Friday, January 23, 2009

"Time for a new divestment campaign" talk at Duke

My name is Mike S. and I am a member of Duke Against War. I wanted to speak today about my experience as a Palestine solidarity activist. I’m going to talk about a few incidents in a campaign I was a part of from fall 2006 to spring 2008. But before that, I wanted to briefly address why we should consider launching a divestment campaign right now.

Just yesterday, an article appeared in the online journal Counterpunch by Kevin Alexander Gray, a civil rights organizer in South Carolina, contributing editor to Black News in South Carolina, former President of the SC ACLU, and Jesse Jackson's SC campaign manager in 1988. The article was called, “Time for a New Divestment Campaign,” and I couldn’t agree more. That is the decision we have before us – a new divestment campaign, like the one that helped bring down apartheid South Africa, this time aimed at one of the countries so instrumental in maintaining apartheid in South Africa for so long – Israel.

Why divest? Gray gives us a number of reasons. He says, “Zionism, the official ideology of Israel, is predicated on religious and ethnic separation or segregation. A self-described Jewish state -- that is, a state that operates of, by and on behalf of a single group of people -- cannot also be a secular, democratic state where persons of all religious and ethnic backgrounds are treated equally. A Jewish state that has never declared its borders, that has annexed and occupied territories, flouting international law and subjecting the indigenous population to poverty, indignity, theft, torture and death, is not only a colonialist outlaw state; it is also racist. ” The founding ideology of the state of Israel is racist, based on the rationale of colonialism extending back through the nineteenth century, underwriting the colonial domination of every Western European nation over every country in the so-called the third world.

But there are more reasons. “What’s happening in Palestine,” Gray continues, “is not fundamentally different from what occurred in apartheid South Africa. Kids are being killed. People have been herded into the (more deadly) equivalent of bantustans. Political leaders are targeted for assassination…The citizens of Gaza live in a virtual prison. They are surrounded by water, walls, fences and watch/gun towers.”

And furthermore, “even humanitarian aid is not allowed through,” and “citizens can get food, medicine and even goats, in addition to guns and weapons, only through tunnels. ”

In short, Israel is an apartheid state, and we should dedicate ourselves to fighting it, and demanding divestment.

But how do we go about fighting it? I’d like to discuss a few key moments in a divestment campaign I was a part of at Wayne State University from fall 2006 to spring 2008 as a way of beginning to answer that question.

A group of friends and I launched our Palestine solidarity campaign in the fall of 2006, shortly after Israel had invaded Lebanon. This was the direct impetus for our own struggle, and as many of you probably know, Israel’s invasion sparked a series of protests around the world against Israel, albeit nothing on the scale we’ve seen recently with Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

But that campaign, and that group of friends, didn’t just appear out of thin air. It had a pre-history that I think is relevant. It began with myself and a friend of mine doing talks on labor at Wayne State University in the fall of 2005. That winter, people began attacking mosques in our neighborhood. We were living in Hamtramck at the time. As the labor campaign wound down, we decided to put up some flyers calling people to a meeting to discuss what we might be able to do to counter these racist attacks happening in our community. A number of people showed up, and from there we found a handful of people, no more than four, willing to dedicate a serious amount of time to the campaign.

From there, we made some signs, talked to the imam at the mosque, and began picketing in front of the mosque around the time of the sunset prayer, which was when most of the attacks were taking place. Things went well for a while, but eventually the imam asked us to shut our picket down, because we were drawing attention to the mosque, and he wanted to ignore the attacks and hope they went away on their own. We disagreed, and told him so, but shut our picket line down. As an aside, I’ll note that one of the biggest disgraces of this campaign was that one of our comrades, a Somali Muslim woman named Asha, wasn’t allowed to pray in the mosque she was putting herself on the line defending, and had to pray in a dirty alleyway next to the building.

After this campaign, we began reading together. One of the books we read was Clayborne Carson’s In Struggle. I have read this book numerous times since then with people I’ve met who were thinking about becoming politically active. It is important because it shows how important young folks, from 15 and younger to 20, are in bringing about new forms of politics and social change. To this day, I have a special place in my heart for the young men and women of SNCC.

