Marching with Oscar López Rivera: a long history of Palestinian-Puerto Rican solidarity

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This article is the second of a two-part story from Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi. The first article was published here on June 15.

In Part I, I discussed Palestinian participation in Sunday’s Puerto Rican Day Parade and analyzed the reason why Oscar López Rivera and the Puerto Rican independentistas parted ways with the historical pattern of PEP (progressive except on Palestine) that was the norm for the leadership of the U.S. peace and justice movement. Instead, the Boricua movement across the political spectrum embraced Palestine with the same commitment with which its members and leaders struggled to rid Puerto Rico from U.S. colonialism. In Part II, I elaborate on a small slice of the history of Palestinian-Puerto Rican solidarity.

Shariana Ferrer (L) and Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi (R). (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi)

A few days ago Puerto Rican students at the main campus of the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras ended their strike to protest the economic crisis, PROMESA and other injustices. As always Puerto Rican students made the international connections of their own struggle with that of other struggles for justice. During a plenary two weeks ago at the 2017 Berkshire Conference on the history of women, genders and sexualities at Hostra University, Shariana Ferrer, co-founder of Colectiva Feminista en Construccion, and the Women’s & Gender Working Group of the Puerto Rican Student Strike at UPR in Rio Pierdras, described how striking students at one point removed the U.S. from the highest pole on campus and replaced it with the Palestinian flag. Ferrer also cited the large banner striking UPR students posted in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners who were on a hunger strike that started on April 17, 2017, and lasted for 41 days.  

Shariana was one of the main Puerto Rican feminists who repeatedly stood up, holding the Palestinian flag and calling for support for Palestine at the San Juan conference of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) in November 2014. Convening in mid-November, a little over three months after the Israeli devastating war on Gaza, a few of us had come together on the first day of the conference to draft a petition calling on NWSA to support the call by the Palestinian civil society for BDS in view of escalating Israeli colonial and racist violence against Palestinians in Gaza, Jerusalem, Naqab and elsewhere in Palestine. Within less than 24 hours, our collective, Feminists for Justice in/for Palestine, had collected over 800 signatures of NWSA members/conference attendees. Israeli atrocities drove home the sense of urgency with which we acted. Our efforts were greatly enhanced by the major plenary Chandra Talpade Mohanty organized and the leadership of then NWSA President Yi-Chun Tricia Lin who affirmed from the stage that the “membership has spoken” after we invited NWSA to endorse the petition. The declaration by keynote speaker bell hooks said that she was “100%” behind NWSA support for Palestine reinforced such consensus. Our valiant efforts, however, might have been dismissed as not narrowly defined as “women’s issues,” if it were not for the stubborn support for Palestine expressed again and again by Shariana and other Puerto Rican feminists.

Palestinian delegates show their Oscar López Rivera armbands at the World Social Forum in South Africa, 2014. (Photo Courtesy of Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi)

Shariana and Vanesa Contreras and other comrades hosted us at their Movimiento Soldario Sindical (labor solidarity movement) where we had a meeting with Mujeres Con Oscar, including Zulma and Olga. There they showed us one of the signs that they made for the Gaza solidarity protests that declared, “Mujeres en Puerto Rico Solidarias con Palestina.” Shariana also invited us to participate in UPR con Oscar, a major rally the University of Puerto Rico organized to demand freedom for Oscar López Rivera. Giving us a space in the program to speak about Palestine and Puerto Rico, Shariana and Vanesa also gave us armbands with a print out of the face of Oscar López. I took the armbands with me to South Africa the following month where I was participating the World Social Forum on Migration in December 2014. Members of the Palestinian delegation placed the armbands at the Forum to express solidarity with Oscar López Rivera and Puerto Rican political prisoners. This was especially significant given that the Palestinian delegation included Aiman Haj Yahya of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, and Badia Dweik of the Human Rights Defenders in Tel Rumaida in al-Khalil (Hebron) area in Palestine.  Other South African comrades including organizers in the BDS South Africa movement in Soweto also wore the Oscar López armbands. Both Palestinians and South Africans at the Forum knew well what incarceration entailed and how to survive, resist and overcome the jailers’ design to break the captives among our people. It did not occur to anyone to flatten the struggle of Oscar López or Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners by conflating them into each other as some did with Oscar López during his visit to New York since his release.


San Juan rally solidarity with Palestine. (Photo: Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi)

The exchanges we had in Johannesburg with our South African comrades at the World Social Forum on Migration in December built on those we held a month earlier in San Juan with our Puerto Rican comrades. There was an immediate need to respond to Israeli war on Gaza. Puerto Rican outrage over Israel’s atrocities had been expressed during the 51-day war against Gaza. As Osvaldo Toledo, President of the Puerto Rico chapter of the Association of American Jurists described, a coalition co-led by Palestinians and Puerto Ricans organized protests at the Governor’s Mansion in the old San Juan. Statements were circulated and signed by Puerto Rican and other Latin American leaders condemning the Israeli attack and expressing support for Palestinian self-determination.

