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Palestine was always on my radar, says historian Robyn Spencer

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In her remarks on “Black-Palestinian Solidarity,” organized by Columbia University Apartheid Divest and the Columbia Black Students Organization in honor of Black History Month on February 22, Dr. Robyn Spencer, a history professor at Lehman College, explained how her work as a longtime prisoner solidarity activist led her to an explicit solidarity with the Palestinian people. 

Palestine was always on her radar, Spencer explained, but she “didn’t necessarily make the connection between oppression there and that [in the U.S.].”

That all changed when visiting Palestine in January 2014 as a member of a delegation of black activists. The intersections between Black and Palestinian liberation struggles were unmistakable.

Israel’s omnipresent modes of occupation such as racial profiling and mass incarceration of Palestinians closely resembled the relationship between U.S. authorities and communities of color.

The U.S. not only accounts for more than 22 percent of prisoners worldwide, but people of color and specifically black prisoners are significantly overrepresented in the overall prison population.

Israel has a reputation for disproportional incarceration of its own.  Since its founding in 1948, the state has arrested and detained around one million Palestinians, Dawoud Yousef, Advocacy and Lobbying Coordinator at Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, told me.

“This places the figure at around a fifth of the population of the occupied territory who has been arrested,” said Yousef, who is based in Ramallah.

Citing the immense scale of imprisonment in the U.S., Yousef told Mondoweiss that “the figure for African-Americans is much more closely aligned with the figure for Palestinians, as compared to the general population.”

As a response, Yousef noted that over the past few years, “there has been a significant increase in interaction and cooperation between the U.S. movements to free political prisoners, and the Palestinian movements.” 

Such connections must be cultivated however.

“It’s not obvious that oppressed peoples will come together under any umbrella,” cautioned Dr. Spencer, whose work focuses on radicalism and Black power movements. “Those connections are built through struggle. It’s just not enough to say this group is oppressed, that group is oppressed, so we’ll all get together.”

(Photo: Robyn Spencer)

Indeed, the summer after her return from Palestine, that joint struggle grew out of necessity when Michael Brown, a black 18-year old, was shot and killed in his hometown of Ferguson, Missouri by white police officer Darren Wilson. Brown’s killing triggered massive civil disobedience in Ferguson and beyond, lifting the occupation-like policing of Black neighborhoods onto the national level.

Scenes of riot police driving armored cars down city streets, making sweeping arrests and using excessive force on demonstrators immediately conjured the daily scenes of life under Israeli occupation.

Through social media, Palestinian activists not only expressed solidarity but real, tactical advice for protestors in the U.S. facing the heavily armed, militarized police. Among them, strategies for handling tear gas, an everyday reality in occupied Palestine.

The killing of Mike Brown lead the public to a better understanding that the “structures of oppression are intertwined,” Spencer said.

And while the Black-Palestinian connection of today “may seem a new direction,” it is actually “building on [historical] roots,” she said. 

The Black Panther Party (BPP), for example, found common cause with the Palestinian struggle as an inherently revolutionary, anti-imperialist fight. 

Founded in 1966, just a year before Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank, the Panthers viewed the Zionist cause as reactionary — not the struggle for Jewish liberation that Zionists believe it to be. To the BPP, the birth of Israel simply replaced one capitalist colonial state for another.

In his essay “On the Middle East,” Huey P. Newton, the BPP Minister of Defense, famously declared the following: “We support the Palestinians’ just struggle for liberation one hundred percent. We will go on doing this, and we would like for all of the progressive people of the world to join our ranks in order to make a world in which all people can live.”

Other black revolutionaries equally opposed the Jewish state on the grounds that it served Western hegemony.

Malcolm X consistently cast Zionism as an imperialist project and was the first black American leader to meet with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In 1964, Malcolm visited the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, where he witnessed the deteriorating living conditions and pledged himself to the cause for Palestinian liberation.

While there has always been debate about the efficacy and ethics of touring the occupation, the experience inevitably challenges the way foreigners visualize it.

(Photo: Robyn Spencer)

Dr. Spencer pulled up a photo of a segment of the wall, showing political art that has become synonymous with resisting occupation and international solidarity.

Scrawled across the top in red graffiti is W.E.B. Dubois’ question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” which he famously, sardonically posed to fellow black Americans. Underneath it reads “R.I.P. Trayvon,” referring to the racist murder of African American teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.

While some of it has oppositional art and displays of solidarity Spencer said, “the wall still serves its purpose: which is to contain.”

“The idea that there was a [single] wall was quickly replaced by the fact that there are many walls, everywhere,” she added. And “some of them were just gray walls.”

