Facing Down the Law on Bus 148

Social change does not occur in a courtroom. Rights are never vindicated by a legal decree alone. And activists rarely find the law on their side when fueling progressive movements. At few times in recent history is this notion clearer than now. As the OWS movement spreads, activists are engaging head-to-head with the law to expose its injustices and challenge its inequalities. On Tuesday, the Palestinian Freedom Riders embarked on their own movement to bring awareness to and challenge the racially discriminatory realities institutionalized throughout Occupied Palestine and Israel.

The law has failed the Palestinians. In recent years alone, the Israeli Supreme Court has affirmed discriminatory citizenship laws, the destruction of an ancient Muslim cemetery, and the revocation of residency rights of Palestinians from Jerusalem. U.S. courts have repeatedly refused to hear damages claims involving atrocities committed by Israeli authorities (see the Rachel Corrie decisions). And international law has wide power to condemn (see the ICJ Advisory Opinion on the Segregation Wall), but very little power to resolve. Many Palestinian activists have thus turned away from the law and are now confronting it head-on to re-shape the discourse, re-focus the analysis and re-orient the debate. Rather than asking a court to order change, the activists are effectuating change themselves -- much like activists of the most successful social movements throughout the world.

Inspired by the Southern Freedom Riders who rode interstate buses into southern cities to challenge segregation in the early 1960s, the Palestinian Freedom Riders seek to shed light on Israel's racially discriminatory practices by boarding segregated buses on routes between illegal settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Despite traversing Palestinian territory, the buses serve Jewish settlers only. The Riders aim to expose the institutionalized practices of apartheid throughout the Occupied Territories and Israel, including the severe restrictions on movement--just as the Southern Freedom Riders sought to expose local and custom practices perpetuating segregation throughout the South.

Tuesday marked the Riders' first ride. With a live Twitter and Facebook feed, we were able to follow the Riders' efforts nearly minute-by-minute. We were able to sense the sort of energy and solidarity that many civil rights activists not present in the south -- on the buses, at the sit-ins, and during the marches -- were rarely able to feel. We learned that at least three buses on line 148 passed the Riders, attempting to ignore the issue as if the Riders were invisible. We learned that the Israeli army was quick to the scene, as they often are when they sense any sort of peaceful activism (take the weekly protests at the Separation Wall as an example). We learned that the Riders were able to board a bus, and we sensed a chance that they would succeed in reaching Jerusalem. We soon discovered, however, that the bus only took the Riders to the checkpoint separating the West Bank from Jerusalem, where Israeli border officers boarded then boarded the bus to check IDs of the passengers for the documents required by the Israeli government to enter Jerusalem. And as many of us feared -- but anticipated -- the officers confiscated the Riders' identification documents, arrested and jailed them.

The Riders were released from Atarot Prison several hours later in the West Bank. But the movement has certainly begun, and the fate of future Rides is yet to be seen. The opposition will intensify -- on Tuesday, the Riders were reportedly met with obscenities from settler passengers. The Riders will be vilified in the conservative Israeli media. And no court will hear their case or vindicate their rights to peacefully board buses and -- in a larger sense -- travel freely throughout the West Bank and Jerusalem. Indeed, the law itself is posed against them, and the Riders' demands for social change will not be heard in a courtroom. But history is on their side--and through its enforcement, the law's injustices will reveal themselves.

The law is a tool, no doubt. And can be a powerful one. But it is only as effective as the popular social movements it echoes. Let's continue to support these popular movements for social change -- whether we are protesting on the ground, documenting the efforts, or spreading the messages -- and eventually the law will follow.