Soon, though, Israel invaded Lebanon, and we, a group of self-reflective young folks, began talking about what we could do to influence events that seemed so far away. Eventually, we decided we needed to launch a divestment campaign at the school that some of us attended and others had recently graduated from – Wayne State University, where Shemon and I had organized back in 2002-2003 against the run up to the war in Iraq.

That fall, we launched our divestment campaign which, over the course of 2 academic years us into sometimes very intimate contact with people like Daniel Pipes, Selma James, Irshad Manji, and Glenn Plummer, a Christian Zionist preacher in the Detroit area.

Our campaign was predicated on the idea that, since we were students and community members, we didn’t need to become a registered student group. The university was ours. We paid tuition and taxes that kept it afloat. Our first major confrontation with the university administration over this issue came in late September, 2006.

At that time, we hosted an event called “Why Christians should pray and struggle for the liberation of Palestine.” In this presentation, we sought to challenge a Christian Zionist perspective with a liberation theology perspective on the struggle for Palestine. But even more significant, we sought to challenge the administration over our right to use the public space of the university as a group of students and community members. We were taking a risk. We consisted of only a handful of people, and the university sent us an email before the event saying that we didn’t have permission to use the space and doing so was trespassing. Police cars were stationed at the exits to the building we were using. And then something remarkable happened – 40 people showed up. The administration was ready and willing to arrest the 6 of us by ourselves. They had prepared to do so. But they were unwilling to arrest 40 or more people who showed up to a talk about Christianity and its relationship to Palestine.

A second important moment in the campaign came only a couple of weeks later, on Thursday, October 12, 2006. That was the day we held our first rally on campus. We had submitted a divestment proposal to the university several weeks before, and declared October 12 as a reasonable deadline to expect a response by. If these administrators running the university were worth the salaries they got, surely they could respond to our demand in two weeks. Still, we didn’t hold our breath. Instead, we held our rally. At the rally, we got a taste of the importance of the militancy of young folks when, as our march began, young Arab and Muslim students spontaneously changed the route of the march. Rather than going out through the street open to us, they insisted that we march out THROUGH the Zionist counter protesters at the rally. We did, and the Zionists parted their ranks and let us through chanting, “Free, free Palestine!”

Eventually, our march arrived at the administration’s offices, and we found our way in barred by a cordon of police. We demanded a meeting with the head of the university, and refused to leave until we got a response. The administration sent out a lawyer, and promised to respond to our divestment proposal publicly. This was one of our finest achievements, because when he responded, saying, “Wayne State opposes divestiture and has no intention of divesting itself of stocks in companies doing business with Israel,” it caused an outrage in the Arab American community in metro Detroit, and one of the biggest Arab weeklies, the Arab American Forum and Link, published a front page article, with the president’s face and words superimposed over the apartheid wall snaking through Jerusalem and the words, “Divestment: It worked for South Africa, why not Israel?”

This rally, then, was a significant achievement for us and our divestment campaign, but it also had some important costs. One of them was that a good friend and comrade got a visit from Homeland Security at her home only a few days later. Luckily, she wasn’t there, but her roommate told her they were looking for her, and that they had a picture of her taken at the rally only days before. The dangers of this kind of work are very real, as people around the country and the world can attest.

The campaign continued throughout the fall and spring semesters, and at a certain point, tensions became very heated. The student newspaper became a site where both sites vented their animosity toward one another, causing the administration to disable comments on the website. The pro-Israel groups on campus even at one point threatened to campaign against me personally, and protest outside my work.

It took about a year for the local Zionist groups to wrap their heads around what was going on and get organized, and when they did, they brought none other than Daniel Pipes to Wayne State. When we heard he was coming, we immediately contacting the local chapters of SJP, MSA, and SDS, as well as community groups in Detroit and a Palestine solidarity group at the University of Michigan. Pipes was going to speak at WSU, and then U of M later the same day. We suggested a coalition that would make both campuses aware of who Pipes was and how important it was to combat his racist message. At Wayne State, we suggested a rally before his talk so that people would be made aware, would get information about Pipes, and could then confront him.

