Two years ago, rockets were flying to and from Gaza as the IDF and Hamas engaged in a war. And an ocean away, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a series of protests – both violent and peaceful – across the city, against the backdrop of excessive use of force and police brutality against the African- American community.
As the war in Gaza raged and the streets of Ferguson burned, two movements – Black Lives Matter and the movement for Palestinian liberation – converged in a passionate fight against oppression. Posters emblazoned with phrases such as “From Ferguson to Palestine” were waved at both BLM and pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions protests.
For BLM, the Palestinian people are brothers (and sisters) in arms against a force that has done nothing but subjugate and oppress people of color, according to one of its leaders, Ash-Lee Henderson.
“None of us are free until all of us are free,” an impassioned Henderson said this week during a visit to east Jerusalem and the West Bank with other BLM activists to learn about the Palestinian experience.
“I think it’s been really beautiful to learn from our Palestinian comrades here and in the US,” said Henderson, a regional organizer for Project South, which does grassroots advocacy for low-income communities, “to see the connections that they make, because they also show up for black people consistently; because they make the ties between what’s happening to their people back home and what it feels to be dealing with gentrification and being forcibly displaced in black communities,” she said of the natural affinity between the two peoples.
BLM’s spokeswoman Shanelle Matthews added, “We are here to learn from our Palestinian sisters what the occupation means for them, what the similarities and differences are between the treatment of black people in America and the Palestinians living here under an imperialist regime.”
Matthews declined to reveal a list of whom they met with during their stay here, but in our conversation said she met with pro-Arab and Palestinian NGOs.
In charged dialogue with The Jerusalem Post, Henderson and three other BLM activists laid out their argument against Israel and what they see as its systematic oppression of the Palestinian people, and explained how that cause dovetails with their own experiences with police brutality.
Their visit, coincidentally, came a week before a high-level delegation of American law enforcement officers, which came to Israel to learn to combat terrorism.
For Henderson, the IDF and America’s police force are one and the same in the overuse of force. “I think that we also know that some of our varying police departments that are brutalizing black communities are trained by the IDF, so there’s a lot of connections contemporarily,” she said, echoing a controversial comparison made by the New York University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine last month.
BLM has successfully sparked a national conversation in America about police tactics. The images of unarmed African-Americans being shot down by police has made one thing very clear: Americans still have a lot of work to do when it comes to race.
The movement came into being in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, in the shooting death of African- American teen Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.
It now has over 30 chapters across the country and is a female-led social justice movement aimed at putting an end to police brutality and enforcing protection for the LGBT community.
On Tuesday, it released its first platform, titled “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice.” On a national level, its agenda calls for reparations for slavery, investing in the health, education and safety of black people, and economic justice, among others issues.
Its demands, though, extend far beyond America’s borders and touch upon the conflict here. In its foreign policy section, it calls for an end to US military aid to Israel, saying, “In addition, approximately $3 billion [per year] in US aid is allocated to Israel, a state that practices systematic discrimination and has maintained a military occupation of Palestine for decades.”
The platform does not mince words against Israel, and neither do its activists.
After the platform’s release, T’ruah, a nonprofit organization of rabbis from all streams of Judaism, expressed its concern.
“We applaud the leaders of Black Lives Matter for insisting that the United States meet its human rights obligations, and for concretizing these into specific policy recommendations,” it said in a statement.
“While we agree with many of the policy recommendations, we are extremely dismayed at the decision to refer to the Israeli occupation as genocide. We are committed to ending the occupation, which leads to daily human rights violations against Palestinians, and also compromises the safety of Israelis. Our work aims to build a just and secure future for both Israelis and Palestinians, both of whom deserve the same human rights protections as all people.”
Dumisani Washington, the director of the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel, also fired back, saying in a Facebook post: “The Jewish state of Israel has arguably done more good for Africa and people of African descent than any other nation in Israel’s brief 68-year modern history. “While African slavery, torture and even organ-harvesting are still happening in various parts of the Arab world, there is no other nation or territory mentioned in regards to its treatment of Black people in BLM’s divestment demands. Not one. But the notion of Israel itself is a questionable matter for BLM activists,” he added.
Rejecting the Zionist notion that Jews deserve their own state, Henderson argued: “I think that everybody deserves a right to live and walk in their full dignity. The challenge with Zionism... is that it is impossible to come to a place where people are already indigenous, displace them, and say that it’s okay for you to displace them, to terrorize them, to split up their families, to incarcerate them... for the sake of you having a state just for you own.”
She added that her opinions on that particular subject are her own and she doesn’t speak for the movement.
“I don’t think anyone’s arguing that everyone should be packaged up and moved away. I think what we’re saying is there needs to be a democratic process where Palestinians’ needs are centered, because they’re the ones that are under attack,” she said.
“I don’t think we can accept that for Zionism just because we know the long history and struggle of Jewish people. We need to recognize that if the Jewish people want to be free, then they need to free themselves from Zionism, too,” said Ahmad Abuznaid, an activist affiliated with Dream Defenders, a grassroots advocacy group for people of color.
“We’re looking to struggle with those left-leaning Jews that understand that in order for us to all be liberated... we need to be real about the issue. And settler colonialism is wrong, no matter who’s doing it,” he added.
BLM actively encourages the BDS movement, from which it sees implications for its own work in the US.
“We hope to take some of the same strategies and implement them in the United States,” Matthews said.
“We work off the black radical tradition and we work intergenerationally, and it’s like civil rights activists and organizers of civil rights past,” said Henderson, who’s been involved in an array of humanitarian causes. “They advise us, they support us, they heal us, they check us when we’re wrong.”
Right or wrong, these activists are determined to bring their brand of social justice to America and beyond.