Ferguson to Palestine
The world’s attention again shines on Ferguson, MO, where Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American 18-year old was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. This time, the occasion is the grand jury’s failure to indict the officer. There will be no trial. There will be no opportunity for Brown’s family to defend their son’s reputation and see justice served. The grand jury’s decision and the chief prosecutor’s comportment confirm that the American judicial process is undergirded by a racial caste system that criminalizes the movement and actions of African-Americans as individuals and perpetuates the isolation and marginalization of black American communities.
When Michael Brown’s stepfather Louis Head responded to the grand jury’s decision with “Burn this bitch down!” he was not, as the mainstream press and politicians would have it, inciting a riot. When young blacks lit police cars and businesses on fire, they were not, as the powerful would have us believe, rioting, looting and otherwise acting like criminals. Their actions, as well as the actions of those who remained peaceful, were signs of rejection, rebellion and revolt against an (il)legal system that perpetuates (in)justice.
If black lives really mattered to that system, Michael Brown -- and two other victims of police brutality in St. Louis in the following two months, Kajieme Powell (23, killed by white police officers on August 19) and VonDerrit Myers, Jr. (18, killed by a white off-duty policeman on October 8) -- would not be the latest statistics in a well-established pattern of killing black men and refusing bring their murderers to justice. Powell’s shooting was caught on video -- it’s not for the faint of heart -- providing tangible evidence of the tendency of American police to resort to deadly force first rather than last.
I live less than half an hour from Ferguson. We Palestinians and our supporters in the greater St. Louis area have been active in the protest movement against the racial caste system ever since Brown was killed. Our activism in this area is very much part of our work to organize support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and challenge pro-Israel forces in our community since the 2008-2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza. As Bassem Masri, a Palestinian-American on the front lines of resistance to police brutality in the St. Louis area, puts it, “In Ferguson, I Am Reminded of Palestine.”
Michael Brown’s murder came in the midst of the latest Israeli assault on Gaza this past summer. It was not long before parallels like Masri’s were being drawn. The militarized police force in Ferguson fired tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators. Gazans tweeted advice on how to cope with tear gas. On my first trip to Ferguson, one day after the worst police violence, I was drawn to a black man waving the Palestinian flag. “Hey, that’s my flag,” I said. Right on cue, he responded, “This is our intifada!” During the first national march on Ferguson on August 30, our banner “Palestine Stands with Ferguson” got lots of attention from residents and supporters. We were deeply moved by our reception.
In the build-up to the October “weekend of resistance” when thousands came to march in St. Louis and Ferguson, Palestinians and supporters mobilized a 200-strong Palestinian contingent. We in the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) joined with the US Palestinian Community Network, Muslims for Ferguson, American Muslims for Palestine and the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle to host the contingent and help plan the gathering. Palestinian-American New York human rights activist Linda Sarsour spoke at a “War at Home, War Abroad” forum on the eve of the march. Suhad Khatib of PSC spoke at the main rally at Keener Plaza. Her assertion that “black liberation is liberation for all of us” drew thunderous applause from the crowd. Palestinian-American spoken word artist Remi Kanazi performed at an October 12 rally of religious leaders featuring Cornel West.
On November 7, a delegation of ten students from Birzeit University sponsored by National Students for Justice in Palestine began a two-week Right to Education tour of the US with a visit to St. Louis and Ferguson. One of the Palestinian students, Shatha Hammad, told Ebony about her experience at a vigil for VonDerrit Myers: “It was an experience that renewed something inside me. As a Palestinian I see people every day getting killed and all my rights are violated. I don’t have any rights, basically. For a moment there I got used to it. But at the vigil when I saw everything and heard the people talk, something woke up inside me and said ‘You suffer from that and these people suffer from that, so you’d better stand next to each other and do something.’”
Larry Fellows III, a member of the Don’t Shoot Coalition and a native St. Louisan, also commented on the oppression that connects both communities. “We’re being told by force that we aren’t supposed to question or challenge what we know isn’t legal treatment. The companies that are spending billions of dollars to suppress Palestinians are doing the same thing in the States; the tear gas and bullets used in Palestine are the same as those used in Ferguson.” Law student Dayo Olopade argues that the situation in Ferguson is one of occupation. “When officers have the right to control your motions, actions and fate, there is no other word,” Olopade writes. “When, on top of that, the occupiers look nothing like you and do not share a community with you, it is far worse.”
“Intersectionality” -- coordinating with allies among other social justice networks -- has progressively become central to our work at the PSC. The culmination of these efforts prior to our Ferguson activism came in the Dump Veolia campaign in which the PSC joined environmental, labor and local political campaigns to force municipal services giant Veolia to withdraw from a contract to redesign the city’s water management system. Veolia’s servicing of West Bank settlements became part on the conversation in a standing room-only hearing before the city council’s Public Utility Committee.
The Ferguson intifada is about more than Michael Brown’s murder and the grand jury’s decision not to indict. Both are the latest entries in a centuries-old ledger of legalized racial discrimination. The latest incarnation of this system is the subject of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, which traces the roots of criminalization of black movement, the mass incarceration of black men and the disenfranchisement of the prison population to the Reagan-era “war on drugs” (TED Talk version here).
What do the words “legal” and “the law” and “civility” and “justice” and “non-violence” mean in the context of system that perpetuates violence, arbitrary injustice and gross violations of the human rights of a particular group of people? How can these platitudes have any meaning within a system that tells black youth again and again that their lives don’t matter?
As the date of the grand jury’s decision in the case of Darren Wilson drew near, activists for Palestinian rights joined forces with the myriad groups organizing protests and the inevitable violence of the police response. Those efforts are underway, and intersectionality thrives, as I write these lines.