It was during that summer that we also planned for the November NWSA San Juan conference. Vanessa Ramos, New York-based Puerto Rican attorney and President of the Association of American Jurists, co-organized with us a major event at El Colegio de Abogados y Abogadas. On the Island, Osvaldo Toledo, Maribel Ponton, and Dinorah La Luz Dinorah, active members of El Colegio as well as the Association of the American Jurists co-organized the event. Maria Dolores Fernos, El Colegio is the Puerto Rican Bar Association. However, its politics is closer to that of the National Lawyers Guild than the American Bar Association. El Colegio is committed to the defense and representation of Puerto Rican political prisoners and independentistas in a similar fashion to that of Palestinian prisoner support groups such as Addameer, Mandela, and the Palestinian Captives Club. Moderating the event was El Colegio President and a former leader of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP) Rafael Anglada. Speaking at the event were former Puerto Rican political prisoners, Ida Luz and Alicia Rodriguez, NWSA President Yi-Chun Tricia Lin, Angela Davis, U.S. former political prisoner who, like Chandra Mohanty, was a member of the Indigenous and Women of Color Feminist Delegation to Palestine. Freed Puerto Rican leader Rafael Cancel Miranda was ill that day and could not make it. But he did call to speak to Angela Davis and to the panel.

Rafael Cancel Miranda holds a brochure of Rasmea Odeh. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi)
Osvaldo Toledo (R), Professor Angie (CL), Rafael Cancel Miranda (CR), Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi (R). (Photo: Courtesy Dr. Rebab Abdhulhadi)

El Colegio’s event was part of our efforts to organize a Puerto Rican delegation to Palestine, including Rafael Cancel Miranda. Since his illness made it impossible for us to meet at El Colegio, we went instead to visit him and Professor Angie, his soulmate and partner, at their home in San Juan. Osvaldo Toledo accompanied us. His father whom Rafael Cancel Miranda knew was a past President of El Colegio and had, in fact, fought the real estate agency that was controlling the building and was attempting backhanded maneuvering to evict El Colegio using “business” decisions as excuses. During a 3-hours video interview, Don Rafa discussed Puerto Rican and Palestinian struggles for liberation, focusing on political prisoners, including Oscar López and Rasmea Odeh. We were there to listen, learn and record history-in-the-making for future Palestinians and for Palestinian prisoners back in Palestine. We extended the invitation to  Don Rafa to visit Palestine to meet with freed Palestinian prisoners who like him had spent many years incarcerated, defied their jailers, were punished but continued to resist. He would have liked to visit Palestine, Don Rafa said. However, “I no longer travel anywhere that requires a passport”, Don Rafa said. As much as he wanted, he could not visit Palestine: “I used to only needed my birth certificate but since a U.S. passport became necessary for international trips, I stopped going even to Cuba. I will never apply for nor accept U.S. citizenship documents,” he added.

Co-organizing the El Colegio event or the potential delegation was not Vanessa’s first action on Palestine. Her involvement started much earlier than the summer of 2014. In fact it goes back to 1978 when, as a student at the main campus of the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Pierdras, she initiated and co-organized the first Palestine Solidarity Committee in Puerto Rico. In 1982 and during the height of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Vanessa joined what was then the November 29th Coalition and remained active in Palestine Solidarity Committee until its demise in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo Accords and the disruption such accords dealt to the Palestinian resistance movement and Palestine solidarity movement worldwide.

During those years, Vanessa opened up her house as a space for movement events and fundraisers. She never wavered on her support for Palestine, inviting Palestinians to every function she hosted. I recall that one of the fundraisers was for David Dinkins who was planning to run a campaign for the mayor of New York City and that his official photographer took many pictures. Despite a very thorough search, I could not find a single record that brings Dinkins and Arabs and Palestinians together. This is not surprising given the fact that Dinkins was one of those politicians who kept grassroots activists and the struggles they organized around, especially the Palestinians, at arms’ length. Dinkins hostility to Palestine and collusion with Zionist lobbyists became clear when he refused to meet with Arabs and Palestinians.

