This article is the first of a two-part story from Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi. The second article will be published on June 19, on Mondoweiss.
On June 11, Palestinians joined thousands of Puerto Ricans and other activists and organizers in Indigenous, Black, and other communities of color/third world communities to affirm solidarity with the Puerto Rican anti-colonial struggle. The diversity of participants in the 60th Puerto Rican Day Parade reflected the human condition: There were feminist, womynist, queer and transgender activists; trade unionists and leftists, anti-Zionist Jews; a range of ages; abilities, languages and religious commitments. Fasting Muslims in our contingent marched on while resisting the hot sun and the need to quench their thirst until sunset several hours later. “It’s for Oscar. I am not thinking about my thirst now,” said a young Palestinian student from a CUNY school. T-shirts invoked the political message that self-determination was non-negotiable. The intent was to send a strong message to New York politicians and multinational corporations. Their collusion to deprive the Puerto Rican community its celebration of the freedom of Oscar López Rivera after nearly 36 years of incarceration in U.S. jails was exposed. This was another reminder of the failure of conventional politics at a time when Puerto Rico is languishing under a severe economic crisis brought about by 119 years of U.S. colonialism and 525 of European settler colonialism in the Americas.
In her Facebook post, Suzanne Adely, organizer of our contingent, credited Boricua Human Rights Network in Chicago & Oscar López Rivera for the invitation to Palestinians to march. Another Palestinian contingent was organized by Nancy Mansour at the invitation of freed Black political prisoner Sekou Odinga. Though spirited, our numbers were small. In other words, we did not bolster the Puerto Rico Independence contingent in the Parade. If anything, inviting us to participate must have carried a political risk to Oscar López and the campaign to free Puerto Rican (and other U.S. captive) political prisoners. This is especially true given that New York City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, was simultaneously campaigning for the release of Oscar López and taking a trip to Israel, paid for by Zionist organizations, despite a strong coalition from her constituents that repeatedly called on her not to be complicit in legitimizing Israel’s colonialism, occupation and racism. During a Zionist campaign in NYC City Council to pass an anti-BDS resolution, Mark Viverito is said to have made a backroom deal to let the anti-BDS resolution pass in return for support for the release of López Rivera. Mark-Viverito also parted ways with other New York politicians, including Governor Cuomo and a reluctant NY City Mayor de Blasio who made it clear that they would boycott the Parade unless its organizers withdrew their intent to name Oscar López as a Freedom Hero. According to Democracy Now, the campaign to boycott the Parade was organized by Media Research Center a right-wing group hostile to Puerto Rican independence and funded by donors close to President Trump and Breitbart News.
Given the political ramifications as well as the economic crisis Puerto Rico is currently experiencing and that pose serious challenges to the Puerto Rican independence movement, why would Lopez Rivera and the Boricua Human Rights Network invite the Palestinians to march?
Those of us who have been active for decades in the U.S. and who are familiar with the PEP (progressive except on Palestine) syndrome, would have surely recalled what it meant to be kept at a distance. We would have waited until the spotlights of both the center as well as the left moved to another “sexy” issue to connect with our Puerto Rican comrades to check-in, discuss the struggle of prisoners in Palestine, Puerto Rico, the U.S. and elsewhere, and the general colonial conditions as well as the state of the anti-colonial movements in both contexts. Indeed, our long and painful encounters with the U.S. peace and justice movement are replete with a systematic pattern of invisibilization of Palestine even when the dots of the relevance of Palestine were so evident and did not need to be connected. Asking for a speaker to address Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal and its ongoing invasion of Lebanon during the 1982 Central Park nuclear disarmament mobilization on June 12 seemed to be a no-brainer. However, the negotiations with the June 12th mobilization and the invisibilization of the struggle of Palestinian and Lebanese people against the Israeli invasion and the right wing U.S. allied Lebanese forces continues to bring a bitter taste until this very day. Likewise, organizers of the Washington, DC demonstration against U.S. intervention in Central America a couple of months following the Sabra and Shatila massacre, voted no to the inclusion of a Lebanese or a Palestinian speaker. Their argument claimed that there was no connection between the “Middle East” and Central America. To be fair, a similar argument was made about South Africa (it was going to take three more years before the anti-Apartheid movement became “sexy”). However, the following week, Black activists crashed the organizing meeting and demanded the inclusion of a speaker from the ANC, PAC, or SWAPO. We were not as lucky even though our Black comrades did press on for the inclusion of a Palestinian/Lebanese anti-imperialist voice.
