“When I see them, I see us.”
Thus opens the October 14 “Black-Palestinian Solidarity” video. The short film, produced by Noura Erakat, features 60 Black and Palestinian artists, activists, and scholars, including Lauryn Hill, Danny Glover, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Ahmad Abuznaid, Rasmeah Odeh, Donna Murch, Diana Buttu, dream hampton, Annemarie Jacir, Rashid Khalidi, Sherene Seikaly, Suhad Khatib, and Kristian Davis Bailey. Umi Selah, Dina Omar, Samantha Masters, and Remi Kanazi narrate a script written by Kanazi, Mari Morales-Williams, and Kristian Davis Bailey. The video’s sponsoring organizations are young, networked, and dynamic: Dream Defenders, Black Youth Project 100, DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival, Arab Studies Institute –Quilting Point Productions, and Jewish Voice for Peace.
“We choose to build with one another in a shoulder-to-shoulder struggle against state-sanctioned violence,” reads the video’s accompanying statement. “A violence that is manifest in the speed of bullets and batons and tear gas that pierce our bodies. One that is latent in the edifice of law and concrete that work together to, physically and figuratively, cage us.” The organizing that created the conditions for the video emerged from large-scale responses to the very specific historical conjunction between Israel’s 51-day assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014 and the state-sanctioned killings of Black men, women, and trans folk that coalesced after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO last August. The video exemplifies the growth of a form of cultural activism that renders visceral an interwoven approach to contemporary joint struggle. And while it may seem surprising to some, this flourishing renews long-standing practices that both draw on and innovate creative conjugations of transnational solidarity.
The linkage of Ferguson and Palestine reveals a number of different dimensions that warrant further elaboration. It reveals an exhaustion with the violent underside of Black inclusion in the U.S. national polity, which conscripts Blackness into already-existing operations of capitalist democracy long predicated on the curtailment of Black life. At the same time, it reveals how Palestine becomes an expression of exhaustion with the seemingly permanent deferral of substantive forms of settler decolonization, even as it gives voice to autonomous expressions of Palestinian survival, resistance, and liberation beyond those allowed by U.S. imperial culture.
As the June 2015 Jadaliyya roundtable on Anti-Blackness and Black-Palestinian Solidarity underscores, Blackness and Palestinian-ness are not single, undifferentiated or homologous experiences—and neither are the systems of brutality that seek to delineate, hold captive, or extinguish their respective aspirations for the future. When Palestinian suffering only becomes comprehensible in the U.S. through its relation to Black suffering, it has the potential to obscure as much as to illuminate. It obscures the particular overlapping structures of anti-Blackness in the United States, and, in different ways, in Israel and Palestine. Israel’s anti-Blackness is belied by its structural animus toward African asylum seekers and African Jews alike; while Palestinians’ casual anti-Black animus organizes the mundane deployment of terms like “abeed” to describe African-descended peoples. Further, framing Palestinian suffering only through its relation to Black suffering unwittingly reproduces Zionism’s long-standing practice of speaking on behalf of Palestinians and translating Palestinian claims into other purportedly more comprehensible terms. Doing so precludes us from seeing how organizing toward settler decolonization demands what Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang have called an ethic of incommensurability, one which recognizes that privileging the state as the ultimate arbiter of justice is incommensurate with investments in indigenous futures that seek to undo the violence of the state form itself.
The hazards of incommensurability are not so much an obstacle to Black-Palestinian relationality as their pressing condition of possibility. The symbolic and material entanglements of Israel, the United States, and Palestine provide an ample baseline for the rich expression of such a relation. As Robin D. G. Kelley recently elaborated in the Journal of Palestine Studies, the particularities of these relationships are being worked out dialogically, in specific contexts, as joint struggles begin to flourish.
The October 14 video was released on the heels of the Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine, an August 2015 open letter signed by over 1,000 Black activists, artists, scholars, students, and organizations. Though the video and the letter were not coordinated, they reflect a synergy within the movement. The letter was offered primarily to Palestinians, “whose suffering does not go unnoticed and whose resistance and resilience under racism and colonialism inspires us.” In no uncertain terms, the statement bears witness to Israel’s devastating 2014 assault on Gaza, and situates that assault as of a piece with the cruelty faced by Palestinians inside 1948 Israel, the ongoing colonization of the West Bank, and the continued dispossession of seven million Palestinian refugees. Foregrounding shared Israeli/US practices of imprisonment, and the shared training of police and military forces, the signatories endorse the 2005 call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. They also join targeted action against the world’s largest private security company, the UK-based G4S, which employs some 657,000 people in over 125 countries. The G4S subsidiary in Israel contracts with Israeli prisons and provides security services to businesses in illegal West Bank settlements. The American G4S subsidiary is the largest private security organization in the U.S., contracting with the Department of Homeland Security to provide security for immigrant detention procedures.
