Seeing East Jerusalem in East St. Louis

The unrest in Ferguson is starting to look like the Arab Intifada. Here’s why that’s a good thing.

This week’s Ferguson verdict calls to mind the countless cases of Israelis—security forces or civilian vigilantes—going unpunished for unauthorized killings of non-combatant Arabs. Though Americans—especially white Americans—may not apprehend this comparison, the system of control in the inner cities of the U.S. resembles the colonial “pacification” practices seen in Israel’s attempt to manage an angry population of Arabs—some citizens, most occupied non-citizens.

The Israeli and American scenes have much in common, not the least of which a privileged class who has accepted unjust arrangements as normal. Arrests and land confiscation in the name of security reinforce Israelis’ sense of being besieged by hostile hordes of Arabs who, in the oft-repeated colonial nostrum, “only understand force.” In white America too, there is an uncritical trust that the police are always honest—combatting “criminals” lurking in the darkness, risking their lives against hostile hordes of stick-up kids and super-powered black thugs prone to smash-and-grab lawfully-earned white wealth or, inexplicably, steal policemen’s guns.

Over the last decades, Palestinian Arabs have existed under a colonial regime that has kept civic life on a tight leash. Through a network of informants, patrols, home demolitions, and, most importantly, arrests of moderate and militant activists alike, Israel has found ways to ensure that the Palestinian population would, in the colonial sense, become “pacified.” Israeli officials often express their desire for the normative condition of “quiet”—as if the concerns of Palestinian subjects were without merit or meaning. The masses of Palestinians have disrupted that quiet with two wide-scale uprisings—Intifada—a series of unheralded, non-violent campaigns that reveal the deep discontent of an occupied people.

But there is reason for hope. It was only with the Intifada of 1987 that the bulk of Israelis—and indeed many liberals—started seeing the Palestinian struggle as just. The Intifada made Israel’s military occupation visible and revealed it to be the instrument not of peace, but of pacification. Similarly, the tragedy of Ferguson has revealed the degree to which the militarization of the police and the demonization of black men have robbed countless non-violent offenders of their health, freedom, vote, and life chances, if not their lives.

Now with the failure to indict officer Wilson, we can hope—and do more than hope—that concerned Americans raise the stakes, organize, and hold the system accountable. And we can do so, not merely because the status quo is undemocratic, but because its enduring violence contributes to the very problem it seeks to contain. Criminalize poverty or criminalize statelessness, black bodies and Arab bodies pay the price in the short term, but at the price of “the fire next time,” in the words of James Baldwin.

The analogy between Palestinians and African-Americans is by no means perfect. Unlike Palestinians and Israelis, white and black Americans can view their conflict not as a tragedy of permanent grudges over scarce resources, confiscated land, and defiled holy sites, but as a drama over civic goods like schools, jobs, and municipal power. Unlike Palestinians, black Americans can vote, organize, and command widespread sympathy. But like their Palestinian counterparts, the meaning of non-violent—or at least non-lethal—domestic unrest among African-Americans is becoming clearer. And just as Israel realized it could not continue its irrational military presence in Palestine, so too must American churches and communities speak out—black and white together—vote together and organize together for a more just America.

In Israel and Palestine, Arabs are transforming their national struggle into a civil rights struggle, one that draws explicitly on the language of Dr. King and the non-violent tactics of Southern blacks, demanding that the Jewish State become a “state of all of its citizens.” We have also seen Ferguson activists—as if taking a cue from Palestinian activists—recasting the persistent policing of young men of color as a systematic problem, one recalling colonial pacification practices. The grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson is just the latest, if predictable, moment in a wide net of systemic problems. It is time for black Americans to practice, as the Palestinians put it, “steadfastness.” It is time for the uprising of citizens.


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