel’s destruction. Palestinians are even demonized for simply being born; they are called “demographic threats” whose very existence threatens the racial purity of the Jewish state.
In both Saint Louis and Jerusalem, segregation is alive and well. Both areas are zones of occupation overseen by violent police departments enforcing regimes of racism. The main difference is that the United States is more careful about how it forces cruelty on people of color.
I’ve experienced the Ferguson to Palestine connection in visceral ways.
Walking down the street in Al Quds (Jerusalem), the smells of the bakeries and coffee shops fill the air. The unrelenting dry heat beats down on you and history is beneath every step. It’s breathtaking. Succumbing to that beauty makes it easy to forget you live under a brutal military occupation--at least for a little bit.
When I’m in Jerusalem, I feel how tense it is. I remember walking down the street minding my own business, watching a teenager kick around a soccer ball, doing tricks with it. Out of no where a military jeep stopped and threw this teenager in the back of the jeep. There was no question, no muss, no fuss--this was the the Israeli military’s version of Stop and Frisk. The same sort of thing happens here in Saint Louis on a daily basis, where the police stop people for no apparent reason, hauling them off to jail, splitting families apart to instill fear into a community. Both Israel and the police do this for a very specific reason: to force people into obedience.
There is a constant military presence in every Arab neighborhood. You can't enjoy the small pleasures of life without being reminded of it. At all times, Zionists are trying to dictate how the majority of Palestinians live. On our streets, within our neighborhoods, they relentlessly invade the privacy of every single Palestinian. They look at us like dogs that need to be beaten into obedience. And every action of theirs has a reaction. Israeli policies push people to the edge and when Palestinians react, they demonize them even more in order to implement more "security” measures. Does this sound familiar?
There is no real interaction between Jews and Arabs. Schools in Jerusalem are segregated. In the old city, there are separate quarters for Palestinians and Jews. Daily hate crimes and violence are perpetrated against Palestinians with little to no consequences for the Zionists who commit them. The goal is to keep Palestinians in a constant state of fear and paranoia, so that maybe one day we will leave.
In Ferguson, being caught in a neighborhood where you don’t “belong” raises immediate suspicion among the police. I have found myself wandering into neighborhoods I didn't “belong” in in both Jerusalem and in St. Louis. In both cases, I was harassed by racist authorities, who ask me what I am doing there and suggest that if I don’t leave, there will be consequences.
Invisible borders exist between separated communities. Your race determines if you are allowed to cross that border drawn along lines of fear, intimidation, and generations of violence and pain.
Now the task is clear: we must break down these borders together.
The Road Ahead: Black Liberation to Palestinian Liberation
On August 9th, we in Ferguson started a conversation about human rights and police brutality. I have made it my personal mission to inform as many people as I can about how the United States enables and supports oppression both here and abroad.
More than a conversation is taking place, though. Concrete links are being forged.
Front line Ferguson protesters recently traveled on a delegation to Palestine. Among them were members of Hands Up United, the Dream Defenders and more — groups that were integral to the demonstrations that broke out on August 9 in reaction to Mike Brown’s shooting. They took it upon themselves to go see these atrocities in Palestine with their own eyes.
I was excited that my friends were able to see what Palestinians have experienced for decades. They came back with an intense sense of purpose.
"There is no grey area in right or wrong. This is one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of human rights," Tef Poe said after returning from Palestine. Poe is an African-American hip-hop artist and co-founder of Hands Up United who has emerged as one of the most outspoken Ferguson activists. He added: “What's happening in Palestine is bloody murder and the Israeli settlers are guilty of building an empire on the bones of the Palestinians."
What Poe’s statements show is that we have created a collective voice where we amplify one another, a voice most prominent on social media. We have connected using hashtags such as #Palestine2Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter, #CommonOppressor and #BlackAndBrownAlianza. It has been a way to intersect struggles, raise awareness, and unite under the banner of humanity.
The struggle against police brutality has extended into the year 2015. But the lesson of the hot summer of 2014 is that we can build our ranks with solidarity our natural allies -- people who have experienced racism and occupation beneath the cover of a fake democracy. For, Palestinian freedom and Black Liberation have become inseparable.