Anti-police brutality protests — initially triggered by the police killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri — are ongoing throughout the United States, allowing many to learn the history of the systemic violence against the Black body in the US. In turn, minorities sharing similar struggles against oppression have been joining these demonstrations in solidarity. Of particular note are the Palestinians, both in the diaspora and in their homeland, who are drawing connections between their oppression by the Israeli state and racial oppression of Black people in the US.
This recognition has manifested itself in joint organizing efforts between Arab-American and African-American grassroots groups. Throughout the United States, activists protesting police brutality can be heard invoking the Palestinian cause. For example, when a large group of Stanford students shut down the San Mateo Bridge in California’s San Francisco Bay Area to protest police brutality, protesters held up a large Palestinian flag. Similarly, activists — from Palestine, Syria, the Philippines and Korea — engaged in a direct action aimed at reclaiming the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Oakland asserted the need to link their movements together.
On social media, Palestinians have given advice to Ferguson protesters on how to resist police crackdowns, shared their grief and sent them messages of support through hashtag ‘Palestine2Ferguson.’ Offline, nearly 100 students at Birzeit University in the West Bank took part in an event last December proclaiming solidarity with the Black struggle against racial oppression.
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On the other hand, a group of US-based artists, journalists, and anti-police-brutality activists recently took a “historic solidarity trip” to Palestine. Participants in the 10-day trip aimed to learn from Palestinian activists, build relationships, and forge connections between the African-American and Palestinian liberation movements. The activists — from the groups Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100, and Hands Up United — concluded their trip with a flash mob demonstration in Nazareth in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
However, Ferguson is not the same as Palestine. Racial oppression of Black people in the United States is rooted in a different history than Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. But the differences illuminate how interconnected and mutually-supporting power systems operate in different contexts. The United States and Israel are both institutionally racist societies that use similar methods of state violence and learn from each other on how to control Black people and Palestinians, respectively.
From Slave Patrols to Police Departments: The Ongoing War on Black People
Systematic violence against Black people in the United States dates back to the transatlantic slave trade. The enslavement of Black African people built modern capitalism and created a racial hierarchy in the US, with whites at the top and Blacks on bottom, that still exists in multiple arenas of life: politics, economics, media, education, criminal justice, and foreign policy.
European slave-masters feared slave rebellions, which were a regular feature on plantations, and so they reigned with terror by inflicting systematic violence on Black Africans. Masters beat and tortured slaves, while armed slave patrols monitored, stop-and-frisked, arrested, and brutalized free or enslaved Black Africans. The slave patrol system played a significant role in birthing modern American policing, as those patrols later became police departments. In fact, social control of “dangerous classes” of people who were deemed inherently criminal (the poor, homeless, Black people, immigrants), rather than just crime control, has long been a key role of American police since their inception. Police were also created to fight labor protests.
While slavery ended, systematic racist violence against Black people did not. During the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, Black people were regularly lynched by racist white mobs in the southern United States to keep Black people in their place. Police in northern cities harassed, beat, and killed unarmed Black people. For example, in 1964, off-duty white policeman Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan shot and killed a Black student named James Powell in the Upper East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. This event sparked the Harlem Riot of 1964 and similar uprisings throughout the country.
Police militarization and expansion of the prison system were a response to the militancy of the Black liberation movement, which protested racist police brutality and socioeconomic inequality. The FBI’s COINTELPRO viciously suppressed Black radical groups through surveillance, use of informants and provocateurs, exploiting internal divisions, and even political assassinations. On December 4, 1969, Chicago police assassinated Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, with help from the FBI, shooting him while asleep in his home.
The system of racial oppression outlived Jim Crow, because of men like President Richard Nixon, who told his chief of staff, “[Y]ou have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Policing and mass incarceration, under the guise of “law and order,” became key tools for that goal.
Today the US has the largest prison population in the world, with over 2.4 million prisoners. This is largely due to harsh sentencing laws and drug criminalization. Black people are more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses than whites, even though they use drugs at similar rates and white people are more likely to deal drugs than Blacks. Over 60 percent of people behind bars are nonwhite and 40 percent of the prison population is African-American, even though Blacks make up 13 percent of the US population.
