My trip to the occupied West Bank, Jerusalem and Israel with black and Latino journalists, musicians and community organizers from Ferguson, Missouri, Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100 and Dream Defenders for 10 days in January was an emotional roller coaster. The duality of seeing so much beauty -- from the beaches to the breathtaking mountain scenery, the olive trees and holy sites -- was intense; but, it was interrupted by the necessary reminder that many Palestinians who call this place home will never get to see it.
For many of us, it was also a lesson on the privilege of holding an American passport. Before coming to Palestine, I knew that even as a Black-American woman, there were spaces where I wasn't the most marginalized -- being light-skinned, cisgender and educated -- but never had I felt any of those privileges inextricably tied to my identity as an American. Our delegation was there to advance deeper connections and solidarity between black and brown communities in the U.S. and Palestinians. We ended up getting an eyeful on Israeli injustices meted out to Palestinians, and learning first-hand how the U.S. contributes to the grim Palestinian reality.
I will never forget going through a checkpoint outside Ramallah, on the way back to our hotel in Jerusalem, and learning that our Palestinian brother, Ahmad Abuznaid, couldn't ride through the checkpoint with us. He had to exit the vehicle and walk through a checkpoint. We made the collective decision to all walk through the cattle-corral-style checkpoint with him. It was a series of narrow-barred passageways. Our Palestinian tour guide told us stories of people getting crushed to death at checkpoints.
One Palestinian mother got stuck in the turn style right before us, her baby crying. It was a haunting experience. I'm quick to remind others that it was a choice for me to be there; it isn't for Palestinians. And, even those Palestinians going through the checkpoint are said to be privileged enough to obtain a permit to do so.
We saw another checkpoint at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, where, in 1994, an American-Jewish settler walked in with an assault rifle and gunned down 29 worshippers. Israel responded by placing Palestinians under curfew, and putting up a checkpoint around their own place of worship.
The mosque was emotionally heavy. We could see where the bullet holes were plastered over. We observed arbitrary IDF checkpoints and streets that some of us could walk down, but our Palestinian friends could not. We saw IDF soldiers out jogging in casual clothes where children played, assault rifles draped around them like a fanny pack. The market place had a fence above it to protect Palestinian patrons from the trash settlers toss down from their homes in their illegal settlements.
There were vast walls slicing through communities, disconnecting parts of Palestine from one another, along with barbed watch towers with snipers -- it was an open-air prison. I thought of the Palestinians who've never known any other way of living. I thought of the shiny, polished image Israel presents to tourists. Israel pretends to embrace diversity, but subjugates the indigenous people living under an unjust occupation. We witnessed imperialism in real time. The colonialism detailed in our history classes was no longer a static part of history. It was present and thriving. And the U.S. was financing it all with over $3 billion per year in military aid.
Getting in and out.
Getting into Tel Aviv wasn't too hard. I played the role of the delightfully aloof tourist who had come "to see where baby Jesus was born." On the way out, however, it wasn't so easy.
"Where did you stay?"
"Do you have pictures of your trip? Emails where you booked the ticket?"
"Do you speak Arabic?"
"Do you know any Palestinians here?"
"Where do you work? Do you have proof?"
"Who was your driver? Where is he from? Did he give you anything?"
"Why are you stopping in Paris?"
"How many people were you here with?"
They divided us for questioning and the agents intermittently stopped to share information before continuing their questioning. We watched each other from across the room, hoping no one messed up or lied, often mouthing answers to each other, and watching other travelers proceed without delay. I prayed they didn't search my luggage and find the keffiyehs from Hebron.
After two hours, they returned our passports and allowed us to go on our way. Some of our colleagues weren't so lucky -- being interrogated longer, getting luggage searched and then being detained again at the gate. Thankfully, no one missed a flight. Our friend, Ahmad, had to travel through another country; he is not allowed to fly through Tel Aviv because he has a West Bank ID, which means he needs a permit to enter Jerusalem or Israel, even though he is also a U.S. citizen. Maytha, a Syrian-American friend, accompanied him because traveling through Tel Aviv is often more difficult for Americans of Arab descent.
Over a lunch about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a Palestinian sister was asked: "In the midst of such violent oppression, how do you remain nonviolent?" Her response resonated: "Why should I have to? Until a few years ago, we didn't have a word for nonviolence. It was all resistance."
I understood her sentiment. Resistance here means steadfastness in the face of ever-present oppression, going to school and getting an education despite checkpoints, painting freedom scenes on the separation wall, and raising children to remember their heritage and the village name from which family members were expelled in 1948.
In the U.S., we face similar mischaracterization. After protesting around police violence for months, and witnessing media and politicos create a dichotomy between "good protester" and "bad protester," I realized, through her remark, how upside down it is for oppressors to tell Palestinians, blacks and Latinos how to respond to violent injustice. Most of us have always responded with nonviolent resistance. The real problem remains, however, the overwhelming violence of those in power protecting an unjust status quo.
The Palestinian sister put her finger on it. Meanwhile, we resist because of the tremendous violence still employed against communities from Ferguson to Palestine.
Cherrell Brown is an organizer living in New York City, working on issues around police violence and gender violence.