‘Defunding the police in the United States is Palestine work’: a discussion on solidarity with Sandra Tamari and Khury Petersen-Smith

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In response to the police killing of George Floyd, and the subsequent uprisings throughout the world, the Palestinian advocacy group Adalah Justice Project put out a stirring statement of solidarity with the black community.

“What does justice look like? A world in which Black people no longer have to fear for their lives and where Black communities thrive,” it reads, “All our knowledge, critique, and resistance to Israeli state violence can help us grab at the root of structural racism in the United States to weed it out permanently. We understand that all racism and oppression, including white supremacy and Zionism, are underpinned by anti-Blackness. It is our duty to resist. We encourage you to find ways to be a part of this rebellion of love for Black life.”

Mondoweiss spoke with Sandra Tamari, a Palestinian organizer based in St. Louis, Missouri and is the Executive Director of the Adalah Justice Project, and Khury Petersen-Smith, the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-founder of Black for Palestine about the current moment.

The AJP statement on the protests reads, “As we recognize the connections between the Palestinian and Black struggles, we must also recognize that there are historical and contextual differences between our struggles.”

Can you explain some of that context and what you believe transnational solidarity should look like at this time?

Sandra Tamari

Sandra Tamari: This is a moment for radical solidarity. It is a time to be humble as Palestine organizers to understand the fight for justice is a multi-front battle. Our call right now is to lift up the Black struggle against injustice. In doing that, we are not saying that Palestinian concerns about Israeli state violence or annexation are less important. Instead we are recognizing the four centuries of pain and trauma Blacks in the United States have faced and understand that when Black people are free, all of us are free. When Black people in the U.S. win, Palestine wins. We are both fighting against state-sanctioned, systematic racism that is upheld by violence. Our collective liberation is what’s at stake.

Khury Petersen-Smith

Khury Petersen-Smith: Solidarity lies in recognizing that our oppression–and our freedom–are bound together.  But the fact that Palestinian and Black realities are bound together does not mean that they are exactly the same.  Each group of people has our own histories of oppression and resistance, and our own unique circumstances–even if there are plenty of connections.  

Recognizing what is unique about the situation for Black people in the US, and that for Palestinians, doesn’t do anything to undermine our solidarity.  It can make it much stronger.  The Black revolutionary Assata Shakur wrote in her autobiography that, “once you understand something about the history of a people, their heroes, their hardships and sacrifices, it’s easier to struggle with them, to support their struggle.”  It is so inspiring that Palestinian folks and many, many others are feeling compelled to come into the streets and otherwise be part of this uprising.  It is also an opportunity to commit to the kind of knowledge that Assata is talking about.  She’s right–that will better prepare people to support and fight for the demands of the Black freedom struggle.

Tamari: Yes, Khury. In the same way, I am always surprised by people who have dedicated their lives to fighting for Palestine who have never read a Palestinian author or studied our traditions. We must be committed to going deeper in our knowledge so we can understand the demands of the people. 

I’m also curious how the demands of the movement for Black lives should influence or impact the Palestine solidarity movement’s demands in the US? Are there examples of intersectional organizing that you would hold up as models? Where do you think the focus of the Palestine Solidarity Movement should be right now?

Palestinian feminists from the Ta3lat movement organized protests across historic Palestine on June 9 demanding justice for Eyad al-Halaq and expressing solidarity with the Black liberation struggle in the US. (Photo: Alaa Daraghme)

Tamari: Defunding the police in the United States is Palestine work. We must build an international abolitionist movement to root out the U.S. empire and militarism at home and abroad. Standing up against Israeli annexation of Palestinian land, against the theft of indigenous lands across the so-called United States and calling for end of US funding to Israel are part of the Black freedom struggle. We have the same foe, and our struggles must be united. 

The U.S. uses war to expand territory and power. Defunding police and demanding indigenous sovereignty in this country are integral expressions of the Palestinian struggle for freedom as they are also fronts in the fight against U.S. militarism.

