Long before the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson cop coincided with the bombing of Gaza by Israeli forces, there were parallels between the Palestinian and African-American freedom struggles. On Nov. 1, 1970, black activists published an ad in the New York Times titled, “An Appeal by Black Americans Against United States Support of the Zionist Government of Israel.” Signed by more than 50 writers, educators, students and union leaders, the statement opened, “We, the black American signatories of this advertisement, are in complete solidarity with our Palestinian bothers and sisters, who, like us, are struggling for self-determination and an end to racist oppression.”
When news reports last summer revealed that the tear gas canisters used by police to disband Ferguson protests were the same as those used by Israeli soldiers in occupied Palestinian territories, it boosted the connection — and led to a stunning public statement of African-American solidarity with Palestinians. The Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine was published in August, a year after the assault on Gaza. It defines the struggle for the “liberation of Palestine’s land and people” as “a key matter of our time.”
Co-author and Boston-based activist Khury Petersen-Smith was inspired when Palestinians produced two statements of solidarity with Ferguson and the black struggle in the United States. The gesture was well-received among black activists organizing against police violence, and Petersen-Smith saw an opportune moment to reciprocate. He also noted a growing willingness among prominent black intellectuals, such as Cornel West and Alice Walker, to express solidarity with Palestinians. So he hooked up with Kristian Davis Bailey, a Detroit-based activist who had penned a piece on Ebony magazine’s website titled “Why Black People Must Stand with Palestine.” Together, they composed the solidarity statement, which explicitly connects the African-American and Palestinian struggles:
Out of the terror directed against us — from numerous attacks on black life to Israel’s brutal war on Gaza and chokehold on the West Bank — strengthened resilience and joint struggle have emerged between our movements.
More than 1,000 black scholars, activists, students and artists and nearly 50 organizations have signed. Among them are names like Angela Davis, Cornel West, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Talib Kweli, and groups like the Dream Defenders.
The statement calls upon the U.S. government to end diplomatic and economic aid to Israel, and upon African-American institutions to support the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with its obligations under international law.
There are some in the black movement, particularly black nationalists, who argue the Palestinian and African-American struggles are separate, and that linking them fosters confusion and distraction. Petersen-Smith begs to differ. “The U.S. and Israel make the connections for us,” he told Salon. “The same urban police departments that harass, brutalize and murder black folks here train with Israeli law enforcement — who oppress Palestinians.” Funds for Israeli weapons are resources diverted from black neighborhoods in desperate need, he added.
The statement, which has been signed by several signatories on the 1970 ad — Phil Hutchings, Charles Simmons and Kwame Somburu — feels like a revival of the internationalism of the 1960s and 1970s. Black activists then saw the African-American struggle as part of the global fight against the Western colonialism that afflicted people of color worldwide, including Palestinians. The United States was the de facto headquarters of that colonial empire — the belly of the beast. In recent years, however, that focus had shifted, especially with the election of a black man as custodian of that empire.
But the pendulum appears to be swinging back. The young activists involved in movements like Black Lives Matter, We Charge Genocide and Black Youth Project 100 are cultivating international connections. Petersen-Smith, for example, traveled to Gaza in 2009 as part of the Viva Palestina medical relief delegation. It seems the need for global solidarity has revealed itself to a new generation of black activists.