From Ferguson to Gaza: How African Americans Bonded With Palestinian Activists
One hot Saturday in August 2014, Sandra Tamari scrolled through social media and learned that a Black teenager named Michael Brown had been fatally shot by a police officer in nearby Ferguson, Mo. Her heart “just sank,” she recalled, when she learned that Mr. Brown’s mother had stood on the other side of the police tape while her son’s body had been lying in the street for hours.
Ms. Tamari, who is Palestinian American and lives just outside St. Louis, had spent the previous weeks mourning the death of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy. He had been kidnapped, bludgeoned and burned to death in Jerusalem by Israeli teenagers avenging the killings of three Israeli teens by Palestinians. The incident was part of a cycle of violence that culminated in the 2014 War in Gaza that summer, which killed more than 70 Israelis and more than 2,200 Palestinians.
“I was already in so much grief about what was happening in Palestine,” she said. She could not shake the parallels in her mind between Michael and Muhammad. To her, they were both teenagers stolen from their families by racially motivated violence.
A week later, she and about 15 members of the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee joined the protests that sprang up after Mr. Brown’s killing. Before they left, her husband grabbed some old white cloth and made a banner that read: “Palestine Stands with Ferguson.”
A decade later, the Palestinian cause in the United States has become tightly intertwined with the much more powerful African American quest for civil rights — an alliance that has been both strengthened and tested in the four months of war since Hamas killed more than 1,200 people in Israel.
African American writers, leaders, athletes and celebrities have spoken in support of Palestinians as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza pushes the number of dead past 26,000 people.
“Let me be clear: The collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza is a war crime,” said Cori Bush, a U.S. Representative from Missouri and a Democrat, who is Black, as she introduced a resolution calling for a cease-fire, alongside Rashida Tlaib, a representative from Michigan who is a Democrat and of Palestinian descent.
“My beliefs are rooted in my experiences as an activist in the movement to save Black lives,” Ms. Bush said, referring to her time as an activist with Black Lives Matter.
Many Black people who support Palestinian rights say they see the Palestinian cause in the context of the African American experience, as the displacement, oppression and deprivation of a minority group.
“There’s no way for me, as an African American, to come back and stand before you, to witness segregation and not say anything about it,” the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates said after a trip to the West Bank on a broadcast of the news show “Democracy Now!”
The roots of the relationship between African Americans and Palestinians stretch back decades, to the early days of the modern civil rights movement. Even then, the question of Palestine was fraught for activists of that era, some of whom saw their struggle more aligned with that of a Jewish diaspora still recovering from the horrors of the Holocaust, and fighting to build a new and fragile nation.
Yet the views of some African Americans have shifted, especially as Palestinian and Black activists began to collaborate during the Black Lives Matter movement, and both sides began to see their respective causes as linked.
A New York Times/Siena College poll in December showed that African American voters were more likely than white or Hispanic voters to sympathize with Palestinians. The poll showed that 34 percent of Black voters sympathized more with Palestinians in the conflict, compared with 28 percent of Black voters polled who said they sympathized more with Israel. As with the other groups polled, younger voters said they were more sympathetic than older voters to Palestinians.
The poll showed that 17 percent of white voters and 27 percent of Hispanic voters sympathized more with Palestinians.
“They are another group that suffers under the violent power of occupation,” said Ashon Crawley, who participated in a recent pro-Palestinian march in Washington, D.C., and is a member of the group Black for Palestine, a “cross-movement solidarity” network that emerged from the 2014 Ferguson protests.
The relationship, driven by younger activists in both pro-Palestinian and African American camps, could have long-term consequences for both movements.
For the Palestinian cause, the alignment with the Black social justice movement in the United States is a chance to move away from the fringes of American politics and boost its profile by tapping into a much larger, more powerful political network.
For African Americans, the tighter bond infuses fresh energy and urgency into social justice causes. Yet the relationship also presents new challenges and pitfalls — upsetting historic alliances with some American Jews, and raising difficult questions about the extent of Black support for Israel in the midst of rising antisemitism. And it resurfaces tensions among Black leaders over how the conflict fits into their own political goals and priorities.
“When ideologues co-opt the African American freedom struggle and compare it to the Palestinian national movement, they do black Americans a grave disservice,” he wrote. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians bears little resemblance to the African American quest for civil rights in the U.S., or South Africa’s system of apartheid, Mr. Hughes wrote.
The tension over linking the Black and Palestinian causes recently spilled out on to the presidential campaign trail when President Joe Biden spoke at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., where a white supremacist massacred nine Black congregants in June 2015.
