Ferguson and Gaza: The definitive study of how they are and are not similar

Many images look the same. Let's view the history, and the comparisons, in the proper light

Published August 22, 2014 3:59PM (EDT)

             (Reuters/Robert Pratta/AP/Charlie Riedel)
(Reuters/Robert Pratta/AP/Charlie Riedel)

As photographs and videoclips from Ferguson overwhelmed our mediascapes, they created a strange double-optic.  They seemed overlaid upon representations of events that had previously dominated our public consciousness: Images of the massive and on-going destruction of Gaza by the Israeli military.  This stereoscopic image immediately drew bloggers, pundits and op-ed writers to rush to draw parallels.  Indeed, in graphic terms alone the image of tear gas canisters filling the air with toxic smoke and of protesters hurling them back defiantly seemed exactly the same.  And when tweets offering advice to demonstrators in Ferguson emerged from Palestinians, and reports of Ferguson police having been trained by Israelis surfaced, all that only seemed to complete the equation: Ferguson is Gaza.

There are many parallels and resonances to be sure, and below I will get to some key ones.  But I have delayed responding because, as a comparatist, and also as someone concerned about racism in the U.S. and the racist policies of Israel, it is important to weigh things in as dispassionate a way as possible, to do justice to both sides.

Many years ago, the eminent British Marxist historian Raymond Williams reflected on conversations he was having with Palestinian literary critic and activist Edward Said.  Williams was particularly interested in seeing just how much of his work on British working class culture, history, and society could be understood as having to do in any way with Said’s concerns regarding Israel-Palestine, most especially with regard to what was going on then: the brutal Israeli bombing and invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  Regarding that catastrophe, Hadas Thier writes, “During the course of Israel's bombardment of the country, civilians and civilian infrastructure were systematically attacked, refugee camps and Lebanese towns were leveled, Beirut was battered for seventy-five days, and after all military objectives were met, the affair concluded with a grotesque massacre of women, children, and the elderly at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.”  Williams’ conclusion is instructive:

The analysis of history is not a subject separate from history, but the representations are part of the history, contribute to the history, are active elements in the way that history continues; in the way forces are distributed; in the way people perceive situations, both from inside their own pressing realities and from outside them; if we are saying this is a real method, then the empirical test it’s being put to here is that comparable methods of analysis are being applied to situations which are very far apart in space, have many differences of texture, and have very different consequences in the contemporary world. There is an obvious distance from what is happening in the English countryside, or in the English inner cities, to the chaos in Lebanon. Yet nevertheless I think it is true that the method, the underlying method, found a congruity.

This discretion, this caution to pay attention to how history is represented and to get the historical record straight despite surface similarities, is found as well in the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel on Biafra, "Half of a Yellow Sun."  At one point she tells of a journalist’s hesitation at making comparisons between Biafra and other historical events: “After he writes this, he mentions the German women who fled Hamburg with the charred bodies of their children stuffed in suitcases, the Rwandan women who pocketed tiny parts of their mauled babies. But he is careful not to draw parallels.”

How then can we strike a balance between on the one hand reacting viscerally to the images from Ferguson, which point to the long and constantly replenished history of police assaults on black bodies, and the images of Israel’s murderous rampage in Gaza, an assault continuous with Israel’s history of oppression and persecution of an entire people, while on the other hand resisting drawing too quickly an immediate, provocative, but inexact parallel?

It is in the median space between declaring an equivalence and withdrawing into discreet silence that we should concentrate our energies.  Comparisons may be “odious,” to quote Shakespeare, but they can also be instructive. They help us tease out the specifics while coming to understand basic and important similarities.  To do this one needs to employ a “congruent” method.

Here are five ways we can see congruence in what is happening in Ferguson and in Gaza.

• First, both manifest a history of dispossession from land and homes, and an ongoing system of oppression. In his fine essay arguing “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates notes:

“Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

Blacks in America still struggle under the continuing effects of historical slavery as it shows up in unemployment, lack of adequate educational facilities and access, and institutional racism that expropriates black resources, curtails and contains minority rights, and maintains white advantage.

