October 2nd couldn’t have been a more beautiful day for a rally. I had gotten on a bus at 11pm the night before to travel to Washington D.C. for the One Nation Working Together rally. Over 400 organizations endorsed the rally’s platform of Jobs, Justice and Education. By the end of the day rally organizers reported that over 175,000 people attended, perhaps that is overstating it a bit, though there were quite a lot of people gathered. The argument over how it stacked up to Glenn Beck’s rally for a homogeneous America back in August will be something that we’ll have to leave to the political pundits.
The main body of the march and the main organizers were members of unions and the NAACP. Jobs were definitely the focus. It was all very posh up towards the front with huge speakers and screens and areas cordoned off for particular group affiliations. I did a loop to take it all in and then ended up over at the corner of Constitution and 14th where a (much smaller) number of anti-war and justice organizations were doing a pre-rally, rally.
For the most part I was heartened by the thoughtful posters I saw and the speakers I heard.
It was particularly important that a number of groups had posters that made explicit the contradiction between the billions in US aid to Israel and our failing economic system here in America. Occupation, whether in Iraq or Palestine, was also on the minds and signs of many.
Michael McPhearson from Veterans for Peace, during the pre-rally, made what I thought was the most important comment of the day. He said, and I paraphrase: For the first time this progressive rally is not explicitly anti-war/anti-imperialist. We aren’t the main organizers of this rally. So, it’s up to us, when we join them to make the connections. We have to reach out to them.
Which is why as we joined the main rally it was so disheartening to suddenly be surrounded by mostly young, mostly white, anti-war activists chanting “Intifada, Intifada. Long live the Intifada!” Which is in no way to suggest that I don’t whole-heartedly support Palestinian’s continued resistance by whatever means they choose to fight the occupation. Unequivocally, I do.
And it is not to suggest that marchers were uninformed. Most chants were witty and relevant and most of the signs carried showed a well thought out analysis. Chants that made me cringe were in the minority. But I’m going to be a bit critical here. Because I think Michael McPhearson is dead right. We have to make the connections, we have to reach out, we have to educate. We can’t afford to drive people who should be our allies away.
And more importantly, I have to ask: how do these words and actions compare to the words and actions of our Palestinian brothers and sisters to whom we should always look for guidance in any solidarity activity?
During the time I lived in the West Bank I was struck, as are many people I’ve spoken with, at how extraordinarily intentional most of the Palestinians I spoke with were when discussing the occupation. Their self stated goal was to educate me so I could return home and educate my fellow Americans. From a Palestinian acquaintance who helped me organize my stay: I don’t want to tell you too many of my own ideas, you’ll go, you’ll see for yourself. To people I met on the street who would patiently, with facts, lay out their analysis of the occupation.
Now “Long live the Intifada” might be a powerful statement in certain contexts. But when you’re chanting in the context of this rally, is that really the best way to start making connections between the place of US billions in the occupation of Palestine for people who might have prime time news misunderstanding of what the Intifada represents? Are you reaching out to educate about the occupation? Or are you venting your own frustration and anger?
When you chant: “from the river to the sea, Palestine must be free” what are you trying to impart? Are you advocating for a one state solution? The right of return? Or do you want to send all non-Arab Israelis “back to Europe” which is how it could easily be misconstrued. Statements like that are totally decontextualized and most people at the main rally were probably not at all familiar the occupation of Palestine, let alone with the nuances of proposals to end the occupation.
So let’s think about why we march and remember that we have a responsibility to educate. The facts are on our side. Don’t give anyone an excuse to ignore Palestine.