Prisoners Day observed worldwide, solidarity deepens following return of US delegation
A delegation of former Black Panthers and other U.S. political prisoners marked their return from Palestine last month with a statement released on Palestinian Prisoners Day, while people around the world showed their support for Palestinian prisoners with mass demonstrations.
Palestinians refuse to let their captured and abducted friends, comrades, and family members be forgotten or erased, this year’s Prisoners Day saw the Palestine solidarity movement and other movements against colonialism and state repression draw inspiration from the Palestinian people’s culture of resistance.
Marking the day in Palestine, families of prisoners currently on hunger strike, like Sami Janazreh and Adeeb Mafarjeh,demonstrated. Rallies in Gaza and the West Bank, included thousands of people who represented all major Palestinian political factions and organizations including the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society and civil society groups like the Palestinian Committee of Prisoners’ Affairs. On this year’s Prisoners Day, Palestinians in Israeli jails numbered over 7,000, many arrested in night time home raids whose targets often include the elderly andchildren.
Prisoners, including the longest serving Palestinian woman prisoner Lena Jarbouni and imprisoned Palestinian parliamentarian Khaleda Jarrar, released messages to the Palestinian people. Jarrar’s statement emphasized the importance of visible resistance, saying Israel aims to “suppress any voices of resistance to the occupation and erase its existence, but it will only escalate the struggle.” According to an email from Charlotte Kates, the coordinator for the international Palestinian prisoner solidarity organization Samidoun, there was also a demonstration in Balata refugee camp led by youth, after their university administration banned Prisoners Day activities on campus
Meanwhile, in London activists organized a circus style march alongside anti-austerity protests in solidarity with detained Palestinian circus instructor and performer Mohamed Abu Sakha. Across Europe, there were demonstrations in Toulouse and Maastricht, as well as a simultaneous demonstration and public art display in Vienna. Even some members of the European Union Parliament took part in a photo campaign and spoke out in favor of release of Palestinian prisoners.
In their call to action leading up to Prisoners Day, the international Samidoun network called on people worldwide to join in further actions targeting security conglomerate G4S, as the company is yet to honor its claim that it would pull out of the Israeli market. This call was met in the U.S. not only by the Samidoun’ New York City chapter, which demonstrated outside G4S’s New York office, but by student’s across the country participating in 2016’s Prison Divestment Week. The national week of action, which aims specifically to end tax subsidies for private prison corporations, launched on Palestinian Prisoners Day and featured a resource on its homepage exposing G4S’s involvement in incarceration worldwide.
On the Sunday of Prisoners Day itself, Samidoun’s New York chapter, the New York City Students for Justice in Palestine collective and the CUNY Prison Divestcampaign, came together for a speak out kicking off Prison Divestment week, demanding freedom for political prisoners, and highlighting the role of companies like G4S from Palestine to the US-Mexico border. At the event, a member of Samidoun discussed their work around the Palestinian activist assassinated in Bulgaria Omar Nayef Zayed and formerly hunger-striking journalist Mohammed al-Qeeq.
The action’s organizers articulated the links between ongoing struggles against colonialism,incarceration and the repression faced by those who stand up to these systems.
“We are constantly surveilled and [face] undercovers in our classrooms, undercovers in our workshops,” Carla Fernandez, a founding member of SJP at CUNY’s Brooklyn College, said at the speakout, referring to the controversial deployment of undercover NYPD officers to infiltrate Muslim campus organizations and repress organizing under dubious “counter-terrorism” grounds.
Within CUNY, SJP and Prison Divest there is a shared analysis of a colonial situation in Palestine with all too clear analogues in the U.S., and this translates into a strong working alliance, according to Nerdeen Kiswani, the chair of NYC SJP.
“We were the ones flyering for [Prison Divest]… CPD actually voted to add [Boycott Divestment and Sanctions] to the campaign,” Kiswani said in a phone interview.
She explained that while Zionists and other forces have tried to undermine the solidarity of oppressed groups in the U.S. with the Palestinian cause by attempting to isolate SJP participation and divide BDS demands from progressive coalitions, like Prison Divest and Million Student March, CPD remained “steadfast in what they believe in” and have stood by SJP.
Delegation Deepens Ties
Such “steadfast” solidarity was explicitly called for by the Prisoners Day statement released by the U.S. organizers, scholars, and former political prisoners who took part in the delegation to Palestine from March 24 to April 2. They invoked the Arabic word “sumud,” often defined as steadfastness, which according to the delegation’s statement means “standing one’s ground with dignity,” something they describe as “a form of resistance” in itself.