The Nakba of 1948, in which Palestinians were dispossessed of their homes and their lands, and in many cases their lives, was a calculated and highly rationalized process of settler colonialism that resulted in the specific loss of the possibility of national autonomy and integrity and continues in contemporary form to do the same—the Zionist project maintains its fundamental interest in blocking  Palestinian efforts to achieve democracy and equal rights in Israel; it continues to suppress and control the ability of Palestinians to achieve economic health, maintains living standards in the occupied territories at bare minimum.  Precise data collected in 2013 and published by the British medical journal, The Lancet, entitled “Prediction of health with human insecurity and chronic economic constraints in the occupied Palestinian territory: a cross-sectional survey,” indicates the longstanding and persisting effects of the occupation in all these areas.

Responses for the two situations of course are different.  As a response to the lasting legacies of slavery, African Americans and those arguing their case have specific legal remedies and political channels to utilize, although the effectiveness of these tools for redress is highly problematic because they are embedded in institutions that are saturated with both the legacy of historical racism and racism’s present-day forms.  The Palestinians are bereft of even those possibilities as they battle against an ongoing project of settler colonialism.  While there is a myriad of ways the sentiment that the United States is “white” finds indirect expression, the current Israeli leadership has openly and emphatically said that it wishes to formally declare Israel-Palestine a Jewish state.  The nature and force of these two dispossessions differ, and yet in both cases important forms of resistance overlap, among them: a strong tradition of non-compliance to racist dictates; the production of cultural forms that challenge the dominant forms of expression and create new, independent ones; and efforts to form alternate political and social routes to liberation.

• Second, both blacks in the U.S. and Palestinians in Israel-Palestine suffer from de facto inequality despite assertions by both the U.S. and Israel that they are democracies.  In the U.S. the primary remedy for guaranteeing blacks full access to democratic participation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was decimated by a Supreme Court ruling in June 2013.  As Tim Murphy, writing in Mother Jones, reported at that time:

The Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on Tuesday, ruling that the United States had sufficiently moved beyond its Jim Crow past and has rendered the law's formulas unconstitutional. Writing for the conservative 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts, who has a long history of trying to undermine this law, struck down Section 4 of the act. This part of the law determines which states and counties must adhere to strict guidelines governing any change to their voting laws. (The point of this provision is to prevent regions that have a history of fiddling with voting laws to discriminate against certain groups from trying such stunts again.)

This was a tremendous setback, but the ruling was simply part of a systemic set of actions to strip blacks of their democratic agency.  Well before June 2013 rightwing activists had set up multiple illegal, bogus challenges to black and other voters, thus continuing a long history of illegally disenfranchising the black vote.  All these tactics of course hark back to the days of Reconstruction.

Defenders of Israeli state policies are proud to note that Palestinians and non-Jews in Israel have the right to vote. However, a study conducted in 2012 shows that “7,659,000 people living in Israeli territory have voting rights, while 2,128,115 people have no voting rights. Altogether, one in every 4.5 people is denied political representation; this one person is almost always Palestinian. If Gaza is included, the number of unrepresented climbs to 3,820,372, or roughly one in every three people.”

Furthermore even with voting rights non-Jews in Israel are the subject of prejudicial practices that put them at a disadvantage for employment, education, and access to state services, as reported by the Association for Civil Rights, and other human rights agencies, as well as by the UN.  The situation in the Occupied Territories is even worse, as described by Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967:

An abiding theme of my reports during the past six years has been the consistent failure of Israel to comply with clear legal standards embodied in the Fourth Geneva Convention and elsewhere in IHL and international human rights law. This pattern, as will be detailed below, is flagrant in relation to the wall, settlements, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, water and land resources, and the human rights of Palestinians living under occupation. Also relevant is the failure of the United Nations to ensure implementation of the recommendations as to international law contained in two high-profile HRC reports of 2009 and 2013, respectively those of: The fact-finding mission on the Gaza Conflict (A/HRC/12/48) and the fact-finding mission to investigate the human rights implications of the Israeli settlements (A/HRC/22/63). To the extent such a pattern is tolerated, it undermines respect for international law.

