On Wednesday June 15, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent anti-BDS executive order galvanized a diverse coalition of nearly 200 —Palestine solidarity activists, civil liberties defenders, faith organizations, elected officials, antiwar groups and more—to travel from across the state to Albany on Wednesday to deliver a petition calling on Governor Cuomo to rescind Executive Order 157: Directing State Agencies and Authorities to Divest Public Funds Supporting BDS Campaign Against Israel.
Mark Mishler, an activist with the Albany chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, called Cuomo’s actions “frightening,” but marveled at the organized activist pushback.
“What Governor Cuomo did is gave us all strength to come together,” Mishler told Mondoweiss. “Whether we all agree on everything or not, we certainly all agree that it is wrong for Governor Cuomo to think that he can silence people who are speaking up for human rights.”
Demonstrators met outside the capitol building before filing through the airport-like security. They pushed signs reading “Boycott until Israel stops demolishing Palestinian homes” and “I love human rights” through the metal detectors—although a paper mâché Cuomo effigy did not make it through.
Outside Cuomo’s office on the second floor, the crowd heard from varied speakers including Rosa Clemente of Black Lives Matter Upstate NY, Joe Lombardo of the United Antiwar Coalition and Alana Krivo-Kaufman, the East Coast Regional Organizer at Jewish Voice for Peace—on the importance of BDS and the links between the Palestinian struggle and broader justice movements.
Other speakers included: Ursula Rozum, staff organizer at Syracuse Peace Council; Tarak Kauff of Veterans For Peace; Rick Ufford-Chase from Community of Living Traditions via the Presbyterian Church; Rani Allan of Adalah NY and the Palestine Solidarity Alliance of Hunter College; Kathy Manley, vice president of the NYCLU Capitol region chapter; Ariel Gold of CODEPINK; Rev. Barbara Toll of United Church of Christ; and Palestinian Rights Committee’s Carl Strock.
NY Assemblyman Phillip Steck admitted to the crowd, “I voted in favor of a resolution opposing BDS,” referring to his support of Resolution No. 705 almost exactly one year prior.
But reflecting the broader unification sparked by Cuomo’s overreach, Steck added: “I am here because of the important principle on which this nation was founded—free speech codified in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
Activists and legal experts have been strategizing ways to counter the draconian measure since Cuomo issued it suddenly on June 5.
Kathy Manley, vice president of the Capitol region New York Civil Liberties Union, said that while the NYCLU does not have an official position on BDS, her organization has “opposed this since it was part of a bill that Cuomo was pushing in the NY state legislature.”
In order to combat the order, an organization with state contracts that has passed a pro-BDS resolution must file a complaint, explain why Cuomo’s executive order violates their First Amendment, then “try to get a preliminary injunction and a restraining order against enforcement of it,” Manley explained to Mondoweiss.
“I’m pretty sure that before long,” added Manley, “a group is going to go to court and challenge this and hopefully get an injunction against this and get it thrown out soon.”
Because boycott is both a time-honored, nonviolent tool for change and protected as First Amendment free speech, activists are particularly worried about the order’s unintended implications. Shirley Fabre, a Haitian immigrant now living in the multi-faith Hudson Valley Community of Living Traditions, remained steadfast.
“To be in the United States and have somebody take away your free speech, when free speech is such a part of the American fabric is unbelievable,” Fabre told Mondoweiss.
“Regardless of what Americans feel about the Israeli-Palestinian situation,” Fabre added, “you don’t like somebody infringing on your rights, and especially a foreign government infringing on your rights.”
Rasoul Noviri, an Iranian immigrant also residing at the Community of Living Traditions, added that boycott is “the most powerful tool—better than guns, ammunition or arrows.”
Denied, Not Deterred
Following speeches, the 200 or so activists filed toward Cuomo’s office, attempting to deliver their petition calling on the Governor to rescind his order.
CODEPINK’s Ariel Gold relayed this message to the crowd, who echoed her words back:
“We have been denied entry to the governor’s office. The security guard says that we must deliver our petition of over 13,000 signatures to the receptionist’s desk at the other end,” Gold stated, answered by a chorus. “Governor Cuomo is not allowing us to give our petition personally.”
Wednesday’s protest represented the culmination of Albany-area activist Keren Carmeli’s frustrations, who said she was “blindsided” by Cuomo’s order which circumvented the standard legislation practice. “[We] have to let him know that we’re really disgusted with his decision to go about it in this way,” Carmeli told Mondoweiss.
“We’ve known about different bills that have been pending and we’ve been talking to our elected officials and we’ve been writing letters to the editor. We’ve been trying to do all the normal things that you do when you know of some kind of legislation that’s coming down the pike,” Carmeli added.
Cuomo’s executive order came after two failed attempts to pass anti-BDS legislation through the state legislature.