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.”
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.
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.”