1200 supporters bid farewell to Rasmea Odeh in Chicago
Saturday night more than 1,000 activists packed a Chicago union hall to honor and bid farewell to Palestinian icon Rasmea Odeh, as she faces deportation from the United States after a four year legal and political battle.
The event was promoted by Odeh’s allies with the hashtag #HonorRasmea, and it brought together her friends and colleagues from diverse social justice movements and Chicago’s Palestinian community, with a keynote address by professor and former political prisoner Angela Davis.
While Odeh, Davis, and other speakers emphasized continuing challenges and stiff repression faced by the movements represented in the Operating Engineers local hall that night, the strength and solidarity they called on the audience to celebrate was also apparent. Politically charged music and Palestinian baked goods from Orland Park’s Nablus Sweets filled the hall; Arab American Action Network’s Executive Director and emcee of the event Hatem Abudayyeh stated that the organizers hoped to balance the sadness of the occasion with a celebration of Odeh’s life and work.
In March, Odeh’s defense campaign announced she would accept a plea bargain deal under which she must leave the country, but avoids any fines or further prison time. Since her arrest by DHS in October 2013, Odeh has gone to court five times, facing charges of not disclosing conviction in an Israeli military court in 1970 when she acquired US citizenship in 2004. Her 2014 conviction was overturned by a federal appeals court in 2016, but with prosecutors subsequently issuing a new indictment showing their intention to characterize Odeh as a terrorist in the new political and government climate of the Trump administration, Odeh’s opted to plead, her legal team explained at the event.
The defense campaign is mobilizing for a final court date at which Odeh’s case will be transferred to ICE. At Saturday’s event, Odeh said she does not know where she will go after she is deported, but she and other speakers connected her upcoming departure with the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people from their country and their exile around the world. “Wherever we go,” Odeh said, “we will grow. We are like a powerful seed that grow anywhere, even in the desert.”
While resilience was a main theme, many of the speakers, including Davis, used the occasion to emphasize the challenges ahead for progressive movements. Davis said that it’s important to understand that the islamophobia, misogyny, and other ideologies that enabled the prosecution of Odeh are “deliberately cultivated ideologies” that those in power use to enable political repression, and pointed out that while Puerto Rican independence fighter Oscar Lopez Rivera was pardoned by the outgoing Obama administration and was able to attend Saturday’s event, other political prisoners like American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier remain in jail.
Davis was introduced by Frank Chapman, a leading organizer with the Chicago Alliance Against Racial and Political Repression, who claimed some discomfort doing so as he had looked up to Davis when she was a movement leader fighting state repression. Chapman got involved in the “Free Angela” campaign during his own imprisonment and radicalization in the 60s and early 70s, and said that we now face a similar “difficult time,” with the farewell event coming on the heels of the the news of the death of a counter-demonstrator at a white supremacist convergence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
A focus on the difficult present at Saturday’s farewell event did not diminish the hope for the future that many noted as sensible in the hall. Davis assured the crowd that Odeh would not only personally overcome deportation from the US but will continue to play a valuable role in the Palestinian struggle, citing the example of Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian-born communist who was also deported by the United States, only to escalate her internationalist and anti-colonialist organizing and writing.
But even more than the speeches, the gathering itself was an argument for the vitality of continued resistance after Odeh’s departure. Countless members of her community testified to her role as a mentor, under whose guidance the Palestinian and Arab communities at large have mobilized for their rights and dignity, and who has particularly empowered women and youth in the community.
And that crowd was filled with politically conscious and mobilized people of all ages, from children just coming into political awareness to Palestinian community organizers mentored by Odeh herself and scores of allies in social justice movements that have bloomed in the years since Odeh’s arrest. George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin only months before Odeh’s arrest, and the death of Mike Brown and the mass mobilizations that followed it wasn’t until a year later. But Saturday night, any of the scores of young people in attendance from groups like Assata’s Daughters, Black Youth Project, and Students for Justice in Palestine could have told you that solidarity with popular resistance movements and partisans thereof like Odeh is a basic assumption for a new generation of activists.