“If They Take You In The Morning”: M4BL and the Palestine Justice Movement

Free Palestine protest photographed by Alisdare Hickson (Flickr)

“Eyad was killed and he didn’t even know what his crime was….he was dreaming of becoming a chef’s assistant. He even loved a girl in his school and was planning to marry her. And the officers who shot him were only put on one-day home detention.”1 These were some of the most haunting words that Diana Hallaq—sister of slain thirty-two year-old Palestinian man, Eyad Hallaq—offered while on a June 2020 call with Uncle Bobby X (Oscar Grant’s uncle), several members from the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), students of Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, and other activists.

Hallaq walked us through the devastating details of what began as another ordinary day:

On his way [to school], soldiers called on him. He was confused and scared. They saw his confusion and fear…didn’t talk to him, but shot him in the legs. He went running. His [aide]…saw the blood from his legs and started telling the soldiers that he’s autistic—that he has a card on his chest that identifies his disabilities. Eyad…started saying ‘I’m with her! I’m with her!’ The soldiers heard ‘…with her’ and thought he had given her a weapon. Three of them shot him from close range. The family didn’t know what happened until an hour after. And fifty police officers showed up at the house, using nasty words and being physical, looking for anything they could use to press charges. Of course they didn’t find anything. But they [kept] Eyad’s body the whole night and agreed to give it back…under condition that his funeral would have a limited amount of people, that they would not carry any [Palestinian] flags and that they would stay quiet.”2

There is nothing in the world like living under simultaneous racial caste and military occupation, a condition of historic Palestine since the mid-twentieth century. Even so, it is impossible to understand this moment apart from the international fury in which we now find ourselves—a moment set ablaze by waves of unrest, sparked by an unrelenting barrage of extrajudicial police killings. In the US, the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade and Rayshard Brooks and others are the latest episodes that have come to represent a seemingly endless trail. A trail that, in significant, yet not identical ways, resonates with Israeli military killings of Palestinians—themselves with names that have come to signify a collective story: Mohammed al-Durrah, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, Razan al-Najjar, Ahmed Erekat, Eyad Hallaq. And innumerable others. What these disproportionately violent spectacles of statecraft bring to our attention is that present iterations of the colonial violence of policing bodies still touch us daily. But for Black and Palestinian communities engaging these violences in solidarity, the moments also invoke the historically deep bonds of friendship, as well as the deep relationships of shared grief that have conditioned these journeys across diasporas, as noted by Loubna Qutami.3 Much more than a flattened account of common struggle, the present moment of Black-Palestinian solidarity holds the promise of building a re-articulation of historical transnational networks, suitable for present-day maroonage and abolition.

Contexts of Militarized Policing 

 Many of us remember whispers coming from Ferguson (MO), bearing witness to Palestinian activists in Gaza tweeting homemade tear gas remedies to Black freedom-fighters who resisted, in the streets, in response to the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, Jr. This now-famous cross-movement moment was a watershed because it helped bring more public curiosity about the ways in which US-based hyper-militarized policing is deeply entangled with policing mechanisms outside of the US and it situated that moment within the decades-long tradition of Black-Palestinian transnational solidarity.

2014 was not the first time since the 1960s that Black and Palestinian communities aligned in pursuit of racial justice, however. As Uncle Bobby reminded us, Palestinians in Oakland rallied around Oscar Grant’s family after he was shot to death by law enforcement, in 2009.4  But the Ferguson moment—because of how it captivated so many Black imaginations as it simultaneously aroused innumerable white fears—thrust this re-alignment back into the national consciousness. So too did it spotlight the deep US complicity in both the exportation of policing technologies and the general advancement of perpetual wartime climates around the world.

The 2016 Movement for Black Lives invest-divest policy platform made precisely this point. Of the billions of annual US dollars that support Israel, the platform notes, “the US requires Israel to use 75 percent of all military aid it receives to buy US-made arms. Consequently, every year billions of dollars are funneled from US taxpayers to hundreds of arms corporations…pushing for even more foreign military aid.” This policy “not only diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs, but it makes US citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government.” Additionally, activists have long pointed to complicities such as the now-defunct Hewlett-Packard Company and subsequently Hewlett Packard Enterprises having, for decades, sourced high-tech equipment for the Israeli population registry and prison system; or the global security firm, G4S, having outfitted Israeli checkpoints, as well as Israeli and US law enforcement house raids, crowd control schemes, and deep cover operations, thereby helping shape both contexts’ hyper-criminalization.

What’s Past is Prologue

Oftentimes, as we’ve seen, when Black scholars, activists and political leaders call our attention to these points, they’re met with scathing critique and accusation. From scenes like Marc Lamont Hill’s termination from CNN after his 2018 United Nations speech about a liberated Palestine, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s 2019 revoking of Angela Davis’ human rights award in response to white backlash over her outspokenness for Palestinian rights, and xenophobic reactions to Ilhan Omar’s critique of US obsequiousness to Israeli policy, to the scores of lesser-known censorships happening on campuses across the country, effectively countering student Palestine activism.

