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In Ferguson and Beyond, Ties Between Black and Arab Struggles for Justice Are Growing

Young activists are building a multiracial movement for justice, making the connections between racist violence like the killing of Mike Brown and the occupation of Palestine.

BY Muhammad Sankari

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Those who attended the #FergusonOctober events heard “Palestine” mentioned many times from the podium, and perhaps saw a contingent of dozens of young people—Arab, Black, and Latino—marching with signs and banners in Arabic and English, as well as the ubiquitous presence of the Palestinian flag held not only by Arabs but also by many African Americans.

Among the many lessons from the struggle in Ferguson is that ties between the Arab, especially Palestinian, community and the Black community both in Ferguson and nationally are growing.

Observers of the people’s uprising in Ferguson over the past several months since the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, by white police officer Darren Wilson may have been surprised to notice these links. Those who attended the #FergusonOctober events heard “Palestine” mentioned many times from the podium, and perhaps saw a contingent of dozens of young people—Arab, Black, and Latino—marching with signs and banners in Arabic and English, as well as the ubiquitous presence of the Palestinian flag held not only by Arabs but also by many African Americans.

The reasons for this collaboration are many. Young Arab activists have drawn parallels between the struggle for Palestinian liberation and the struggle for Black liberation and participated as individuals in the protests in Ferguson. Palestine solidarity organizations (made up mostly of non-Arabs and non-Palestinians) organized for the mobilizations. And most importantly, Arab community-based organizations, which have a longstanding tradition of Black/Arab joint struggle, are now playing a leading role in the people’s movement, bringing the issue of Palestine to Ferguson. In all of these cases, activists and organizations from the Black community have worked to connect Arab activists and organizers to the broader Black community in Ferguson.

A clear example is the work of U.S. Palestinian Community Network (USPCN) members Suhad Khatib and Sandra Tamari, who, from the first day of the people’s uprising, have been participating in the organizing, mobilizing, and actions in Ferguson. Through their work with USPCN and the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), Khatib and Tamari have preexisting ties to the St. Louis-based Organization of Black Struggle (OBS), a group that fights for political empowerment, economic justice and the cultural dignity of the African-American community, especially the Black working class.

The two have worked to build community connections instead of just individual connections in St. Louis. Because of their relationship with OBS, they were able to immediately become involved in the Ferguson movement. Khatib opened her home to organizers from across the country, played a role in leading the Palestine Support contingent in #FergusonOctober, and recently hosted a delegation of Palestinian youth who came to learn about the Black struggle in Ferguson. And it was Khatib who, at the #FergusonOctober downtown march, proclaimed from the podium, “Black liberation leads to liberation for all!”

This spirit has animated USPCN’s work across the country, including organizing for Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian leader who was recently railroaded to prison by the U.S. Attorney in Detroit. Odeh is a Palestinian elder who has been organizing for over 40 years across the Arab world and most recently in Chicago. She holds a master’s degree in criminal justice and often speaks of the desperate need of reform for the criminal justice system. Her work in Chicago through the Arab American Action Network bridges Arab, Black, and Latino communities through a simultaneous focus on racial justice and immigrant rights. In fact, after her arrest, one of the first organizations that wrote a statement of support for Odeh was the United African Organization in Chicago.

Odeh’s community organizing work has always been rooted in a vision of social justice and dignity for all people. These beliefs were central to the defense campaign spearheaded by USPCN. Thousands of people have rallied across the world and signed petitions calling for the government to drop the charges against her. Hundreds more have written letters to the judge asking him to release her pending sentencing. At the emergency rally protesting her imprisonment in Chicago, longtime organizers from the Black and Filipino communities spoke of continuing to promote the community and political connections Odeh made daily in her work with Arab immigrant women.

The story of Rasmea Odeh and the work of Khatib and Tamari in Ferguson hold important lessons: First, that there are already longstanding ties between Palestinian and Black communities in the United States, and second, that the historical ties are being re-envisioned—not just by individual activists mobilizing alone, but by organizers moving community members into action.

This has led to an increasing backlash against the Black and Arab/Muslim communities by the organized racist right wing. In a response to a recent conference call hosted by the group “Muslims for Ferguson,” a loosely organized group of American Muslims supporting campaigns in Ferguson to seek justice for Brown, Fox News published an article claiming that it was an example of Muslims infiltrating and attempting to co-opt a movement of Black struggle in the United States.

The article is standard fare for Fox, but it is of particular note because it exposes the connections between organized anti-Muslim and anti-Black forces. Quoted extensively in the Fox News article is Kyle Shideler of the Center for Security Policy, an organization led by Frank Gaffney, a man who has driven anti-Muslim hysteria  by claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood is organizing a Muslim takeover of the United States.

 The article demonstrates the current strategy of some on the far right to attempt to pit oppressed nationality groups in this country against each other. The strategy includes efforts from the futile to the ridiculous, such as artificially creating a Black presence in anti-immigrant formations to hosting a website that brings “conservative activism to the hip hop generation.”

The organized racist far right in this country clearly sees the same thing that those of us on the ground see: A nationwide movement that is growing, linking activists across oppressed nationality groups through the creation of real community ties. Articles like the Fox piece reveal that the Right is desperate.

Though the Ferguson Grand Jury tragically decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson last night, activists from various backgrounds are taking advantage of this moment to build a real movement for racial justice, in this country and abroad. And if the cross-racial solidarity developing on the ground in Ferguson is any indication, oppressed communities will one day reach justice together.

Muhammad Sankari is an organizer at the Arab American Action Network in Chicago.

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