One member of the delegation, Laura Whitehorn, herself spent 15 years as a political prisoner in the U.S. for actions taken in solidarity with the Black liberation movement and victims of U.S. military aggression. In a phone interview, she explained that the particular spirit and culture of Palestinian resistance has influenced those in the U.S. with whom they have built solidarity. According to her, the delegation’s origins lay in education and organizing spurred by statements of solidarity from hunger striking Palestinian prisoners received in 2014 by the families of prisoners at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, who at the time were taking part in one of the largest hunger strikes in U.S. history.
The delegation’s trip aimed to build on this solidarity and “connect prisoner and labor movements across the borders,” with the hope to “apply the spirit of sumud to all our struggles for liberation within the United States.” To this end, the delegation presented a booklet to their hosts in Palestine featuring messages from currently incarcerated U.S. political prisoners including Herman Bell, Jalil Muntaqim, David Gilbert, members of the MOVE 9, and Mumia Abu Jamal. Whitehorn said the goal is to collect reciprocal statements directed to U.S. prisoners from liberation struggles, something that would “show that those who are repressed do not give up, instead they reach out to one another to express solidarity,” which according to her “is one of the most important human emotions and human activities there is.”
Whitehorn and other advocates for political prisoners see important political implications for the solidarities and understandings being built between the U.S. and Palestine. Activists in the US increasingly “recognize that just as mass incarceration criminalizes the whole Black community, so does the occupation and the theft of Palestine criminalize all Palestinians,” Whitehorn said. Supporting political prisoners challenges what she described as the myths of American and Israeli nonviolence and rule of law. She said for this reason the delegation remains committed to highlighting the continued existence of political prisoners in the U.S., and that the former political prisoners in the delegation themselves have promoted “a position that oppressed people have the right to fight for their freedom.”
In the communities that have grown around movements for prison reform and to free political prisoners, Whitehorn said there are traditions of solidarity that go back to the Black Panther Party’s international vision and resurged with expressions of solidarity shared between Palestinians and Ferguson demonstrators in 2014. She says she hopes the delegation will on the one hand lead to more “daily awareness and participation in BDS” in these communities, and that on the other will “elevate the awareness of the role that political prisoners in the United States still play in a movement for freedom and for human rights internationally.”
Such an awareness does appear to be growing among some activists of the current generation of youth and students. Kiswani described her collective as “anti-imperialists, as people who believe in self-determination not just for the Palestinian people, like in our points of unity, but also the Black nation and the Chicano nation and many other nations in the United States,” who therefore “undoubtedly support the right to freedom for all political prisoners in the United States, in the US, everywhere.”
According to Kiswani, NYC SJP has participated in the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home and actions for Black Panther political prisoner Herman Bell, as well as organizing for a National Student Day of Action to demand executive clemency for American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier. Students from Philadelphia, Colorado, Florida, and New Mexico also participated in the day of action.
A common thread among those taking action on this year’s Prisoners Day was the inherent political message in raising the issue of political prisoners, and a desire to use the issue to change understandings about the nature of both criminality and the state generally. Kiswani said her organization wants to break down the villainization of prisoners and those deemed criminals that prevails in a context of racist mass incarceration. She said Palestinians generally understand that those jailed and deemed criminal by Israel aren’t necessarily there because they’re bad people, “but because the Israeli system is unjust, because there’s an occupation,” and she wants people to be able to adopt a similar perspective with respect to the United States, citing conditions like the school to prison pipeline.
Furthermore, Kiswani agrees with Whitehorn that the political prisoners held by the U.S. and Israel are part of the same movement for liberation and human rights as the organizers themselves. In this area, Kiswani says U.S. activists can learn from “the resilience of the Palestinian people” in “not allowing the fact that Israel is able to physically capture someone” to let their message be silenced.
Learning from Palestine’s culture of resistance was also a conclusion reached by the delegation, who said they were “inspired by the Palestinian people’s respect for their political prisoners and fallen martyrs—reflected in images on public walls, in moments of silence, in daily conversations” and remarked “that every graduation ceremony” in occupied Palestine takes time to name the “students, faculty and staff martyred or imprisoned by Israel during the academic year.”
Such resistance culture comes from a context where Palestinians face violent erasure as both a culture and people. Popular observances like Prisoners Day challenge both the occupation and the ongoing Nakba by asserting the Palestinian people’s cultural and political vitality. Frequently, they have served as a source of learning and inspiration for anti-colonial movements that have struggled alongside and built links with the Palestinians over the generations. Today, mass incarceration and detention play a central role in the oppression of groups struggling for liberation inside the U.S., including Black, Chicanx, and immigrant communities. What if the people lost to abduction and imprisonment in every Black neighborhood in the U.S. were visible in murals and named at graduations and on mass occasions like Prisoners Day? Projects like this delegation and the efforts of youth around the world on Prisoners Day and in their ongoing work let us imagine such strategies. As a new generation of organizers and radicals are renewing their connections with the Palestinian struggle, participating in joint campaigns, and envisioning liberation, Palestine’s culture of resistance often serves as an important bridge.