These moments regularly turn into public spectacles. But they also obscure the ways in which the Black anti-colonial critique of state power and the visceral white backlash against these Black critiques should be read as historically continuous with the anti-colonial, anti-imperial Black radical tradition of the twentieth century. To borrow from my many late night conversations with American religious historian, James Howard Hill, Jr., folks wage ad hominem critiques against Black thinkers, but fail to likewise critique the tradition(s) that gives rise to such thought, in the first place.

Much current solidarity work situates squarely within the tradition of anti-colonial Black internationalism. An early thinker who helped internationalize the Black freedom struggle, Malcolm X saw, in Palestine, an ideological and strategic culmination of the crossroads between his Islamic beliefs and his deep sense of global solidarity.5 His 1964 essay, “Zionist Logic,” critiqued Israeli Zionists of “successfully [camouflaging this] new form of colonialism” in a range of economic, legal and religious justifications. Informed by Malcolm’s work, Ethel Minor published the iconic 1967 SNCC article that critiqued Zionism and Israeli policy for their denials of Palestinian rights—a move that catapulted the Black Power movement’s integration with Palestine and Middle Eastern politics, more generally, into the American public’s view.6

The “Global ’68” brought many more convergences. Stokely Carmichael’s February speech at a Panther rally in Oakland proclaimed: “we can be for no one but the Arabs because Israel belonged to the Arabs in 1917. The British gave it to a group of Zionists…That country belongs to the Palestinians.” Surely, this is no call to violence; it is, instead, one of the many anti-colonial critiques that characterized the 60’s. One can also historicize the anti-imperial critiques from thinkers such as Angela Davis in the 70s. The 1980s brought June Jordan’s poem, “Moving Towards Home,” which invites readers to consider the convergence of racial and gender justice. Transnational linkages have ebbed and flowed since; but unfortunately, much of this historical continuity drops from the view of critics.

Imagining Worlds Otherwise

The present moment of Black-Palestinian transnationalism requires our analysis to move beyond simple comparison for the sake of awareness raising, and into something more. But the something more must be both constructive and anchored in histories.

David Scott cautions us, though, that these things we call “histories” are never uncomplicated; they’re never mere truths to be recovered. Instead, they are choices, made at the expense of other choices, based on our needs in the political present. We must continue to choose the histories that relinquish the racialized, colonial commitments that render Black US Americans and Palestinians either as tokens whose loyalty must be won or utterly disposable in the name of “purity” and “security.”

Solidarity is not easy. Similar to what Sefanit Habtom and Meagan Scribe note of Black, Indigenous and Black-Indigenous decolonial freedom-making: at times “we have lost sight of one another, seeking immediate gains over collective liberation. However, entangled within white supremacist settler states, there are many times – times like now – when it is increasingly clear that our interests and our survival tie us together.”

Kristian Davis Bailey highlights that, in part, doing our due diligence means avoiding context comparison if it only hijacks one struggle to solely focus on the other (ie, white allies claiming to support Black and Palestinian liberation, opposing Israel’s military occupation, yet having no real grasp of the magnitude of death-dealing conditions under which Black US Americans live). Alternatively, even in considering the range of violences committed by these settler states, it’s important to resist the impulse to render exceptional either.

As a religionist, I recognize that part of what our wisdom traditions offer, at their best, is a range of tools that could, ideally, better equip us to imagine worlds otherwise. What are strategies that reaffirm goals such as defunding police departments, prison abolition, police abolition, demilitarization etc.—goals that liberationists have conjured for decades—if not tactics by which we might be able to imagine a world otherwise? Freedom-dreams never come without risk, however. It seems that James Baldwin knew this very thing, when he closed his famous 1970 letter to Angela Davis, reminding: “For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.” Perhaps, such is the cost of dreaming in Black—the cost of envisioning a world without the reek of military occupation.

My hope is that these conversations, and ones like them, continue to build a more robustly anti-colonial, transnational Black Studies framework and liberationist movement, particularly through taking seriously the historical and contemporary richness of the Afro-Arab political imaginary.

This post is dedicated to the Hallaq Family, the Erekat Family and to my son—on the eve of your arrival—”a hope and a future.”

  1. Diana Hallaq, video call with author, June 20, 2020.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Loubna Qutami, video call with author, June 20, 2020.
  4. Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson,  video call with author, June 20, 2020.
  5. Michael R. Fischbach, Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019), 10.
  6. Ibid, 17.
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Taurean J. Webb

Taurean J. Webb is on faculty at Garrett Seminary in Evanston, IL, teaching in race and religion. He is also Director of the school’s Center for the Church and the Black Experience—a 50 year-old research center that studies Black religious experience across the diaspora. His research and teaching interests are in Black internationalism, Black-Palestinian transnationalism, liberationist theological movements of the Global South, Cold War-era UN politics, and WPA/FAP- and Black renaissance-era visual arts. Webb’s writing appears in the Journal of Palestine Studies and Jadaliyya. And his work is supported by the Forum for Theological Exploration and Harvard University’s Religion, Conflict and Peace Initiative. As a creative, Webb often collaborates with arts-world professionals to produce and curate installations centering artists from the African-, Arab- and Latin American diasporas. Follow his creative productions on Instagram at @tjw787.