This seems like ancient history, holding a grudge or having an axe to grind. To be totally honest, some of us who had experienced that consistent ostracizing at worst or benign neglect at best continue to be troubled by the time and energy that we’ve wasted in trying to convince our comrades in the U.S. peace and justice movement to not exclude Palestine and to apply the same analysis and consideration to Palestinian resistance that they were applying to other liberation movements. But those memories and analysis are for another time. For now, I am invoking the PEP syndrome to contrast it with the principled decisions Puerto Rican (and Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, anti-Zionists and leftists, as well as supporters of other anti-colonial liberation movements, and marginalized communities) made every single time an opportunity came up to weigh support for Palestine against pushing the interest of the Puerto Rican struggle forward.
To be sure, unlike other international struggles that become Cause célèbre, Puerto Rico and the struggles of other U.S.-based Indigenous communities and third world communities have not gained such momentum primarily because they are too close for comfort; supporting them would require of people in the U.S. to give up many of their privileges. By contrast, supporters of international struggles that seemed to be far away might not have needed to make such sacrifices on a daily basis. In other words, privilege and white supremacy allowed individuals and communities to have their cake and eat it too: One could, for example, stand in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike and discuss this strike in cocktail parties and dinners at haute cuisine restaurants.
Had Oscar López Rivera and the Boricua Human Rights Network excluded us, we would have sought to justify such a decision to our youth out of respect for our Puerto Rican comrades and to guard against chauvinistic tendencies that tend to see Palestinian interests through a very narrow lens rather than through the indivisibility of justice. But neither Oscar López and the Boricua Human Rights Network nor the rest of the Puerto Rican in the independentistas contingent of the Parade necessitated such an explanation of another incident of invisibilizing Palestine. On the contrary, upon his release, Oscar López shared the platform with Chicago community leader and former Palestinian prisoner Rasmea Odeh, accepting a keffiyeh and an olive wood carving with the map of Palestine from her, each symbolizing Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonialism. Their impromptu embrace, not meant as a photo-op, speaks volumes in the kind of intimate recognition those who have spent years in colonial prisons share.
We were not only invited to march in New York City, usually a hands-off-Palestine site despite the advances made by the movement for justice in Palestine. We were also asked to bring Palestinian flags with us, “many, many flags” and invited to move closer to the front right behind the leading line of Indigenous Taino people, where Oscar López, riding in the float saw us, raised his fist for Palestine and placed it on his heart, and accepted a t-shirt of the Palestinian Cultural Mural honoring the late Professor Edward Said that is painted on the walls of the Cesar Chavez Student Center at San Francisco State University. We asked and were told that it was perfectly fine for us to chant “Viva Puerto Rico Libre, Viva Palestina Libre, and Boricua Palestina.” I belong to a different generation Palestinian youth refer to as the OGs (I used to think it meant Old Guard before my students explained what OGs actually meant). The chants reminded me of the countless protests I attended in support of Puerto Rican independence at which I learned “Viva Puerto Rico Libre, Fuera Yanquis del Caribe!” as we marched during the mobilizations to free the Puerto Rico Hartford 15 or the protests against the assassination of Filiberto Ojeda. These chants brought to memory the song of Puerto Rican singer, Roy Brown, Monón, los yankees quieren fuego whose lyrics defy U.S. colonialism of Puerto Rico as they express solidarity with Vietnam and Algeria. In the early 1980s, Brown used to perform free of charge at the Palestine Solidarity Committee events. Brown also put to music one of June Jordan’s poem, “Apologies to all the people of Lebanon”. In the same FB post I mentioned above, Suzanne Adely also recalls Palestinian participation in the Puerto Rican Day Parade in 2001 during the height of the successful struggle to free Vieques from the U.S. occupying military that was wreaking environmental havoc and was using the Island to launch invasions against other Latin American and Caribbean countries.
