Portland Trail Blazers team up with firm supplying Israel’s snipers

When the Portland Trail Blazers play at home, the basketball team regularly holds a halftime ceremony to honor local military veterans. The ceremony has proven controversial in recent months as its sponsor – the weapons firm Leupold & Stevens – is accused of supplying equipment used to kill civilians in Gaza.

During 2017, the Israeli military bought a consignment of telescopes from Leupold for sniper rifles. The deal was worth more than $2 million, Israel Defense, a publication specializing in the weapons industry, reported.

Under it, a Leupold product line known as Mark 6 would become “the telescopic sight of choice” for Israel’s ground force snipers, according to the publication.

It is almost certain, then, that the firm’s equipment has helped Israel’s snipers to kill and maim unarmed protesters taking part in Gaza’s Great March of Return this year.

The Times of Israel has, for example, published a photograph of an Israeli sniper preparing for the first of those weekly demonstrations, which began in late March. Leupold’s logo is visible on the sniper’s gun.

About 180 Palestinians have been shot dead by the Israeli military during the Great March of Return.

During the summer, the Portland chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace contacted Leupold about its sales to Israel.

The letter to Leupold – based in Beaverton, Oregon – elicited no response.

Further appeals were made to the Blazers and Leupold. Among the arguments cited was that Leupold has an obligation under UN guidelines to ensure that its products are not used for abusing human rights.

Stonewalling

The Blazers were similarly reluctant to engage with Palestine solidarity activists.

It was only after hundreds of letters and emails were sent to the basketball team that its management responded. The Blazers, however, did not say anything of substance.

Rather, the team’s management asked activists not to address complaints to a representative nominally in charge of “social responsibility,” but to her colleague, who handled “corporate communications.”

Protests organized by the Democratic Socialists of America in Portland have raised awareness about the sponsorship deal. During one demonstration, the Democratic Socialists used a light cannon to project messages critical of Leupold on the Moda Center, where the Blazers’ home games are played.

After its initial stonewalling, Leupold commented on the campaign against it in August. The firm claimed that it was not a weapons manufacturer but that it designed and assembled the “world’s best sporting optics.”

Yet the firm’s own website contradicts its claim not to be a weapons manufacturer. It states clearly that Leopold’s “rifle scopes” were manufactured for “combat situations” faced by the US Army. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan took place with the aid of Leupold components, the website suggests.

The firm’s claim that it only makes “sporting optics” is disingenuous. Sniper rifles are incomplete without telescopes such as those in Leupold’s catalogue.

“Profits from killing”

The firm’s products were also used by the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri, when it responded brutally to protests held after a white officer killed Michael Brown, a young African American, in 2014.

Chris McGowan, the Blazers’ CEO, has replied to the campaign against the team’s relationship with Leupold by describing that firm as “great partners.” He undertook to maintain the sponsorship deal unless something “drastic” happened.

The massacres of Palestinians in Gaza were evidently not “drastic” enough for him.

Last month, Josuee Hernandez, a US Marine Corps veteran, was honored at a halftime ceremony sponsored by Leupold during a home game for the Blazers.

When Hernandez appeared on a big screen at the game – flanked by the team’s mascot – he unzipped his jacket to reveal a t-shirt reading: “End this sponsorship, #NoLeupold.” Refusing to accept a gift bag from the mascot, Hernandez went down on one knee – a tactic employed by American football players protesting against police violence.

Hernandez is a Democratic Socialists of America member. In a statement issued following the protest, he wrote: “We should not allow our experience as veterans to be reduced to moralistic spectacle, to cover the fact that the Trail Blazers are in business with a corporation that profits from killing people.”

The protests have featured in publications which would not normally devote space to Palestine or related issues. Blazer’s Edge, a website popular among the team’s fans, has covered them extensively, for example.

There is a precedent for basketball teams taking a stand on social justice issues. In July, the Utah Jazz ended its marketing relationship with Papa John’s Pizza after that firm’s founder made a racial slur during a conference call. A double standard appears to apply to Palestine, even though the injustice involves the targeted executions of unarmed protesters.

Support for human rights violations becomes woven into the very fabric of our society and culture if we fail to challenge institutions that aid and abet them. As long as the Blazers partner with a firm profiting from Israel’s crimes, the campaign against this relationship will continue.

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.

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