Monday, May 24, 2021
Not since the 1960s has the United States been as racially charged as it is today. The rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is forcing Americans to confront centuries of systemic state abuse of African Americans. As a result, younger Americans no longer believe the myth that their society is colour-blind.
Like the Civil Rights Movement of five decades ago, BLM has brought to light the common causes of systemic oppression against Black people as well as Latinx, Native Americans, and Muslims. This moment of racial reckoning also encompasses a people consistently demonised in American media, politics, and textbooks: Palestinians.
Youth and progressives, who now are exposed to the voices and experiences of Palestinians through social media, no longer uncritically accept politicians’ unconditional support of Israel. They realise the Israel-Palestine “conflict” is not just complicated, it is asymmetric and racist. Progressives see the parallels between their own critique of America’s settler-colonial past and Israel’s abuse of Palestinians.
Through citizen journalism by Palestinians on the ground, Americans are forced to reckon with the reality that US military aid to Israel contributes to a systematic dehumanisation of Palestinians, just as militarisation and impunity contribute to the oppression of Black people in the US.
Thus, the current response to Israel’s forced removal of Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem and bombings of civilians in Gaza brings into sharp relief the gradual shift in American public opinion.
Opinion polls conducted between 2001 to 2011 consistently showed strong public support for Israel: Gallup found that more than 50 percent of Americans had sympathies towards Israel while less than 20 percent did so towards Palestinians. When disaggregated by political party, sympathy for Israel increased to nearly 80 percent among Republicans as compared with nearly 60 percent among Democrats; just 7 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of Democrats expressed sympathy for Palestinians.
But starting in January 2018, according to a Pew Research Center poll, sympathy for Palestinians and Israelis among Democrats began to equalise at approximately 25 percent. Meanwhile, Republican voters’ sympathy for Israel remained high, at 79 percent. These numbers signalled a growing gap along partisan lines in Americans’ views on Palestinian human rights.
The timing is not coincidental. In 2018, Trump had been president for a year, during which Americans witnessed the troubling mainstreaming of far-right views. By then, more and more murders of unarmed Black men by police officers had been caught on video, debunking the age-old racist stereotypes that Black men are dangerous, violent, and aggressors.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Muslim Ban, separation of Central American refugee families at the border, and unashamedly xenophobic rhetoric breathed life into a progressive, anti-racist movement that was no longer willing to accept mainstream Democrats’ colourblind view of domestic politics.
This led to the “Blue Wave” of progressive candidates elected to Congress in the 2018 mid-term elections. These new members of the US legislature have a clear mandate from their diverse constituents: Be the voice of the oppressed and dismantle racist systems rather than merely reform around the edges.
There is also increasing pressure from their constituencies to not let Israel off the hook for its crimes against Palestinians. In a March poll, some 34 percent of all respondents and 53 percent of respondents who identified as Democrats expressed a desire to have the US government pressure Israel into making compromises on Palestine – up from 25 and 30 percent, respectively, in 2018.
These growing attitudes within the American electorate have prompted progressive members of Congress to vocally criticise unconditional US support of Israel amid the latest escalation of violence and condemn the Israeli army’s killing of civilians and disproportionate use of force in Gaza.
On May 13, House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticised President Joe Biden in her speech in Congress, bluntly stating “The president and many other figures this week stated that Israel has a right to self-defence. And this is a sentiment that is echoed across this body. But do Palestinians have a right to survive? Do we believe that? And if so, we have a responsibility to that, as well.”
House Representative Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American elected to Congress, decried the US government’s blatant disregard for Palestinian life. She asked colleagues in Congress, “How many Palestinians have to die for their lives to matter,” and declared that, “The freedom of Palestinians is connected to the fight against oppression all over the world.”
Tlaib articulated the sentiment held by a growing number of young, progressive Americans of all races and religions when she stated, “We must with no hesitation demand that our country recognise the unconditional support of Israel has enabled the erasure of Palestinian life.”
Concurrent to public statements, 21 members of Congress are co-sponsoring the bill “Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation”. The bill would impose more oversight and end-use restrictions on how Israel can use US aid. One of the bill’s leading co-sponsors, Betty McCollum succinctly stated the objective behind the bill, “Not one dollar more of US military aid can be used to demolish Palestinian homes, annex Palestinian lands, and torture or kill Palestinian children.”
