Young African-Americans facing heavily armed police in the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson over the past year have compared their situation to that of Palestinians under Israeli fire, telling reporters that their conditions were “like Gaza.” On Tuesday, black racial-justice activists took the comparison a step further, issuing a statement linking their cause with that of Palestinians, and putting their weight behind the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
The BDS campaign, modeled after the mass movement to isolate South Africa during the apartheid era, aims to pressure Israel through tactics of economic and cultural isolation into ending its occupation of Palestinian territories and adhering to international law in its treatment of Palestinians.
Tuesday’s statement — signed by more than 1,000 black activists, artists, scholars, politicians, students and representatives of organizations — proclaimed their “solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and commitment to the liberation of Palestine’s land and people.”
“We offer this statement first and foremost to Palestinians, whose suffering does not go unnoticed and whose resistance and resilience under racism and colonialism inspires us,” the statement said. The activists said they are committed to working through cultural, economic and political means to help the Palestinians’ cause.
Signatories included ‘60s black power icon Angela Davis; writer and philosopher Cornel West; death row inmate and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted in 1982 for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer; rapper Talib Kweli; and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors.
The statement called ending the occupation of Palestine a “key matter of our time,” urged the U.S. government to end diplomatic and economic aid to Israel, and said black institutions and other entities should support BDS.
Meanwhile, pro-Israel groups have attempted to align themselves with black Americans, with billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson — who has funded a campaign to push back against the bid to isolate Israel — reportedly flying a delegation of NBA stars to Israel on a goodwill tour last month. Israeli media initially reported the visit as an explicit anti-BDS effort, but organizers later said the tour had no connection with the boycott issue.
A Pew study at the height of last year’s Gaza war found that 43 percent of African-American respondents favored Israel in the conflict, while 20 percent supported the Palestinians.
But Israeli media report fears that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign against President Barack Obama’s Iran diplomacy has alienated black elected leaders, and the Reverend Al Sharpton has called on black churches to lobby in support of the nuclear agreement — which Israel has taken a lead in trying to stop.
Organizers of Tuesday’s statement sought to win support by drawing connections with apartheid South Africa. Co-organizer Kristian Davis Bailey singled out companies that have become a focus of the BDS movement for allegedly enabling the occupation, including Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, noting that the three firms had also done business with apartheid-era South Africa.
Bailey also said British security firm G4S — which supplies security systems to Israeli prisons that hold Palestinian political prisoners — “profits from the imprisonment of Palestinians, South Africans, black and brown Americans, and migrants around the world. We have to stop corporate exploitation of all people and that's what unites us."
Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and G4S had not responded to Al Jazeera's requests for comment by the time of publication. However, G4S noted in a 2014 corporate social responsibility report that an independent review of its business in Israel found “no causal or contributory role in human rights violations.”
Motorola Solutions said its global business is conducted in accordance with U.S., local, country and other applicable laws, and that it supports all efforts in the Middle East to find a peaceful resolution.
"Motorola Solutions has a comprehensive set of policies and procedures that address human rights, which are designed to ensure that our operations worldwide are conducted using the highest standards of integrity and ethical business conduct, applied uniformly and consistently," Kurt Ebenhoch, head of communications at Motorola, said in an emailed statement.
However, organizers of Tuesday’s statement did not rely only on a sense of solidarity with black South Africans under apartheid. They also tried to link the experience of Palestinians under occupation with that of African-Americans at the hands of police. That message was echoed by Palestinian-American human rights lawyer Noura Erekat, who said: "In both instances, Blacks and Palestinians are dehumanized as a matter of institutional order."
Last summer, the police crackdown on protests in Ferguson spurred by the police shooting death of unarmed, black teen Michael Brown coincided with Israel’s military assault on Gaza, prompting messages of solidarity. Statement co-organizer Khury Petersen-Smith said Palestinians had even offered Ferguson protestors advice on coping with tear-gas.
Since then a delegation of Palestinian students has visited black organizers in St. Louis, Detroit and Florida, the statement said. In December, Florida-based rights group Dream Defenders voted unanimously to endorse the BDS movement and weeks later sent a delegation of activists to the Palestinian territories.
“There’s a whole history of black and Palestinian solidarity, and this is one of the latest expressions and we hope to add to that and build on that,” said Petersen-Smith.