Ferguson Is Not Palestine
In the morning e-mail came something from the activist group CODEPINK, headlined “From Ferguson to Palestine, Come Out to Join Us.” Listed were various events: a vigil for Michael Brown at the Justice Department, a meeting of “fighters for social justice” at a popular Washington cafe the following evening, similar events in that vein. Also on the list was a talk by professor Richard Falk, formerly UN special rapporteur on Palestine, to discuss Israel’s latest land grab around Jerusalem.
CODEPINK is not alone in seeking to connect Ferguson to Palestine: pro-footballer Reggie Bush tweeted something about it over the weekend, and Annie Robbins of the important Mondoweiss website publicized the Bush tweet. Then there’s this: a post by a board member of the right-wing Zionist group StandWithUs, connecting anti-Palestinian Israelis with the Ferguson police, both holding the line of civilization against peoples full of rage and an unjustified sense of their own victimhood. There was some Twitter pushback against the StandWithUs post, and the Times of Israel eventually removed it. The pro-Palestinian website Electronic Intifada portrayed this as some sort a victory, rather as if the Palestinians had won the right to possess Ferguson as “their” symbol. Rania Khalek writes that “Zionist organizations are rattled by the growing displays of solidarity between people in Ferguson, Missouri, and Palestine.” While it’s true that such such displays are growing, I doubt seriously that any Zionist organizations are rattled by them. If they have any political savvy, and they surely do, they would instead welcome it—as did the StandWithUs board member.
Why? Well, for starters, Palestine really is occupied, and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have no political and civil rights, and those who reside in Israel proper are now being told that Israel can take away their citizenship at any time.
Ferguson, by contrast, is a complicated situation. The one simple thing about it is the fact that if Michael Brown hadn’t leaned into a police cruiser in order to assault a police officer and to try to seize his gun, he would be alive today. As always there is a broader social and historical context: a considerable amount of police brutality directed at blacks, exemplified by episodes like this, on top of many layers of American history in which blacks were enslaved, and after emancipation, subject to fierce legal and customary discrimination. I largely agree with John McWhorter, who asserts that throughout America there are large segments of the black community who consider the police morally bankrupt, and that this is a huge national problem. It is certainly a problem with no easy answer. There wasn’t one in the 1960s when finding a decent, family-sustaining job was achievable for most people willing to work regular hours, and it is no easier now in an economy far far more geared to rewarding the very rich, highly skilled, or very talented, while the working class has lost ground steadily for 40 years.
The thing about Palestine, however, is that it is actually not that complicated. Resolving the issue in a fair and practical way is of course difficult. But it has long been an article of faith among pro-Palestinian activists that if Americans could see the land-grabbing, see the checkpoints Palestinians are subjected to, see the difficulty of trying as a student to commute through roadblocks and checkpoints to Bethlehem University from Ramallah, they would understand that Palestinians are subject to a blatantly unjust and racist regime, facing conditions no American would put up with for a moment without resisting. And they would see that this Israeli regime—heavily subsidized by American tax dollars—is animated by ideologies sharply at odds with American values, at least with how those values have evolved over the past 50 to 100 years. Perhaps Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians resembles South Africa under apartheid, perhaps it resembles the American South of the pre-civil rights era; perhaps it is worse than both. It does not, in any way, shape, or form, resemble Ferguson, Missouri, where all American-born blacks possess the same constitutional and civil rights as white Americans.
To the extent that the American left succeeds in creating an impression of some sort of rhetorical and moral equivalence between Ferguson and Palestine, describing both venues as places where a virtuous, oppressed people confronts brutal and murderous white racism, they will harm the prospects of Palestinian struggles ever being considered sympathetically by a critical majority of Americans. For the fact is, the more Americans learn about Ferguson, the less sympathy Michael Brown and his cause receives. The young man surely should not have been shot to death—Officer Darren Wilson probably blundered in a dangerous and chaotic situation. But to hold Brown blameless is something that most Americans won’t do.
Before the grand jury decision was announced, a Huffington Post YouGov poll indicated that only 22 percent of whites thought that Officer Wilson was culpable, versus 64 percent of blacks. After the release of the the grand jury report, after Ferguson residents showed their displeasure by widespread looting and burning, after mainstream news shows showed the Brown family lawyer getting decimated in on-air debates about the facts in the case, after Michael Brown’s stepfather mounted a podium to tell Ferguson residents to “burn the bitch down,” the poll numbers are not going to shift more in favor of the racist whites versus innocent blacks narrative. That the United States is so divided racially, on this issue and others, is, of course a national problem. But it is surely not one which Palestinian activists should seek to exploit by linking their cause to the losing side.
In all of this, of course, are echoes of the American 1960s. The activism of that decade began with a movement of civil rights activists, white and black, risking their lives to secure for blacks in the South their fundamental constitutional rights. It expanded with opposition to the Vietnam war. It reached a crisis point when liberalism, the dominant ideology of the age, had to confront the reality of black rioting in northern cities, demonstrating how complex the racial issue was, how difficult it would be resolve it. Part of the Left soon embraced the idea that any black demand, any black behavior, was justified. Some New Left theorists advanced the notion that ghetto blacks were a revolutionary vanguard in the mother country. “Off the Pigs, Power to the People” did, really, become a New Left slogan. (“Pigs” was the common epithet for police officers. “Off” meant kill.) Black Panther chic advanced to the salons of the Upper East Side. It wasn’t especially obvious to everyone at the time, but these were sign posts that the movement had imploded, had driven itself mad, and was so committed to hating “whitey” that it was on the road to becoming essentially irrelevant to any serious politics in America.
There are more than a few whiffs of that era in the current Michael Brown madness. Most Palestinian activists realize that if they could win for their people in historic Palestine the rights possessed by each and every black citizen of Ferguson they would have gained a victory of world-historic proportions. Nevertheless one can understand the temptation of connecting to a movement in America that does at this moment seem energetic and hip, which seems to be treated with enormous deference and respect in the dominant media, and which must seem for all the world like an unstoppable emergent groundswell. Added to this is the important if seldom-noted fact that black members of Congress have, on average, been far more ready than their white colleagues to see the need for justice in Palestine, and have been more willing to question and challenge the self-righteousness behind America’s blind and often murderous policies in the Mideast. The connections emerging from those sentiments should, of course, be welcomed and nurtured.
Ferguson however is a bridge too far. Nothing could please the Likud coalition more than to see the Palestinian cause linked, in the minds of the average, mainstream American, to that of the Ferguson rioters. For the pro-Palestinian left to work to reinforce exactly that linkage will be seen as dreadful mistake, for which Palestinians will surely pay a higher price than American leftists will.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.