Such rhetoric by US elected officials was unheard of just five years ago. Indeed, defending Palestinian rights was often fallaciously equated with anti-Semitism. Although this pressure still exists, changing attitudes on race and race relations have had a profound impact on attitudes towards Palestine.
A 21st-century anti-racism movement is schooling Americans on how the powerful manipulate media, politics, and economics to oppress entire groups of people, while blaming those same people for their hardships. As these lessons are increasingly applied to Palestine, the question is when, not whether, US foreign policy will finally come to value Palestinian life.
-- This commentary was originally published on Al Jazeera here.
Monday, May 3, 2021
Black Prosecutors Inspired Trust and Hope at the Derek Chauvin Trial--We Need More of Them (by Prof. Njeri Mathis Rutledge)
Kamala Harris took heat for being a prosecutor, but lawyers of color should not avoid this noble calling. Prosecutors are powerful and should be diverse.
I had no idea I was holding my breath until I let out a deep exhale when I heard the jury had found Derek Chauvin guilty on all counts in killing George Floyd. It was a great day to breathe deeply for Floyd, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Philando Castile and countless other men, women and children of color who were killed by police but did not receive justice.
Before we move on from the historic Chauvin verdict, I want to highlight an aspect of criminal justice reform that does not get sufficient attention: diversity within the criminal justice system. Reforming this system requires a diversity of voices in positions of power. And I am convinced that there is no greater position of power within the system than that of the prosecutor.
A long way from the OJ Simpson trial
The importance of Black prosecutors is frequently ignored. There was tremendous significance in seeing Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Jerry Blackwell — two Black attorneys — prosecuting the case against Chauvin. Ellison, the state's first Black attorney general, earned the trust of the Black community. Blackwell took a lead role in examining witnesses and gave the rebuttal closing argument. As a former prosecutor myself, watching Blackwell have the last word in a case about the killing of an unarmed Black man was therapeutic and a moment of great pride.
We have come a long way from former prosecutor Christopher Darden and the O.J. Simpson trial that occurred while I was in law school. Darden was frequently vilified for being both a Black man and a prosecutor, as if those identities were mutually exclusive.
Before I started law school, I vividly recall telling a date that I was going to law school to become a prosecutor. I found his response disturbing: So you want to put Black men in jail? he asked.
I ultimately fulfilled my career goal of becoming a prosecutor, and I was proud to do so. Not because I "put Black men in jail," but because I believe my devotion to duty made a positive contribution to our endless struggle to align the aspiration of equal justice under law with reality. Why then wouldn’t we want prosecutors with an experience-based appreciation of the flaws in that system?
In retrospect, I should not have been surprised. Vice President Kamala Harris was harshly criticized by some for decisions she made as a prosecutor and as California attorney general. Black prosecutors are routinely accused of being a tool in a biased system by some and of being too lenient about criminal justice reforms by others. The reality is that there are few actors in the criminal justice system who have more influence on both respect for law and reform of the process than prosecutors.
Bringing commitment and empathy
Aspiring lawyers interested in civil rights and justice should consider serving as prosecutors. Prosecutor’s offices need to reflect the diversity of their communities. So far, that is not the case. For instance, only 1.8% of lead prosecutors are women of color. And when there is diversity, sadly, it is not appreciated by everyone. Black female prosecutors, like Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, have been the target of racist threats and hate mail.
Black prosecutors bring a unique perspective to their duties, a perspective that ideally helps bridge the chasms between the law enforcement community and the public. Black prosecutors lend credibility to a system where Black Americans are frequently accused of crime. This is because justice is more complex than simply applying a criminal code. It requires an understanding and, yes, an empathy for those caught up in the system. But most important, it requires a commitment to do justice.
It was that call to do justice that inspired me to serve in an overworked, underpaid yet personally fulfilling job. I lament that so many of my law students, Black and white, fail to see the nobility of this calling. I am grateful that Ellison and Blackwell have made a difference as prosecutors. May they inspire a new generation to serve as well.
This article was originally published at USA Today on 4/28/21. You can read it here.