The Black Lives Matter movement’s support for Palestine is a reminder how African Americans have linked the Palestinian struggle with theirs since the early days of the black liberation movement.
Earlier this week, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement offered its full support behind the Palestinians, as Israel was unleashing a campaign of unrelenting violence that has now killed over 200 people, including more than 60 children, and displaced nearly 60,000.
In a tweet on Tuesday, BLM affirmed its solidarity for the Palestinian people, stating that it is committed to advocating for “Palestinian Liberation” and “ending settler colonialism in all forms”.
Black Lives Matter stands in solidarity with Palestinians. We are a movement committed to ending settler colonialism in all forms and will continue to advocate for Palestinian liberation. ( always have. And always will be ). #freepalestine— Black Lives Matter (@Blklivesmatter) May 17, 2021
The Boycott Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has for years called for an economic embargo of Israel, responded by thanking BLM for their solidarity.
“From Ferguson to Palestine, our struggles against racism, white supremacy and for a just world are united!” it wrote.
Roshaun Jackson, a Chicago-based BLM activist and community organiser, says that while there are specific historical circumstances that distinguish Black struggle in the US from that in Palestine, ultimately they are both fighting the same historical foe.
“A European settler colonial project invaded Palestine and displaced its indigenous people,” he told TRT World. “You can draw a parallel to a similar project of European settler colonialism in the Americas that was built on enslaved African labour.”
“A stand against Zionism then is a stand against colonisation and a demand for the right of Palestinian return to their land. We must see that Israel’s dehumanisation of Palestinians and its culture of anti-Blackness depend on the same system: White supremacy.”
Numerous local chapters have also made public statements on the importance of standing with Palestine and participated with local members of the Palestinian and Arab American community to protest Israel.
In a press release, the BLM New Jersey chapter said it “condemns the ongoing violence against Palestinians in East Jerusalem by the state of Israel”.
“Our deep roots of solidarity are part of a rich tradition of mutual support and exchange between Palestine and US-based liberation movements, from the Black Panthers to the most recent communication between activists in Gaza and Ferguson”.
“We stand together with our Muslim brothers and sisters.”
Kindred oppressions, kindred oppressors
For narrator and orator Cimajie Best, the global solidarity on full display last year in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor was a powerful moment.
“[Protestors] weren't marching with us because they knew any Black Americans or because their lives had changed in some way due to these murders,” she told TRT World. “They were marching with us because they spoke the common language of a people oppressed.”
“Most importantly they knew that if it could happen to us, it could happen to them. So they marched.”
Less than a year later, as Black Americans witnessed in horror at the atrocities that took place in Gaza while the US government continued to put its interests above human lives, Best believed it was time to return the favour.
“It is up to us to be as loud about the liberation of Palestine as we are about the liberation of Black Americans from white supremacy.”
As a protest group formed in 2013 in response to police-custody deaths of Black Americans, BLM has been the most visible progressive voice in the US social landscape that has attempted to centre the Palestinian cause in recent years.
That expression most prominently occurred in 2014, during Israel’s assault on Gaza that killed over 2,200 Palestinians, including 550 children, which coincided with the uprising in Ferguson following the police killing of Michael Brown, culminating in the hashtag #Palestine2Ferguson.
The seeds of solidarity-building continued to materialise when in 2015 a delegation of BLM leaders traveled to Palestine as part of their first official overseas trip.
“This is an apartheid state,” BLM co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors told Ebony magazine at the time of the trip. “We can’t deny that and if we do deny it we are part of the Zionist violence,” she said.
Lorenzo Ward, a core organiser for the BLM DC chapter at a Free Palestine DC Rally last Saturday, said: “The Israeli Defense Forces that have been oppressing them have also been training our cops to oppress us. Our struggles are connected”.
The institutional links between Israel and US policing has been well documented. The Israeli military offers training to many US police departments through “deadly exchanges” with local police forces to promote and extend the policies and tactics that result in the disproportionate violence used against Black and indigenous peoples.
Outside the US, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commandos have trained security forces in more than a dozen African nations in tactics they use to control, colonize, incarcerate and terrorise Palestinians.
Speaking to TRT World, Dawud Walid believes that contemporary Black American internationalists clearly recognise the intersections between the history of Jim Crow and the new Jim Crow system of mass incarceration in the US with a corresponding system of “Zionist Jim Crow” and mass incarceration systemically deployed by the Israeli state.
“What the state of Israel, led by white Jewish leadership continues to do to Palestinians is from the same playbook that white colonialists and their successors have done to us Black people in America or what was done to our people in South Africa under apartheid,” said Walid, who is the Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
A history of transnational solidarity
These recent statements are just a reminder of how Palestine has long been an international focal point for black social justice movements, stretching back to the civil rights era.
“The historical significance like the liberation of Palestine is inextricably connected to the Black American experience as they are formed with the same building blocks of racism, colonialism, and oppression,” said Best.
Among the reasons Palestine resonated during the 1960s and 70s, she added, is because of the shared Muslim identity of many Black Americans, its proximity to Africa and because they were a people being oppressed by a nation aided and abetted by the US government.
“What Black American internationalists going back to figures such as Malcolm X and Kwame Ture have always articulated is that white supremacy is not merely a domestic reality but also a global phenomenon,” Walid stated.
Indeed, as early as the 1950s there were indications that black Americans were beginning to link their activism to global struggles and the plight of the Palestinians.
Michael R. Fischbach, professor of history at Randolph-Macon College, chronicled this historical alliance in his book Black Power and Palestine, highlighting how pivotal black leaders like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Jesse Jackson supported Palestine in their fight against racial injustice and even visited the region.
Fischbach explored how two wings of the black freedom struggle, the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement, approached the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and reflected upon the conflict in ways that resonated with their respective struggles and understandings of how black identity and political activity should be expressed at home.
Situating themselves as part of a wider battle against imperialism and white settler colonialism, Fischbach writes that activists in the Black Power movement during the 1960s “issued the first significant pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel viewpoints ever to reach a large American audience outside of the hard Left.”
“They saw themselves and the Palestinians as kindred peoples of color waging a revolution against a global system of oppression” and by doing so, “intertwining their own identity and vision of place in America with the Palestinians’ struggle.”
This sentiment was manifest in Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s 1967 classic Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, where they write that black liberation politics should not be viewed in isolation from similar demands heard around the world.
At a deeper level, transnational solidarity became a way of mirroring a conceptual identity of militant, colonised peoples fighting back against structures of power that enslaved them.
That understanding was echoed decades later when South African anti-Apartheid icon Nelson Mandela famously said: “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
While the mobilisation of the Black American grassroots around the issue of Palestine has been important for injecting awareness around the cause into the mainstream, Walid doesn’t believe that it necessarily translates into proportional Black concern for Palestine.
“There's a difference between the Black grassroots and those who are professional organizers and activists who are Black,” he argued.
Walid points out that because Black Muslims have generally supported the Palestinian cause in spirit due to a shared religious affinity, he doesn’t see BLM having wielded real influence over them, which otherwise would “diminish the religious commitment and political intelligence of Muslims who are Black.”
Rather, Black Muslims that organise alongside BLM have “probably helped influence them more towards showing support for Palestinians than vice versa,” he added.
At the end of the day, Best believes the two causes share a universal commitment that transcends geography and identity.
“Both the BLM movement and the crusade to liberate Palestine are about human rights, about basic civil liberties, and that is enough to unite people who will never meet across space, time, race, class, and creed.”