This year’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) national conference brought together the largest contingent of SJP members in the movement’s history. Over 500 student activists and SJP alumni came to Tufts under the theme “Beyond Solidarity: Resisting Racism and Colonialism from the US to Palestine,” which sought to embody our student movement’s continued commitment to joint struggle.
Ahmad Abunzaid, the legal and policy director of the Dream Defenders, summarized the core message of the weekend during a conference workshop on Black liberation.
“Our struggles are bound together and our liberation will be bound together,” he said.
This year’s conference centered the issues and resistance of numerous struggles against racism and colonialism alongside the movement for justice in Palestine, including Ferguson, Detroit, and Hawaii, as well as national youth-led movements and groups including MEChA, Black Youth Project, Anakbayan, and United Students Against Sweatshops
The contributions and responses of these parallel struggles help provide direction as SJP and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement continue to grow.
Connecting without conflating
Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, the Boston-based pastor who has worked for years on Black-Palestinian solidarity opened up the conference on a similar theme as he spoke on the topic “From Ferguson to Palestine: Resisting State Violence and Racism.”
“We have to be clear in our critique to look at the ways in which our existence and our situatedness is very similar. Not the same, but similar,” Sekou said, skyping in from Ferguson where he’s been supporting young black activists on the ground since August.
He noted the material and immaterial connections between the black and Palestinian struggles.
“It is connected through the prison systems in Israel that are used to imprison Palestinian folk and that same company is running prisons in Florida. So it’s not abstract solidarity, it’s just not the fact that y’all catching hell and we’re catching hell, but it’s very material.”
‘Seeing through the eyes of others’
This tension of navigating the common threads and specific histories of various struggles ran throughout the weekend. In the workshop “Environmental Justice: Water Rights from Hawaii to Detroit to Palestine,” organizers representing all three locations shared the histories of how racist and colonial policies impact their communities. Kaiulani Mahuka and Donovan Cabebe spoke of the United States’ 121-year illegal occupation of Hawaii. Tawana Petty spoke to Detroit’s own occupation by the city’s emergency manager and forces seeking to privatize common goods like water.
“It was like we were kindred spirits in our struggles to maintain our dignity and humanity,” Petty wrote in The Michigan Citizen, representing the People’s Water Board Coalition of Detroit commented on hearing from activists in the Hawaiian and Palestinian struggles.
“When you are constantly on the front lines of a particular battle, it can be difficult to see your battle through the eyes of others. It can be difficult to erase the lines that divide you,” she continued.
Among the more moving moments for me during the conference was witnessing one of Petty’s colleagues from Detroit and an SJP activist meet each other and realize they were students at the same university. It was precisely these moments and connections that this year’s conference intentionally sought to create.
The conference also gave space for critical conversations about confronting tensions and challenges between various communities.
“We have to challenge ourselves to keep ourselves from reinforcing oppression,”said Alaa Mukahhal during her opening keynote on “Migrant Justice Across Borders.”
“What does this mean? It means we cannot talk about Ferguson and go home and quietly listen to our family refer to Blacks as ‘slaves.’ It means we cannot talk about feminism in our conferences and crack rape jokes with our friends. And it means we can’t talk about immigration without addressing our own undocumented communities.”
Mukahhal commented that resisting ‘divide and conquer’ and moving beyond solidarity depends on manifesting intersectionality and addressing systems of oppression within our organizations and communities.
“Our struggles are not one-dimensional, our stores are not one-dimensional and neither should be our struggles or our movements,” she continued.
Contextualizing Palestine with transnational struggles
At this year’s conference, I discussed the need to view Palestine and Israel not as exceptional cases of racism and colonialism, but as part of these broader global histories. We should look at the United States as the end result of normalizing racism and colonialism and must work to denormalize these events in our own country as we simultaneously resist them in Palestine and Israel.
Indeed in the past few months we have witnessed not just an increase in transnational awareness and solidarity, but have been moving closer towards connecting resistance work on a transnational level. Participants in the conference drew connections between the tear gas canisters used against people in Ferguson and Palestine,and between G4S which holds migrants and political prisoners in Israel, the US and South Africa (among other places).
The transnational nature of these companies and policies mandates a transnational response. In order to get to the point of co-resistance, we have to start coming together to learn about each other’s struggles first–something this year’s conference sought to facilitate.
“It’s bittersweet how we can all relate to each no matter where we come from or who and what we fight for,” said Larry Fellows III, a St. Louis-based organizer who has been active in Ferguson. “It’s sad it took oppression for us to link in such an incredible yet powerful way that we are here to fight for our people.”
Where do we go from here?
A number of questions become prominent as the work of SJP chapters and the larger Palestine solidarity movement gains support from increasing sectors of American society:
What does it mean for us as students and a larger solidarity movement to continue responding to the Palestinian call for BDS, while also working with other movements and issues affected by governmental and corporate policies of racism and exploitation? How can we utilize the relationships and networks we build through SJP and BDS to recenter liberation struggles whose movements have been relegated to the past?
These questions and more await us. Our national steering committee faces the challenge of determining a structure that allows us to continue serving as a resource network for the growing number of autonomous Palestine solidarity groups around US campuses.
The elders and allies from our movement and others remain confident in our ability to complete these tasks.
“You are the generation that we have been waiting on,” Reverend Sekou closed his address saying.
“I look forward to continuing a meaningful build with the millennials who have chosen to take on the difficult task of humanizing this country,” Tawana Petty wrote.
Like Reverend Sekou and Tawana, I remain confident in our ability to go beyond solidarity into cementing our participation in an intersectional and transnational struggle for the liberation of all peoples from the US to Palestine and beyond.