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10 Lessons and Reflections on Racial Justice and Palestinian Solidarity

November 2015

Earlier this fall, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation held its 14th annual conference in the city of Atlanta, Georgia. About 400 people from some 93 member groups dedicated to Palestinian rights, including Grassroots International, gathered there to strategize about how best to advance our collective work for freedom, justice and equality.

Here are 10 reflections on the weekend:

  1. In hindsight I can’t think of a better way to have kicked off my participation in the US Campaign to End the Occupation’s 14th Annual conference than by visiting the King Center. It was so moving and so timely to be in the church where a powerful and tightly knit community raised up Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  2. The US Campaign’s conference this year was in Atlanta (a city with a powerful historic and present movement for Black lives), because of the need to work cross-sectionally—meaning across movements—and to bring the movement for Black lives and the movement for Palestinian liberation together. Check out this powerful video that Black movement leaders just put “When I See Them, I See Us.”
  3. After a rousing song by First Iconium’s gospel choir, Ruby Sales (a student organizer in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Alabama from 1963-1966) kicked off the conference talking about spirituals formerly sung by slaves. “They’re an expression,” she said, “not of religious faith—though they were that too—but they’re a way of talking back in a society that said black people were property…that relegates us in small spaces and in the putrid air of oppression.” Ruby sang, “I’ve got shoes, you’ve got shoes, all God’s children got shoes.” She went on to explain, “That’s saying: I’m a person just like you. I’m a person, too.”
  4. Racism continues to push Black people down into that space in the US, manifesting in the treatment of many Black men and women not as people, but as criminals. Slavery was replaced by Jim Crow, which was replaced by the so-called “war on drugs” that has pushed huge numbers of Black men and women in the US into prison at some point in their lives.
  5. Palestinians too are seen not as people: not as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, uncles and aunts, but as “terrorists.” Conference speakers pointed out that similar percentages of Palestinian men will enter Israel’s military prison system as the percentages of Black men who will enter prison in the US.
  6. “To work together we need to build the movement and go beyond ‘moments,’” said Nada Elia, a Palestinian woman raised in Lebanon from the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott. She explained that when Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, it coincided with the latter days fo the 51-day massive assault on Gaza by the Israeli military. There was a powerful moment when the call went up “from Gaza to Ferguson.” Nada suggested that there is now an opportunity for communities to take that “moment” to movement, and make the movement for Black Lives and the movement for the liberation of Palestine a united struggle.
  7. The movement for Black lives in the US is not new and the movement for Palestinian liberation isn’t new, and neither is solidarity and joint struggle between the two.From solidarity with Palestine from the Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the alignment of the struggle for South African freedom with Palestine, we have a lot to learn from looking back on that history. Bassem Tamimi, who has led a weekly protest in the Palestinian village Nabi Saleh and who welcomed the 2012 Dorothy Cotton Institute delegation (which including the late civil rights leader Vincent Harding) told the conference “you are the bridge we pass through for our dreams and hopes.”
  8. It’s become common to point out that the cops in Ferguson and elsewhere in the US are being trained by Israeli forces. That said, it’s critical to recognize that police in the US have not needed any training from Israel to brutalize Black and Brown people and communities– it has been going on since this country was founded. At the same time, the scope of US-Israeli partnership in militarization, security, imprisonment, and policing is truly dumbfounding. taking, literally giving more firepower behind institutionalized racism, and the industries that underwrite this partnership are making huge profits from selling their products all over the world. On the flipside of that military/economic partnership President Obama is pushing to bump up US aid to Israel from an astounding $30 Billion to an unconscionable $45 Billion.
  9. One of the more basic lessons of the weekend was for Palestine solidarity organizations looking to work cross-sectionally to recognize groups that are already confronting police brutality and the prison system in the US. Rather than necessarily starting new campaigns to confront police brutality and the prison system, what is more important and strategic is to reach out to and collaborate with communities of color who are already doing the work.
  10. White people at the conference shared lessons about being an ally, ensuring that the people directly impacted are at the center of leadership, and recognizing that they will not always be and should not always be decision-makers. Ruby Sales took it to the next level when she closed her comments by saying to white people “The empire promises you the world but traps you in the very small space of whiteness.”
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