“The Palestinian struggle, for those of us who are doing social justice [work] here in the US, has always been part of our analysis in terms of thinking about structural and institutionalized oppression,” says Trina Jackson, a longtime social justice organizer based in Boston.
Jackson recently returned from Palestine as a participant with the third African Heritage delegation organized by Interfaith Peace-Builders, an education and advocacy group. Delegates met with members of civil society, human rights workers, grassroots activists and students struggling against Israeli occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.
“It’s clear that the occupation — it weighs on their spirit and their minds [in Bilin],” explained delegatation participant Ajamu Baraka, founding executive director of the US Human Rights Network and an editor and columnist with Black Agenda Report.
“It sort of consumes everything about that experience there in that space. But yet, with that weight of oppression, they still found ways — they had to find ways — of bringing some humor into it. And they made jokes about things that happened between them and soldiers, and I was thinking to myself, as long as these people exist, there will be resistance,” Baraka added.
“It’s clear that in our struggles for liberation that the very fact that we engage in resistance means that we’re going to be criminalized,” he said. “That comes along with the territory, and we understand that.”
“And that’s what we saw in the case [of Rasmea Odeh] — that basically resistance to Israeli settler-colonialism is a criminal act,” Baraka added. “And even though she may not have been physically in Palestine, she was here in the US, and [Israel’s] sister state, the US government, the US state, continued to exert the kind of oppressive pressure on her that she would have felt if she remained in Palestine.”
Listen to the entire interview via the media player, or read the transcript below.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Trina, let’s start with you. Tell us a little about why you joined this delegation, and what you wanted to learn about the struggle of Palestinians under occupation and apartheid.
Trina Jackson: Well, the Palestinian struggle, for those of us who are doing social justice here in the US, has always been part of our analysis in terms of thinking about structural and institutionalized oppression. And so I was interested in seeing a lot of what is the reality for people on the ground there, I was interested in talking to people about their daily lives and how they live their lives under this oppression, under the occupation.
I was interested in the stories and how people themselves would describe what’s going on. I also just wanted to be educated on some of the historical context for what’s going on, and just feel like I could be a more informed ally from where I am.
NBF: And was this the first time that you had been to Palestine?
TJ: Yes. This was my first trip to the Middle East region, yes.
NBF: You’re both involved in anti-racist organizing and social justice movements in the US, and in Palestine you met with community leaders, human rights workers, political activists and youth inside the occupied West Bank and in present-day Israel — what were the conversations like in terms of making connections between the struggles of Black communities in the US and the struggles of Palestinian communities?
TJ: A lot of it was seeing how the stereotypes that exist in Israeli society, how that’s used to justify a lot of the oppression. In my way of thinking about it was, what are the systemic and structural forces that are holding this occupation up? And for African Americans and Black folks living in the US, that’s very much the kind of fight that we’re waging — it’s against the structural and institutional pieces. For me, I was looking for that level of analysis about what I was seeing.
Ajamu Baraka: I think that the connections were somewhat obvious for both those of us who were part of the delegation and for Palestinians, especially those Palestinians who had taken an interest and had an understanding of the struggles of African people in the US. There is a recognition that the common bond for both of us is the struggle against oppression, the struggle against racialized societies in which the humanity of African American people and the humanity of Palestinians are not recognized — a recognition in that common struggle to fight for our dignity and for self-respect and self-determination.
There’s also a recognition that our struggles go beyond just our immediate struggles for our own liberation — but that those forces that are conspiring to deny us our humanity are the same forces that are conspiring to deny the humanity of peoples all over this globe. Those connections were made, and that’s what made our conversations so powerful — because unlike some who may visit and have a sympathetic position on the position of Palestine, there was something deeply moving for us who come out of situations where we are directly oppressed. There’s a feeling there that I think the Palestinians also picked up [on it].
NBF: Coming back to the US, at a time when we saw the conviction of Palestinian American community leader Rasmea Odeh, who was tortured and sexually assaulted for weeks by Israeli interrogators in 1969 until she signed a confession, and then convicted by an Israeli military court of participating in a bombing in Jerusalem, a charge she immediately recanted, thrown into prison, and then just this week, thrown into jail again by the US government because of immigration fraud, and the judge in her case refused to let the jury know that she had been tortured into signing a confession — we see the criminalization of Palestine solidarity activism in this country, we see the expanding attacks against communities of color and marginalized communities. What are your thoughts on the ways in which the struggle of marginalized communities from the US to Palestine are being repressed, and how people are still standing up and fighting back?
AB: Well, I think that there’s a common recognition that the tide of history is on the side of the oppressed. And as we’re able to make direct links between ourselves, we’re able to provide the kind of solidarity that we need in order to defeat a common enemy.
It’s clear that in our struggles for liberation that the very fact that we engage in resistance means that we’re going to be criminalized. That comes along with the territory, and we understand that, and that’s what we saw in the case you just cited — that basically a resistance to Israeli settler colonialism is a criminal act. And even though she may not have been physically in Palestine, she was here in the US, and their sister state, the US government, the US state, continued to exert the kind of oppressive pressure on her that she would have felt if she remained in Palestine.
So that we understand. And that’s why we stand in solidarity. We understand that as Dr. King said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. So we stand in solidarity with our folks.
