From Ferguson to Palestine: our liberations are interconnected
I wrote this piece back in 2015 but I never got around to publishing it where I wanted to publish it because the editor I was working with was discouraging, dismissive and quite frankly missed the point and importance entirely in their commenting. Also, I quickly realized I wasn’t as ‘free’ to publish about Palestine (i.e. there was censorship) as openly as the people I interviewed and heard from for this piece were talking about Palestine and Ferguson, and the links between occupation, militarization of the police and the need to boycott security companies like G4S. I want to sincerely apologize to Tara and Cherrell, the amazing black women who were so generous with their time, lived-experiences and knowledge, for not having the determination to try to push through the censorship and crappy relationship with said discouraging editor back in 2015. I decided to publish this now because I recently rediscovered the piece while searching in my email inbox. Upon re-reading, I realized that all of the issues covered in the piece are very relevant and unfortunately, still resonate to this day. Also, this piece feels personal because I believe that our struggles are interconnected:
So, here it is.
“Black lives matter!” This three-word chant has been heard in numerous protests in cities around the United States since the death of Michael Brown, the young black man gunned down by police in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014. Since 2015, the chants “Black lives matter” and “Falesteen Horra, horra! Ihtilal barra, barra! (Free, Free Palestine! End the occupation!) have been chanted together in Nazareth, Palestine.
A delegation of freedom fighters for black liberation made up of young people representing various organizations and movements including — The Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter, the Black Youth Project 100, Hands Up United, Justice League NYC, and others — travelled to Palestine for a 10-day trip in January 2015. It was an historic and unprecedented trip intended to connect the oppressions of black and brown people globally and to stand in revolutionary struggle with those living under Israeli occupation.
Standing in a square in the middle of Nazareth, delegation members participated in a flash-mob, calling for boycotts, divestments and sanctions against the state of Israel. As they held hands and danced a traditional Palestinian dance — dabke — they also sang, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it’s won!”
Tara Thompson and Cherrell Brown both travelled to Palestine as part of the Ferguson to Palestine delegation to learn from the Palestinian movement for liberation, drawing strong parallels between the struggles on the streets of Ferguson and Palestine.
Tara Thompson is a social justice organizer who has been involved with Hands Up United, a social justice organization based in Ferguson, Missouri, formed after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer.
Cherrell Brown works as a national organizer for Equal Justice USA, a non-profit based in Brooklyn, New York that works on criminal justice reform. She also volunteers with Justice League NYC.
Tara Thompson’s experience
Speaking to me on the phone from Ferguson, Tara Thompson describes her trip to Palestine in these words: “It doesn’t matter how many articles you read, especially if it is from mainstream media, because they are just going to cover it wrong….Until you touch down in that place and feel the oppression and taste and whirl it around in your mouth…There’s nothing that you can read that can prepare you for what you experience when you touch down [in Palestine.]”
Race and nationality affect freedom of movement
Tara talks about the fact that “[Palestine is] a place where [Ahmad Abuznaid, the convener of the Ferguson to Palestine delegation] can’t move as freely in as I can because he is Palestinian. Which, when you think about it, is probably one of the most insane things in life: that I can come to Palestine, having no family there, having never stepped foot there, having no ties to that land; I can come and move more freely about the country than he can as a Palestinian-American.”
Tara describes having a hard time reconciling the beauty of the land and the extreme oppression. “In Hebron, there’s a checkpoint, right outside a mosque with soldiers with automatic rifles. [These soldiers are] in a town where Palestinians once lived and thrived yet they’ve turned it into an open air prison.”
As the delegation members were confronted with different checkpoints in Hebron, the experience of pulling out their passports at the checkpoints was very telling. Tara explains: “There’s a very strange hierarchy. So even being black, which is obviously very discriminated against in the United States, there’s an amount of privilege that comes with the blue passport. So, I experienced privilege there as a result of the blue passport that is not even a privilege that I experience in the country that issued the blue passport.”
At one of the checkpoints, they met three soldiers that they engaged with: two of them were 20 and one of them was 19. “In conversation with them, it’s almost like, they’ve been brainwashed. They stand there, with these weapons, protecting land that they don’t even understand the history of. One of the soldiers I talked to told me he was an atheist.”
Tara went on to ask the soldier: “So, the basis of Israel taking this land is because they are the ‘chosen people’ and this land has been gifted to them by God. So, explain to me how you are here, occupying this land, yet you don’t believe in God?” And his response was, “I don’t believe in God, I believe in Israel.”
Tara says she didn’t even know what that meant and she told the soldier that she didn’t understand what that meant yet he could not give her any further explanation.
Who protects who?
That encounter immediately sparked parallels of police officers occupying the streets of her hometown of Ferguson. Tara explains: “That is very similar to me, on the frontlines in Ferguson, of me asking heavily armed policemen why they are there, after they told us there is a curfew and we should go home, and then me yelling and telling them, ‘I am at home. You should go home. You should go back to West County, or you should go back to where you live because you don’t live here.’ And asking them questions about why they are here and them literally telling me: ‘I’m just following orders.’”
Tara says that the parallels show that both Ferguson and Palestine are occupations. Obviously, the history of the United States is different from the history in Palestine but, according to Tara, the police in Ferguson occupy black neighborhoods. She says: “They are not there to protect. They are not there to serve. They are not there to help. They are not there to build community. They are there to occupy and to intimidate the people that live in those communities. Why are you asking someone where they are going when they are simply walking down the street? Why are you asking someone for identification in 2015? It’s basically like you stopping me and asking me for my freedom papers. And, I was under the impression in 2015 that I was free. So, when you ask someone walking down the street what they are doing and if they can produce some sort of identification; that is intimidation, that is harassment, that is an occupying force in that neighborhood. And, that automatically conjures up feelings of what my ancestors went through.”