Hence, while the Israeli state is able to discriminate much more openly and emphatically, both blacks and Palestinians face de facto discrimination that block their access to democratic and other rights.

• Third, state violence.  There is no doubt whatsoever that police actions against black men in the U.S. often openly defy the law—several of the killings we have seen throughout history amount to summary executions.  Adam Hudson has written a fine piece discussing a report, "Operation Ghetto Storm," compiled by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, an antiracist grassroots activist organization. It found that in 2012 one black man was killed every 28 hours by police, security personnel, or vigilantes. Of those killed by police, 44% were unarmed. Hudson notes:

Over the past 70 years, the "repressive enforcement structures" described in the report have been used to "wage a grand strategy of 'domestic' pacification" to maintain the system through endless "containment campaigns" amounting to "perpetual war." According to the report, this perpetual war has been called multiple names — the "Cold War," COINTELPRO, the "War on Drugs, the "War on Gangs," the "War on Crime" and now the "War on Terrorism." This pacification strategy is designed to subjugate oppressed populations and stifle political resistance. In other words, they are wars against domestic marginalized groups. "Extrajudicial killings," says the report, "are clearly an indispensable tool in the United States government's pacification pursuits." It attributes the preponderance of these killings to institutionalized racism and policies within police departments.

In just this past month four unarmed African American men have been killed by police.  What we see in the historical record and continuing into the present is what might fairly be called an informal but deadly war against black men.  They are targets for suspicion, harassment, acts of intimidation carried out by police personnel legally protected by their badges, whereas legal protections for their victims are set aside all too often.  Again, this is part and parcel of the systemic attack on black life described by Coates.

In Gaza, we find that of this writing (August 16), according to Mondoweiss, Israel’s attack:

… has severely damaged or destroyed the homes of some 17,000 families (over 100,000 people).  It has terrorized half a million people into flight from one corner of the tiny coastal enclave in which they are trapped to another, leaving them in urgent need of food assistance merely to survive.  Schools, clinics, refugee shelters, hospitals, ambulances, a university campus and Gaza’s only power plant have all come under Israeli fire, sometimes repeatedly. UN schools designed to accommodate 500 people as emergency shelters have been packed with up to 3,000.  The social infrastructure—already strained to its limits by years of siege—is close to breakdown.  Hospitals have run low on urgent supplies including water and fuel for emergency generators.  Morgues were filled; the broken bodies of Palestinian children ended up in ice-cream counters that—in a just world—would be those same children’s sources of delight.

Of the fatalities whose identity and status have been verified so far, 86 percent are civilians, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.  Of those tabulated in its most recent update, 226 are members of armed groups; 459 are children.

It is important here to note that the killings of Palestinians in Gaza by the Israeli state has distinct features that have a particular motive--not only to strike terror and fear amongst the population and perpetually subordinate that population to the will of the state, but also and primarily to pave the way for a permanent occupation, a permanent annexation of Palestinian land.  The Times of Israel reports this statement from Benjamin Netanyahu: “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”

• Fourth, the permanent interruption and containment of everyday life.  For black America there are of course numerous ways in which everyday movement is curtailed and contained; data on Stop and Frisk in New York gives some indication of how disproportionate official harassment plays out in terms of race.  The New York Civil Liberties Union’s latest data on stop and frisk reveal the following:

In 2013, New Yorkers were stopped by the police 191,558 times.

• 169,252 were totally innocent (88 percent).

• 104, 958 were black (56 percent).

• 55,191 were Latino (29 percent).

• 20,877 were white (11 percent).

Both free movement in public space and the ability to find fair housing in general is contained.  In 2013, Business Insider published data on the “Most Segregated Cities in America,” reporting, “ Racial segregation in America is lasting longer than anyone expected. The average black person lives in a neighborhood that is 45 percent black, even though blacks represent only 13 percent of the population, according to professors John Logan and Brian Stults at Brown and Florida State.”  The article then provides maps of the twenty-five most racially-segregated cities in the United States.

