Last Sunday afternoon at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a sold-out crowd of over 500 activists, community leaders, organizers, poets, and artists came together for an event titled “Freedom Beyond Occupation & Incarceration: An Afternoon with Angela Davis and Rasmea Odeh.” This was not just an event with these two community leaders, this was a show of strength for a solidarity movement that wants an end to police brutality, an end to the racist prison system, an end to profiling of all minorities, an end to criminalization of activists, and an end to the occupation of Palestine.
Prominent Black Chicago groups, including Black Youth Project 100, Black Lives Matter, We Charge Genocide, Southsiders Together Organizing for Power (STOP) / Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), Black on Both Sides, and Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, joined Arab and Palestinian groups including the U.S. Palestinian Community Network to hear Angela Davis, Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz give the keynote address in support of Palestinian community leader, Rasmea Odeh, who is appealing her conviction of “unlawful procurement of naturalization.”
Angela Davis is one of the best known leaders of the Black Liberation movement in the early 1970s, an activist and scholar in areas including prison abolition, feminist studies, and women’s rights, and has spoken out about Odeh numerous times, including in an Op-Ed in the Detroit News last year, where she wrote
As a person with first-hand knowledge of the devastation wrought by politically motivated prosecutions — during the era of COINTELPRO, I was falsely charged with three capital offenses — I see Rasmea Odeh’s case as a continuation of the embarrassing history of decades of suppression of social justice activists in the U.S. The courts are being used to retaliate against Palestinian activism. As many people in Chicago and Detroit once joined the call to ‘Free Angela Davis,’ I hope they will now join the campaign to ‘Free Rasmea Odeh.’
Davis was a leader in the Communist Party USA and a close associate of the Black Panther Party when she was arrested in 1970 for allegedly participating in an attempt to free the “Soledad Brothers,” three Black inmates who were being held in Soledad Prison because of their political work. An international movement emerged in her defense, and she was ultimately acquitted.
For this program, Davis was an important link between the national liberation movements of the 1970’s and the rapidly growing solidarity movement between the Black Lives Matter, anti-police brutality, anti-war, and Palestine liberation movements. As Nadine Naber, a colleague of Davis’ in national women’s rights organizations like INCITE!, and a member of the Rasmea Defense Committee, said in the lead-up to the program
This event is extremely important to Rasmea’s defense. Not only is Angela Davis world renowned and so incredibly well respected, but many other Black organizations and activists will also be there, which gives us a great opportunity to talk about alliance building and joint struggle.
Naber described the most significant effect of the afternoon. With the speakers from a broad range of black and Palestinian organizations drawing immediate parallels between their areas of struggle, this was more than hearing from two famous political prisoners from two liberation movements. It was a concrete demonstration of solidarity building over common causes. As Davis would say in her speech – “We must focus on more than just individuals and symbols.”
The program began with a video from the delegation of Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter, and Ferguson leaders to Palestine showing them at a solidarity demonstration in Nazareth.
The goals of the trip were primarily to allow for the group members to experience and see firsthand the occupation, ethnic cleansing and brutality Israel has levied against Palestinians, but also to build real relationships with those on the ground leading the fight for liberation,” Dream Defenders’ legal and policy director Ahmad Abuznaid told Ebony. “In the spirit of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and many others, we thought the connections between the African American leadership of the movement in the US and those on the ground in Palestine needed to be reestablished and fortified.”
Later Angela Davis would describe black activists from Stanford who blocked the freeway and unfurled – much to the drivers’ surprise – a banner demanding an end to the occupation of Palestine.
As Nadine Naber would explain, the idea for this solidarity event came out of the Color of Violence 4 Conference “Beyond the State: Inciting Transformative Possibilities” organized by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence held in Chicago in March. It was there that some of the connections were made between the occupation of Palestine and the occupation of black neighborhoods; and between the experiences of Davis and those of Odeh as women imprisoned for their political activism.
Breanna Champion, an organizer for the Black Youth Project 100, spoke as one of the delegation who went to Geneva to present to the UN on police torture in Chicago.