Additionally, US police have embraced a “get tough” mindset to tackling crime since the 1960s. Particularly in urban areas, police emphasize order-maintenance, which focuses on cracking down on petty offenses like loitering, disorderly conduct, or vandalism to preserve “order” and prevent bigger crimes. This does little to reduce crime but it does criminalize certain groups of people, especially Black and brown people and the homeless, by arresting them for petty crimes.
Police also kill Black and other non white people in disproportionate numbers. Every 28 hours, a Black person is killed by a police officer, security guard, or vigilante, according to a 2013 Malcolm X Grassroots Movement study. Additionally, based on a ProPublica analysis of FBI data on police killings, young Black males are 21 times more likely to be fatally shot by police than young white males. From 1980 to 2012, more than half the victims of fatal police shootings were people of color — Blacks, Latinos, and Asians. Oftentimes this consists of white police killing Black people. So often that, according to a USA Today report on similar FBI data, a white police officer kills a Black person nearly twice a week. Military-style no-knock raids carried out by police and SWAT teams, usually to search for drugs, primarily impact nonwhite communities. These raids tear up homes, often find little to no drugs, and wound or kill innocent people.
Black people are assumed to be more violent and criminal than other racial groups — a stereotype — removed from reality — with roots in slavery. So called “Black-on-Black” crime — homicides, robberies, and property offenses with Black victims and Black offenders — is at its lowest point in decades, decreasing at a faster rate than “white-on-white” crime. Crime is committed by all races, including mass shootings carried out by white males. Meanwhile, US government agencies and large corporations and financial institutions, predominantly headed by powerful white men, regularly commit crimes, such as aggressive war, torture, money-laundering, and economic plunder with impunity. While crimes by the powerful harm greater numbers of people, they are insufficiently tracked by the FBI’s official crime database and, thus, left out of mainstream discourse on “crime.”
Criminalization of Black life also exists within the education system. Black students are suspended more often and face harsher discipline than their white peers.
A Shared Systematic Structure of Oppression
White supremacy in the United States is different than Zionism in Israel. However, dehumanizing and subjugating Black people — from slavery to Jim Crow to modern-day institutionalized racism — is woven deep into the fabric of American society, just as dehumanizing Palestinians runs deep in Israel’s settler-colonial society. Both are premised on placing one group over another. Repressing Black people has long been a key goal of American apartheid and empire, while expelling Palestinians is the goal of Israeli colonialism. Like African-Americans, Palestinians have been the targets of systematic dehumanization, which serves to justify the violence leveled against them by their respective oppressors.
The criminalization of Black life mirrors the dehumanization of Palestinians, as such “Black” is synonymous with “crime” the way “Palestinian” is synonymous with “terrorist” in Occupied Palestine. The oppression of Palestinians is rooted in the Zionist colonization of Palestinian land and the continued expulsion and cleansing of the Palestinian people so their dehumanizing is the ideological lubricant of Israel’s settler-colonial project. Palestinians are broadly assumed to be terrorists by a state that occupies them militarily, discriminates against them in multiple facets of society, wages perpetual war in their communities and even restricts their calorie intake. In order to establish a purely-Jewish state, Israel treats the very existence of Palestinians as a threat, dubbing the birth of Palestinian children “demographic threats.”
To maintain this state, Israel does everything in its power to expel Palestinians from their indigenous lands and wages a variety of wars on their very existence and presence. This means that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian victims of Israel’s wars are civilians. As of the end of October 2014, Israel holds 5,447 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, including 365 prisoners in the Gaza Strip, according to B’Tselem. This is in addition to 1,188 Palestinian prisoners, 22 from Gaza, languishing in Israel Prison Service facilities for being in Israel “illegally.” Like Black people in the US, Palestinians are routinely abused or killed by Israeli security forces and settlers. At checkpoints, Palestinians are constantly abused by Israeli security forces, usually in the form of a slap, kick, insult, pointless delay, or any form of degradation. Other times, it can be fatal. Between the end of the 2008-2009 Gaza War and the end of October 2014, Israeli security forces killed 603 Palestinians. This is not counting the fatalities of Israel’s latest attack on Gaza, which killed over 2,100 Palestinians, most of whom were civilians.
US and Israel: Suppressing Dissent As a Shared Value
After 9/11 and the Second Intifada, the United States and Israel, respectively, emphasized counterterrorism and framed “terror” as the number-one enemy. It was right around this time that American and Israeli security forces began training together and sharing tactics. This was a complimentary addition to the roughly $3 billion a year that the US gives Israel in aid, mostly military, which maintains Israel’s occupation.