Petersen-Smith: Of course there is so much violence that Israeli apartheid is carrying out–including its pursuit of annexation–and resistance continues in Palestine.  I agree with Sanda–we cannot forget about these things, and solidarity with the revolt here doesn’t diminish their importance.  The challenge for us is: how do we build solidarity that is expansive enough to hold all of these things?  We need to hold the ongoing Palestinian freedom struggle in our hands and our minds as we do everything we can to ensure that this uprising goes as far as it possibly can.  Consider the benefits: because of the uprisings, more people than ever before are questioning how police in this country are trained and funded, why so many of our resources go to the state for violence and oppression, and how to reorder those priorities.  Palestine solidarity activists have been calling attention to these things for years, and now there is a breakthrough in public conversation about them, thanks to Black-led rebellion.  So we need to embrace the uprisings in order to support Black freedom, that of Palestinians, and other oppressed groups of people.  We are seeing glimpses of Alicia Garza’s maxim that “when Black people get free, everybody gets free” in real time.

We’ve seen Islamophobic/anti-Arab policies implemented at the federal level over last few years, but much of policing is a local issue. I am wondering if you had any thoughts about the way these communities are policed and the need to develop alternatives in response to the violence we keep seeing?

Tamari: For twenty years, the U.S. has been waging a “war on terror” which superseded the “war on drugs” as the reason to surveil, incarcerate, and hunt people of color across the globe. As Palestinians and Palestine organizers, we have a strong critique of what the federal government is doing to target Muslims and Arabs for exercising their free speech rights or simply raising money for their communities abroad who are suffering under U.S. bombs or sanctions. We need to apply that same critique to policing. The response to the uprisings across the country at the state and municipal level has given people a view of what a foreign invasion and occupation looks like and what Black communities have been facing since the beginning of this country. It’s important to note that police budgets at the city level, like the military budget at the federal level, take up about half of all available funds. The Black movement demands to defund the police are a mirror of our demands for the U.S. to end funding to Israel and all war-making projects. Both are demands that the U.S. divest from violence and invest our taxpayer money into systems that protect and uplift communities.

Petersen-Smith: I think that the separation between policing at the federal and local levels is exaggerated to undermine a national conversation about police violence.  The fact is that these things are deeply integrated.  Islamophobic programs and practices, carried out by federal agencies in the name of “fighting terrorism,” have been used to promote  collaboration and integration of police forces at all levels.  From the Joint Terrorism Task Force to exercises like Urban Shield, to Countering Violent Extremism, a central project of the federal government’s “homeland security” has been building extensive coordination with local police.  This has encouraged local police departments to carry out practices that target Muslims and people of Middle Eastern and South Asian origin–and Palestine solidarity activists too.

There is also extensive integration between local police and federal agencies when it comes to policing Black people.  Following the Ferguson Uprising in 2014, the FBI coordinated with local police departments to repress the protests across the country.  Today we are seeing the same thing.  For me, the point is that the various bodies of the state–from federal agencies like Homeland Security and the FBI–to state and local law enforcement, all work hand-in-hand with the same priorities.  

These forces have been able to achieve so much in targeting Muslims and others as part of the domestic War on Terror because of the deeply anchored foundation of policing in this country, which was crafted in oppressing the Black population in particular.  Policing that is integrated at all levels needs to be resisted at all levels.  That’s our challenge.  Solidarity with the fight for Black freedom is important in its own right.  But any setback for police departments in their ability to kill and abuse Black people with impunity will also benefit other groups of people who face police repression.

Tamari: The targeting of Black organizers in Ferguson continues to this day. In St Louis, organizer Mike Avery is facing federal charges for inciting violence, in other words for being a terrorist, for social media posts he made concerning the protests in Minneapolis. Mike’s family reports that  30 FBI agents showed up to his house to arrest him in front of his family. The war on terror has no borders. 

The vision that Black organizers are putting forward now, a vision grounded in abolition, is not only to divest from systems of harm, but also to invest in the housing, food, mental health services, and education that will make policing unnecessary. Some people see these demands as unreasonable or unrealistic. But those same criticisms were directed at freedom fighters who fought to abolish slavery. Just like we demand that BDS not be watered down to only target Israeli settlements in the West Bank, we reject any effort to weaken Black demands for police abolition.

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