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Remarks at Edward Said Memorial


Washington, DC
June 4, 2004
By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Thank you Damu Smith; Phyllis Bennis; and Rev. Fauntroy.  Let me also begin by thanking the Creator of all things.

Good evening sisters and brothers, friends, and partners in the struggle.

I wish to offer two points in honor of the late Edward Said.  These points are focused on drawing links between the Palestinian national struggle and the national struggle that took place (and in many ways continues to unfold) in South Africa.

The first of the two points has to do with the unequal value of life on this planet.  What the Palestinian struggle shares with every other struggle involving people of color is the manner in which the lives of its people are devalued by those who oppress them and by those who side with the oppressors.  It is striking how the deaths of Palestinians, at the hands of the Israeli military, are treated as something akin to numbers ticking away on a meter.  Yet, this is never true on the other side.  Whether one is discussing civilian or military casualties, the deaths of Israelis are always treated in a very personal manner.  One learns about the families and friends of the dead or wounded.  There are often pictures that accompany the stories.

Yet, when it comes to the deaths of Palestinians, the message that we receive is simple:  another Arab bites the dust.  Pure, simple, no fanfare.   Just a statistic, regardless of whether that person is a senior citizen, an adult in the prime of their life, or a child.  And more often than not, the death is implied to be the result of an action of the Palestinians themselves.

Many of us cannot or will not remember that in the South African struggle, as with so many other struggles around the world, the same sort of racist devaluing played itself out.  Symptomatic of the racism connected with slavery, colonial rule and settler states, the deaths of the so-called natives are always treated as nothing special.

The devaluing of the lives of people of color always presents a challenge for people of conscience in building a moral case against oppression.  For instance, the deaths of millions of Africans as a result of AIDS, does not provoke the moral outrage that one would expect, precisely because it involves the deaths of Africans.  Were we speaking of a pandemic in Europe, one could readily assume that the response by the USA would be fundamentally different.

My second point concerns the myth-ification, for lack of a better term, of the South African struggle.

The first thing to remember is that the anti-apartheid movement in the USA, better understood as the support movement for South African national liberation and democracy, did not begin in the 1980s with the work of Randall Robinson and  TransAfrica.  It did not begin in the 1970s after the Soweto uprising.

In the sense of a coherent movement, I would suggest that it actually came together in 1946 in the immediate aftermath of World War II.  Led by such giants as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Dubois, the Council on African Affairs advanced support for Black majority rule in South Africa, but as well took up other struggles for national liberation, such as on the Indian subcontinent.

Though the CAA was crushed through Cold War repression, the movement in support of the struggle for Black majority rule continued through various forms.  One of the predecessor organizations of our chief ally, Africa Action, known as the American Committee on Africa, continued to uphold the banner of Black majority rule and an end to apartheid.  Organizations connected with the Communist Party, USA, also advanced support for the national liberation struggle in South Africa.

The South African struggle was kept alive in the USA by a broad array of forces in the 1960s and the 1970s ranging from those associated with the Communist Party, to independent left-wing individuals and organizations to Black nationalist organizations and individuals (such as Malcolm X), to religious institutions, and by the 1970s, to the African Liberation Support Committee.  During this time it is critical that we keep in mind that both the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania were red-baited, and later, during the 1980s, were described as terrorist organizations.  An active move was made by the US, Britain and others to split the anti-apartheid movement into an acceptable movement and an unacceptable movement.  This activity took place both within the USA and within South Africa.  It did not succeed.

The apartheid regime in South Africa was systematically isolated, however.  It was this work that provided the basis for the 1980s rising to take place in the USA.  The work of people on the ground in South Africa—particularly in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto uprising—along with international allies, and within the USA, the patient and dedicated work of a slowly broadening core of forces, helped to make the difference.

Randall Robinson, to his credit, understood timing and thus, along with his colleagues in and around TransAfrica Forum, were able to ignite a movement that swept the USA.

The complexities of the Palestinian situation make comparisons with South Africa complicated.  This does not mean that there is nothing of use from that history.  Instead, I am suggesting that we should understand the history of the South African struggle and the anti-apartheid support movement here in the USA in ITS complexities.

In the interest of time, then, let me offer a few possible lessons:

There must be an organized constituency in the USA that embraces the Palestinian struggle as a struggle for national sovereignty and human rights:  In this sense, the Palestinian struggle is an anti-racist struggle, but it is more than that.  It must be seen as a struggle which represents the moral center of the movement for global justice, and I use this term—global justice—broadly.  The constituency in the USA must include Arab Americans and Arab immigrants, but it must be far broader than that. It cannot be an Islamic movement, though it must include democratic Muslim forces.  The anti-apartheid movement had, at its core, African Americans, but it was never a movement exclusive to African Americans.

This organized constituency will need to be, by definition, quite broad and, therefore, will not have a very high level of unity:  By this I mean that, just as with the South African struggle, support outside of Palestine for Palestinian national sovereignty and human rights cannot be equated with an embrace of each and every position of the Palestinian movement.  It does mean that the movement outside of Palestine is fighting for the recognition of the humanity of the Palestinian people and for the respect and actualization of their rights!  There will be differences within this support movement, but those differences need not evolve into factional struggle.

International links are key:  The anti-apartheid movement, over time, developed links across national borders.  This is something that South African President Mbeki referenced a few weeks ago when commemorating ten years since the end of apartheid.  These linkages gave people fighting apartheid, whether in Dublin, New York or Algiers, a sense that they were part of something much larger than themselves.
In closing, let me suggest that the Palestinian cause resonates for so many of us.  It resonates because we see in that struggle a piece of an international battle to return to history the people of the global south.  Millions of us, through slavery, colonialism, and settler-ist displacement, were ripped from our own histories and shoved down a distorted, toxic path…a path from which there seemed to be no exit.  In the Palestinian struggle for sovereignty and human rights, we see a sister struggle, without whose resolution it will be impossible to discuss peace, security, not to mention a humanitarian global order.

Our task is to raise our voices in support of the Palestinian struggle; to move this struggle from the margins of U.S. politics and place it in the center of all civilized discourse.

If we are to be consistent fighters for social justice, then we must assert that there is no alternative for progressive-minded people and people of conscience than to support the Palestinian struggle for national sovereignty and human rights!

Thank you.