Marc Lamont Hill Has Secured His Place in the Proud Black Anti-Colonial Tradition

Black radicals have long connected their struggle to the plight of Palestinians.

Eli Day December 11, 2018

Dr. Marc Lamont Hill speaks on stage during "Stand With Meek Mill" Rally on June 18, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/WireImage)

When Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor Marc Lam­ont Hill hit the Unit­ed Nations in late Novem­ber to uplift the strug­gle for Pales­tin­ian human rights, he did so with an urgency Black rad­i­cals have brought for decades.

It’s no surprise that Black radicals the world over came to view the Palestinians as engaged in a struggle like their own, against a colonial power that was grinding them underfoot.

Address­ing the glob­al body on the Inter­na­tion­al Day of Sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Pales­tin­ian Peo­ple, Hill rebuked the Israeli government’s bru­tal treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans, who live under an inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized ille­gal occu­pa­tion that fits the legal def­i­n­i­tion of apartheid.

Up to that point, Hill had worked as a CNN com­men­ta­tor and ana­lyst, where he often exposed Unit­ed States’ vio­lent his­to­ry of racism, sex­ism and impe­r­i­al aggres­sion. But it was his UN per­for­mance, and specif­i­cal­ly his call for a free Pales­tin­ian from the riv­er to sea,” that final­ly got him ban­ished from the net­work. In mak­ing that rad­i­cal demand — that Pales­tini­ans ought to live free from dis­crim­i­na­tion in a state where every­one has equal rights to par­tic­i­pate in the nation’s polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al life — Hill rec­og­nized sim­i­lar­i­ties between that strug­gle and the one waged by Black Amer­i­cans. He assert­ed that, as a Black Amer­i­can, he was well acquaint­ed with how one can be called to resist oppres­sion in the way the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple had. In his own words:

As a Black Amer­i­can, my under­stand­ing of action, and sol­i­dar­i­ty action, is root­ed in our own tra­di­tion of strug­gle. As Black Amer­i­cans resist­ed slav­ery as well as Jim Crow laws that trans­formed us from a slave state to an apartheid state we did so through mul­ti­ple tac­tics and strategies.”

… Con­trary to west­ern mythol­o­gy, black resis­tance to Amer­i­can apartheid did not come pure­ly through Gand­hi­an non­vi­o­lence. Rather, slave revolts and self-defense and tac­tics oth­er­wise diverg­ing from Dr. Kind of Mahat­ma Gand­hi were equal­ly impor­tant to pre­serv­ing safe­ty and attain­ing free­dom. … If we are stand­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple, we must rec­og­nize the right of an occu­pied peo­ple to defend itself.

We must pri­or­i­tize peace, but we must not roman­ti­cize or fetishize it. We must advo­cate and pro­mote non­vi­o­lence at every oppor­tu­ni­ty, but we can­not endorse a nar­row pol­i­tics of respectabil­i­ty that shames Pales­tini­ans for resist­ing, for refus­ing to do noth­ing in the face of state vio­lence and eth­nic cleansing.

… We have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to not just offer sol­i­dar­i­ty in words, but to com­mit to polit­i­cal action, grass­roots action, local action, and inter­na­tion­al action that will give us what jus­tice requires — and that is a free Pales­tine from the riv­er to the sea.

What came next was a firestorm of charges that his words were those of a rav­ing anti-semi­te hell-bent on Israel’s anni­hi­la­tion. Hill did a fine job defend­ing him­self in a string of tweets. He also penned a thought­ful reflec­tion on the episode at the Philadel­phia Inquir­er. In it, Hill fills in some for­got­ten, if not will­ful­ly ignored, details about the his­to­ry and lan­guage of Pales­tin­ian lib­er­a­tion. He man­ages to reflect sober­ly on the heat that lan­guage can gen­er­ate while refus­ing to apol­o­gize for — or retreat from — his unflinch­ing sup­port of Pales­tin­ian rights. It is a dif­fi­cult tight rope to walk and he does it with remark­able grace.

Against impe­r­i­al power

As Hill would be the first to note, his remarks were ground­ed in a tra­di­tion that stretch­es back gen­er­a­tions. Over the years, rad­i­cal Black activists and cul­tur­al fig­ures have rou­tine­ly linked up with their Pales­tin­ian coun­ter­parts as they trav­el their own dis­tinct — but sim­i­lar — paths. As Pro­fes­sor Robin D.G. Kel­ley of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia — Los Ange­les notes, there was noth­ing inevitable about this alliance. Sol­i­dar­i­ty takes strug­gle,” he tells In These Times. In oth­er words, forg­ing some­thing durable and mean­ing­ful was only made pos­si­ble through tire­less work across years of strug­gle filled with hard lessons and shat­ter­ing losses.

