The powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC has disinvited a youth leader from a major Black civil rights organization from its annual conference.
Da’Shaun Harrison, 19, is the vice president of the NAACP chapter at Morehouse College, the historically Black institution in Atlanta, Georgia, from which Martin Luther King Jr. graduated.
Harrison had his invitation to attend the conference revoked after AIPAC learned that he participated in an October protest against Hillary Clinton and that he supports Palestinian rights.
For years AIPAC, the most influential arm of the Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, has been recruiting students from historically Black colleges in an effort to counter growing support for Palestinian rights among young people of color.
Presidential frontrunners, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, both of whom are scheduled to speak at AIPAC’s conference, have attracted protests on the campaign trail from young Black activists involved in the movement to end state-sanctioned racial violence.
Harrison spoke to The Electronic Intifada about how AIPAC rescinded his invitation.
Based on Harrison’s account, it appears AIPAC is protecting Clinton and Trump by probing the activist histories of its Black student recruits, effectively shielding the candidates from the risk of dissent.
AIPAC has been similarly diligent in ensuring its conference is free of reporters critical of Israeli policy, as several openly adversarial journalists, including this writer, have been denied press credentials without reason.
In striking contrast, there are no reports of AIPAC subjecting members of pro-Israel Jewish groups to preemptive bans despite their publicized plans to protest Trump during his AIPAC speech.
AIPAC did not respond to a request for comment about Harrison’s exclusion.
Harrison says he was invited to AIPAC by an acquaintance from the Georgia chapter of the NAACP, who reached out to student leaders at historically Black colleges in the area on AIPAC’s behalf.
Harrison is well versed on the question of Palestine and is critical of Israel’s denial of Palestinian freedom, positions he credits to studying under intellectuals including Marc Lamont Hill, a Morehouse professor of African American studies who has been an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights.
Harrison said that after reflection, he decided to accept AIPAC’s invitation and use the free trip as an opportunity to challenge his pro-Israel peers “on what it means to be Black students who are against racial injustices against ourselves” while being “pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian.”
His plans came to a crashing halt on Thursday when he got a phone call from an AIPAC representative interrogating him about his intentions.
Harrison declined to name the AIPAC representative, saying, “I don’t want this to be about an individual. This is about an establishment that openly backs the genocide of Palestinians and denies folks access to their conference due to opposing thoughts and fears.”
According to Harrison’s recollection, the AIPAC representative told him, “I heard from various people here that you have opposing views with Ms. Clinton and that you were a part of a group who disrupted her.”
Harrison was alarmed to learn that the man had apparently called his school and the NAACP acquaintance who invited him to the conference, asking probing questions about his activism.
“That’s just weird,” Harrison said.
He felt as though he was under surveillance.
Citing the protests at Trump’s campaign rallies, the AIPAC representative went on to ask Harrison if he intended to disrupt any of the presidential candidates attending the conference.
All presidential contenders are scheduled to speak at AIPAC except for Clinton’s Democratic Party competitor Bernie Sanders, who turned down the group’s invitation to appear in person.
AIPAC rejected Sanders’ offer to speak via video link, despite the fact that it has allowed other presidential candidates to do so in previous years and will allow Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu do so so this year.
While Harrison insisted he had no intention of protesting, for the sake of transparency, he noted that he supported Palestinian rights and the conference was not going to change his mind. He was simply going for the experience, not to protest.
The AIPAC representative told Harrison he needed to consult with his colleagues. A few minutes later he called back to tell Harrison it was best that he not come to the conference, though he awkwardly extended an invitation for Harrison to participate in a future propaganda trip to Israel.
“I laughed and said I think this is very silly, me not being allowed to be in a space because of a disruption that has nothing to do with this conference,” Harrison said.
“There’s no reason that Hillary Clinton should be at AIPAC while Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are there as well,” Harrison told The Electronic Intifada.
“Actually, I don’t think there’s a big difference between Hillary and Trump,” he then added. “Trump represents 1960s racism and she represents today’s quiet racism.”
It was this disdain for Clinton’s record on race that spurred Harrison to help organize the protest that got him disinvited from the AIPAC conference.
Back in October, during a campaign event in Atlanta, Harrison joined with a coalition of Black student activists from historically Black colleges called AUC Shut It Down to confront Hillary Clinton about her atrocious record on criminal justice.
“The Hillary action came from a group of us understanding her track record of advocating against Black and brown folks via the death penalty, three-strikes rule, mass incarceration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Harrison said.
“Black Lives Matter has become a prop in this election,” Harrison added, referring to the protest movement that arose after a series of high-profile police and vigilante killings of young Black men and women.
“Black pain should not be exploited or capitalized on, yet Hillary has been using the moms of Black teens who have been shot and killed as an endorsement,” he said.
The students expected to receive overwhelming support from those in attendance, but the opposite happened.
The room was incredibly hostile. Police tried to drag them out as “Hillary supporters were in our faces shouting at us to let her speak,” Harrison said.
But that wasn’t the worst of it for him.
“What hurt most,” Harrison said, was seeing Representative John Lewis of Georgia “trying to physically remove us. When he recognized we weren’t going to leave, he went and stood behind Hillary to show his support for her.”
Lewis’ prominent leadership role in the civil rights movement as a student, including organizing the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches alongside Martin Luther King Jr., was depicted in Ava DuVernay’s award-winning 2014 feature film Selma.
“You’re raised to see John Lewis as a civil rights icon,” said Harrison. “We did the same thing he would have done in his time. So to see him go against us, it was eye opening, but also very hurtful.”
The backlash from Clinton supporters after the action was punishing, with some students receiving death threats, according to Harrison.
Until the AIPAC debacle, Harrison assumed the backlash was behind him. But it turns out that protesting the former secretary of state, much like protesting Israel, may come with long-lasting consequences.