Several protesters interrupted Mr. Biden’s address on the dangers of white supremacy by shouting demands for a cease-fire in Gaza. The disruption, organized by Free Palestine Charleston and Black Lives Matter Charleston, sparked a debate about whether the protest was disrespectful to the memories of those slain.
“As residents and community members of Charleston, we know that all struggles for liberation are intertwined,” Free Palestine Charleston said in a statement. “Atrocities committed against Black folks in the U.S. and Palestinians in Gaza have always belonged to the same system of violence.”
Bakari Sellers, a Democratic political commentator who served in the South Carolina legislature, called the protest “completely out of place and inappropriate.”
He said that Palestinians deserve “basic rights and human dignity,” and that Israel has the right to defend itself.
However, he said, it was hard to see the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a “parallel struggle” with any social justice movement in the U.S. “I’m not sure we’ve seen anything like this,” Mr. Sellers said, referring to the foreign conflict.
The incident at the church reveals a political risk for African Americans who want to see President Biden re-elected: Even Black faith leaders critical of Mr. Biden’s handling of Gaza worry that the issue might drain their community’s support for him. If Black Democrats stay home, that could help Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee, to win the presidency.
Mr. Sellers said he thought the war in Gaza could affect Mr. Biden’s chances in some states, like Michigan. But that he did not think it would be a major national issue for voters come November.
‘A wider tent’
Much of the national debate over Israel is over terminology itself: what counts as support for the Palestinian cause and whether that veers into antisemitism. Colonialismand apartheid — part of the lexicon of the Palestinian cause that resonates so powerfully with African American activists — are terms rejected by many Jews as offensive and antisemitic.
“This is complicated and messy,” said Rochelle Ford, president of Dillard University, a historically Black college that houses the National Center for Black Jewish Relations. “To say that you stand with Palestine, there’s a risk that people are going to think that you hate Jewish people.”
Mr. Farrakhan, who has led the Nation of Islam for more than 40 years, has a long history of antisemitic comments. During an Oct. 14 sermon, he drew parallels between Palestinians caught in a humanitarian crisis and Black people in America.
(The Nation of Islam is currently suing the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish rights group, for defamation for its characterization of the Nation of Islam as antisemitic. Mr. Jackson has worked to repair his relationship with Jews.)
Still, for the Palestinians, having joined with a broader social justice movement buoyed by a generation of Black activists, it means the cause stands to become a permanent feature of mainstream American politics.
“Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, we’re a small number of folks,” said Ahmad Abuznaid, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “It’s absolutely imperative on us to be thinking about building a wider tent for the Palestine movement here in the United States, and we have accomplished that.”
Mr. Abuznaid co-founded the Dream Defenders, a social justice organization of Black, Latino and Arab youth, which led a 40-mile march in Florida, from Daytona Beach to Sanford, the city where Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, was killed by George Zimmerman. In 2015, a year after Ferguson, Mr. Abuznaid organized a trip to Israel and the West Bank for his Black colleagues.
Mr. Abuznaid and a small group of Palestinian and Black activists nurtured the new relationship, leading campaigns together. One of those Black activists is Montague Simmons, the director of strategic partnerships for the Movement for Black Lives.
The displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes during and after Israel’s creation in 1948 “resonated in a deep and abiding way,” Mr. Simmons said.
In Ferguson, he said, among “the folks who came together to build strategy, and coordinate, to really support a lot of the responses we saw on the streets, were Palestinians.”
He found they had knowledge that was useful to African American activists. “They knew better than we did what an MRAP was,” referring to mine-resistant vehicles common in military battle and used against protesters in Ferguson, “and how to actually combat the tear gas.”
Before Oct. 7, the Movement for Black Lives had already been working with the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights to persuade the U.S. government to stop sending money to Israel “that is being used to wage war on Palestinians,” Mr. Simmons said.
African Americans activists became well-versed in the fight for Palestinian rights: the illegal expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands, Israel’s practice of jail detentions without charges, and the blockade and control of Gaza. By the time Israel began bombarding Gaza in retaliation for the Hamas attack, many young Black activists in the United States were convinced of their common cause with Palestinians.
The Black-Jewish alliance
For decades, leaders of African American social movements have identified their struggle with the plight of the Jews. They saw their own history as enslaved people reflected in the book of Exodus, in which Moses delivers the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.
Harriet Tubman, who led hundreds of slaves to freedom, was known to some only as “Moses.” The evening before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told his audience that, like Moses, he might not make it to the Promised Land with his people, but he had “been to the mountain top,” and seen it.
In 1967, when Israel launched pre-emptive strikes against Egypt, Jordan and Syria, more radical elements of the Black rights movement began to identify with the Palestinians, according to Michael Fischbach, author of “Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color.”
