On Friday afternoon, I joined perhaps a couple hundred other activists in peaceably protesting police brutality and structural racism in the United States. Bundled up against the chill, we marched across Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, touting signs and chanting, “Black lives matter!” and “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”
I am proud to have participated in the movement for racial equality (reignited as it has been by recent events in Ferguson, Missouri) in some small way, and I hope for more such opportunities in the future. I have been surprised to find, however, that a number of people I know have questions about the value of these protests, and I would thus like to publicly declare my own views on the matter.
What many people seem to have trouble grasping is that this movement is about so much more than Michael Brown or the man who slaughtered him, Darren Wilson. That particular case has merely served as a spark for mass resistance to a system that has existed in this country since its founding. Any ambiguity around the shooting itself is almost irrelevant to the movement that it has inspired.
The fact is, there are serious changes that must be made to our criminal justice system. Police brutality is not a new phenomenon, and nor is structural racism. There needs to be a more thorough screening process to ensure that no one who holds the sort of hatred that many of our current police officers do is hired, let alone given a gun and a government sanction to kill. There also needs to be better training and routine testing for racial sensitivity.
That is why our protests are so crucial. They give voice to the victims of racist policing and politics. They send a message that hatred should never be expedient. They tell politicians that people cannot be trampled upon, no matter what the color their skin. They urge police chiefs to think about whom they hire and how they train them. They force police officers to hesitate before they gun down unarmed human beings. By bringing these issues into the light, we require decision-makers to value black lives as highly as they do any others.
My only concern for this movement is the extent to which anti-Zionists have already attempted to hijack it. I’ve heard both professors and activists try to force an association between the movements to alienate Israel and to achieve racial equality in the United States, although such a conflation in fact undermines the efforts for both Palestinian and African American rights. While I was pleased by how minimally this issue was manifested in Friday’s Boston protest, I still think it worthwhile to write about it briefly here.
Regarding the movement for Palestinian rights, it should be noted that nothing generates reactionary Israeli policies more than feelings of isolation. It is when Israelis see people in the United State and Europe marching against Israelis’ right to exist and defend themselves that there is a shift toward the politically conservative. Any move toward peace (which is inevitably also a move toward Palestinian statehood) is a very serious risk on the part of Israel, and Israeli people, politicians, soldiers, and police officers are that much more likely to take such risks when they feel the security of a supportive international community (for more on this, please read my earlier post on supporting Israelis, Palestinians, and peace). Therefore, when such noble American people’s movements as the one for racial equality are infiltrated by anti-Israel propaganda, the plight of the Palestinians is in fact worsened, and constructive solutions become even more distant than they already are.
The movement for racial equality in the United States is harmed by the encroachment of the anti-Israel movement as well. There is no room for racism in the United States – it is unacceptable in any form, and it has no legitimate basis whatsoever. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, is much more complicated than that: the current situation, as problematic as it is (and as much as the Palestinian plight must be dealt with), is a product of a century of violence, often initiated by Palestinian individuals and factions, such as the Nazi-allied Hajj Amin al-Husseini and Hamas (which is an offshoot of the same fundamentalist organization that radicalized the revolution in Syria and that is responsible for the genocide in Darfur). That history does not justify Palestinian suffering, but it does create a security situation that makes the path to Palestinian statehood a complicated one, and it forces Israel to worry for its own safety every time it makes a concession. This is not true of the American civil rights movement. There are no grounds for the sort of racism that is allowed to exist in American society today, and there is no argument to be made for the freedom of people of color jeopardizing the safety of white people (obviously). Therefore, it does the movement for African American rights a significant disservice to associate it with the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I would like to conclude with a final call to action. Americans have a responsibility to stand up for one another and to fight against the evils of racism and police brutality. As the Brown/RISD Hillel religious leader, Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, has pointed out, Hebrew is unique in that there is no word for “charity;” all we have is “tzedek,” which means “justice.” Indeed, supporting equality and freedom in the United States is not an act of charity, but an act of tzedek, of moral duty – we are not merely asked to join this effort, but are expected to do so. Black lives matter. Please join me in telling that to the world.