January 2018

Seeking Intersectional Justice

The fact is that the struggle for equal rights will outlive all of us. Substantive and systemic changes are very slow to come, and they are made slower still by the reality of intersectional struggle. When you are struggling not only for your own freedom, but freedom for all oppressed peoples, you increase the chances of encountering opposition from erstwhile allies.

The recent passing of Black Lives Matter (BLM) activist Erica Garner has brought new attention to the role that women play in direct action struggles against oppression. The African American freedom movement is well represented by radical women, from Coretta Scott King, whose own history of political activism is often overshadowed by the memory of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, to Garner, who became a prominent voice in the BLM campaign after the death of her father Eric Garner. The role of women of color in the current resistance against the Trump administration is a hot topic as of late, with Black women being credited with the election of Doug Jones to the Senate in the recent Alabama special election. Compounding this, there has been an extra level of debate on why many white women continue to support Republican candidates. The support for Republican candidates who are clearly racist and sexist brings to the forefront uncomfortable but necessary conversations about race and gender, and whether conservative views about race trump gendered concerns. Garner herself was a committed activist who was unwilling to let any political leaders off the hook, including President Barack Obama, whom she met only once after having to demand a meeting at a town hall event on race relations in 2016.

BLM itself began after neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing an unarmed boy, Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman first racially profiled and then stalked Martin through an upper-class neighborhood. The movement became more prominent after the police murders of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in St. Louis, who both died due to injuries caused by police officers. Although inherently decentralized, some BLM spokespeople have become prominent faces in the struggle against the killings of African Americans by America’s increasingly militarized police forces. Garner worked tirelessly for the rights of not only African Americans, but all oppressed peoples, writing articles, endorsing political candidates, and leading direct action protests against police brutality. Hers became a prominent voice against oppression, and especially against police violence against people of color.

Erica Garner, shown here speaking at a protest, died on December 30, 2017.

What separates the BLM movement from other recent grassroots movements is its level of focus. Unlike the failed Occupy Wall Street efforts in 2011, BLM is centered around a concrete ideology that emphasizes police reform and the rights of African Americans and other people of color who are oppressed. An offshoot of BLM called the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) articulated a platform of demands that emphasized reparations for historical subjugation and an end to police brutality, especially against communities of color. In addition, it emphasized the intersectional aspects of the struggle against oppression.

The platform of the M4BL is remarkably similar to the platform of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, which also called for an end to the war on people of color by the state and for basic rights. That a revolutionary group in the 1960s shares a similar platform to a grassroots movement that coalesced in 2013 is a depressing reality check for anyone who supports African American civil rights. While the issues of systemic racism against communities of color have been clearly articulated by radical organizations for decades, nothing has really changed.

In their emphasis on intersectionality, M4BL waded into controversy with its embrace of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement (BDS). This support for BDS is shared by other activists who see the issue of Israeli oppression of Palestinians as part of the larger struggle against colonialism both in the United States and around the world. Issues surrounding support for Palestinian rights have caused deep controversy in American protest movements over the past several years. A prime example of this is Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American and one of the co-founders of the Women’s March, who has received criticism for her belief that one cannot be an intersectional feminist while also being a Zionist. Sarsour’s belief comes from the argument that all oppression is related, and that one cannot free themselves from gendered oppression without also fighting against other forms of oppression. Much of the backlash against Sarsour, which has come from both liberals and conservatives, has come from Sarsour’s views about Zionism. Adding to this criticism is the unfounded and Islamophobic belief that Sarsour is a supporter of Sharia law, an accusation that circulates widely in right wing media. The allegation became so widely accepted in right wing media that they were mentioned and rightly dismissed in a New York Times profile on Sarsour in 2015.

Here Linda Sarsour is shown speaking at the Festival of Faiths in 2016.

Liberal commentators have used the views of Sarsour to question the Women’s March more broadly. Writing in the New York Times, opinion section editor Bari Weiss excoriated Sarsour and other leaders of the Women’s March both for anti-Zionism and for their support of Black Panther Party member Assata Shakur. While Weiss acknowledges that much of the criticism directed at the tweet has come from the right, she nonetheless claims that criticism of supporters of the Black Power movement is a liberal obligation and constitutes a necessary policing of the larger women’s movement. Weiss writes: “The leaders of the Women’s March, arguably the most prominent feminists in the country, have some chilling ideas and associations. Far from erecting the big tent so many had hoped for, the movement they lead has embraced decidedly illiberal causes and cultivated a radical tenor that seems determined to alienate all but the most woke.”[1] That the women targeted by Weiss’ opinion piece are both prominent women of color, and the causes that she targets for scorn both anti-Zionism and support for Assata Shuker, are clearly racialized issues illustrates the uncomfortable divides in liberal and left circles. For many liberals, especially white liberals, there are limits to liberation struggles, and those limits are regulated by those in positions in power, such as Weiss.