Before then, Israel was seen by Black leaders, many of them Christians, as an underdog in the Holy Land fighting for survival. But after its swift, stunning victory against neighboring Arab states, leaders like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown (now known as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) openly accused Israel of being a beneficiary of America’s imperialistic aims.
“The question of the Arab-Israeli conflict divided the Black freedom struggle,” Mr. Fischbach said.
The Carmichael-led Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee wanted to strike a more militant posture in the newly minted struggle for “Black Power,” and found itself in conflict with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. King and other leaders affiliated with the S.C.L.C. had expressed support for Israel, though years after Dr. King’s death, the head of the group met with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In the summer of 1967, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee issued a newsletter in which it criticized Israel and Zionism as a movement to “take over land and homes belonging to the Arabs.”
The letter angered American Jews and put traditional civil rights groups in an awkward position.
They had long been allies with American Jews and wanted to work with them and other white activists in an interracial coalition, but they were losing credibility with young people more attracted to Mr. Carmichael’s message of Black Power and self-determination that excluded white people, according to Mr. Fischbach.
For young revolutionaries such as Mr. Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture), the image of Palestinian militants evoked a sense of internationalism, the idea that people of the Third World could form solidarity and fight their oppression collectively, from Harlem to Johannesburg, according Mr. Fischbach’s book.
Black leaders, including Malcolm X, visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in the 1960s, but a firm alliance never emerged.
Back home, Black and Jewish civil rights leaders together pushed for 1950s anti-masking laws that targeted the Ku Klux Klan, advocating voting rights, and, in more recent years, fighting for resources to combat white supremacist violence, following racist and antisemitic massacres in Charleston, Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
“The Black-Jewish alliance is very powerful, and it’s been essential to the success of both communities in this country,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors Jewish hate crimes.
Yet, the relationship between African Americans and some of their Jewish counterparts at times became weakened or strained, just as the relationship between Black and Palestinian activists blossomed.
“I think there has probably, over the years, not always been enough attention paid from generation to generation, to make sure that the relationships between our communities are maintained and strengthened,” said Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Democrat of Florida. It’s one reason that in 2019, she and several colleagues, including the late Representative John Lewis of Georgia, started the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations.
During police brutality protests, Black Lives Matter activists chafed at the ADL’s sponsorship of U.S. police training programs in Israel. The ADL has clashed with some activists over the Movement for Black Lives’ 2016 statement calling Israel an “apartheid state.”
On Oct. 10, three days after the Hamas attack, a Black Lives Matter group in Chicago posted “I stand with Palestine” along with a photo of a Hamas fighter on a hang glider, on X. Hamas attackers used paragliders in their October assault. The group backtracked the next day, but many were outraged and accused the group of antisemitism.
Mr. Greenblatt of the ADL said some activists have “taken hostile positions against the Jewish state or Jewish people, including after Oct. 7, when a number of these Black Lives Matter chapters celebrated the massacre of Israelis, and they sort of lionized the barbarians of Hamas who committed these atrocities,” he said.
But, he said, the Black and Jewish communities “have shared interests that I don’t think are diminished by this conflict, per se.”
The same New York Times/Siena poll that showed strong African American sympathy for Palestinians also said that 52 percent of Black voters supported additional economic and military aid to Israel.
Mr. Greenblatt said he has been in contact with the N.A.A.C.P. president Derrick Johnson numerous times since Oct. 7. He said Mr. Johnson has “shown empathy and I've appreciated that.”
On Oct. 8, the N.A.A.C.P., along with several other Black civil rights groups, issued a statement in solidarity with the ADL that condemned Hamas’s attack: “We call on all our partners and colleagues to join us in solidarity because hatred and war must end.” A month later, the N.A.A.C.P. issued another statement calling for a “de-escalation of global hate and violence” that did not specifically mention Israel or Hamas.
The N.A.A.C.P. did not respond to a request for an interview.
Terrance Woodbury, co-founder of HIT Strategies, a Democratic polling firm that focuses on underrepresented communities, said that African Americans “are rejecting the false choice that they have to either support the State of Israel or call for the humanitarian relief of brown babies.”
Black social justice activists have grappled with where they stand and made up their minds to support the Palestinian cause, according to Mr. Simmons of the Movement for Black Lives. Now, he said, Black leaders will need to choose.
“Black communities of faith, Black electeds, Black policymakers, have to wrestle in the same way” and make a decision about where they stand, he said.
Mr. Simmons said when he speaks to African Americans weighing their response to the conflict, he poses the same question he did during the unrest in Ferguson: “Are you on the side of the oppressed or not? There is no real choice.”