The case of segregation in the Occupied Territories is of course much more graphically outlined, institutionalized, and officially enforced.  One major way in which everyday life is disrupted and normal activities criminalized is the deployment of an extensive system of checkpoints.  Numerous articles and studies have appeared.  One article describes the absurdity of a single building being bisected by a checkpoint:

“The kitchen was in the West Bank,” said Anis’s co-organizer, Dr. Abdullah Abu Hillal, 39, a general practitioner and a member of the Palestine National Initiative, the political party headed by Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who fell victim to the perils living in a divided neighborhood. Dr. Abu Hillal was arrested in 2006 at the hotel for inadvertently entering Jerusalem without a permit. With half of the structure in Jerusalem and half in the West Bank, Palestinians guests were crossing the Green Line when moving from room to room. When told he was in Jerusalem and had illegally entered Israel, Dr. Abu Hillal tried appealing to the arresting officer, asking which part of the hotel was in the West Bank and that he would go there to avoid detention. “The army refused because he said I didn’t have the right ID.”

The Barrier Wall is of course the most visible and graphic form of this spatial containment.  In 2012 the United Nations published this data which shows how the Barrier and checkpoints disrupt, contain, and destroy life:

• Palestinians with West Bank ID cards who are granted special permits can only enter East Jerusalem through four of the 14 Barrier checkpoints around the city.

• Around 7,500 Palestinians who reside in areas between the Green Line and the Barrier (Seam Zone), excluding East Jerusalem, require special permits to continue living in their own homes; another 23,000 will be isolated if the Barrier is completed as planned.

• There are about 150 Palestinian communities which have part of their land isolated by the Barrier and must obtain ‘visitors’ permits or perform ‘prior coordination’ to access this area.

• Access to agricultural land through the Barrier is channelled through 80 gates. The majority of these gates only open during the six weeks olive harvest season and usually only for a limited period during the day.

• During the 2011 olive harvest, about 42% of applications submitted for permits to access areas behind the Barrier were rejected citing ‘security reasons’ or lack of ‘connection to the land.’

A recent article in the Washington Post argues that such systematic harassment results in increased likelihood of resistance and violent protest.

One could easily continue this line of inquiry—how have blacks in America and Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories have access to health, education, housing, employment curtailed by the state, and by racial prejudice?  The historian Joel Beinin has laid out the case that the latest Israeli attacks on Gaza are at base racist, and that racism undergirds Israeli state policies toward the Palestinians:  “Racism has become a legitimate, indeed an integral, component of Israeli public culture, making assertions like these seem ‘normal.’ The public devaluation of Arab life enables a society that sees itself as ‘enlightened’ and ‘democratic’ to repeatedly send its army to slaughter the largely defenseless population of the Gaza Strip—1.8 million people, mostly descendants of refugees who arrived during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and have been, to a greater or lesser extent, imprisoned since 1994.”

• Fifth and most important, immunity from prosecution.  What possibility do blacks victimized by police brutality in the United States, and those who have suffered and continue to suffer from Israel’s persistent human rights violations, have for redress?  One could of course argue that blacks in the U.S. have a strong set of laws and agencies to protect their rights, but the facts prove that their effectiveness in bringing justice in cases such as Ferguson is highly doubtful.  A recent piece by Anna Lekas Miller in Al Jazeera America quotes Priscilla Gonzalez, director of organizing with Communities United for Police Reform: “In these instances where there has been police brutality, we have rarely seen accountability because the reality is that the local justice system often treats these officers with completely different standards than civilians.”