Muhammad Sankari representing the Rasmea Defense Committee described the prosecution of Odeh as being part of a long line of the repression of people’s movements in this country. He described Odeh’s need for funds to cover the high cost of her appeal.
Frank Chapman from the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) described the campaign his group is leading for an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) for Chicago. (Angela Davis would later recognize audience member Josephine Wyatt as her co-founder in 1973 of CAARPR as part of the Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners Campaign. Sunday was Mrs. Wyatt’s 95th birthday.)
This is not a “review” board, but an “accountability” council to be sure that victims of police crimes receive justice…It’s not only controlling how the police are policed, but also how our own communities are policed…The arrest of Rasmea was also an act of police violence.
Together with representatives from multiple community organizations, CAARPR has already drafted CPAC legislation that includes the responsibility for investigating all police shootings and allegations of police misconduct. The group is calling for a mass march to Chicago City Hall on August 29 to demand an all elected Civilian Police Accountability Council. This call is endorsed by all the organizations represented at the event plus many more.
Rasmea Odeh traced her history of being “born in a war zone…having all my family’s land taken away” and spending her life resisting Israeli soldiers that “deliberately target civilians and continue to use torture and sexual violence against Palestinians.” She drew the connections as the speakers before her of the police crimes against black communities in the U.S. being “almost identical to what we experience in Palestine.” Odeh described her experience in prison in Michigan for 5 weeks last year as highlighting these connections for her.
Racism also incarcerated me. I had no trouble making the other women in prison understand why I was there after the prison officials told them I was a terrorist. The officials always tried to divide us by telling terrible stories about all the new women coming in.
Odeh finished by reiterating that “Palestinians stand in solidarity with communities standing up against police violence and racial profiling.” Noting the large number of young people in attendance, Odeh thanked them for “providing the oxygen for us to continue to organize and fight back like Frank Chapman is still doing in his 70’s.”
Angela Davis tied all of the solidarity strands running through this event together in her speech. She began with quoting from a letter she received from James Baldwin when she was jailed in the 70’s.
For perpetuation of this system, we have been brutalized. We have been told nothing but lies. If we know and do nothing, we are worse than the hired murderers. If we know, we must fight for your life as if it is our own.
As Davis explained, “this is the stance we have to cultivate in our own selves and our communities to free Rasmea.” She continued that these attacks are not just on the individual, but on all those who identify with these struggles. Davis described the targeting of herself, Rasmea, and Assata Shakur as examples of sending a message to the movement – especially to women of color. In her view, the prosecution of Odeh is part of an attack on the “ever expanding movement for justice in Palestine. The growth of groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.” Even now she sees that “many more black students are recognizing Palestine as their apartheid South Africa.”
Recognizing a major change brought about by the Black Lives Matter movement, Davis described the people in Ferguson refusing to go away after “another case of police violence.” They are still protesting today – refusing to focus on individual perpetrators of police violence but fighting to bring an end to the system of institutionalized police violence. Highlighting the growing solidarity with the Palestinians, Davis said “these same activists now know about occupation, about segregation on highways, about settlers in the West Bank that use 90% of the water, and about the boycotts.” Finally, she spelled out the real theme of this event.
We’re here to make community and to experience each other as comrades in the same struggle.
The event demonstrated in a concrete way the solidarity between Chicago’s black, Arab, and Palestinian groups to not only come together for this afternoon of speakers, but to join common campaigns for a Civilian Police Accountability Council as well as justice for Rasmea Odeh.
Odeh’s attorneys have filed an appeal of her conviction and 18 month prison sentence, and expect that oral arguments will be heard in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati sometime in September. Additional information on the case is available at www.justice4rasmea.org.
The event was organized by:
The Rasmea Defense Committee
Anti-War Committee- Chicago
Black Lives Matter Chicago
Black on Both Sides
Black Youth Project 100
Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression
Coalition to Protect People’s Rights
Committe Against Political Repression
Committee to Stop FBI Repression
Southside Together Organizing for Power/Fearless Leading by the Youth
U.S. Palestinian Community Network
We Charge Genocide
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Chicago Monitor’s editorial policy.