From Ferguson to Palestine: Dispatch from the Troublemaking Frontlines


“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you’ve been to any of the #blacklivesmatter protests, you may have seen the slogan “Justice from Ferguson to Palestine” on a protest sign. You may have wondered: Really? How are these struggles really connected? This December, I was in Palestine, and I found out first hand.

People at a conference raising their hands together

The audience at A Hole in a Brick Wall conference standing to show solidarity with #blacklivesmatter. Credit: Active Stills

I was asked to give a brief keynote about New York’s People’s Climate March at a conference on feminism and nonviolence in Jaffa, the port city that was once the thriving center of commerce in Palestine, now the neglected south end of Tel Aviv, Israel. Why fly halfway around the world to talk about the climate to people who live in a land riddled with its own share of environmental destruction? I guess, sometimes, you have to burn carbon to stop carbon. As I was preparing my talk, the #blacklivesmatter movement was erupting across America. I couldn’t ignore it. My task: illustrate the interconnectedness of climate justice, racial justice, and ending state violence? In, um, under 15 minutes.

First, I explained how weaving art throughout the march created an integrated story about how “it takes everyone to change everything” and some are more impacted and on the “frontlines of change”. I discussed how several of the principles in Beautiful Trouble were successfully utilized, such as “Think narratively,” “Take leadership from the most impacted,” and, as was the case with the Climate Ribbon art finale that told the stories of what people are losing to climate chaos, “Use the power of ritual.”

Then, I shared what Naomi Klein wrote in The Nation that week:

“What does #BlackLivesMatter, and the unshakable moral principle that it represents, have to do with climate change? Everything. Because we can be quite sure that if wealthy white Americans had been the ones left without food and water for days in a giant sports stadium after Hurricane Katrina, even George W. Bush would have gotten serious about climate change… The reality of an economic order built on white supremacy is the whispered subtext of our entire response to the climate crisis, and it badly needs to be dragged into the light.”

Then I drew the obvious connections between the suffocating murder of Eric Garner by the NYPD, which generated the hashtag #icantbreathe, and the murder, only days before the conference, of Palestinian Authority Minister Ziad Abu Ein who was strangled and killed by Israeli security while at a demonstration planting trees.

Finally, after describing how the climate march had been riveted by a moment of silence for all those on the frontlines of economic injustice who have been killed or wounded by climate catastrophes, I concluded the talk with a moment of silence for all innocent victims of state & police brutality. At the end of the silence, the room spontaneously stood up, hands in the air, in solidarity with the #blacklivesmatter movement.

After the talk, I gathered participants in a small, packed room for a Beautiful Trouble workshop on creative direct action and strategic organizing. They played interactive games, practiced pitching their action ideas, and picked up some tactical tools. Because, after all, Beautiful Trouble is not a book to sit on the shelf and collect dust; it’s only worth it’s weight in proverbial gold if we engage with the principles, theories, and tactics in the toolbox to analyze our activism and make it more strategic.

Case in point: Presenting the “Distributed Action” tactic yielded some excited conversation. One participant asserted that linking anti-occupation demonstrations in Israel with global days of action, such as the protests against the latest assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014, contributed to the Israeli neuroses that “the whole world is out to get us” which feeds a belief in a weaponized security state. Certainly, there are no one-size-fits-all tactics. But others in the room contended that standing with a global movement both gives local Israeli activists, who often feel small, marginalized, and attacked by the mainstream, racist culture, a belongingness to a larger movement for justice, and that linking Israeli demos with the global movement is not only strategic (for purposes such as media attention, countering critique of anti-semitism, and building organizing relationships), but is also imperative.

Palestinian boys holding up a sign that says I Can't Breath

Palestinian boys hold up a sign in solidarity with Eric Garner and American demonstrators for racial justice. Credit: Hamdi Abu Rahma.

When the conference in Jaffa was finished, I went to Bethlehem to meet with Palestinian coordinators with the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee to discuss creative nonviolent resistance. In the middle of the meeting, one of the organizer’s cell phones buzzed, alerting him that a Palestinian farmer had died. After his home was destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces, he had moved his family into a cave. Where would his children go now? The organizer expressed profuse apologies and had to leave the meeting to help the family with the burial.

We relocated the meeting to be closer to the family, and to be out of the office in Aida Refugee Camp, out onto a hill overlooking a beautiful valley. There on the rocky bluff, we exchanged ideas about the failures of UN and foreign aid at actually addressing the systemic and colonial problems posed by the occupation, the challenges of creating trainings that actually address what the movements on the ground need, and visions of what a liberated Palestine could be.

The conversation affirmed my enthusiasm for the next Beautiful Trouble project, Beautiful Rising, which will convene front-line activists and movements from hotspots the world over to articulate the most effective approaches and latest innovations in creative activism across the Global South and then disseminate these strategies via an innovative toolbox for global changemakers. Later this spring, we’ll gather in Amman with activists from the Middle East and North Africa to collect these stories and strategize about movement building throughout the region.

The organizer helping with the burial returned to report that while the man had wished to be buried on his ancestral farm land, en route to bury him the IDF had intercepted phone communications, and when they arrived with the body there were already half a dozen military vehicles there to stop them. The Israeli military seems hell bent on ensuring that not only in life, but also in death, one’s freedom is not guaranteed. This is the nature of meeting in the West Bank — there is the brilliant interchange of ideas and the sharing of experiences, always studded with the reality that the violence and repression is happening right now, right here.

And insha’allah, God/dess willing, with more awareness-raising conferences, and strategic direct actions, and coordinated global campaigns, the hole in the brick wall of oppression, from Bethlehem to NYC to Ferguson, will create a fissure too great for the IDF, NYPD and Exxon to patch up, and the entire wall will come toppling down.

Rae Abileah, troublemaker-with-a-frequent-flyer-card, reporting from right here right now. Travel dispatch submitted. Over and out.

(See my keynote slide deck here. The talk and conference were covered in this article in Time Out Tel Aviv.)

Rae Abileah is Beautiful Trouble Training Director emeritus, a social change strategist, freelance writer, activist and community organizer. She will be celebrating Passover with family and in the desert as well. She lives in California and can be reached at rae [at] raeabileah [dot] com.

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