Why We Stand for Peace
By Blake Strode
November 3, 2023
How does an organization like ArchCity Defenders, committed to principles of love and justice, respond in the face of bloodshed, loss, and escalating horror halfway across the globe?
At the time of this writing, over 10,000 people have been killed in Israel and the Gaza Strip in just a few weeks: 1,400 killed by Hamas in Israel and more than 9,000 killed by Israeli bombardment in Gaza. We know that these unfathomable masses overwhelmingly consisted of civilians. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all, children have made up the dead on both sides of the invented line that divides Gaza from Israel—over 3,600 dead children in Gaza alone.
Few things are more contested than the stories that explain this violent spectacle of death. To speak any one of them is to offend. To omit them is to exhibit cowardice. To even acknowledge the contestation is an unacceptable concession. There is very little to be gained in any instance. Yet those of us fortunate enough to speak and listen and read are still here. We still live and breathe while thousands are dead and dying.
So yes, we call for peace. We call for an end to the killing, maiming, kidnapping, and displacement. We call for safety, wellness, and wholeness for every child, whether in St. Louis, Tel-Aviv, or Gaza City. We call for freedom and justice that most Palestinians have never known.
And we do so, humbly, knowing that these calls are deeply rooted in Black Movement history, in our values, and in our vision for a just world.
…In Black Movement History
In 1964, following his split with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X famously embarked on a transformative pilgrimage to Mecca. It was during these travels in the Middle East that Malcolm X visited Palestine, including refugee camps and hospitals in the Gaza Strip, and he would leave that experience as a vocal champion of Palestinian liberation.
Malcolm X was hardly the first or the last to find common cause between the Black Freedom Struggle and the plight of displaced Palestinians. In 1967, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) ran a controversial newsletter on The Palestinian Problem, which connected Palestinian suffering to a history of colonialism. This was no small thing given the storied solidarity that existed between Blacks and Jewish Americans during the Civil Rights Movement—particularly Jewish youth who, by some estimations, made up nearly half of the students who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.
In the following decades, such Black activist touchstones as the Black Panther Party, Muhammad Ali, and South African hero Nelson Mandela would all draw parallels between domestic struggles for Black people fighting white supremacy and Palestinians fighting displacement and occupation. This activism was always fraught and often came at great cost, particularly since it just as often included a critique of western European and American interests in the region as of the young Israeli state itself.
Perhaps this history should make it less surprising that a resurgence of Black-led racial justice organizing and activism over the past decade has also led to a rekindling of this global kinship. Few regions know this more intimately than the birthplace of the Ferguson Uprising. As Charles Blow described this recent history in the New York Times:
The first [pivotal event] came in the form of Palestinian activists expressing support on social media for the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., which activists describe as an uprising, not just a series of protests. Palestinians provided not just moral support, but offered practical tips that, as activist Cherrell Brown told me, included advice for protesters about how to protect themselves from tear gas.
Around that time, a small delegation of Palestinians even traveled to Ferguson and St. Louis to meet with American activists. This all created a moment of bonding around a shared sense of resistance.
Brittany Ferrell, a nurse, organizer, and prominent Ferguson frontliner put it this way in a tweet that has been viewed by over 130,000 people:
When we were being tear gassed in Ferguson, it was Palestinian people who first taught us how to treat tear gas exposure. The same manufacturer that produced the chemical weapon that choked & burned our people in our communities produced the same tear gas deployed on Palestinians. Our struggles are inextricably linked. My freedom dreams for Black people [are] only possible with the pursuit of liberation, justice, and freedom for all oppressed people.
In this sense, like those who came before, the “Ferguson generation” has been vocal in calling for peace, justice, and liberation, animated by an analysis of racism, colonialism, and imperialism around the globe. And continuing in a tradition of radical Black-Jewish solidarity, some of the leading, most persistent voices standing alongside Black and Palestinian activists have come from progressive Jewish organizers rallying behind the demand “Not in our name!”
…In Our Values
In 2020, ACD adopted a set of values that guide our steps in moments such as this.
