When I became engaged in American society as an activist, there were two issues that I intuitively became passionate about: the Palestinian cause and police brutality. Over the years, I saw these two causes converge. In Ferguson, I listened as Palestinians and African Americans exchanged advice on how to deal with tear gas and military-style repression. The same American company manufactured the tear gas used by both the police in Ferguson and the IDF in the Occupied Territories. I witnessed the Black Lives Matter movement grow to beyond domestic issues to develop a stance in solidarity with the Palestinian people. I watched as activists in Washington, DC and Durham, North Carolina built campaigns to stop the “deadly exchange” of expertise between local police forces and the Israeli military. That “expertise” was essentially how to repress an occupied people. I saw Durham became the first city to stop this exchange, after Jewish Voices for Peace and its affiliates led a successful campaign. As an immigrant from Lebanon, my heart had always been with the Palestinian issue, which readied me to embrace the fight against police brutality when I arrived in Washington, DC.
When I came to this country in 1987, I was a newly graduated engineer with a belief in the American Dream. I worked for three years in the field before I was allowed to practice as an engineer. During that time, I began to notice the racism that was prevalent in American society. On my first job in Virginia, I was dispatched to a worksite within view of the Capitol, where I witnessed two cops apprehend a young Black man, who was accused of stealing a tool box from the worksite. When the cops located the owner of the toolbox, the older of the two cops offered to leave the young man with the owner and “drive around the block” before getting him. The owner stared at the young Black man, who had fresh scrapes at the elbows, considered the offer, before he waved the kid away saying, “just get him out of my face.” That was day one of working in Washington DC, the first teachable moment for this immigrant, practically in the shadow of the Capitol, which I would eventually refer to as the Death Star.
Killings by police increased year after year, until it reached the point where the cops had shot 11 Black men in one year. That’s when I heard about the case of Artie Elliot.
After I was hired by an engineering outfit and finally acknowledged as a fully fledged engineer, I started to work more closely with project managers and superintendents. I was accepted as a professional and was invited to dinners and parties held by clients. The first of those invitations was a dinner at the project manager’s house. As we sat down to eat, four guests arrived, all burly white men with military cuts. As we began our meal, the host asked them about the state of the “gorillas in the mist”. At that time there was a newly released movie by the same name that told the story of Dian Fossey, the naturalist that protected the gorillas in Rwanda. The men started telling stories about encounters with “gorillas’’. Everyone around the table was having a chuckle except for one guest who was turning red and looking down into her plate. Later I found out that these four men were Prince George’s County cops in Maryland, and that gorillas was their code name for Black men.
Later, I would move to Takoma Park, Maryland. I expected a progressive community that encouraged racial diversity and was involved in struggles for civil rights. What I found was a community that was diverse only in the most performative sense; one that was largely disconnected from the struggles of neighboring PG County. At the time, violence and brutality by PG County police was well-known. Killings by police increased year after year, until it reached the point where the cops had shot 11 Black men in one year. That’s when I heard about the case of Artie Elliot. On June 18, 1993 , 24 year old Artie was stopped by two cops as he was driving back from a construction site. He was given a sobriety test which he failed. He was handcuffed and secured with a seatbelt in the passenger side of a police car. He was wearing a pair of shorts, tennis shoes with no socks, and was shirtless. The official story that the cops would give later, is that somehow this inebriated youth, who was handcuffed and chained to his seat, managed to houdini his way into pointing a gun at them. The two cops shot 22 times, and 14 bullets entered Artie’s body. Of course, the cops went free with suggestions for better training. Of course, PG County cops would continue their killing spree. Of course, one of the two police officers that shot Artie would kill again.
I decided to go to a small demonstration against police brutality where I sought out Artie’s mother, Dorothy Elliot (affectionately called Dot), who was one of the featured speakers. It was the first time in dozens that would I hear her tell the story of her son. From that point onwards I became very engaged in the campaign to get justice for Artie. I worked on joint teach-ins as the list of publicized police shootings grew nationally and as the mothers of the victims started to build a network, and hit the road to publicize their cases. I connected with relatives of Amadou Diallo who was shot 41 times by the Street Crimes Unit in New York. Nineteen of those bullets hit Amadou, killing him right outside his apartment. Dot connected with these other grieving mothers and joined them on stage in New York, fighting for justice for their murdered sons and daughters. That was in 1999. The anti-globalization movement lit up the world, and in the US, I worked with activists in Critical Resistance to weld the issues of police brutality and the prison industrial complex. At the same time I was working with a collective to educate the movement on the Palestinian issue which was not in the least bit popular as it is now. But 9/11 came and snuffed out a lot of the work, especially around the justice system. It was in that period that I lost track of Dorothy.
Dot connected with these other grieving mothers and joined them on stage in New York, fighting for justice for their murdered sons and daughters. That was in 1999.
A few weeks ago the Israeli military shot 27-year old Ahmed Erekat at a checkpoint and left him to bleed to death on the pavement for an hour and a half. Ahmed was the cousin of my friend, the renowned Palestinian activist Noura Erakat. I posted about this travesty on social media and commented about how these kinds of killings are part of the daily life of both Palestinians and Black people in the US. Several friends expressed their sympathies but there was one message which went: “Sorry for the loss of your friend’s cousin. How are you? It has been years’’. The message came from Dot Elliot who has emerged after a decades long absence to send her condolences. I looked on her Facebook page to confirm that it is the Dot that I know and there was a recent posting about a petition that she is putting out to reopen the case.
I realized that she has never given up, even after decades, and was hoping that this historic moment would provide an opening to pursue justice in her son’s case. I contacted Dot and and she informed me that she is going to be meeting with the State’s Attorney to look into reopening Artie’s case. She had collected 4,000 signatures, as well as relaunched a scholarship fund named after her son for Black youth to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
It was obvious that, even after all these years of struggle, Dot was aware of a changing tide in this country. For me, the fact that we reconnected through the continued plight of Palestine has brought me full circle to where I started when, “Plymouth Rock landed on me.”
Zein El-Amine is a Lebanese born poet and writer. He is a DC resident living in the Ella Jo Community Cooperative. He is the host of the weekly Shay Wa Nana show on WPFW 89.3 FM, which airs every Wednesday at 2 pm. He teaches Arab World Studies and Literature at American University and International Affairs at George Washington University.