Why I Block the Boat

Posted on October 23, 2014


block the boatIn August, a broad-based coalition of organizations and individuals achieved a historic direct-action BDS victory against Israeli apartheid. For four days, pickets organized and inspired by the AROC-led Block the Boat coalition kept an Israeli-state controlled ship from offloading cargo. The action was as dramatic as anyone could imagine, with the ship at one point leaving harbor under the cover of a disinformation campaign coordinated by the Israeli Consulate, and doubling back minutes later to dock at a terminal on the other side of the port. In the end, Zim’s struggles were for naught. Complications from the delay, along with some level of worker support, caused a slowdown that prevented the ship from unloading even the meager amount of cargo it was allowed to as “perishable goods” when it returned.  It sailed for open sea, the majority of its Oakland-bound cargo on board.

Many factors came together to create that unique, beautiful and historic moment. A strong backbone of outreach  supported great organizing and logistical planning from a diverse coalition of Bay Area groups. A massive reservoir of Oakland and Bay Area bodies longing for, and excited about, the possibilities of mass direct action provided the popular muscle needed to show all relevant parties the action was a serious concern. Add to this a sometimes comical series of blunders from Zim and its handlers, and one or two lucky breaks.

But the context was also specific, though unfortunately not unique. A month-long attack on Gaza which took thousands of lives raged week after week. Even when the most cynical viewers thought that Israel could go no further without international furor and condemnation, the apartheid state doubled-down and pushed further. Every transparent excuse in the repertoire of inhuman rationalizations for murder was thrown in by enablers, funders and supporters.

The international community’s wherewithal to call out Israeli war crimes and abuses—always suspect, to be charitable—proved brittle and apathetic. Israel was literally given a green light to continue its horrors, while Palestinians in the diaspora and anti-apartheid activists viewed impotently. The possibility, then,  of a popular response that superseded the incompetent, corrupt international community, proved irresistible to many supporters of justice in Palestine. August’s Block the Boat was a clear manifestation of that hunger to break out of the prison of legal frameworks and gross negligence that characterize the US support for Israeli policies, and international faix accompli to murder and oppression.  And it was a clear sign that people from a diverse group of political backgrounds and struggles were ready for direct action instead of other, ultimately, ineffective forms of protest.

This is all remarkable and worth noting. Passions and anger that transfer into popular numbers in the street are often triggered during times of extreme violence in the Palestinian context. But the flip side of this reality is just as relevant. That outpouring of popular power can ebb during times of less visible, though no less real, violence—and despite the fact that constant pressure is necessary to prevent even more “lawn-mowing” as Israelis have dubbed the regular intervals of mass murder and acts of genocide.  As we move into the third month in the Block the Boat campaign, some have moved on, wishing, no doubt, they had the time to take away from issues they normally work on to devote continually to Palestine, but finding that they are lacking the energy, time or rationale for doing so.

As a Palestinian-Colombian-American, this dynamic has weighed heavily on me for a lifetime. I grew up as a Palestinian in the US in a Latino context. Spanish was my first language, Latino-American diaspora culture was my first world. Trying to [unsuccessfully] assimilate into American society while holding on to my already fragmented identity was work enough–Arabic language, and to a large degree, culture, remained my never-never land that I would learn about and long for throughout my life, but rarely feel ownership of.  In a reflection of US-based pro-Palestinian activism, Palestine was more often than not a political issue for me, and one that was difficult to wed into my social political life as a struggling person of color in the US.  That changed slightly after I lived in Palestine during the second intifada several years ago, and my social-cultural identity again changed when I was denied entry to return to the homeland by Israel. But it ironically, thereafter, became more difficult to link my experiences to any viable pro-Palestinian movement in the US.