Antiracism is central to those values. Borrowing from scholars like Ibram X. Kendi, we are committed to combatting racist power, policy, and ideas. And our conception of antiracism is intersectional; we reject fully and completely all systems of oppression and ideologies of hate. This includes the scourge of antisemitism that has shaped world events and threatened precious Jewish lives for thousands of years. It includes the many pernicious forms of Islamophobia, which far too often leads to disparate responses to human suffering.
This also includes a critique of other “isms” that have long had broad global impact: systems like imperialism, colonialism, and racial capitalism, which promote privilege and excess for some while condemning others to poverty, violence, and suffering. We value every human life equally and are outraged by every killing, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. When we see Israeli children slaughtered because of their national origin, we recognize the embodied hatred motivating those acts. And when we see a state-run military carrying out aerial strikes that claim the lives of thousands of Palestinian civilians within a span of weeks—with support and material backing from the world’s mightiest superpower—we recognize the global systems of oppression at work.
We also hold self-determination high among our values, centering the ability of our marginalized clients and their communities to build power and exert control over their own lives. But this is not limited to our clients; we believe in self-determination for all people. And we cannot and will not support a status quo that denies self-determination for Palestinians on the implicit or explicit assumption that they cannot be responsible with it. 2.2 million people in Gaza are facing an immediate existential threat because they do not control their own vital, life-sustaining systems; they do not control their own political structures; they do not have any means of protecting themselves from attack; and they do not even have freedom of movement to flee to safety if they wished to do so. This flies in the face of what we believe and is an affront to all people who believe in a right to self-determination.
Just over two years ago, we and our partners shared space with local Palestinian justice organizers to explore the possibilities of abolition from Ferguson to Palestine. Rooted in ACD’s commitment to abolition, we often challenge ourselves and others to identify the many ways that state violence is present in our collective experience, and to imagine together how we can instead build systems and develop practices that promote healing, health, accountability, and safety. As phrased in our values statement, “We believe that our challenges are best addressed by people in intentional and supportive community with each other….” An ambitious, perhaps idealistic, belief? Yes. But it is a sincere one. And as we look at the violence—now, largely state violence—raining down and taking the lives of hundreds more every day, we see just how necessary it is. Our belief in abolition demands that we stand for peace in this moment.
At our very core, we are an organization committed to revolutionary justice. Quoting again from our values statement: “We believe that the law is not the final arbiter of justice; rather, we advance a view of justice rooted in love, support, accountability, and equity for all people.” This is what we want, what we fight for every day, and what we believe all people deserve. As many observers have noted, mass killing, hostage-taking, and collective punishment are violations of international law. But the more salient truth for us is that they are unjust.
…In Our Vision for a Just World
“ArchCity Defenders envisions a society liberated from systems of oppression where the promise of justice and racial equity is realized; communities where our approach to public safety prioritizes investment in well-being, health, and transformation without relying on criminalization and incarceration; and people living freely in their communities, thriving regardless of their race or income.”
Our values point us toward this vision, and it is a vision that requires that we understand ourselves to be in community with all people. We speak from a place of love and a belief in collective liberation because we know that none of us is free until all of us are free. We cannot and do not seek to be the arbiter of all things, but we do recognize that the systems and practices that we see and normalize all over the world are replicated right here at home.
Our site of work and struggle is St. Louis but our concerns are not parochial. We know that the forces we work against every day do not begin and end at any jurisdictional line. Our fights against police violence, criminalization of poverty, structural racism, and carcerality in all its forms did not begin in St. Louis. Whether or not we recite this history at every turn, we know these fights are linked to capitalist extraction through a transatlantic slave trade fueled by western imperialists; which seeded an exceptionally prosperous southern agrarian economy built on Black bodies; which, through war, short-term progress, and enduring regress would morph into new forms of social control and racial violence; which laid the foundation for new institutions of policing, caging, exploiting, segregating by race, and solidifying social and economic hierarchy.
All that to say: the scope of our concern has always been global even if the scope of our programmatic work is local.
We know that proximity yields invaluable insight, and we would never presume to prescribe the future for Palestinians and Israelis who can and should shape their own destinies. But we know that life is paramount, violence is poison, and hatred and oppression must be resisted in every form everywhere.
We stand with every brave voice—Muslim, Jewish, secular, American, Israeli, Palestinian, or none of the above—calling for justice and peace, now and always.