And that is what the police forces in Palestine are there for. So, while they may look different, their objectives are the same. The police chief in St-Louis, Missouri travelled to Israel to be trained by Israeli forces. And, my tax dollars are paying for the occupation in Palestine.”
Cherrell Brown’s experience
Cherrell Brown, who was also part of the delegation, has experienced firsthand what state-sanctioned violence looks and feels like.
During a presentation in Montreal, she shared her background and what led her to anti police violence work as well as her observations on the symbiotic links between Ferguson and Palestine.
Cherrell grew up in rural North Carolina, where as a teenager she and her two brothers witnessed the murder of her cousin by police using excessive, deadly force. She came home one day to find her brothers and her cousins engaged in a heated argument with a police officer who had told them to quiet down, because the police had received calls from people who had complained that they were being too loud. She recalls: “At some point, the cop walked over to my brother and slammed him on the ground. To which, my younger brother started crying […] And, my cousin, feeling enraged and angry, goes over to the officer to push him off of my brother. The officer pulls a gun and shoots my cousin twice in the chest and he dies in front of myself and my two brothers.”
Fast forward to now, Cherrell says: “Here we are in 2015 and the urgency of now is very real. And, we understand that our liberation is tied up together.”
In the opening of her presentation, Cherrell talked about how Nelson Mandela was a great inspiration for her anti police violence work because he “reminds us all [of] the struggles of indigenous peoples and all those lost to state violence.” In fact, Nelson Mandela stated: “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
When the protests were happening in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown, Cherrell remembers the work she did in the streets of Ferguson with protesters. As a black queer woman, who is being marginalized in several different ways in the United States, Cherrell emphasizes that “we must get away from naming those who experience racialized violence within the parameters of cis-gendered, heterosexual and male.” She explains that during her time in Ferguson, she heard a very romanticized notion that the women were out there in the streets for the men.
“While there is some truth that we are certainly on the frontlines for an issue that is perceived as being particular to black men, we aren’t just out there for our brothers, we are also representing our sisters, our moms, our aunts and ourselves…And when we say Black lives Matter, it is a call affirming all black lives. So: queer, trans, woman, disabled and all the different ways we show up in these spaces.” This is an important point for Cherrell because so many black women and trans people die because of gendered state-sanctioned violence yet we don’t focus on their stories nearly as much.
Sharing lived experience — The importance of communities in reality and online
Yet, people in communities like Ferguson are constantly trying to reclaim spaces that bring people together. Cherrell says she witnessed such a space in Ferguson where community members organized, talked to and loved each other and celebrated even in the midst of being tear-gassed and shot at in Ferguson.
In that same space, she recalls a very special scene. She says: “One day, there was a brother there and he had a Palestinian flag. He tied it around like a cap and walked around. Understanding what Palestinian liberation work is and having been engaged in it, I was really interested to know what this was about. So I walk over to him and said: ‘Yo brother, I see you have a Palestinian flag. Why do you bring that here? Why is that important to you?’ And, he says to me: ‘Well, I don’t know. All I know is that these are the people on Twitter telling me how to survive tear gas so I got their flag out here!’”
That’s the beauty of Twitter and social media. People from Palestine were giving advice to complete strangers in Ferguson who may not have fully understood the Palestinian struggle against Israeli apartheid, yet they shared similar lived-realities. To the people on the frontlines in Ferguson, the Palestinians were: “the people tweeting us and telling us how to survive the occupation by militarized police force.”
Cherrell remembers getting tear-gassed twice in Ferguson while doing tear-gas relief work and that people in Palestine were tweeting to her: ‘Sis, walk with the wind not against it’ and ‘Use milk with magnesium instead of water [to flush out the tear-gas from her eyes].’
Having witnessed state-sanctioned violence in her personal life, in Ferguson and in Palestine, Charrell stressed, “We have to imagine safety and security for ourselves. […]It will probably be our greatest art project — to imagine a truly liberated world, outside of the scope, definitions, and parameters given to us by our oppressors.”
One such oppressor is G4S. G4S is a global “security” company that is “perhaps one of the most important global entities that is helping to maintain the prison industrial complex both in America and elsewhere under this neo-liberal idea of security.”
In Palestine, Cherrell says she witnessed: “Turn-styles that were almost like a cattle corralling situation… When we were there, a woman with her baby was stuck in a turn-style for about four minutes with the baby crying and the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) security just looking at the women. This is what Palestinians experience everyday living in occupied territories. But this is not security and this is not safety.”
The Palestinian struggle and the struggle for black lives and the struggle against state-sanctioned violence everywhere is a feminist issue. The intersectionality of these struggles is a feminist issue because as Cherrell puts it: “Even though our struggles are different, we must also recognize the junctures by which we can collaborate, like by boycotting G4S and Victoria’s Secret.” Victoria’s Secret gets their textiles from factories in the occupied territories and G4S profits from prison labor in South Carolina.” Recognizing these intersections and supporting each other’s struggles allows movements to tangibly coalesce and fight together.
Recent update on a successful boycott campaign against G4s from the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network: “Jordan BDS announced that seven Jordanian corporations are cutting ties with G4S on the basis of its involvement in the imprisonment of Palestinians and police training projects in coordination with the Israeli occupation. The Jordan BDS campaign has been extensively involved in building a movement against the use of G4S both by private institutions as well as public entities like United Nations bodies.” This quote is from the August 27, 2017 article Jordan BDS announces 7 more companies have dumped G4S.