Take Israel’s 1948 found­ing. Black lead­ers and the Black press, for the most part, were jubi­lant,” Kel­ley writes in his book Apartheid Israel: the Pol­i­tics of an Anal­o­gy. He high­lights the words of the NAACP, a pow­er­ful organ of the Black polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment at the time, which argued that the valiant strug­gle of the peo­ple of Israel for inde­pen­dence serves as an inspi­ra­tion to all per­se­cut­ed peo­ple through­out the world.” That atti­tude was shared by rad­i­cal voic­es of the era from A. Philip Ran­dolph to W.E.B. DuBois, and a Black press that over­whelm­ing­ly por­trayed Arabs as the bru­tal, blood­thirsty aggres­sors,” writes Kelley.

They iden­ti­fied with the found­ing of Israel, because they rec­og­nized Euro­pean Jew­ry as an oppressed and home­less peo­ple deter­mined to build a nation,” Kel­ley writes. In oth­er words, ear­ly Black enthu­si­asm for Israel’s estab­lish­ment grew out of a desire to see an oppressed Jew­ish peo­ple, dev­as­tat­ed by the lethal effi­cien­cy of the Holo­caust, set free from the pow­er anoth­er group had over their lives.

But the young nation of Israel itself sat atop a moun­tain of dev­as­ta­tion — rough­ly 750,000 Pales­tini­ans had been eth­ni­cal­ly cleansed from the land in a bru­tal episode known as the Nak­ba, or Day of Cat­a­stro­phe.” And that nation was launched through a process of set­tler colo­nial­ism, with Israel — backed by impe­r­i­al pow­ers — emerg­ing as a bru­tal colo­nial power.

That uncrit­i­cal sup­port of Black fig­ures would soon trans­form into some­thing else entire­ly. Between the 1956 inva­sion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel, and the 1967 war that kicked off Israel’s ille­gal occu­pa­tion, what­ev­er fog was blind­ing the more rad­i­cal cor­ners of the Civ­il Rights move­ment began to clear. From Mal­colm X to the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee (SNCC) to the Black Pan­ther Par­ty, many Black free­dom fight­ers were jolt­ed by what these inci­dents revealed: The Pales­tin­ian peo­ple had been sac­ri­ficed to Israel’s colo­nial project.

At the time, resis­tance to impe­r­i­al pow­er was in full bloom. Fol­low­ing World War II, count­less Third World nations were throw­ing off the shack­les of their colo­nial mas­ters. It’s no sur­prise that Black rad­i­cals the world over came to view the Pales­tini­ans as engaged in a strug­gle like their own, against a colo­nial pow­er that was grind­ing them under­foot. As Kel­ley observes in Apartheid Israel, Mal­colm con­clud­ed that Zion­ism rep­re­sent­ed a new form of colo­nial­ism,’ dis­guised behind bib­li­cal claims and phil­an­thropic rhetoric, but still based on the sub­ju­ga­tion and dis­pos­ses­sion of indige­nous peo­ple and backed by U.S. dol­lar­ism.’”

A new generation

Today, a new gen­er­a­tion of activists has picked up where pre­vi­ous ones left off. The year 2014 saw what Kel­ley calls anoth­er Free­dom Sum­mer,” a call­back to the bloody months of 1964 when SNCC mem­bers bat­tled Mis­sis­sip­pi apartheid. Fifty years lat­er, in the wake of the police mur­der of unarmed Black teenag­er Michael Brown in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, Black youth were sculpt­ing their enor­mous grief into a move­ment against the long and ongo­ing his­to­ry of vio­lence against Black com­mu­ni­ties, and its ori­gins in Amer­i­can pol­i­cy. At the same time, and over 6,000 miles away, the peo­ple of Gaza, 50 per­cent of whom are chil­dren, were being blown away by the thou­sands at the hands of Israel’s U.S.-funded war machine. What fol­lowed was a burst of sol­i­dar­i­ty shoot­ing across each side of the Atlantic.

Kris­t­ian Davis Bai­ley offers in an insight­ful primer on this chap­ter for the aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nal Amer­i­can Quar­ter­ly. The Fer­gu­son-Gaza moment,” Bai­ley writes, marked an increase in main­stream U.S. polit­i­cal aware­ness and momen­tum shift for both Black and Pales­tin­ian Lib­er­a­tion strug­gles.” Over the months and years since, the move­ments have cross-pollinated.

