It was an inspiring night of love, solidarity, and movement-building in New York City on January 17, as hundreds of supporters gathered at The People’s Forum to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Existence is Resistance and its co-founder Nancy Mansour, aka Harrabic Tubman.
Known for its grassroots efforts to forge transnational alliances through hip-hop activism and resistance art, Existence is Resistance, or EIR, presented a remarkable program of speeches, music, film, commemorations, and photography that reflected a decade of radical organizing.
Scores of participants from EIR’s past tours to Palestine were joined on the stage by movement luminaries like journalist and activist Rosa Clemente, black liberation activist Pam Africa, former member of the Black Liberation Army Sekou Odinga, spokesman of Neturei Karta Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, New York state Assemblyman Charles Barron, Norman Finkelstein, and Immortal Technique—with a stirring keynote speech by Marc Lamont Hill.
The event, which highlighted the long-standing history of struggle between black and Palestinian liberation movements, was MC’ed by comedian Stevie J who brought an irreverent comedic vibe to an evening of well-earned recognitions.
Existence is Resistance was founded in the early days of 2009 in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, one of Israel’s many brutal attacks on the Gaza strip. Their first international action was to organize a Viva Palestina caravan that brought nearly $2 million worth of humanitarian supplies to the besieged people of Gaza.
Ayman El-Sayed, a co-founder of EIR, said that the trip was unforgettable. “We went from watching Gaza being bombed on TV in January to delivering medical supplies in July. That was very emotional for me. Being forced to leave by the Israeli and Egyptian authorities took a heavy emotional toll, but I felt more determined than ever to keep doing this work.”
Since that first galvanizing journey, the small but dynamic group has organized countless direct action protests, teach-ins, conferences, and most importantly—its well-known hip-hop tours to Palestine, which promote non-violent resistance through culture and the arts.
Over the past decade these annual delegations have brought artists and activists from oppressed communities in the U.S. and the UK to witness the occupation first hand, and to offer workshops for Palestinians in refugee camps and youth centers. Tour participants have included hip-hop artists M-1 from Dead Prez, Low Key, Logic, Marcel Cartier, LC The Poet, and journalists and activists Abby Martin, Lah Tere (formerly of Rebel Diaz).
For Maya Lazzaro, a young U.S.-born Quechua artist, participating in the tour and meeting Palestinians was life changing, “In the Western media, Palestinians are made to seem like such violent people, but there I was greeted and accepted with such tender love…they kept telling me I was family for them now.”
These trips have generated some of EIR’s most visible contributions, including their production “Hip-Hop is Bigger than the Occupation,“ an appearance on the Conan O’Brian show, collaborative performances with the Jenin Freedom Theatre, and the groundbreaking music video for “the first lady of Arabic hip-hop” Shadia Mansour (sister of Nancy Mansour), Al Kufiyyeh 3arabeyyeh, featuring M-1.
The latest project to evolve out of the organization’s solidarity work in Palestine is the forthcoming documentary “Black in the Holy Land,” which aims to raise awareness about marginalized black communities throughout historic Palestine. Mansour has been conducting interviews for years, and the documentary will now be produced and released by Marc Lamont Hill’s production company, 1930 Productions.
Such powerful partnerships are intrinsic to an organization that puts creativity at the center of its mission. Since EIR’s inception, that radical vision has also been represented by the group’s iconic screen printed T-shirts and gear, designed by Brooklyn-based artist and activist Kyle Goen.
Goen says that he was impressed “from the jump” that the organizers of EIR were willing to put the work in. He taught each member how to screen print, and opened his studio to them so that they could make the tees they sell to fund their activities. “My work is a movement-generated art practice, and my collaboration with EIR is based in my firm belief in a free Palestine, both the people and the land,” he said.
Over the course of the celebration, it became clear that EIR has a distinguished record of cultivating relationships not just with youth, but also with seasoned activists and organizers, like Norman Finkelstein, Pam Africa and Sekou Odinga.
Odinga, a founder of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party, spent 33 years as a political prisoner in the United States. He brought some much-needed historical perspective as he briefly outlined some of his history of working with the PLO in its early days in Algeria, Lebanon, and Egypt—and stressed the need for the two peoples to keep struggling together.
That history of mutual support is vitally important in today’s political climate when radical black public figures like Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Tamika Mallory, Michelle Alexander, and Marc Lamont Hill are coming under a coordinated attack by the right-wing pro-Israel lobby and mainstream media.
EIR’s work serves as a powerful reminder of the necessity for transnational, intersectional alliances among communities who fight for liberation. Rabbi Weiss re-emphasized the foundational principle that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism; and the riveting Rosa Clemente gave emphatic voice to the movement’s need to address issues of misogyny, patriarchy, and homophobia, and transphobia.
The evening’s series of tributes ended with a hilarious, fiery, and inspiring speech by scholar, activist, and public intellectual Marc Lamont Hill who valiantly added his voice to the crowd’s sudden and impromptu chant of “Fuck CNN,”—”They can’t fire me twice,” he laughed.
Situating his recent firing from that corporate media giant within the larger context, he reminded the audience of the relative insignificance of a job loss when compared to the sacrifices of fighters like Malcolm X, Dr. King, Che Guevara, and Fred Hampton—and the esteemed elders sitting right there in the room.
Hill’s admiration for the work of Nancy Mansour and EIR was unstinting. “The very idea of Existence of Resistance,” he said, “is to acknowledge that within the context of patriarchal, homophobic, transphobic, capitalist empire, our very bodies, our very existence, our very lives are a threat to power.”
Hill went on to boldly enumerate the ways that just staying alive, having joy, dancing, rapping, telling jokes, and “just being here” are all forms of resistance.
On the heels of Hill’s full address, Rosa Clemente stood to announce that the internationally-known feminist, author, and founder of V-Day, Eve Ensler would be giving EIR $10,000, a staggering sum for an entirely self-funded grassroots organization.
Ensler’s generous donation will be added to EIR’s Go Fund Me campaign, which has set a $100,000 goal for its 2019 summer tour and its collaboration with Playgrounds for Palestine to build and maintain a playground in the Bedouin Black-Palestinian community in Rahat.
“I’m so moved and grateful,” Mansour said, summing up the sentiments of many in the room, “Our 10-year anniversary far exceeded our expectations. The love and support have reaffirmed the importance of our work and have reignited our commitment for another 10 years.”
It was a beautiful closing for a spirited gathering that embodied the belief that grassroots education, art, and music remain essential tools for keeping the voices of hope and community alive.