Puma celebrates Black Power while supporting Israel’s war crimes

US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, along with Australian Peter Norman, during the 200-meter race medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Smith (center) and Carlos protested racism by going to the podium shoeless, bowing their heads and raising their fists. (Angelo Cozzi)

German sportswear giant Puma is hoping to cash in on activism against racism by launching a campaign commemorating the 50th anniversary of the courageous and iconic Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City by US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Peter Norman, the white Australian athlete who was also on the winners’ podium, showed his support for his fellow athletes by pinning the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge to his tracksuit – an act of solidarity long recognized by Smith and Carlos, and for which Norman was posthumously honored this year.

Puma is launching its #REFORM campaign on Tuesday, coinciding with the anniversary of the salute.

The campaign features artists and athletes alongside Tommie Smith himself to speak out on such themes as universal equality, criminal justice reform and gender equality.

But while seeking to clothe itself in anti-racism and social justice activism, Puma continues to support racism and colonialism: specifically by sponsoring teams in settlements Israel builds on stolen Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, a war crime under international law.

As Puma launches its campaign, Palestinian activists are calling on people to speak out against the glaring inconsistency.

“Let’s tell Puma it can’t ‘encourage conversations around issues such as universal equality’ while sponsoring teams in illegal Israeli settlements that push Palestinian families off their land,” PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, said in an action alert.

“Let’s thank Tommie Smith, WNBA player Skylar Diggins-Smith and rap artist Meek Mill for their commitment to social justice and urge them to make ending Puma’s sponsorship of Israeli settlement teams a priority for Puma’s #REFORM campaign.”

Historically there has been a strong affinity between Black and Palestinian liberation movements, which has been reaffirmed in recent years in initiatives by Black activists and intellectuals.

Puma’s hypocrisy is hardly surprising, as the firm is driven by profits, not altruism.

Puma executives will no doubt have looked on with envy at how competitor Nike saw a huge boost in sales after it ran ads featuring Colin Kaepernick, the American football player who launched the “take a knee” protests against police racism and violence and paid with his career.

Supporting settlement teams

This year, Puma stepped in to replace another competitor, Adidas, as a sponsor of the Israel Football Association, after the latter pulled out following a global grassroots campaign and warnings of a boycott.

In July, PACBI told Puma that by sponsoring the Israel Football Association, the firm is “associating its global brand with Israel’s expanding settlement enterprise, whose illegal land grabs and home demolitions are driving out indigenous Palestinians through gradual ethnic cleansing.”

“The iconic leaping cat is sportswashing Israel’s military occupation and violations of Palestinians rights,” PACBI added.

More than 200 Palestinian sports clubs have already urged Puma to end its sponsorship of the Israel Football Association because of its inclusion of settlement teams.

In a 2016 report, Human Rights Watch detailed how world football governing body FIFA profits from serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by allowing the Israel Football Association to conduct games in West Bank settlements.

Focus on sponsors

Palestinians and human rights defenders campaigned for several years to get FIFA to exclude the settlement clubs.

But despite promising to address the issue, FIFA repeatedly bowed to Israeli pressure.

In May 2017, FIFA boss Gianni Infantino effectively rigged a vote in the body’s congress to protect Israel from sanctions.

A year ago, FIFA made what appeared to be the final capitulation, giving Israeli teams a green light to continue playing on occupied land, in violation of FIFA’s own policies barring one member association from holding matches on the territory of another without permission.

Palestinians then shifted tactics to targeting their efforts directly at sponsors.

After the success of the Adidas campaign, they are hoping to enlist the athletes and artists associated with Puma to influence that company to also end its complicity in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.