The connection between issues of oppression and state violence against POC communities in the US, and those US funded ones in places like Palestine have historically been murky—a reality that explains to some degree the odd separation between pro-Palestinian activism and that of other groups. But in the past few years, something has shifted and unearthed these connective nodes and made them obvious. A recent unforgettable example was the instant links of solidarity that appeared on social media between Gazans still under Israeli assault, and African-Americans in Ferguson who were suddenly experiencing the realities of racism and police violence as a militarized occupation, complete with the tools and weapons that had been iconic on TV screens for years in the Palestinian context.

There are probably many reasons for the emergence of such obvious connectors between struggles. The growth of Israeli colonization and the narrative of displacement in Palestine begins to sync with tales of dispossession brought on by increasing gentrification in the US affecting largely black and brown neighborhoods in US urban areas. The patchwork of far-flung decaying neighborhoods, and isolated newly suburbanized poor and of color population look more and more like the Bantustan model that has plagued the West Bank and Jerusalem for decades. They are missing only the checkpoints and kevlared invading wardens—and even those have been summoned increasingly in places like Ferguson, Los Angeles and Oakland during times of crisis.

Few Palestinians can look at the easy treatment of the men who killed Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and not be reminded of the judicial free pass for Israeli colonists and soldiers to murder Palestinians. The popular cry “Black Lives Matter” can only sound like a haunting echo of similar Palestinian cries as for decades Israelis have walked away from criminal charges for the killing of Palestinians with fines or no penalty at all.

These systems of oppression are not that distinct at all from the militarization of the border, the criminalization of migration and identity between the US and people from Latin America—the separation fence between the US and the Latino world, and the apartheid the people who crossed it and their descendants must face. The connections between Latino children interdicted at the border and literally housed in cages and the brutality against children in Palestine was unmistakable at rallies throughout the West Coast for example. Indeed, it was at a joint rally to end the bombing of Gaza, and protect undocumented Latinos that the idea for Block the Boat in August was born.

The criminalization and racialization of poverty and its attendant management with state violence has not just increased– cheap means to capture, broadcast and make viral those previously invisible intersections for African-Americans and other groups have become ubiquitous, creating dozens of national outrages . These Youtube, Facebook and Twitter images and videos have highlighted the reality that state power is not only indifferent to the death and suffering caused by police violence and incarceration, it is dependent on it—and it is covetous and jealously protective of those means. The national links between Latinos and African-Americans fighting distinct systems of apartheid have never been more clearly rendered on the national stage than they have been in the wake of twitter, Facebook and youtube and the cheap availability of smartphone technology.

Meanwhile,  a dozen years of increasingly extreme repression against Palestinian and Arab and Muslim Americans has shifted discourse and action away from strictly international solidarity action, to growing anger and awareness of the precarity of the Arab/Muslim identity in the US. As larger numbers of Arab and Muslims grow up in urban centers, they begin also to experience the realities of being “Black” in the United States as well as Muslim or Arab—as vulnerable to gentrification, police repression and poverty as their neighbors.

The newest generation from all these groups have been coalescing and growing in numbers, power and self-awareness. And within that same time frame,  the worst atrocities have been committed against family, friends and allies in the Middle East and Muslim world—in Palestine, Yemen, Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan, the list is almost endless. At the risk of using an over-burdened, but no less apt metaphor as far as colonial and imperial powers are concerned, it is a perfect storm—increasing wealth disparity, larger, self-actualized and capacitated communities of color, starving imperial powers driven by the exigencies of capital to new conquest, leading to tougher, stronger, more determined resistance.

Thus, several different national movements are growing in the US, all with increasingly similar issues and similarly situated individuals leading them. For the first time in decades, mass mobilizations of people of color have begun anew. These are people sick of being ordered to march in circles in urban centers, only to be routed into institutional and electoral politics at their end. They are tired of the daily repression and casual racism which they are asked to endure to be Americans.  They are horrified by the casual indifference to Arab/Muslim/Black/Latino suffering that they see in their media daily, while an obstinate and deliberate culture of white supremacy urges the mainstream to rationalize and ignore it. And they seem to have had enough.

