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How Black Lives Matter helped resurrect a politics of solidarity for Palestine

Did the political education of 2020 lay the foundations for mass mobilisations for Palestine?

26 May 2021

As I write this, 243 people have been killed in Gaza over the last 11 days. In many cases, whole families have been killed, with no warning, as they slept in their beds. One bloody Sunday saw 13 members of a single family, the Abu al-Oufs, die after an airstrike on their apartment building. I’ll say their names for you now: Ayman, head of internal medicine at Gaza’s main hospital was killed, his death a catastrophe for healthcare in the territory. Killed alongside him were his two children Tawfiq, and Tala, 17 and 13 years old. Members of his extended family were killed too: Reem 41, and Rawan 19. Subhiya, 73. Amin, 90. Tawfiq, 90, his wife Majdiya, 82, their relative Raja, and her three children; Mira, 12, Yazen, 13 and Mir, 9.  

We Palestinians are no longer shocked at the Israeli government’s disregard for human life. It is more than 73 years old. But one thing has seemed to change; in recent weeks, there has been an extraordinary and unprecedented shift in public opinion and discourse in support of Palestine everywhere from social media to wide-scale protests and direct action. 

While the situation on the ground is as bleak as ever, we have seen information flood social media, influential celebrities speaking out in support of Palestinian liberation, and solidarity marches attended by hundreds of thousands of people across the globe. In Norway, a $1.3tn sovereign wealth fund has dropped a firm linked to settlements in the West Bank. South African workers in Durban have been refusing to offload cargo to an Israeli ship. The Maldives has suspended “all relations” with Israel. Last week, Italian port workers refused to load arms shipments bound for Israel. And UK activists have been performing direct action protests at drone factories that sell to Israel.

“The 2020 iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement seemed to teach many how to broach difficult topics in public and how to stand their ground”

We’re now one year on from the murder of George Floyd and the global movement sparked by his death. I don’t think this is a coincidence. In fact, I believe that groundwork laid by the mobilisation of the masses against racism, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement is partly why we’ve suddenly seen such a change when it comes to mainstream discourse surrounding Palestinian liberation. 

There’s an extensive legacy of Black and Palestinian activist solidarity. Globally, Black equality rights campaigners everywhere from the US to Burkina Faso and pro-Palestinian human rights groups have long advocated for the same principles of liberation and justice. Historically, Black activists have always unequivocally supported Palestine. “We know all too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” said Nelson Mandela in 1997, drawing comparisons between the struggle in Palestine and South Africa’s quest to end apartheid. Leading civil rights activists from Angela Davis to Malcolm X have long seen the struggles as interconnected.

But in recent years, a curious silence had fallen over much of the Western world regarding Palestine – the situation was “too complex” and prominent voices shied away from speaking up. The 2020 iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement seemed to teach many how to broach difficult topics in public and how to stand their ground. It was a crash course in solidarity politics for many. For all the many pitfalls of ‘infographics’, they did help educate many on the nature of structural racism. Learning to draw those links has been key; now we’re seeing people pull together parallels between domestic racism in places like the U.S, and other liberation struggles, such as that of Palestine. In short, BLM helped prompt a recognition of how oppressive systems work – and that knowledge is now being applied to the benefit of Palestine.

Solidarity goes both ways. For Palestinians, the horrifying footage of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd in broad daylight was too close a comparison to daily life in Palestine. On social media, similar imagery has been shared of IDF soldiers kneeling on the necks of Palestinians (including children) and using disproportionate force.

A 2016 Amnesty report also found that IDF soldiers trained riot police in numerous American states on policing tactics, stating: “Many of the abuses documented [in domestic US policing], parallels violations by Israeli military, security and police officials”… Both the excessive force used by American police on BLM protesters, combined with media smears of demonstrators as “thugs” and “looters” struck a chord; Palestinians recognised parallels between the Israeli state’s PR machine which has seen Palestinians in Gaza dubbed  “terrorists” and “collateral damage”.

“Marches in support of Colombian protesters have also joined forces with Palestine rallies, and pro-democracy demonstrators in Myanmar have held up Colombian and Palestinian flags”

There’s also unavoidable similarities between the role of digital footage in the renewed movements. It was the stark video footage of George Floyd’s death that reinvigorated an anti-racist movement that’s existed for years. And it’s the steady drip of imagery on social media coming out of Palestine and East Jerusalem that lit the touchpaper of outrage; Palestinians brutally evicted from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood uploaded video of their experiences that was widely shared. As actor Will Smith put it last summer: “racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed.”

Solidarity continues between the struggles; Atlanta recently saw a Nakba day march merge with a rally for Jabril Robinson, a Black man shot and killed by the police in 2016. Robinson’s family began chanting “Free Palestine” and Palestinian protestors responded by shouting Robinson’s name. Elsewhere, marches in support of Colombian protesters have also joined forces with Palestine rallies, and pro-democracy demonstrators in Myanmar have held up Colombian and Palestinian flags. It feels as if we are on the precipice of a global and unprecedented show of solidarity that was, in large part, triggered by the events of last summer. A ceasefire has been agreed between Palestine and Israel for now, but the work is only just beginning. No one is free until we all are; we must continue connecting international struggles against racism and standing alongside each other. Last year, a video of a little girl went viral. Her name? Gianna Floyd. Sitting on the shoulders of a family friend at a protest she says, “Daddy changed the world!”. How right she was.