by Debbie Lang and Orpheus
Revolutionary Worker #1150, May 12, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org
"I'm here because of unfair Israeli occupation of Palestine. Israel thinks it's above and beyond the law because America backs it. Well, the time for that is enough. You can see the large gathering here, the large gathering on Saturday. The people are starting to mobilize. They've had enough. They're trying to show their voice. We're going to fight back and we're going to free Palestine -- one way or another."
--Palestinian youth from Maryland at April 22 protest of American Israeli Public Affairs Committee Conference (AIPAC)
Monday night, April 22, Washington DC. A thousand people were in the streets to protest the scheduled appearance of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and U.S. officials at the AIPAC conference. Sharon didn't show. But White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle spoke of the U.S.'s "unshakeable commitment" to Israel and pledged to maintain "absolute" U.S. support. Support that is destroying lives in Palestine -- including the lives of people whose relatives stood outside in the streets. They had come at great risk. Every Palestinian we spoke with that night had been visited by the FBI since September 11. Many had been the target of racial profiling and racist attacks.
Outside, the situation was tense. Hundreds of police in riot gear massed. Other cops moved through the crowd videotaping people. Palestinian youth carried their comrades on their shoulders --like the people in Palestine have carried those killed in Israel's invasion--and chanted "Long Live the Intifada!" and "Free, Free Palestine!"
Palestinians helped white middle class kids put on kaffiyehs while Black Bloc youth pulled out extra bandannas for Palestinian youth to cover their faces. Suddenly Israeli and American flags went up in flames. Anarchists and Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigaders gathered around the Palestinians to protect them. When the youth moved away, spray painted and chalked slogans against the Israeli occupation and U.S. support for it covered the ground.
As night fell, a police helicopter lit the street with its spotlight. Youth dragged out a portable fence and stretched it in front of the lines of riot police chanting, "This is what the occupation looks like." Young people of all nationalities faced off against the police. Arguments broke out among people over whether they should take the risk of standing up to the cops and whether the American flag should have been torched. One Palestinian kid spoke about how many of his relatives in the West Bank had been murdered and it was necessary to defy the police. Young women told the RW they had to be in the streets no matter what because that's what their sisters in Palestine were doing.
Sometimes the power of the oppressed breaks out in unexpected ways. As Israeli troops, Merkava tanks, and U.S.-supplied Apache helicopter gunships continued to murder Palestinians and bury people alive in the rubble of Jenin and other cities in the West Bank, the determination of the people in occupied Palestine fueled the protests in the streets of the U.S. capitol on the weekend of April 20.
Tens of thousands of Arab people-- mostly Palestinians--brought the spirit of the West Bank and Gaza to the doorstep of the U.S. government. At a time when Arab people are being profiled and unjustly imprisoned in the U.S., it took courage for the Palestinians to take the streets. And their presence had a big impact on tens of thousands of others gathered in protest of the U.S. "war on terrorism" and domestic repression, Plan Colombia, and capitalist globalization.
The whole scene underscored for our team of RW reporters the potential and the need for a powerful movement against the whole agenda of war and repression in the "belly of the beast."
On the morning of April 20, as we changed trains at the D.C. Metro Center, hundreds of people, from what seemed to be every corner of the earth, poured out onto the platform. Young, old; kaffiyehs draped in every imaginable way, Palestinian flags, parents in traditional Arabic dress lugging banners and children. We smiled at each other and raised fists in salute, then joined a flow of young anti-globalization kids crowding onto the train to Dupont Circle for the Palestinian feeder march.
We met Jewish peace activists going to march in solidarity with the Palestinians against the Israeli occupation. One Jewish activist told us she has followed the events unfolding in the occupied territories on the internet and she has on several occasions broken down in tears in front of her computer. She said, "Judaism says we're never to stand idly by when the blood of our neighbor is being shed. It says that we're supposed to seek peace and pursue justice...and I stand for an ethical Judaism. And particularly the Palestinians are our kin, historically. And we should not in any way be going against them. We should be coming together and learning to live in peace."
500 people were in front of the Washington Hilton, the site of the AIPAC conference. Dozens of people held Palestinian flags. Police lined the street. A young Palestinian woman on a bullhorn led call-and- response chants. She was answered by a dozen other young women. "1,2,3,4, Stop the Killing, Stop the War! 5,6,7,8 Israel is a terrorist state!" "Sharon, Sharon, you will see, Palestine, will be free!" The leader then called out, "Stop killing our people! Stop bombing our homes! Stop bombing our hospitals! Stop the massacre!"
The numbers swelled to 5,000 and the march began. Young Palestinian girls wearing blue jeans wrapped their faces in kaffiyehs. Young kids had headbands on with Arabic writing that said, "martyr," "Jenin," "For Palestine," and "Ramallah." Palestinians and many others wore T-shirts or stickers saying "We are all Palestinians."
Throughout the day on April 20, busloads of people from all over arrived. Large numbers of Arab people were organized by mosques and Islamic centers throughout the east coast and midwest. Many others came on their own or were organized by different political groupings in the Arab community. Among the Arab people gathered at all the rallies and marches, there were different contingents and political messages. At certain points dozens of people bowed together in mass prayer. There were chants in Arabic of "there is only one god, Allah." Other people chanted "PLO, PLO!" and spoke of Arafat as the president of the Palestinian people. Some youth looked like the Intifada fighters of the West Bank and Gaza--throwing their fists up and leading chants of "Long Live Palestine!" A few Palestinian youth pinned bright red buttons on themselves with the slogan of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, "Let the Intifada pave the way for people's war!" in English, Spanish and Arabic.