The awe-inspiring Pro-Palestinian marches in San Francisco this Summer were one iteration of this power—crowds of thousands with an enormous representation of Palestinian and Arab voices previously unheard of in US pro-Palestinian activism.  Actions in Ferguson that brought out hundreds of African-Americans after a long period of nation-wide dormancy in the fight against state violence, are another.  And renewed Latino-led direct actions against the symbols and mechanisms of the immigration-security state have been yet another.  And on, with more examples than can fit in this short piece.

Links of solidarity have escalated into real cross-participation— the coalition that brought down Urban Shielf for one. But throughout the summer, pro-immigrant groups protesting policies against the treatment of children in US detention also linked to the slaughter of children in Gaza, and called upon Palestinian activists and supporters at their marches and actions. Palestinian delegations and individuals travelled to Missouri for Ferguson-October.

As these oaken movements grow separately, they have gained the vantage point to see each other clearly in the landscape, and to recognize so much in common. We are realizing that we are stronger when we continue to draw these links, and when we invite each other into our separate struggles and popularize them, locking our target on white supremacy and colonial/imperial policies and their economic imperatives, here and abroad.  And we have become increasingly aware that protests and demonstrations as they were conceived by previous generations in the struggle have gone as far as they can to change our systems of oppression.  We have called it different things over time, and taken different roads toward it, but many of us are coming to the conclusion again and again, that direct action is the most effective strategy to have direct and real outcomes. We saw this over and over in Ferguson, as a new generation tired of being asked to obey the law while the law is used to kill, displace, and impoverish and jail them, moved eagerly to direct actions—mass street shutdowns in front of key targets like the police station, or the attempted blockade of a freeway that was only foiled by the intercession of outside agitators wearing police uniforms and clergy costumes.

The kinds of success that we can achieve together were glimpsed in the successful campaign against Urban Shield, the militarization bazar that seeks to bring the tools of occupation and repression home to police Black communities in the SF Bay Area. A consortium of social justice groups, led by African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Arabs kicked Urban Shield out of its home at the Marriott and even embattled mayor Jean Quan was forced to vow that Urban Shield was no longer welcome in Oakland. Her reaction—from shrugging at the brutal violence by combat troops wearing bay area badges to banning the very arms convention that trained and equipped them—can’t be overstated. The combined reaction of the people of Ferguson and a robust and invigorated shut-down of the intersection in front of the Marriott during Urban Shield—led again by a coalition of locally led African-American, Latino and Arab groups–can claim full credit for that turn-around.

This is why I’ve participated in direct action like Block the Boat. I want to stop the violence against Gaza, yes. I want to end apartheid in the West Bank and Jerusalem. I want to one day spend time again in my village, without f-16s, apaches, and colonists striking people dead around me, of course. I want my cousins and their friends and Palestinians I’ve never met, to live long full lives outside of jails and free of nighttime raids and separation fences.  But I also to want to live in an America where young African-American men no longer have to fear being killed, brutalized or imprisoned by police for saying or doing the “wrong thing” in response to racially motivated “stop and frisk” by police. I want to live in an Oakland free of the sick excesses, apartheid and displacement that come with gentrification. I want to run the Biblioteca Popular—the community center and library in East Oakland I co-founded—in a place where people feel hope and agency to live free and full lives.

I want my neighbors, fellow Oaklanders and organizers to come with me as friends and allies to the Port of Oakland and stop the Zim Beijing this weekend. But more importantly, I want them to understand it as a real expression of popular power, a strategic strike that can influence our reality. And I want them to understand this ship as a symbol of injustice in every language and dialect—a  term in a language that we are all unfortunately learning as a common tongue to describe a shared system of oppression. I will follow them when they oppose their own components in that common system of violence. Then maybe we can all finally start getting somewhere, and maybe we can get there together.

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