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What Lies Beyond

November 30, 2014

I have always been irritated by the cliché solidarity statement “we are all [fill in the blank with the latest victim to receive media coverage.”] I recall the first time I became aware of the statement was after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City, when suddenly, banners, Tshirts, and bumper stickers started appearing across the United States, proclaiming “We are All New Yorkers.” I lived in Boston at the time, and despite the long-standing rivalry between the two cities, and despite the fact that one of the hijacked planes had originated in Boston, thus giving that city its own reason to grieve, Bostonians claimed to be New Yorkers, to express their sympathy with the city that bore the brunt of the attacks. And I remember wondering about the source of that identification with New York, which seemed to go beyond sympathy, possibly into appropriation. I did not understand why being “American” seemed insufficient grounds to grieve the attacks, one apparently had to be a New Yorker.
The sentiment was nationwide, and I could not help but wonder how people in Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Idaho, who had never been in the Empire State, and generally dismissed New York City as a “zoo,” now claimed it as their identity. What imagined community suddenly materialized, for someone in North Dakota, who did not feel that being “American” was sufficient to be hurt by the attack, and now wished to transform into a New Yorker? Was it, possibly, because they knew this was the one attack on US soil, ever, and they wanted some greater proximity to the crime?  Was this the self-centered, self-serving  “I know someone who knew someone,” that brings you a step or two closer to the action?
Over the years, “We are All New Yorkers” morphed into many more victims, individual and collective, and more recently, some of us discovered that “We are All Trayvon Martin, and even, sometimes “We Are All Palestinians.”
As a middle aged Palestinian woman, I knew I was not Trayvon. I wear a hoodie almost every day, and it does not endanger me. I was, and remain, utterly disgusted with the pervasive anti-Black racism that I detect in so many aspects of everyday life in the US, I speak out and write about it, but my outrage does not make me a young Black man. And I knew that, no matter how deeply outraged I was and remain at the murder of Trayvon Martin, nobody would mistake me for a young African American male. I am not Trayvon Martin.
At the risk of seeming uncaring (at least, to people who barely know me), I did not wear a “We are All Trayvon Martin” Tshirt, and I did not change my Facebook profile picture to that of the young man.
I stand in solidarity with the African American community in my city, and elsewhere in this country, but standing in solidarity is standing with someone, as an ally, to help them fight their struggle. I do not feel the need to claim it as my own struggle. When the slogan came out of Ferguson that “Black Lives Matter,” I did not feel the need to claim blackness, and I certainly did not feel the need to modify that to “All Lives Matter.”  That dilution, whether intentional or not, is selfish and extremely offensive.  It is one more expression of anti-Black racism.  Let a community cry out in pain, for goodness’ sake!  Stand aside, listen, don’t appropriate the pain.  It is not yours.  Black lives matter, black families suffer, black communities are devastated.  Because they are black, not because they have “lives.”  Claiming “All Lives Matter” at a Ferguson verdict protest puts you on the side of those who raised money to defend the killer cop.  Keep doing it, and the KKK will welcome you in their ranks.
What lies beyond solidarity is joint struggle, the understanding that criminalized communities are fighting the same oppressor, the same system, though we may do it differently. And it is important to respect the differences, even as we learn from each other, about each other.
The riots in Ferguson that followed the murder of Michael Brown in August 2014 finally tore open the veil that had concealed the fact that we, Palestinians and African American, are fighting the same oppressor. Statements like “Occupation is a crime, from Ferguson to Palestine” do not ring hollow to Palestinians, nor do they seem far-fetched to African Americans. The hyper-militarization of the police in St Louis County, a police force trained by Israeli military experts, is but one indication of the one-ness of our struggle. The fact that every 28 hours, an African American individual is killed by law enforcement violence in the US parallels the killing with impunity of innocent Palestinians by Israel, its soldiers and armed settlers/vigilante.  The same tear gas is used to poison us, from Ferguson to Palestine.
Between the murders of Trayvon Martin in February 2012, and Michael Brown in August 2014, many more African Americans were killed. Ranisha McBride, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice…

Yet the murder of Michael Brown Jr by St Louis Police officer Darren Wilson on August 9 marked a turning point in the identification with individual victims of Law Enforcement Violence in the US. As the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” slogan caught around the country, protesters did not feel the need to claim Michael Brown’s identity as their own. They knew that merely being black or brown was sufficient to be killed with impunity by the forces of “law and order” in this country, and in Israel.

Was Michel Brown’s killing very different from the many others? Or was the organizing behind the Ferguson protests a factor behind the change? What triggers that moment when a victim of abuse finally says “I’m not gonna take it anymore,” and fights back, or walks out? Either way, the global response to the impunity surrrounding Brown’s killing signals a growing, also global, consciousness of the pervasiveness of racism in the fabric of the state.  There is no need to be Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ranisha McBride. One only needs to be brown, black, poor, and the state becomes your enemy.
At the same time as the criminal justice system was exhonerating the white killers of African Americans, that same system was incriminating and imprisoning black and brown women for refusing abuse. Marissa Alexander was sentenced to a possible 60 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her estranged abusive husband, and Rasmeah Odeh is awaiting sentencing in a Detroit jail for having allegedly knowingly given false answes on her naturalization forms. Rasmeah had already served 10 years in an Israeli prison for a crime she “confessed” to, after 45 days of physical, sexual, and psychological torture.
What lies beyond the slogans, the clichéd expressions of solidarity, is an understanding that we are in joint struggle. I am not Michael Brown. But I am one who fights a system that was never meant to protect me, to view me as fully human, worthy of life, dignity, equal rights, just as that system did not view Michael Brown as fully human. The system is not broken. It is working as it was designed to work. It is a corrupt system, and we need to change it. We need to enact the alternative, stand together, understand each other’s struggles, understand how we are impacted differently by the same oppressive system, because racism and sexism do not affect me, a Palestinian woman, as they do an African American, male or female, even though we are both victimized by racism and sexism.

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