Jesse Rubin

Jesse Rubin is a freelance journalist from New York. Twitter: @JesseJDRubin

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17 Responses

  1. gamal on February 28, 2018, 6:08 pm

    like in the picture the use of web dubois quotes in art has been going on for some time, people like eL Seed something he calls Calligraffiti, sort of huruufiya style, and Umna Zghal, something is brewing i guess

  2. pabelmont on February 28, 2018, 7:03 pm

    It’s always good to learn that leaders — any leaders — of the past have recognized the oppression of Palestinians and spoken out about it. If the USA’s black population (and Hispanic population) could be reminded about these opinions of past leaders and adopt these views, today and tomorrow, in an active way, it would be much harder for the neoliberal (and still dominating) wing of the Democratic Party to maintain its essentially anti-humane pro-Israel stance, irrespective of BIG-ZION’s electoral money. Even immitigably corrupted politicians need votes!

    • Citizen on March 1, 2018, 4:54 pm

      Looks like California Democratic grass roots is taking up that challenge.

  3. RoHa on February 28, 2018, 8:31 pm

    “The U.S. not only accounts for more than 22 percent of prisoners worldwide…”

    I have been told that the US also has 25 percent of the world’s lawyers. Could there be a causal connection?

    • on March 1, 2018, 3:24 pm


    • Citizen on March 1, 2018, 4:56 pm

      According to a study in 2006, America has more lawyers per person of its population than any of 29 countries studied (except Greece), and it spends two to three times as much on its tort system, as a percentage of GDP, as other big economies (except Italy, where things are nearly as bad)

    • gamal on March 3, 2018, 7:09 pm

      i have been told that 94% of cases are pled out, so it’s not justice but it is punishing, Americans are a vengeful people, they do say it brings “closure” maybe so but we all know somethings are best left open

  4. MHughes976 on March 1, 2018, 10:05 am

    The Israeli system, with its decades-long exclusion of people from their homes and property and its persistent exercise of sovereign power over disfranchised people, is a system of minority rule and violation of human rights. It deserves to be opposed whether or not it supports American imperialism or is a drag on Western interests, filling the ME with needless hostility to us – we hear both sides of this topic on Mondoweiss. The bad things and the cruelty would be terrible even if they were part of a Stalinist system confronting the West..

  5. on March 1, 2018, 3:24 pm

    I so hope this union flourishes – US Black leaders, past and present, have been and are wise, insightful and unshakeable in their commitment to human rights and humanity.

    I predict more and more Black Americans will become aware of Israel’s racism and the plight of the Palestinians. Interesting article on Black evangelicals and Israel’s latest racial cleansing –

  6. Kathleen on March 2, 2018, 12:19 pm

    “Palestine was always on her radar” It is wonderful and critical that black social justice human rights activist have become more aware, involved and drawn the parallels between the Palestinian solidarity movement and civil rights in the U.S. This connection has been a long time coming. No need to create myths that it has always been so.

    Sounds like Dr. Robyn Spencer’s lightbulbs were really turned on after she made her visit. Action was ignited. Always better late than never.

    • annie on March 2, 2018, 1:08 pm

      It is wonderful and critical that black social justice human rights activist have become more aware, involved and drawn the parallels between the Palestinian solidarity movement and civil rights in the U.S.

      not just black social justice human rights activists. what’s also critical has been the Palestinian solidarity movement becoming more aware, involved and recognizing the parallels between themselves and the history of black activism in the U.S.

      • Kathleen on March 3, 2018, 4:56 pm


      • gamal on March 3, 2018, 9:42 pm

        “what’s also critical has been the Palestinian solidarity movement becoming more aware”


        “Indeed” Kathleen

        oh, you remember Rafeef Ziadah, Kathleen and Annie, well Damian heard her, Speak Life, also thank you ladies.

      • annie on March 4, 2018, 3:26 am

        the kids today are so smart and they stand on the shoulders of giants…

        so give praises
        one day you may find your oasis
        rise up to the challenge you’re faced with
        be a fool and create it
        you’ll make it
        it’s basics – people been doing it for ages

      • on March 4, 2018, 4:19 pm

        Annie – agreed – It needs to be symbiotic – it does no good to either group otherwise. I so hope this happens on a grand scale. Brothers / sisters in arms (at the risk of sounding a bit dramatic).

  7. Krendall Mist on March 3, 2018, 6:03 am

    You know whatever Spencer said at this conference soft-pedaled that genocide of the Palestinian people is the founding principle and modus exitium of the Jewish and Democratic State.

    She still has a job.

  8. Greta on March 5, 2018, 9:07 am

    It’s interesting that this author didn’t say a word about one of the most famous supporters of Palestine, Muhammed Ali? Is that because he was an advocate for the Nation of Islam and you can’t talk about them any longer?

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