Philadelphia report: Black activists in Palestine

Philadelphia area Black activists, artists and educators recounted their experiences traveling to Palestine before a standing-room-only crowd at Uncle Bobbie’s community center on Jan. 31. For most of the delegation members, it was their first time as eyewitnesses to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Others, like Marc Lamont Hill, had visited multiple times. All described the trip as a transformative experience.

Hill, who organized the November delegation, gained national attention when he was fired by CNN for speaking out about the apartheid-like conditions experienced by Palestinians at a U.N.-sponsored conference in solidarity with Palestine in late November in the U.S.

At the Jan. 31 gathering, Hill discussed the tradition of Black radical solidarity with Palestine going back even prior to the six-day war in 1967, when Israel seized the West Bank, Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. He raised earlier examples of this solidarity from Malcolm X, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party.

Hill also mentioned the solidarity Black community activists received from Palestinians in August 2014, in the aftermath of the police murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Palestinians in Ramallah not only sent messages of solidarity but tweeted advice on how to create makeshift gas masks and wash teargas from eyes. During the time that the streets of Ferguson were scenes of nightly confrontations with the police, Gaza suffered heavy Israeli bombing for an entire month.

Following Hill’s opening remarks, participants recounted their individual reasons for joining the delegation and what they came away with from the experience. Many raised the need to see conditions on the ground in the Israeli occupied territories for themselves, as well as to express transnational solidarity in general.

Similarities with sections of Philly

As activists, artists and educators concerned with prisons, police brutality, the lack of educational opportunities for Black students and the constant impact of spreading gentrification, all compared similarities they observed in Afro-Palestinian communities to those in sections of Philadelphia.

A common concern was constantly seeing armed Israeli soldiers stopping and frisking Palestinians in the streets of Hebron and other West Bank cities. They even blocked access to areas near their homes that had been taken over by illegal Israeli settlements. Delegation members reported witnessing construction cranes all over Palestinian cities in the West Bank, as these internationally condemned settlements continue to expand and push Palestinians out.

Photographer Marc Holley described how Israeli soldiers prevented him from buying a 25-cent whistle for his daughter at a marketplace stand because they thought he might be Muslim. Others recounted that entering the marketplace through arbitrary check points reminded them of visiting U.S. prisons.

As artists, they were moved by a visit with Dareen Tatour, the Palestinian poet sentenced to five months in prison because she expressed her sentiments against occupation in a poem. They encountered other Palestinians who were incarcerated for years just for posting their views on Facebook.

As U.S. activists against mass incarceration, they found it powerful to learn that the top three reasons Palestinians are incarcerated are social media posts, throwing rocks and assembling with other people.

In describing their experiences at checkpoints and at Israeli airports, Hill raised that just being Palestinian gets one criminalized. “As we were leaving Israel, at the airport we were asked if we had seen any ‘Arabs,’ a designation used by Israelis to deny Palestinian identity. Of course we had, but you got conditioned to say you haven’t.”

Holley noted, “I felt like my mom must have felt during the Civil Rights era when just opening your mouth could be dangerous to you and your family.”

During the question-and-answer period, former SNCC and BPP member Timothy Hayes spoke from the audience about having his job threatened for speaking out in solidarity with Palestine in the 1970s. A young woman from North Philadelphia’s Black community connected witnessing the destruction of her neighborhood to speakers’ accounts of seeing construction cranes in the West Bank.

Before the program ended, Hill shared a trailer for his documentary, “Blacks in the Holy Land,” which he hopes to release at the Black Star Film Festival in the spring.

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