The Missouri History Museum in St. Louis canceled a community event scheduled for Thursday after organizers refused to remove Palestinian panelists from the platform.
The panel, titled “From Ferguson to Ayotzinapa to Palestine: Solidarity and Collaborative Action,” was organized by the Washington University student group AltaVoz to draw parallels between the struggles against state violence in the US, Mexico and Palestine.
AltaVoz was formed in response to the police kidnapping of 43 leftist student activists from the Ayotzinapa teacher’s college in Mexico. The students, who went missing in the city of Iguala while on their way to protest the state’s corrupt education policies, are believed to have been murdered.
Among the panelists were activists from an assortment of social justice organizations in St. Louis, including the Organization for the Black Struggle, Latinos en Axion STL, the Interfaith Committee on Latin America and the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee.
The panel was supposed to kick off a week of solidarity events with Ayotzinapa, culminating in a vigil and potluck with visiting mothers of the missing Mexican students on Canfield Drive. That’s the street where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot dead by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson last August.
The Missouri History Museum had an “activist-friendly” reputation for its willingness to host several Ferguson-related events in the recent past, leading organizers to believe it was an ideal place to hold their panel.
However, that reputation was shattered on Tuesday when AltaVoz student organizer Sourik Beltran received a phone call from a museum official giving him an ultimatum. “It was either remove Palestine from a dialogue about solidarity and undermine the very purpose of the event or find a new location,” recalled Beltran in a phone interview with The Electronic Intifada. “But we are not letting this event happen without all of us at the table,” declared Beltran.
That sentiment was reiterated in a statement of solidarity with the Palestine Solidarity Committee, issued by the participating organizations.
“We condemn this silencing of part of our community and this brazen attempt to divide communities of color,” declares the statement. “Instead of talking about solidarity, we find ourselves actualizing solidarity by rejecting the Missouri History Museum’s demands. We stand by our Palestinian partners and are postponing the original panel until an alternative location can be confirmed.”
Singling out Palestine
In a vaguely worded statement on its website, the museum claims that the panel organizers drastically altered the panel discussion from the initially approved topic, forcing the museum to shut down the event.
“In its current format the program no longer resembles the original concept the Museum agreed to co-host,” says the statement. “We were initially open to the changes and posted information about the program on our website. However, after much consideration we decided the complexities of this issue could not be adequately addressed in this format….The Missouri History Museum asked the community partner to fulfill the original agreement or find another location.”
While Palestine is not specifically mentioned, the Museum published a copy of Beltran’s initial event proposal, which sought to build bridges between Ferguson and Ayotzinapa. Palestine was added to the mix soon after as the panel outline evolved.
But the museum never once objected to the addition of Palestine.
According to email exchanges between Beltran and museum officials, which were viewed by The Electronic Intifada, museum representatives enthusiastically approved the event’s name and description, with Palestine included, as early as 23 February. By 4 March, the museum had posted the event title and description on it’s website.
The museum restated its excitement for the Palestine inclusive panel several times after. “At no point were we confronted with a single concern about the panel until two days ago,” said Beltran, demonstrating that the museum’s explanation doesn’t add up.
Given the warm reception panel organizers received from the museum staff throughout the planning stages, they have no doubt that the decision to purge the issue of Palestine was a result of outside pressure.
Even if the organizers had changed the panel’s layout, as the museum asserted, it is not sufficient grounds to censor the event, argued Beltran. “Why is it a problem to talk about Palestine in the first place,” he asked. “Ayotzinapa, Ferguson and Palestine are all politically charged controversial issues. So why single out Palestine?”
When The Electronic Intifada asked why Palestine became an unacceptable topic for discussion just two days before the event, a museum representative declined to elaborate beyond the official statement, except to emphasize that “There was no outside pressure” and: “The decision was made internally at the museum staff leadership level.”
Email exchanges between Beltran and a museum employee following the cancellation, obtained by The Electronic Intifada, hint at the institution’s reasoning.
“The conflict we are running into is the comparison between the events in Ferguson and the actions of the Palestinians,” wrote a museum official.
The museum official continued, “Some people see these events as comparing apples/oranges. I understand that you are presenting them as movements related to issues of social justice and how diverse communities can work together to achieve social justice for all people. There is concern that they might not be perceived that way.”
Beltran asked the official to clarify what was meant by “the actions of the Palestinians,” but the official dodged the question.
“We’re scaring the hell out of them”
“The Missouri History Museum is a publicly funded research institution. It’s not their job to be a gatekeeper. They’re a platform, they’re a resource, but it’s not up to them to decide what gets discussed and how it gets discussed,” said Jessie Sandoval, an activist with the social justice organization Latinos en Axion.
“This is great example of how the white racist state comes down hard every time they see communities of color come together just to talk,” Sandoval added. “The fact that they came down hard like this and were so explicit in their reasons shows me that we’re scaring the hell out of them and pressing the right buttons,” she added.
Speaking to The Electronic Intifada from St. Louis over Skype, Sandoval, who was scheduled to participate on the panel, noted that supporting justice in Palestine remains a taboo among many progressives in the United States who claim to support the Ferguson uprising.
“A lot of liberals and progressives are down for the Black Lives Matter movement. Even if they don’t go out in the streets and protest, they at least publicly say, yes of course it’s moral,” said Sandoval. “And I know what’s going on in Mexico with the missing students, most liberal and progressive white people would say it’s a huge tragedy,” she added. “But bringing the Palestinian community into our discourse, I think that they feared it would give the Free Palestine cause too much of a high moral ground they are not ready to recognize yet.”
The censorship trend
“The museum’s actions parallel a trend of silencing Palestine activist voices in the St. Louis community,” stated panel organizers in a press release, noting how last year, under pressure from Israel supporters, Washington University canceled a town hall on boycott, sanctions and divestment against Israel.
While it is routine for the censorial forces of the Israel lobby to use pressure tactics to shut down critism of Israel across the country, few things have rattled them more than the growing solidarity between Ferguson and Palestine.
It remains to be seen whether the cancellation of the museum event was a result of Israel lobby pressure. But in trying to erase Palestine from the conversation, the Missouri History Museum—renamed the “Selective History Museum” by panel organizers—has only strengthened the bonds between the Black, Latino and Palestine solidarity communities in St. Louis, guaranteeing Palestine’s inclusion in the conversation.
Indeed, the cancellation drew even more attention to Palestine, with Panel organizers staging a large protest in front of the museum during the time the panel was supposed to take place on Thursday evening.
Unsurprisingly, the president of the Missouri History Museum watched from the wrong side of history.
Meanwhile, panel organizers are urging people of conscience from St. Louis and beyond to express their disgust with the Missouri History Museum’s shameless disrespect for free speech and discrimination against Palestinians by tweeting under the hashtag #SelectiveHistory. They are also asking that people flood the museum with phone calls demanding accountability for trying to erase Palestinian voices.