In 2015, a vast array of promi­nent Black schol­ars, thinkers and orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing Angela Davis and Cor­nel West and Flori­da’s Dream Defend­ers, signed a state­ment declar­ing their com­mit­ment to work­ing through cul­tur­al, eco­nom­ic, and polit­i­cal means to ensure Pales­tin­ian lib­er­a­tion at the same time as we work towards our own.” And in that same year, Pro­fes­sor Hill him­self trav­eled with mem­bers of Dream Defend­ers and Black Lives Mat­ter, among oth­ers, to Pales­tine and Israel where they held a demon­stra­tion against the occu­pa­tion, eth­nic cleans­ing and bru­tal­i­ty Israel has levied against Palestinians.”

There are sig­nif­i­cant and unmis­tak­able dif­fer­ences between the two peo­ples’ expe­ri­ences. For exam­ple, take the way each is viewed by those who con­trol their lives. The species of apartheid that defined South Africa and the Jim Crow South­ern Unit­ed States relied on Black pop­u­la­tions as a cheap, and often unpaid, work­force. Mean­while, the Pales­tini­ans of Gaza, who Israeli lead­ers have placed on a diet,” are almost an entire­ly unwant­ed, sur­plus pop­u­la­tion. This con­clu­sion has been echoed by some of those who fought to van­quish South African apartheid. Trav­el­ing with a group of South African activists vis­it­ing Israel in 2008, Israeli jour­nal­ist Gideon Levy writes of them describ­ing con­di­tions in Gaza and the West Bank as worse than any­thing they knew under apartheid.”

But for activists, the resem­blances have been too many and too strik­ing to ignore. Each saw in the oth­er glimpses of their own har­row­ing jour­ney: a poor, Black and Brown peo­ple locked away in ghet­tos try­ing des­per­ate­ly to break free. Pales­tini­ans watched as Black out­rage in Fer­gu­son was met by a police force (and police chief who was one thou­sands of Amer­i­can offi­cers who’ve received train­ing in Israel) armed to the teeth with mil­i­tary-grade weapon­ry. Many Pales­tini­ans imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized the impos­si­ble odds their coun­ter­parts faced as famil­iar: They had also faced a vast­ly supe­ri­or force. And the press had also writ­ten about them as if their rocks and bod­ies were even­ly matched with the world’s most sophis­ti­cat­ed mil­i­tary weapon­ry. And when those peo­ple were being tear gassed in the streets of Fer­gu­son, with the exact same brand of tear gas that Pales­tini­ans are so often bom­bard­ed with, Pales­tini­ans offered strate­gies on how to weath­er the ordeal.

For rad­i­cal Black Amer­i­cans, who hail from com­mu­ni­ties that are policed and impris­oned under a sys­tem that ren­ders poor Black life crim­i­nal, it’s easy to iden­ti­fy with a peo­ple liv­ing, as Gazans do, in an open-air prison.”

Mass action across the coun­try,” Bai­ley writes, occurred just as U.S. out­cry against Israel’s 50-day war on the Gaza Strip reached its fever pitch. Pro­test­ers from Oak­land to New York chant­ed from Fer­gu­son to Pales­tine, occu­pa­tion is a crime’ and began to high­light con­nec­tions between the two struggles.”

It is in the spir­it of this tra­di­tion that Hill made his remarks. It is not the only tra­di­tion of Black engage­ment with the Pales­tin­ian cause. As Pro­fes­sor Kel­ley has observed, there is an equal­ly long chain of pow­er­ful and promi­nent Black fig­ures who have looked away from both Amer­i­can and Israeli crimes when con­ve­nient. The 2014 war in Gaza, after all, took place under the watch­ful eye, and with the deci­sive back­ing, of America’s first Black pres­i­dent. Oba­ma would end his pres­i­den­cy by sign­ing off on the largest mil­i­tary aid pack­age to Israel in U.S. his­to­ry. But no one on the rad­i­cal side of that tra­di­tion has pinned their hopes to the good will of peo­ple with pow­er. Rather, they’ve thrown in with those the pow­er­ful have tram­pled. It is around this basic shared aspi­ra­tion, of oppressed peo­ple strug­gling to set them­selves free, that activists from the ghet­tos of Pales­tine to the Unit­ed States have met and locked arms.

Eli Day was an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. He is a writer and relent­less Detroi­ter, where he writes about pol­i­tics, pol­i­cy, racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. His work has appeared in the Detroit News, City Met­ric, Huff­in­g­ton Post, The Root, Truthout, and Very Smart Brothas, among others.
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