That a revolutionary group in the 1960s shares a similar platform to a grassroots movement that coalesced in 2013 is a depressing reality check for anyone who supports African American civil rights.

In Israel itself, the face of resistance to occupation is now the teenager Ahed Tamimi. Tamimi became notable for slapping an Israeli soldier outside of her home in Nabih Saleh. Her abuse at the hands of the Israeli military court system has caused international outrage. While Tamimi comes from a family with a long history of political involvement, the combination of her age and her actions has made her the face of Palestinian protest in the era when two old elite white men, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, have virtually eliminated any options for the creation of a Palestinian state. Ahed has become so popular a symbol that signs in support for her were featured prominently in this year’s Women’s March.

Morgenson Pic2
Palestinians demand ‘Free Ahed Tamimi’ at Chicago Women’s March. Photo by Christine Geovanis.

While the state of Israel is a symbol of Jewish resistance in the face of genocide for many American Jews, it is quickly becoming symbolic of racialized oppression for younger liberals overall. Historically, Palestinian resistance has been supported by Black Power organizations like the Black Panther Party as part of a global struggle against racialized oppression.[2] This included support for Palestinians after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War when an overwhelming Israeli military victory resulted in the capture of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Palestinians living in these areas have been under Israeli military occupation ever since. While African American support for Palestinian rights continued into the 1970s and beyond, the fracturing of the civil rights movement, as well as protracted negations between Israelis and Palestinians, which almost resulted in a peace accord in 1993, moved Palestine out of focus for many activists. The collapse of the Israeli left, and the clear indications from Benjamin Netanyahu that his government has no ambitions for peace, has revitalized pro-Palestinian activism in the United States. Recent developments such as the decision by the Trump administration to move the American embassy to Jerusalem has heightened calls for Palestinian solidarity. This intersectionality brings with it new challenges. While it offers the promise of unity, there is also the risk of damaging connections to allies. The liberal community is far from a monolith and different segments of the group have different interests. White liberals, while supportive of efforts at racial equality, have a history of being hesitant to support more radical measures. The writing of Weiss in perhaps the largest liberal newspaper demonstrates that this continues to be an issue.

The legacy of Erica Garner is one of turning adversity into strength. Garner used the pain of her father’s death as motivation to try and make the world a more just place. In an article title “Justice or Else for Black, Brown, and Indigenous People” published in Huffington Post in 2015, Garner writes, “In my fight, I am inspired to know that even though I have been fighting for the last year, Indigenous and Brown Americans have been fighting for much longer, and Black people have been fighting in this country for the last several centuries.”[3] The fact is that the struggle for equal rights will outlive all of us. Substantive and systemic changes are very slow to come, and they are made slower still by the reality of intersectional struggle. When you are struggling not only for your own freedom, but freedom for all oppressed peoples, you increase the chances of encountering opposition from erstwhile allies. By connecting the plight of Palestinians to struggle for freedom for people of color in the United States, liberation movements risk isolating potential allies, but they also force us to understand the degree to which liberation struggles are all connected. While the death of Erica Garner is a tragic loss, the struggle that she believed in continues. Her memory survives in the actions of activists who continue her struggle against oppression, and for the liberation of all.

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[1] Bari Weiss “When Progressives Embrace Hate” The New York Times August 1, 2017.

[2] For a full study of the international aspects of the Black Panther Party, see Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party Los Angeles: University of California Press 2013.

[3] Erica Garner and Reggie Harris “Justice or Else for Black, Brown and Indigenous Americans” The Huffington Post 10/1/2015 https://www.huffingtonpost.com/erica-garner/justice-or-else-black-brown-indigenous-americans_b_8224814.html

Eric Morgenson is a PhD candidate in history at the State University of New York at Albany. His research interests include the intersections of race and class in the United States, the relationship between liberalism and the left in the twentieth century, and American Jewish history. Eric’s dissertation, The Last Step to Whiteness: American Jews and the end of the Civil Rights Coalition argues that allegations of antisemitism made against Black Power groups in the 1960s were part of a larger effort to distance liberal American Jews from the cause of civil rights. The work explores Jewish assimilation in the twentieth century. It emphasizes the impact that Jews becoming “white” i.e. culturally accepted had on the relationship between American Jews and African Americans. He received an MA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a BA from Concordia University-Nebraska, and an Associate of Arts from Southeast Community College in Lincoln, NE. Eric was born and raised in Bismarck North Dakota, but really hates cold weather. He currently lives in Connecticut where it is still too cold. He can be reached here.

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