Kristian Davis Bailey is a Detroit-based writer and organizer who recently put together the “Black for Palestine” statement. More than 1,100 Black scholars, activists, students, artists and organizations have signed on, including Angela Davis, Cornel West, Talib Kweli, political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and others.
The statement lays out a framework for Black solidarity with Palestinian liberation and calls for exploring the connections between Palestinian and Black liberation as well as the oppressive linkages between the United States and Israel. The statement calls for support of boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts against Israel and calls attention to Israel’s oppression of African-descended populations in Palestine.
Davis Bailey has written for Ebony, Mondoweiss, Truth-Out and elsewhere. I caught up with him to find out more about “Black for Palestine” and the opportunities and challenges it presents.
Jimmy Johnson: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. Please introduce yourself.
Kristian Davis Bailey: My name is Kristian Davis Bailey and I’m one of the co-organizers of the “Black For Palestine” statement. I’m currently a freelance writer based in Detroit.
JJ: Where were you before Detroit and what were you doing?
KDB: Before Detroit I was a student at Stanford where I was involved with Students for Justice in Palestine at the campus level, across California and nationally.
JJ: Can you tell me a bit about the “Black For Palestine” statement and the process of creating it?
KDB: The statement emerged out of two separate statements that I and my co-organizer Khury Petersen-Smith had organized last summer during the height of the assault on Gaza. We’d each found ourselves unable to publish our statements while the media would pick it up so we figured that this year we would combine our efforts to write a statement on the anniversary of the assault on Gaza which wound up being much bigger than what each of us had organized the summer before.
It is worth noting that some of the key signatories this year had also signed last year. The Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis had signed on to last year’s statement before Mike Brown was killed and connections were being made to Palestine. Hopefully we’ll publish those earlier statements soon.
JJ: You bring up a good connection with the Organization for Black Struggle because the release of this statement is not only the anniversary of the attack on Gaza but also something going on in the US. Can you make that connection? Both your intentions around the timing of the release, as well as the connections you see there.
KDB: It was really important for us to note that the statement emerged out of the past year of solidarity between the Black and Palestinian struggles, specifically: connections people were making on the ground in Ferguson to Palestine. I think none of the developments in the past year would have happened if people on the ground hadn’t themselves started to organically connect what they were witnessing in terms of military vehicles in their communities, being tear-gassed and shot at during protests, if they hadn’t connected those things to what they were seeing in Palestine and if Palestinian organizers hadn’t reached out in solidarity to the people in Ferguson.
What the statement represents is how firm of a connection there is for organizers in St. Louis with the Palestinian struggle. It’s not just a slogan we’ve used at protests but something that people facing the brunt of repression and doing the majority of the organizing on the ground have decided to be a part of themselves. I think that’s why St. Louis is the most represented city on the statement in terms of organizational signatories.
JJ: It sounds kind of like the development and the recruitment of the signatories is really based in joint work that’s being done together.
KDB: Right. Most of the people who signed the statement, whether they’re individuals or organizations, have been actively engaging with Palestine well before the last year. There were a lot of old school organizers who have been doing this solidarity work since the ’60s and ’70s that signed on, in addition to groups like the Dream Defenders which over the past few years have started to engage more with the Palestinian issue. So, I forget what your question is but my answer is “yes” [laughter].
JJ: A Kenyan author named Mukoma Wa Ngugi gave a presentation a few years back at Wayne State here in Detroit and he was talking specifically about relations between African migrants and Black Americans and he talked about the way that white supremacy forms a veil that literally colors the relationships between these two groups but also between all groups, although the details are different for any two groups.
And one of the things he mentioned was that the only way to get past this is to put in work together to supersede and subvert this veil that colors the relationships between, for example, Black folks and Palestinians, Black folks and Arab folks. That sounds a little bit like what’s going on.
KDB: Again I’ll focus on St. Louis because that’s a story I know a little bit about. The solidarity organizing between the Organization for Black Struggle and the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee has been going on for at least three or four years. The two groups both worked together to oppose Veolia being given a contract to privatize the city’s water, both recognizing what Veolia was doing in occupied Palestine and for the danger it presented to the people in St. Louis.
The Organization for Black Struggle was also crucial in a cultural boycott action. I don’t know how many years ago it was but it was Organization for Black Struggle organizers who said, “We will pull out of this event unless these artists are disinvited.” That was the work of very principled solidarity on the part of the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee.
At the same time you have a Palestinian member of the solidarity committee whose father is a shop owner in a predominantly Black part of St. Louis and what he had been working on was to take all of the hard liquor out of his store after he was realizing the impact it was having on the Black community in St. Louis. He also set up a couple of initiatives to contribute some of the profits from his shop to local organizing efforts in the community.
I wanted to offer that as a real solid example of what Palestinian solidarity in the US, or not even solidarity but direct action against anti-Blackness looks like, and that’s an example of some of the principled actions and alliances that preceded the Ferguson-Palestine connection and solidarity.
JJ: This isn’t the first statement of Black solidarity with Palestine. Can you contextualize this action a bit in the internationalism of the radical Black tradition?
KDB: Definitely. So Black support for Palestine comes out of the tradition of Black internationalism within the radical segment of our liberation struggle. Malcolm X was talking about the dangers of Zionism in the 1960s. The Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee released its statement at the same time the Black Panther Party was training with the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] in Algeria.
In 1970 you had a group of prominent Black activists or scholars take out a New York Times ad supporting Palestinian liberation from Zionism and some of those signatories also signed our statement today in 2015. So there is a rich tradition of Black solidarity with international struggles broadly, and specifically with Palestine. I definitely contextualize this statement within that broader history of Black internationalism.
