From Ferguson to Palestine: The Resurgence of Black-Palestinian Solidarity
This article was originally published August 2016 in Palestine in America’s second annual print issue.
“When I See Them, I See Us” is the title and theme of the Black-Palestinian Solidarity video that came out last October. In the video, over 60 Black and Palestinian activists, artists and scholars present shared narratives of struggle and resilience between our quests for liberation.
The video features notable figures such as Angela Davis, Lauryn Hill, Omar Barghouti and ex-political prisoner Rasmea Odeh.
In organizing the video, we were careful to note that our struggles are not the same and that solidarity between us is not a given. Solidarity is a political choice we make, in part because of the magnitude of state violence against us.
U.S. and Israeli police, intelligence, and military officials have trained alongside each other since 9/11, with deadly results both in the U.S. and in Palestine. Corporations like G4S maintain for-profit prisons in the U.S. and South Africa, while providing services for Israeli prisons that illegally hold Palestinians beyond their national borders.
But beyond these material connections, our video was inspired by the resurgence of activity between our struggles that emerged in summer 2014, during the brutal Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip and the uprising in Ferguson following the police killing of Mike Brown.
As military tanks occupied the streets of Ferguson, and a community facing decades of state violence rose up to face tear gas and rubber bullets, Palestinians did one of the simplest and most meaningful acts: they were among the first to say ‘We are on your side.’
Without question or qualification, Palestinian activists in St. Louis joined protesters at the police station in Ferguson as a community under siege began to rise up.Palestinians facing violent repression thousands of miles away offered advice on how to deal with the bullets and gas to a community that many in the U.S. watched with silence and skepticism.
As a result of this, an organic conversation evolved between two people facing immense and connected amounts of state violence in different parts of the globe. Since then, Black-Palestinian solidarity has taken on a life of its own, advancing awareness of global struggles against colonialism, militarism, and racism.
Initially, these developments came in the form of solidarity statements from Palestinians in Palestine, the U.S., and the broader diaspora. A week after Mike Brown was killed, 100 Palestinians and a dozen Palestinian organizations released a statement expressing solidarity with the people of Ferguson.
“We recognize the disregard and disrespect for black bodies and black life endemic to the supremacist system that rules the land with wanton brutality. Your struggles through the ages have been an inspiration to us as we fight our own battles for basic human dignities,” the statement read.
These sentiments were echoed in separate statements by Samidoun—the Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, as well as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Palestinians continued to offer letters of support following protests in New York and Baltimore for Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, Jr.
Two of the biggest highlights of this period came when Black and Palestinian people met each other on the ground in the sites of their respective struggles.
In November 2014, a group of ten Palestinian students from Birzeit University in the West Bank visited Ferguson and St. Louis. The students were part of the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit and were in the U.S. for a two-week speaking tour about their experiences as students living under Israeli occupation . We began the tour with a two-day orientation in St. Louis to allow the students to meet with movement participants in the city.
The students’ first day in the U.S. was the one-month anniversary of the police killing of 18-year-old VonDerrit Myers, Jr.; together, we attended a march and vigil in memory of VonDerrit led by his family, friends and joined by local activist groups. After the vigil ended, the students got to meet Black student protesters and other people who had become active during the Ferguson uprising.
Shatha Hammad, an English Literature major at Birzeit, offered her reflections of the encounter in Ebony.
“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 better stand next to each other and do something,’” she said.
Jonathan Pulphus, a student at St. Louis University and member of the Ferguson-era group TribeX, said after meeting the students that he and his group saw Palestine in themselves.
“Thinking about their resilience, reflecting on their history, and thinking about the road ahead, I agreed and said they are ‘black’ and I am ‘Palestinian’. Tribe agreed to this: their struggle is our own,” he said.
The Birzeit students returned to Palestine eager to share what they had learned of the Black struggle in the U.S., setting up educational posters about Black revolutionary figures around campus, organizing lectures on racism, and holding a silent rally in solidarity with Black protesters.
Just a few weeks later, a predominantly Black delegation of activists had the opportunity to visit Palestine and reciprocate the solidarity. The January 2015 delegation was organized by the Dream Defenders, a racial justice group that formed in Florida in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s killing. The delegation was a pivotal experience in expanding the international focus of Black activists, including Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors.
Speaking to Ebony during the delegation, Cullors was unequivocal in the language she used.
“This is an apartheid state. We can’t deny that and if we do deny it we are a part of the Zionist violence. There are two different systems here in Occupied Palestine. Two completely different systems. Folks are unable to go to parts of their own country. Folks are barred from their own country,” Cullors said.
It was through our understanding the gravity of the situation on the ground that Khury Petersen-Smith and I wrote and circulated the Black4Palestine statement that 1,000 Black activists, artists, and scholars released in August 2015. Signatories included scholars as well known as Angela Davis and Cornel West, a dozen current political prisoners, including Mumia Abu Jamal, and rapper Talib Kweli. 50 organizations supported the statement, including the Dream Defenders and five of the most active groups in St. Louis and Ferguson.
Our statement stressed our support for the full liberation of Palestine and for the BDS call, most notably through ensuring the right of return for Palestinian refugees. 750,000 Palestinians were cleansed from their land during Israel’s founding in 1948, barred from returning, and comprise a majority of the global Palestinian population.
It is important to note that solidarity between our struggles has existed for decades—most consistently since the 1960s, when the Black Panther Party and Palestine Liberation Organization aligned with each other as part of the broader internationalist and anti-colonial politics of the era.
How this current chapter plays out remains to be seen. Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank are resisting a 68th year of dispossession and 49th year of occupation just as Black people continue to protest against incarceration and police violence and students challenge their institutions. Whatever happens next will occur in the same way that this current chapter started—through the organic developments of people struggling for liberation on the ground.