Listen: How Durham activists led city to ban police training in Israel

In a unanimous vote by its city council on 16 April, Durham, North Carolina, became the first city in the US to ban training programs between its police department and foreign militaries, including Israel’s.

The city council’s action was the result of steady grassroots campaigning led by 10 local civil and human rights groups that make up the Demilitarize! Durham2Palestine coalition, supported by nearly 1,400 residents and dozens of multi-faith leaders.

The coalition is an affiliate of Jewish Voice for Peace’s Deadly Exchange Campaign, which seeks to formally abolish police exchange partnerships between US police departments and Israel’s army and police forces.

The Durham ban on police exchanges “sets an example for other cities” to end these programs, MJ Edery, a leader of the New York City chapter of the Deadly Exchange campaign, told The Electronic Intifada on Tuesday.

Through this kind of local grassroots work, activists are offering an alternative to these exchanges “by building safety through solidarity and community, and imagining alternatives to prisons, police, ICE, borders and militarism,” Edery added.

Under the cover of counterterrorism training, high-ranking officers from US police departments and federal agencies have traveled to Israel for lessons in occupation enforcement.

But these exchanges sponsored by major Israel lobby groups including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee and the American Israel Education Foundation, an arm of AIPAC, are about more than just training; they also aim to build the US market for Israel’s multi-billion dollar weapons and “homeland security” industry, and bolster ideological support for Israel among US elites.

In a letter to the Durham city council, the ADL smeared and dismissed Jewish Voice for Peace and defended its police exchange programs.

The ADL boasts that since 2004 it has sent 200 “law enforcement executives” to be trained by Israeli forces in “intensive counter-terrorism” tactics.

The group has also bragged that officers who take part in the trainings “come back and they are Zionists” – adherents to Israel’s state ideology.

Durham’s former police chief took part in the ADL’s National Counter-Terrorism Seminar – a fact highlighted in marketing material for the security consulting firm he now works for and which boasts a client list including several major universities.

Starbucks

The ADL was invited this week to help Starbucks create staff training material in order to combat “implicit bias” after the arrest of two Black men at a Starbucks coffee shop in Philadelphia stirred national outrage.

Activists note that the ADL’s claim to be an anti-bias champion has glaring and explicit exceptions, especially when it comes to African Americans and Palestinians.

Along with honoring the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department after the 2014 police killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the ADL has chastised activists with Black Lives Matter over their support for Palestinian human rights.

It also has a long history of mainstreaming Islamophobia while disparaging Palestinian, Muslim and Arab community organizations.

Modeling

“It doesn’t make sense to model our policing – or to even leave room for our policing to be modeled – after the [Israeli army] and the terrible things that they’ve been a part of,” Ahmad Amireh of Duke Students for Justice in Palestine told The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Duke SJP is part of the Demilitarize! Durham2Palestine coalition.

Amireh said he spent time in the occupied West Bank following President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, and during a protest, he saw Israeli forces shoot a Palestinian man carrying a flag.

“To see that, to say that a man cannot stand up against the occupation that he’s been subjected to his whole life without getting shot at, that’s something that has no business making its way to communities in America,” he said.

Amireh said that when he returned to Durham, he wanted to help end the same kind of state violence and racial profiling that both Israel and the US police forces carry out.

During the campaign, activists highlighted the urgency to divest from militarization “and invest in Black and Brown communities through housing, jobs, education, [a] livable wage and health care” to meet people’s basic needs and strengthen community safety, Ajamu Dillahunt, a student and member of the Durham chapter of Black Youth Project 100, told The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

The local chapter of BYP100 is also a part of the Demilitarize! Durham2Palestine coalition.

Following the victory at the city council, the coalition will continue the work to ensure that similar policies can be passed by other cities “to end any type of exchange with Israel that any police force may have, and to move to address police accountability too,” Dillahunt said.

Listen to the interviews with Ahmad Amireh and Ajamu Dillahunt via the media player above.

Theme music and production assistance by Sharif Zakout

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).