Rasmea and Oscar López hugging Chicago May 2017. (Photo: Richard Reilly)

Palestinian Puerto Rican solidarity is extensive and includes various organizations and individuals in multiple locations and during different time periods. In Chicago for example, the solidarity expressed by the embrace of the two freed political prisoners, Rasmea Odeh and Oscar López Rivera goes back to the 1970s. The late Palestinian community leader Samir Odeh was instrumental in forging those ties of solidarity. In fact, leaders who accompanied Oscar López to the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York remembered Samir as one of their comrades from “back in the days.” In New York, even before Palestinian and Arab students began to organize themselves within the Organization of Arab Students (OAS), the Young Lords Party had already declared support for the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle. During the 2011 delegation to Palestine in which Angela Davis participated, former Young Lords Party and Puerto Rican Student Union member and long-time anti-war and trade union organizer Jaime Veve, recalled how, as a young student involved in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville struggle for community control, he had two posters on his wall, Angela Davis and Leila Khaled. The exhibit, “iPresente! The Young Lords in New York City” curated for the Bronx Museum by Johanna Fernandez, a professor at John Jay College and a member of the 2016 U.S. Prisoners, Labor and Academic Delegation to Palestine, included a reprint of a collection of articles from Palante, the Yong Lords newspaper in support of the Palestinian struggle that featured Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and George Habash.

Palante, the Young Lords newspaper in support of the Palestinian struggle that featured Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and George Habash. (Photo: Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi)

The principled politics of the Young Lords Party did not emerge in a vacuum. It organically developed within the context of the 1960s anti-imperialist and anti-racist radical politics. Reflected in U.S. based liberation groups, such as the American Indian Movement, the Brown Beret, the I-Wor Kuen, the Red Guard, El Comite, and the Black Panthers Party, support for the Palestinian struggle was consistent and uncompromising. Such support as I argued elsewhere predates the recent resurgence of solidarities that emerged in 2014. The repression experienced by these liberation movements was similar to that faced by the Palestinian resistance movement. Palestinian leaders were systematically targeted by Israeli intelligence and military programs of surveillance and assassinations. Likewise, U.S.-based liberation movements were subjected to the Counterintelligence Program, COINTELPRO. Predating the actual consolidation of COINTEPRO by then FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, the U.S. government had already targeted, imprisoned and killed the leader of the Puerto Rican National Party, Don Albizu Campos. And like the Israeli official state policy of “targeted” assassinations against Palestinian leaders, the U.S. continued its attacks. On Sept. 23, 2005, the anniversary of the Grito de Lares, hundreds of FBI agents sealed the town of Hormigueros, surrounded the house and opened fire, murdering Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, the main commander of the Boricua People’s Army (Macheteros), in his own home. He was 72-years-old.  

Palante newspaper featuring Yasser Arafat and George Habash.

Colonial violence is not always or necessarily elaborated and packaged in identifiable state repressive programs. In fact, suffocating and totalizing colonial control has to, by definition, entail both organized and systematically executed programs along with unexpected and unpredictable patterns precisely because totalizing power need not be accountable nor predictable. Palestinian history wails with hangings, expulsions and dispossession from the British colonial rule to the current context of Israel’s settler colonialism, racism and occupation. Such targeting in the U.S. did not end after the exposure of COINTELPRO. In 1987, for example, the Reagan Administration targeted 7 Palestinian men and a Kenyan woman in Los Angeles, accused them of terrorism and the intent to overthrow the U.S. government. While engaged in the Iran-Contra Affair, the Reagan Administration was attempting to undermine the Central American solidarity movement that was growing and challenging U.S. interventionist designs. Having targeted the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and failed, the Reagan Administration dusted off the McCarran-Walters Act, an old relic of McCarthyism, that targets communists, and applied it to the Palestinians thinking that destroying what they saw as the weakest link in the peace and justice movement would allow the government to then proceed to destroy the other movements. This was part and parcel of Reagan’s strategy since he became president in 1980. The arrest of the LA 8 however backfired. Instead of internalizing the desired chilling effect, members of the Palestinian community in LA and their allies packed 3 buses and drove to the prison where the LA 8 were held to express their rejection of the silencing strategy. In the process of fighting this attack, the Committee for Justice which was formed to defend the LA 8 found that the FBI had been spying on the Palestinian activists including the eavesdropping on their bedroom and the most intimate details of their lives.

A couple of years earlier, the U.S. government had arrested 16 Puerto Ricans in 1985 on the Island and airlifted them to Hartford, Connecticut, in violation of international law if applied according to the UN Decolonization Committee. In fact, the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the transfer of members of the colonized community to the territory of the colonizing country. This also applies to Palestinian prisoners who are arrested by Israeli colonial authorities in the West Bank (and pre 2005 Gaza) and transported to Israel’s pre-Green Line borders of 1967. Accusing the 16 of belonging to the militant group, the Boricua People’s Army (Los Machesteros), the FBI had amassed thousands of audio files by spying on their most intimate lives exactly in the same manner that they had spied on the Palestinians in LA and the COINTELPRO in the 1960s and 1970s.