At this point, we experienced a number of disagreements with people over tactics. The folks at U of M simply refused to organize a confrontation. I think they opted for a silent walk-out instead. At Wayne State, we got help from SDS, but a number of other people stayed away. The community groups that seemed most interested in a collaboration flatly refused a confrontation and rally. Rather than hold an informative rally before Pipes’ speech, giving people the info they could then confront him with, they wanted to draw people away from a confrontation with Pipes, to a concert or other cultural event somewhere else at the same time as his talk. We suggested he hold the concert right outside where Pipes was speaking, to get as many people aware of who he was, what he was saying, and what they could do about it. They refused, and although many of them promised to speak at our rally, none of them showed up, and they left us to organize it on our own.

So we held our rally, and on that day, we went into the hall where Pipes was speaking. We listened to him say every racist thing under the sun about our people, and we denounced him mercilessly when the time came. Pipes was flabbergasted. He was genuinely upset that we didn’t bow down before all his PhDs and alleged knowledge and give him the respect he thought he deserved. The title of an initial write-up on the talk said it all, “Wayne State Univ. vs. Daniel Pipes.” I couldn’t have put it better myself. WSU opposed Pipes courageously, and made it known that we wouldn’t tolerate racism on our campus. Since then, that article has disappeared. Perhaps Pipes recognized that its title sounded too much like defeat. The only traces that now remain are an article called, “My disrupted talk at Wayne State.”

Those are some of the key events of our campaign. What I’d like to do now is briefly consider some of the lessons we can learn form each of these examples.

The mosque defense campaign taught us the importance of organization. It is because we began organizing ourselves in January 2006 as a mosque defense group, because we began seeking out sympathetic and like-minded folks, that we were able to make a significant intervention in the fall of 2006, following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Additionally, this campaign had unintended positive consequences. We later found out that while our campaign was shut down, a mosque in a different part of the city began its own campaign, completely independent of ours, but inspired by our example.

The event on Christianity and its relationship to Palestine was significant for different reasons. It taught us that with planning, discipline, courage, and numbers, we could win major concessions from authorities that we often seen as all-powerful. We are seeing similar things around the world today, with successful school occupations at the New School in New York City, and ongoing battles throughout the UK.

Our rally taught us a number of things. First, it concretely exposed the administration’s political allegiances. This was decisive, because it confirmed that the administration was not going to freely choose to do the right thing, it would have to be compelled through our actions and organizing. In addition, the rally showed us the real potential for student militancy that exists at certain times in the movement. We are seeing this today as well, with young folks around the world taking the lead. As a commentator on Counterpunch recently noted, invoking Fanon, “don’t be so rigid as to be outpaced by the masses in the street, and if you are, accept your obsolescence with grace.” That is an important lesson indeed. Finally, it taught us the real dangers of this work, with the threats of Homeland Security, and people targeting us in our personal lives.

Our rally against Daniel Pipes held still more lessons for us as we go about this work. First, we need to fight racist forces head on when they appear at our schools, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods. When Pipes wrote up his experiences at the two universities, Wayne State and U of M, he stressed how “civilized” the Arab and Muslim folks at U of M were, in contrast to the barbarian hordes that faced him down at Wayne State. I consider this the highest possible compliment. Theodor Herzl, when he was trying to convince one imperial power after another to support the creation of a Jewish state, used the argument that the West could use “an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” If Herzl and Pipes posit opposition to their policies as a choice between civilization and barbarism, the last thing I want to be is civilized.

But today, in 2009, we might find ourselves in a slightly different place than we found ourselves in 2006. Last week, Duke Against War held an event called “Change Begins with Us,” where we tried to stress the important grassroots movements taking off throughout the world - working people and students, young queer folks and environmental activists, Palestine solidarity activists and even the grassroots nature of the Obama campaign. All point to “something new and serious” going on. At Wayne State, we were relatively isolated, but that may be different today.

And finally, I would like to stress the importance of seeing these campaigns as opportunities for us to grow and overcome obstacles we place on ourselves. I’ve talked a lot about the external enemies, but it is important to keep in mind that those external enemies are only confronted following a long process of liberation from the things we have learned should be obstacles to our growth and development, and to becoming politically active. I have known a number of people who have had to confront their families about their politics. I’ve known people who have ended relationships based on these campaigns. These things are not easy, but it’s also important to keep in mind the bonds we form during them, which are based on a shared vision of justice that often transcends the bonds of familiarity and routine.

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