TJ: I think what Ajamu said is the heart of it. That the criminalization is part of the larger strategy of trying to silence any kind of resistance. And so this is a strategy that’s used by all kinds of repressive regimes.
I think that it is what we might expect with any level of resistance — whether it is the truth-telling of our stories about what’s happening, to the spectacles of resistance that we’re used to seeing in the media that paint resistance as criminal. It’s part of the overall strategy. Like Ajamu was saying, it’s something that — as fighters we’re accustomed to that.
NBF: Trina, you live and work in Boston, how are you relaying what you experienced in Palestine back to the work that you do as a social justice organizer there?
TJ: There’s a very engaged community in Boston in support of the Palestinian struggle but also against this Israeli occupation, and also a deeper analysis of the ideology behind it. There’s a very engaged community, there’s lots of spaces where people can come together and have dialogue about ways to either deepen your analysis or what you can do from wherever you sit in your life, and just integrate it into the work you’re doing on the ground, dealing with local issues — ways that people can make linkages between grassroots work that’s happening in Boston, whether it’s around violence or income inequality or gentrification, and making the larger leaps.
What I’ve been trying to do personally is to connect with people, and share my experiences and have some dialogue about how we can make connections.
NBF: Ajamu, you’ve written extensively on what you call the moral duplicity of the Obama administration, which is continuing the status quo of all administrations that have come before, in terms of refusing to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law and the continuation of this occupation and settler-colonial project in Palestine. Can you talk about the work that needs to be done here in this country to hold Israel accountable, and the part that grassroots civil society plays in this context?
AB: I think that one of the things that I argued was that we have to shift the paradigm on Israel-Palestine, and we have to look at that situation as one of a colonial project, a settler-colonial project in which the settlers fail to recognize the existence, the humanity, of the people of Palestine. And what makes that situation even more dangerous is that at this particular juncture in the history of Palestine-Israel, the Palestinian people are no longer of any value to the settlers.
We find that when you have a settler-colonial situation where the main objective of the settlers is the land and there’s no interest in having to exploit the labor of the people, then we have found that the recipe for genocide is in place. And that’s what we are in fact seeing in Palestine. We’re seeing that because of the almost redundant nature of Palestinian labor, the social problem that Palestinians present by their very existence is being translated into policies of genocide.
Gradually, there’s been a acceptance in Israeli civil society around the notion that the only way they can solve this problem of the Palestinians is through an accelerated form of ethnic cleansing. So once we understand the real terms in Palestine, we need to be able to explain what’s happening in clear terms. We’ve got to strip away this obscure language of the possibility of negotiated settlements and all of that, and understand the clash of material interests, historical interests, that when you have a settler regime like what you have in Palestine, that the only way that regime will be forced to negotiate and to surrender some of its power is consequently the result of a horrendous, horrific political struggle.
NBF: Trina Jackson and Ajamu Baraka, talk about maybe one experience you both had in Palestine that you continue to think about, something that you probably won’t forget.
TJ: There are many that stand out for me. I think the ones that are right now at the top, at the forefront, is two things. One would be the tear gassing incident that we had when we were in the village of Bilin, with a local resident of the village who has been very active against the wall and the home demolitions. We were on a tour and he was explaining to us, among other things, the impact of the wall on the people living in the village, and cutting off access to the land that they had used to either farm or build, expand their own community. And we were tear gassed during the tour, and we weren’t even on Israeli land.
That just spoke — I had not been tear gassed before. I’ve certainly had my own interactions with police. It’s hard to be Black in America and not have any interaction with the police. So that was somewhat familiar to me, but this was different. It just spoke to the level of aggression that the Israeli government is about suppressing any kind of nonviolent resistance, which is just simply in the truth-telling of people’s lives, of Palestinian life.
The second experience was visiting the detention center in the Negev desert, the Holot detention center, where we saw Africans from the Sudan and Eritrea who are being detained there really for no other reason than they’re black people that Israel does not want in the country. They are isolated, they have no freedom of movement, no one’s communicated to them how long they’re going to be there, and again it just spoke to the level of racist ideology that is fueling Israeli policies.
For me, those were the two experiences that are still with me, still feel fresh.
AB: I have to agree that one of the experiences was of course the tear gassing there in Bilin. I guess for me though, in that same village, beyond that tear gassing, what really stood out for me was that evening, as we got back to the houses, we had dinner, discussion — and then we began to socialize. Members of the village came around and started talking and making jokes about what they were experiencing.
And I was sitting there thinking [about] the kind of spirit that these folks have. It’s clear that the occupation — it weighs on their spirit and their minds. It sort of consumes everything about that experience there in that space. But yet, with that weight of oppression, they still found ways — they had to find ways — of bringing some humor into it. And they made jokes about things that happened between them and soldiers, and I was thinking to myself, as long as these people exist, there will be resistance. That this situation is not going to be resolved as long as the Israeli government is allowed to do what it’s doing to try to destroy these people, because they can’t be destroyed.
And lastly, the visit we had with a representative of the settler community in Hebron — I was sitting there looking at him, and seeing the vacant look in his eyes, his inability to connect with us as human beings. And it really struck me that if this is the attitude of these settlers, then again, this situation is not going to be resolved short of a situation of what we saw in Algeria, with the liberation of Algeria.