JJ: What would you say is the purpose of releasing this statement beyond a symbolic declaration of solidarity?
KDB: There are a couple of things. There is the suggestion that both Black and Palestinian people, and people around the world that support us, can join very targeted campaigns against companies that profit from the oppression of both groups, such as G4S and Veolia. Beyond that one of my individual hopes as an organizer is that this represents the current chapter of the Black liberation movement getting involved in the international arena once again to the degree that we were in the ’60s and ’70s. Because I think a lot of that momentum and a lot of those alliances were very intentionally targeted or repressed in the ’80s up through today even.
JJ: Some of the work being done to reignite alliances that were built between radical groups in the 1960s and ’70s, we’ve seen some attempts of that where there is a flattening effect. For example non-Black people of color using a people of color paradigm and erasing the specificities of anti-Blackness. Can you talk a little bit about the opportunities presented by “Black For Palestine” to engage not only Palestinian liberation but the specificity of anti-Blackness in solidarity?
KDB: Definitely. I’m glad you raised that because one of the points of reference I organize from is the understanding that white supremacy affects different groups in different ways here in the United States. So the anti-Black racism and the anti-Blackness that we experience and live under is of a distinct nature from the anti-indigenous or genocidal policies that indigenous folks here have experienced, is distinct from the experiences of non-Black, non-indigenous immigrants to this country.
A lot of times what happens is the differences between these groups are flattened out where we say “people of color” and we talk about how people of color are oppressed under white supremacy without acknowledging the power dynamics that are at play between our communities — so without acknowledging that every non-Black ethnic group or immigrant group in the United States is complicit in anti-Blackness or anti-Black racism.
One of the things that I hope comes up in discussions is a very critical examination of the ways that Palestinians — or just non-Black people in the United States — participate in anti-Blackness. So that for me represents a difference between joint struggle and maybe solidarity, where under joint struggle we acknowledge the different relations in terms of power between our communities and how that impacts how we relate to each other and how we organize.
So I think there’s a lot of room coming out of this statement for folks to organize around Arab anti-Black racism or for Palestine supporters who aren’t Arab to organize against their own anti-Blackness or their position as settlers in a settler colonial society.
JJ: One thing that stands out among many parts of the “Black For Palestine” statement is the phrasing that “Israel’s widespread use of detention and imprisonment against Palestinians evokes the mass incarceration of Black people in the US, including the political imprisonment of our own revolutionaries.” So can you expand upon this idea of the colonial, carceral state?
KDB: Sure. The first thing I want to talk about is how incredibly powerful of an experience and expression it was to have 10 currently incarcerated political prisoners respond to our call for signatures and sign the statement from behind bars. Their participation in our statement highlights the fact that they’re also a population whose liberation from the prison-industrial complex we need to be fighting for.
Also they represent the internationalism and revolutionary spirit that was intentionally targeted and killed from the 1980s onward. So their participation and inclusion in this statement is a link back to that era, specifically Mumia Abu-Jamal and Sundiata Acoli. Beyond that one of the things I’m thinking of about that line on mass incarceration is the need to abolish prisons.
There is different rhetoric around prisons in Palestine and here in the US but I do think they’re similar enough in the sense that we often don’t think of people arrested for drug crimes in the US as political prisoners but they are imprisoned under a very intentional political system that discriminates against them across every point of the so-called justice system.
The need to criminalize the existence or resistance of populations under settler colonialism leads to mass or hyper incarceration both in the United States and in Palestine and that prison abolition in that context is something we need to center.
JJ: What can Palestinian and Black people learn from each other?
KBD: From Palestinians we learn the importance of struggling for self-determination — a right that Black people in the US have never experienced, from our ancestor’s forcible kidnapping to this continent and the end of the Civil War through today. This is a right that Palestinians refuse to let go of through their sumoud, or steadfastness — and it is a right that Black people must claim as well.
The Black for Palestine statement highlighted the right of return as the most important aspect of justice for Palestinians because it cuts to the core of the “conflict” and is dismissed by Zionists and the US as “unrealistic.” For Palestinians to cling to and achieve the most “impossible” of their calls would be a boon to us, as we still fight for the “unrealistic” demands of reparations for our ancestors’ free and forced labor, or the abolition of prisons and the police.
The call for boycott, divestment and sanctions also models what it might look like for Black people in the US, across our varying political ideologies, to present basic criteria for us to exercise our own right to self-determination and to present basic actions people around the world can take to help us actualize our self-determination.
Our post-civil rights condition and the post-apartheid South African condition drive home the necessity for Palestinians to demand economic restructuring and safeguards both against decades of disinvestment and against neoliberal forces within the Palestinian political class. Full justice for Palestinians makes the case stronger for our own organizing in the US; full justice for Black Americans or South Africans makes the case stronger for Palestinians. I see each of these struggles as my own, because a victory for one group is a victory for us all. That is what motivates my work on this issue.
JJ: What kind of opportunities do you think “Black For Palestine” opens up for organizational solidarity with Black people in Palestine, be those articulated to the Israeli settler society or native Black Palestinians?
KDB: I think it opens up a lot of opportunities. One idea that has already come up as a result of the statement is bringing a delegation of African Palestinians here to the US so organizers can engage with them because too often they’re a population that gets erased from the narratives about Palestine within our own movement spaces here in the United States. And I know that there is already ongoing efforts between groups like the Dream Defenders and Black Youth Project 100 to connect Black and Brown people in the United States with the different African populations in historic Palestine, whether that is Ethiopian Israelis, Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers or African Palestinians.
This work is already happening so I think the statement is just another step for potential organizing between Africans in historic Palestine and Black people in the US.