Since 9/11, US police from at least 300 law enforcement agencies throughout the country regularly travel to Israel on privately-funded trips for counterterrorism training from Israeli experts. Topics include “preventing and responding to terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, the evolution of terrorist operations and tactics, security for transit infrastructure, intelligence sharing, and balancing crime fighting and anti-terrorism efforts. The training also touches on ways to use Israel’s counterinsurgency tactics to control crowds during protests and riots”, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting. American police also get to “the operations of the Israeli national police, the Israel Defense Forces, the Israeli Border Patrol and the country’s intelligence services.” A few law enforcement agencies that received counterterrorism training in Israel were deployed in Ferguson. To strengthen ties with Israeli security forces, two years ago, the New York Police Department opened a branch in Israel at the Kfar Saba headquarters of Israel Police.
During an interview with an organizer with anti-prison group Critical Resistance and the Block the Boat campaign in Oakland, Mohamed Shekh explained to Al-Akhbar English, “The US works very closely with Israel on ‘counterterrorism’ and they learn from each other on how to better repress and control our communities. If we’re going to name it specifically, we can just see it as a trade-off. The US gives Israel over $3 billion a year that is very crucial to help maintain its occupation of the Palestinian people and its siege on Gaza. And then Israel, using the West Bank and Gaza as laboratories to test technologies to control protesters and crack down on dissent, shares its knowledge with the US. So it takes those lessons and sends them back to the US or brings US police forces and law enforcement to train with them.”
The cooperation goes deeper. According to Truthout and bills of lading, Israeli ZIM ships docking at the US’ Port of Savannah regularly carry 5.56mm and 9mm ammunition manufactured by Israel Military Industries and imported by Alliant Techsystems subsidiary Federal Premium Ammunition. Alliant and Federal Premium sell ammunition to the US military and other law enforcement agencies.
At a protest which successfully blocked the docking of an Israeli ZIM ship at the Port of Oakland last October, in attendance was Cyndi Mitchell, whose brother Mario Romero was killed by Vallejo police in 2012. Romero, a 23-year-old Black male, was shot over 30 times by a police officer while still in his car. He was unarmed. The only thing police found in Romero’s car was a non-lethal pellet gun. Cyndi Mitchell attended the protest to share her brother’s story and lend solidarity to the struggle for Palestinian rights. “When this happened, it opened our eyes to a lot of stuff that’s going on in the world. A lot of oppression. A lot of terrorism,” Mitchell told Al-Akhbar English.
“America touts itself as ‘the land of the free,’ and that’s not true, that’s a lie. Because we’re not free. I stand in solidarity with anybody that’s fighting oppression, that’s standing up for justice and equality for people. Because we all are human and we all deserve to be treated equal. There shouldn’t be one group of people that are held better than us and that’s what’s going on. I support everybody because I know how it feels. I’m trying to make sure I get my story out while I learn these stories. Because I know how it feels to not feel like you have anybody and feel like you’re a sitting duck and like you’re going to die because nobody knows what’s going on and the police can kill you and they have the last say-so on your life,” she added.
In the US and Israel, Black people and Palestinians, respectively, are oppressed by institutional racism, militarism, and state violence. The solidarity efforts between African-American and Palestinian activists highlight how each community is not only learning from each other but are also internationalizing their struggles. Given that the same US government that oppresses Black people also backs Israeli colonialism, activists in both the Black and Palestinian liberation struggles are realizing that their liberation is not possible without the liberation of their oppressed comrades. One Palestinian-American protester, Reem Assil, told Electronic Intifada, “My role as a Palestinian American is inextricably tied to the Black struggle and it is imperative to stand side by side to fight racist wars.” Activist Cherrell Brown, who went on the Palestine solidarity trip, said in Countercurrent News, “So many parallels exist between how the US polices, incarcerates, and perpetuates violence on the Black community and how the Zionist state that exists in Israel perpetuates the same on Palestinians. This is not to say there aren’t vast differences and nuances that need to always be named, but our oppressors are literally collaborating together, learning from one another – and as oppressed people we have to do the same.”
Activists need not reinvent the wheel, however. There is a long and rich history of Black internationalism that has always connected Black liberation with the liberation of other colonized, Third World peoples — from Latin America to Algeria to the Philippines and to Palestine. Today’s solidarity efforts are continuing that legacy.