Notably, the August 2015 statement is one of a “reaffirmed solidarity.” In his comments about its origins, Kristian Davis Bailey describes how the statement emerged from a “tradition of Black internationalism within the radical segment of our liberation struggle.” The organizers of the statement highlight a particular example of this tradition: an advertisement taken out in the New York Times at the beginning of November 1970, by the fleeting Committee of Black Americans for Truth about the Middle-East (COBATAME). The 1970 statement underscores “complete solidarity with our Palestinian brothers and sisters, who like us, are struggling for self-determination and an end to racist oppression.” It goes on to figure the Palestinian Revolution as the “vanguard of the Arab Revolution and [as] part of the anti-colonial revolution which is going on in places such as Vietnam, Mozambique, Angola, Brazil, Laos, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.” Among its 55 signatories are Francis Beal of the Third World Women’s Alliance, and the self-described “lecturer and writer,” Grace Lee Boggs. A number of signatories from the COBATAME statement signed onto the 2015 letter.
Statements such as these were part of what I call “Black Power’s Palestine.” In the immediate aftermath of the June 1967 War, prominent Black organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party framed Black anti-colonial struggles using the Palestinian formulation of Zionism as a settler colonial project, and Palestinian struggles as a resonant mode of decolonization. They clarified and contested the saturation of racial violence that is endemic to U.S. settler democracy and was intensified by the fierce repression of anticolonial movements in the United States and abroad. In framing the late 1960s as marked by what SNCC called a “prolonged and permanent state of war,” Black Power’s Palestine foregrounded how juridical investments in state-centered reform did little to curtail, and sometimes exacerbated, racial violence.
Black Power’s Palestine made claims on what was knowable, and how, about Palestine in the United States. Such claims were produced in loose (and sometimes uncited) consultation with Arab and Arab-American organizations. SNCC’s August 1967 statement on the “Palestine Problem” repurposed a fact sheet produced by the Beirut-based Palestine Research Center. Throughout the late 1960s and intensified in the 1970s, the Black Panther Party Intercommunal News Service routinely carried articles by and about Fatah and PFLP spokesmen. The paper reported on Black September in 1970 and the October 1973 War. In 1974, the paper published the Party’s position on the Middle East. In the fall of 1975, the paper carried a series of essays about Arabs in Israel; and in one of the newspaper’s last issues in 1980, it covered Huey P. Newton’s visit to Lebanon. For over 50 issues of the paper, its editor-in-chief, David Graham Du Bois, published chapters from his own quasi-autobiographical novel about Black American dissidents in Cairo in the early 1960s—a topic he knew intimately, as Graham Du Bois was himself a resident in Cairo throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, and returned repeatedly to the city throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Contemporary cultural activism renews these historical antecedents. As Donna Murch puts it, “the historical memory of the nonaligned movement, international solidarity struggles and the transnational anti-colonial left remains essential to how we build solidarity struggle today.” At the same time, the differences between that moment and our political present cannot be gainsaid. The terms that conjugate Black-Palestinian solidarity have changed. Resonant anticolonial struggles for self-determination as part of Third World liberation struggles have shifted to shared struggles for survival against state-sanctioned violence. The infrastructure for these expressions have changed: from an earlier moment in which membership organizations like SNCC and the Black Panther Party connected to formalized Palestinian political organizations; to the contemporary moment, in which activisms are more contingent, geographically dispersed, and horizontally articulated, and Black and Palestinian organizers and activisms are more intentionally interwoven. And the media through which such expressions are produced have shifted dramatically: from analog pamphlets, newsletters, and newspapers to digital productions that circulate rapidly on social media.
There are no guarantees affixed to cultural activisms past or present. What is avowedly clear is that creative practices are being drawn from dense archives of solidarity, innovating ways to see shared futures already present in today’s struggles for survival.
Author Bio: Keith P. Feldman works as an Assistant Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. He is the author of A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).