Fighting for freedom in the face of repression

May 1, 2017

Edna Bonhomme and Sofia Arias report on a dialogue between two leading figures in the contemporary struggle against racism and state violence.

MORE THAN 200 people gathered April 25 at the Verso Books loft in Brooklyn to hear a lively dialogue between Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights, and Nyle Fort, a minister, Princeton University Ph.D. student and Black Lives Matter (BLM) activist.

Barghouti and Fort engaged in an insightful and wide-ranging conversation (you can watch the video here) that delved into topics such as Black-Palestine solidarity, state repression and building social movements.

The event brought together various organizations committed to anti-racist, anti-Islamophobia and anti-xenophobic efforts, including Adalah-NY, the Palestinian BDS National Committee, Jewish Voice for Peace, Hater Free NYC, U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Tarab NYC, Enlace, Jews Say No!, PARCEO, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, and Muslim-Jewish Anti-Fascist Front, among others.

This event comes on the heels of Black and pro-Palestine activists forming transnational coalitions to challenge racism, settler colonialism and Islamophobia.

BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti (left) and Black liberation activist Nyle Fort
BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti (left) and Black liberation activist Nyle Fort

NYLE FORT began the conversation by making the case for forging solidarity based not just on common oppression, but on a common resistance. He cited the BDS movement as an example of this kind of common resistance, because it allows space for all kinds of people with all kinds of identities who may not experience a common oppression to nevertheless participate in building a common resistance.

Fort also criticized the tendency of some activists to dismiss people who are "less radical" or "don't have the right politics," and he described the profound impact that his trip to Palestine with the Dream Defenders had on him.

He recounted how an armed Israeli settler had become confrontational, but then turned to him and the delegation and said, "Thank you." When Fort asked him what he meant, the man said that it was the support of the U.S. government and its citizens that made Israel possible. Fort described how this "hit him like a ton of bricks."

Using Palestine as an example, Fort described the tradition that he comes from:

The tradition that I come out of--the Black Radical tradition--has always been about the relentless and courageous critique about injustice across the board, so that means Palestine, but that also means Standing Rock. That also means what's happening in Syria. That also means what's happening in Libya. That also means what's happening in Flint. I want us to think about Black and Palestinian solidarity in a larger solidarity that includes people who are fighting crises across the country.

Fort affirmed the argument made by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation that having Black mayors and judges has not changed the lot of the majority of Black people in America.

Fort also argued for a clear-eyed approach to strategy and political alliances. "If politics were reducible to the same ends, then Michelle Alexander and Newt Gingrich would share the same politics because they both want to end mass incarceration," explained Fort. "But de-carceration to save money and de-carceration to save lives are not the same thing."

OMAR BARGHOUTI, a recent recipient of the Gandhi Peace Award, placed the BDS movement in its larger historical context. Boycotts are a straightforward way for people to reduce their complicity in the Israeli occupation, he explained. And the example of post-apartheid South Africa loomed large in the conversation.

As Barghouti put it:

It is mandatory in the BDS movement to study apartheid South Africa. You cannot talk about BDS without talking about apartheid South Africa. Apartheid South Africa is not over. Political apartheid is over, but economic apartheid is not over. Whites control the economy of South Africa until today. They own most of the resources and goods in South Africa until today.

The Black majority is still disenfranchised economically--not politically. Yes, they can put a piece of paper in a box every number of years, but that's not changing land ownership, that's not changing housing, that's not changing access to resources.

The lesson from South Africa is that political emancipation is the beginning, but not the end. Social movements, in their ability to question the status quo, open up new possibilities for imagining a world where people have more control of their lives.

Barghouti continued by pointing to the potential of BDS and BLM activists to forge solidarity that transcends victimhood and to work on building movements beyond their communities. Barghouti pointed to the ways that activists should be fighting for freedom and to consider what liberation would look like. He invoked the late and great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and his vision for freedom.

When asked about the right of Palestinians to return to the property and homes from which they were evicted by the state of Israel, he was unapologetic and indicated that even under international law this is a bare minimum for Palestinian refugees.

Barghouti is a contributor to the new book On Antisemitism, which was published in April 2017 by Haymarket Books. The text is a collection of essays featuring contributions by anti-Zionist activists from Jewish Voice for Peace and other organizations.

Overall, the contributors interrogate and dismantle the Zionist weaponization (and distortion) of the charge of anti-Semitism. Barghouti noted: "By conflating Israel with all Jews, by saying an attack on Israel is a boycott of all Jews, is therefore anti-Semitic, you are making an anti-Semitic statement. By putting all Jewish persons in one monolithic basket, you're making an anti-Semitic statement."

OVER THE past couple years, anti-BDS bills in the U.S. and Europe have used the accusation of anti-Semitism in an attempt to undermine pro-Palestine activism. At a time when the far right has gained confidence, there has also been a surge of anti-BDS bills and the infringement on freedom of speech of pro-Palestine activists.

Barghouti further explained how the attacks on free speech undermine solidarity and activism by proclaiming, "They are trying to pass [anti-BDS] laws to redefine anti-Semitism and to use it to suppress Palestinian voices, to suppress voices of solidarity, and to censor free speech."

Nyle expanded on the point:

I believe that Black organizers and Palestinian activists have the capacity to invent the future. I believe in this long tradition from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, from Malcolm X who wrote an essay on Zionist logic, from George S. Schuyler. A long tradition of Black resistance that has rooted our solidarity in not simply about what we're up against but what we can do about what we're up against.

An important element of their conversation was that an individual's identity and experience of the world--whether that person is targeted by the police or living under military occupation--might lead one to organize, but identity in itself is not the thing that maintains one's activism. Protests, in their ability to grow and cohere people who are often alienated under capitalism, have the potential to be accessible and provide a culture of left discussion, movement building, and debate--in solidarity and without acrimony.

The Black Lives Matter protests mattered because they revealed the tentacles of U.S. structural racism and activated a new generation of freedom fighters. The Palestinian Intifada mattered because it showed the brutality of military occupation and the steadfastness of Palestinian self-determination.

A central feature of Barghouti and Fort's collective meditation was that we cannot change ourselves without also changing the world. Yet the driving force of this movement is the possibility of winning. As Barghuoti noted:

When I was a student at Columbia University, I participated in the South African anti-apartheid movement. When my fellow engineering students saw me holding the sign "Abolish Apartheid," one of them asked me, "Do you really believe that apartheid might be abolished in your lifetime? Why are you wasting your time, you're an engineer?" So I said, "Well, I don't believe it will be abolished in my lifetime, but I'm doing it out of a moral obligation."

But it was abolished in my lifetime. And this gives us eternal hope. So it is really important to connect our struggles for Black justice, for Latinos, for the feminist movement, for LGBTI, climate change, and so on.

Barghouti reminds us that fighting for and envisioning a radical future is a precondition for victory.

Further Reading

From the archives