It was striking how people warmly welcomed the RCYB and RW sellers. They thanked them for supporting the Palestinian people's struggle--their right to their homeland. And for revealing how Israel is the U.S.'s attack dog in the Middle East and its atrocities against the Palestinians are made in the USA. This was interesting since there were many contradictory views about the role of the U.S. in backing Israel. And the real connection between U.S. actions around the Israeli invasion, the U.S. war on Afghanistan, U.S. plans for war against Iraq and strategic dominance in the Middle East was not well understood. Lots of Arab people bought the RW . After hearing the RCYB speak, a Muslim woman approached a woman in the Brigade, hugged her and said, "you're for all the people of the planet." Then she introduced her to the people from her mosque.
A Living Connection
There was a strong connection between the Palestinian people at the protests and people living in the occupied territories. Many told us about the lives of their friends and relatives in Palestine. People spoke out powerfully and bitterly in condemnation of Israel's occupation and invasion. One Palestinian man in his 40s told us he was there because "I want to try to show our government they have no right to kill innocent kids and mothers..." His voice trailed off as he broke down in tears.
An Arab man carried huge pictures of small children killed and wounded in Jenin. Others had photos seen worldwide, such as the one of the father and his son in Palestine, crouching to avoid Israeli fire seconds before the son was shot and killed.
A young Palestinian woman who has family living in Ramallah told the RW , "My aunt was killed, my cousin was killed, my other cousin's in jail. Who is the U.S. to tell me that what I'm doing is wrong while I see them giving guns, Apache airplanes, F-16s to bomb civilians? They've been bombing civilians since the beginning of the Intifada. What is wrong with the U.S. government that it is so stupid and blind?"
"They say `suicide bombers' is terrorism and it's not. These people have gone through so much. Why don't we ask this question -- what drove those people to act that way? Most of the suicide bombers, their homes were destroyed, family members were killed, sisters were raped. The U.S. news media doesn't show any pictures of that. They only show `suicide bomber and Israelis killed.' ... Jenin is a massacre. They're denying it right now. Let them investigate and see what happened. People were destroyed, people sleeping, the houses were destroyed. That's not a massacre?"
Some Arab and Arab-American people we spoke with were angered that the U.S. wasn't doing more to stop Israel's war crimes and hoped protest would pressure the U.S. government to change its policy. Many saw America as a country based on civil rights and democracy that should guarantee that for the Palestinian people too.
Another young Palestinian told us, "If America wants to stop it, they could stop it. But America approved what Mr. Sharon, the assassin, the terrorist, is doing. They are not stopping him. We're trying to put out our point. If only one Palestinian is living, he would stay to fight."
Speaking Out Against Racial Profiling and Government Terror
That so many Arab people came out to the DC protests is even more significant given the level of government intimidation and abuse they have faced since 9/11. Many people we talked with during the days of protest had been harassed and questioned by police and FBI. Some had been subjected to racial attacks and stereotyping in many aspects of their lives.
A high school kid who was visited by the FBI had also been sweated by police on the highway for "driving while Arab" and questioned on whether he had "anthrax in his trunk." His friend told us one day while he was walking home from school, a van came by and some guys threw bottles at him. Six jumped out and one pointed a gun at him. They called him a terrorist and taunted him.
Kids told us about having teachers at school write "Osama bin Laden" on their school papers, and being called "terrorist" by teachers and some backward kids. One youth told us, "Even today in school, a lady told me, `I know how your people are towards women and I know how they don't respect women.' She said that in front of the whole office in my school. I stopped and looked at her. I was like, `OK, what religion am I?' And she says, `How about you tell me.' She had no clue."
He started crying and then said, "I'm tearing up because people gotta understand that we are human beings, too, and we have feelings. We have emotions. We need to all stick together.... We're fighting over what we look like. We're fighting over what we are. In school people call each other white boys, Black boys, n*gger. They call me sand n*gger, camel jockey. I don't deserve that at all. Nobody deserves it at all."
An Internationalist Spirit
"The Arab-Americans have had a huge presence here over the weekend and that was really unprecedented for them to take such an active role in these protests. And I think over the whole weekend people have been listening to each other's messages and interacting and exchanging information and ideas and energy -- and that's a really beautiful thing. It's that kind of thing, that kind of solidarity in our common dreams that we need to work towards."
--Woman in her 20s carrying sign saying "Dissent is not terrorism"
The protests by so many people in support of the Palestinian struggle had an important impact on other sections of people who were in the streets for other causes. Among some of the middle class forces, supporting the struggle for a free Palestine was controversial. This was true even among some who opposed the actions of the Israeli armed forces. And coming face to face with the vibrancy of the Palestinian masses helped open people's eyes to the reality of Israeli occupation. At the same time, the power of this interaction has significance even beyond building support for the just cause of the Palestinians.
A member of the RCYB told us her view of the significance of the protests: "You look at everybody who's out here and you see some strength that the other side doesn't have. They do not have right on their side. They do not have the fearlessness and courage of the people who are fighting something that's right, who are fighting for the people. The way that people carried themselves and the way that they treated each other--that's something that the other side can never have. And all their machinery of death and destruction, all that they're trying to do to the people of the planet, all the tanks that they aim at the people in Palestine has not broken the people. And that spirit is spreading."
Looking to the future--and the great challenges we face in confronting the U.S. juggernaut--this kind of internationalist spirit and mix will be a crucial component in building a movement that can awaken millions to stand up against "their own" government and let people around the world hear them.
Debbie and Orpheus would like to thank Maggie from Seattle for her many good interviews and contributions, members of the RCYB for their insights and rich descriptions, and all the other comrades who contributed to these stories.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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