The political articulations of Oscar López Rivera were also at odds with the ways in which he has been invented as Nelson Mandela at one point and Menachem Begin on the other. In his message of support, Bishop Desmond Tutu had a different take. Invoking Mandela’s name, Bishop Tutu did not present the almost 36 years Lopez spent in prison as a pale copy of the late ANC leader but rather as a legitimate decolonization struggle on its own that need not be likened to another struggle to be acceptable. This is not different from Palestinian prisoners who are sometimes likened to Mandela as if they should not be supported on the basis of their legitimate anti-colonial struggle. Rejecting both oppression Olympics as well as the need to invoke acceptable heroes and sheroes (though the case is less so for women) in one struggle to make another palatable to those in power undermines all the struggles and flattens the complexities, horrors of oppression and the forms of resistance each movement brings forth.
Invoking Mandela’s name is criticized for its oversimplification of the Puerto Rican (and Palestinian) struggle. It is also criticized because it acts as an escape clause that permits advocates to skip the intellectual labor that is necessary to critically explain what’s going on in Puerto Rico because the simple mention]of Mandela’ name becomes a short cut to make it a no brainer.
Comparing Oscar López to the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (as Democracy Now co-host Juan Gonzalez and others did) however, is not a simple matter of oversimplification. Likening a freedom fighter and the just struggle he represents to one of the most racist and right-wing members of the Zionist Irgun gang does a huge disservice to both the Puerto Rican and the Palestinian struggles. One would think that Juan Gonzalez, a former member of the Young Lords Party would know better. Begin’s group, the Irgun, was engaged in a campaign to expel Indigenous Palestinians from their land and replace them with a European settler colonial regime that was not much different than other Puerto Ricans and Indigenous communities of the Americas are fighting against. The Irgun was involved in the Deir Yassin massacre and other atrocities deliberately intended to uproot and dispossess Palestinians. This Israeli-centered analysis cites Begin’s role in blowing up British targets to express Zionist displeasure that British colonial authorities, for their own calculations, were simply not allowing larger numbers of Zionists to settle in Palestine and thus speed up the uprooting and dispossession of Palestinians.
To cite Begin and compare Oscar López Rivera to him, in effect, forcibly severs the Puerto Rican struggle for the space of anti-colonial liberation movements and instead places it in the company of colonial and settler-colonists whose colonial rule Puerto Ricans struggle to end. It is not much different than comparing Puerto Rican militants to the U.S. settlers who rose against the British throne. It at once delegitimizes Puerto Rican independence, likens this liberation struggle to its diametrical opposite, legitimatizes Zionism and Zionist massacres against the Palestinians, and detaches it from the solidarity that organically links it to Palestine. Proponents of this simplistic and colonial-centered view seem to be saying that “They are all terrorists. One’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. It is just a question of perspective. We all don’t need to be involved. We’re simply talking!”
Unlike those who likened Oscar López to Begin we saw him for the freedom fighter that he was. We felt right at home among the Puerto Rican comrades. There was no need to include other chants about Palestine. “Viva Puerto Rico Libre, Viva Palestine Libre” was not intended to interject or impose Palestine on the Puerto Rican Day Parade as we sometimes did in other anti-war or peace and justice rallies. Each and every one of us only sought to show gratitude and support for the struggle of our Puerto Rican sisters and brothers: we were there, we were with them, we support their struggle and for all it’s worth, this group of New Yorkers totally and categorically rejected Cuomo, de Blasio and all those who sought to deny Oscar López the honor of what he was all about. Like Oscar López and everyone else who was there, we did not believe that Oscar’s status as a freedom hero came from or was bestowed by some New York politicians. He is and will continue to be a freedom hero.
The decision of Oscar López and the Boricua Human Rights Network is not an exceptional or a recent sign of support for Palestine. It is not a reflection of the rising popularity of Palestine or the fact that broader segments of U.S. society are finally joining the international consensus that Palestine must be free.