In terms of Israel, the United States has in fact vetoed any number of UN sanctions, condemnations, and criticisms of Israel.  In this latest outrage, with global protests growing and being sustained by a vigorous sense of injustice, Israel is asking the U.S. to protect it from war crimes charges:

According to U.S. Congressman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the Israeli government hopes that he and his colleagues in Washington, D.C., will do everything in their power to prevent the International Criminal Court from pushing forward with possible war crimes charges against his nation over its recent attack on the Gaza Strip which resulted in the killing over nearly 1,900 Palestinians, including a large proportion of civilians and hundreds of children.

Speaking to the New York Post from Israel, where he was traveling at the invitation of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (or AIPAC), Rep. Israel described the meeting between U.S. lawmakers in the delegation, AIPAC officials, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The prime minister asked us to work together to ensure that this strategy of going to the ICC does not succeed,” the congressman told the Post. “[Netanyahu] wants the U.S. to use all the tools that we have at our disposal to, number one, make sure the world knows that war crimes were not committed by Israel, they were committed by Hamas. And that Israel should not be held to a double standard.”

The familiar argument that Israel “should not be held to a double standard” is of course problematic, given the fact that it has willfully thumbed its nose at the standards set forth by the UN and international law, and been protected from the legal consequences of so doing by the United States.


What are the root causes of these two events?  Elijah Anderson’s recent Washington Post piece argues that what happened in Ferguson was the inevitable consequence of a historical formation that is by no means restricted to Ferguson alone:

SWAT teams and angry protesters clashed in a small St. Louis suburb for a third day Tuesday, following the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The eruption of protests and violence has been a long time coming. While I certainly do not condone rioting, examining the conditions surrounding Brown’s death — and the deaths of several other unarmed black men killed by law enforcement recently — makes clear that community reactions like those in Ferguson, Missouri, are bound to happen. America has continued to isolate poor black people in economically depressed neighborhoods under increasingly oppressive police tactics that breed distrust and hostility.

Similarly, Waleed Ahmed’s concise account of the reasons behind the current catastrophe in Gaza is useful, if truncated.  In it, Ahmed gives a number of structural reasons why the situation in Gaza is so desperate:  the Occupation (since 1967); the siege of Gaza (commencing in 2007); the water crisis; scarcity of fuel and electricity; the leveling of land and destruction of property; travel bans; the suppression of agriculture; restriction of fishing; and the refugee crisis.

Certainly the two situations are different, and demand different strategies and tactics in response.  And yet one should not discount the moral and indeed inspirational value of gestures that reach across those differences to claim solidarity.  Raymond Williams’ notion of “congruent” grievances can lead to a powerful movement of solidarity between anti-racists in both the US and Israel-Palestine, each working their own specific fields while tapping into a global movement toward justice, as evinced in this recent statement from Palestine to Ferguson:

We the undersigned Palestinian individuals and groups express our solidarity with the family of Michael Brown, a young unarmed black man gunned down by police on August 9th in Ferguson, Missouri. We wish to express our support and solidarity with the people of Ferguson who have taken their struggle to the street, facing a militarized police occupation.

From all factions and sectors of our dislocated society, we send you our commitment to stand with you in your hour of pain and time of struggle against the oppression that continues to target our black brothers and sisters in nearly every aspect of their lives.

We understand your moral outrage. We empathize with your hurt and anger. We understand the impulse to rebel against the infrastructure of a racist capitalist system that systematically pushes you to the margins of humanity.

And we stand with you.

We recognize the disregard and disrespect for black bodies and black life endemic to the supremacist system that rules the land with wanton brutality. Your struggles through the ages have been an inspiration to us as we fight our own battles for basic human dignities. We continue to find inspiration and strength from your struggles through the ages and your revolutionary leaders, like Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Kwame Ture, Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, Bobby Seale and others.

We honor the life of Michael Brown, cut short less than a week before he was due to begin university.  And we honor the far too many more killed in similar circumstances, motivated by racism and contempt for black life: Ezell Ford, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tarika Wilson, Malcolm Ferguson, Renisha McBride, Amadou Diallo, Yvette Smith, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Kathryn Johnston, Rekia Boyd and too many others to count.

With a Black Power fist in the air, we salute the people of Ferguson and join in your demands for justice.

By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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