As we began to build support for both the LA 8 and the Hartford 15, Puerto Ricans and Palestinians came together to organize a joint public event in New York’s Upper West Side Community Center. We invited the late Lennie Weinglass to speak. Lennie was a civil liberties and anti-Zionist Jewish lawyer whose family had owned the Biltmore hotel, site of one of the most significant U.S. Zionist conferences. More importantly Weinglass was by then a key member of the defense team in both cases. Lennie told the audience how the Puerto Rican political prisoners told him to “go defend the Palestinians” in LA because “they need you more than we do.”

Amilcar Alfaro-Martell (L), Esperanza Martell (C), and Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi (R) at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City, June 2017. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi)
Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi (L) with the daughter of Oscar López Rivera, Clarissa López Ramos), 2014. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi)

The co-organizer of the event from the Puerto Rican community was Esperanza (Espy) Martell. Like other Puerto Rican activists in this story, Espy was not the accidental nor the occasional activist. She did not seek fame nor the spotlight. She participated in struggles that she believed in and gave all that she could. Espy had a long history of activism. She was a feminist, a key organizer of El Comite, the Hartford 15, and was involved in supporting all international struggles.

In 1983, Espy was working at Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, based at Hunter College. It was at that time that we began to organize ourselves in Palestinian women’s association in various U.S. and Canadian cities. We came together in Chicago 1986 to form the Union of Palestinian Women’s Associations in North America (UPWA). The leader of our efforts was none other than Camilia Odeh, Samir’s partner, and one of the most dedicated leaders of the Palestinian movement in North America. Camilia started out as a student activist with the Organization of Arab Students (OAS) in Michigan. By 1986, Camilia was already involved in the National Rainbow Coalition and was working closely with Jack O’Dell and Rev. Jesse Jackson. In New York, we were having a hard time finding a place to meet but Espy came through and made El Centro’s space available to us free of charge when other NYC-based feminist groups refused to work with us, imposing on us the colonial question of choosing to be feminists or nationalists. In addition to Espy and Vanessa Ramos, there were five other exceptions in New York in the early 1980s: Vinnie Borrows, talented actress and international organizer, who was the United Nations representative of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Dr. Betty Shabazz and Dr. Angela Gilliam at Medgar Evers College; and Trudie Heard, Native American assistant to Rabbi Elmer Berger, co-founder of American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism (AJAZ) which was founded as a result of the split in the Biltmore Zionist Conference. The story of Palestine and the U.S. women’s, feminist and queer movements and studies is a separate chapter that time and space does not allow me to discuss here. With the start of the 1987 Palestinian Intifada, more joined the ranks of the Palestine solidarity movement while others opted to organize under the banner of “peace in the Middle East” instead of justice for Palestine. The latter was a Eurocentric discourse that was geared toward saving Israel from itself while guarding against the transformation of the discourse and the placing of Palestine at its center. Not an unusual intellectual move that is deliberately or inadvertently reproduced in academic and political circles, calling for peace in the Middle East rather than justice for Palestine is reflective of the privilege of white supremacy and the power of hegemonic discourses even in some subaltern spaces. Obviously not everyone who chose that label for organizing was necessarily seeking to cover up Israeli atrocities but such framing does boil down to decentering Palestine irrespective of the best intentions of its framers. This is another chapter of history that warrants deeper analysis to understand what was going on with regards to Palestine and the movement silence at best and complicity at worse in furthering Palestinian dispossession.

Such compromising politics was not reflected in the Puerto Rican independence movement. Here, support for Palestine extended to different aspects of life. What in the U.S. is seen as an exceptionally marginalized space, seems to be more of a consensus politics among Puerto Rican activists and such consensus extends to prominent popular culture and well-known figures. Ricky Martin, Calle 13, and Danny Rivera join Rafael Cancel Miranda, Lolita Libron, Oscar López Rivera, Elias Castro, Yvonne Melendez are but a few names that paint a different picture of people’s struggle and solidarities. Danny Rivera wrote a song in 2014 dedicated to the children of Gaza. And No, JLO is not one of them but then she is not part of any struggle.

Last Sunday was another qualitative reminder of Palestinian Puerto Rican solidarity. As we wound our way in the Puerto Rican Day Parade, we came across the Mujeres Con Oscar contingent. There was Estela Vazquez, the Dominican activist who is Vice President of 1199 SEIU, the largest healthcare union in the U.S. And there was Espy. With her was her son Amilcar. He was two or three years old when I first met his mother in 1983. He was always there with Espy or Jose at every single mobilization. Here he was marching with his mom. Between him and the young women in the Palestinian contingent, a new generation was forging solidarity. A new future is in the horizon for Palestine, Puerto Rico and our peoples’ struggles for an indivisible sense of justice.

Author’s note: I’d like to express my gratitude to Saleem Shehadeh for his assistance.