Progressive Black Democrats are reviving a radical tradition of Palestine solidarity in Congress, challenging Black leaders in their own party and Washington’s support for Israeli state violence.
Black Lives Matter protest in Century City, California on June 6, 2020. (Brett Morrison/CC BY 2.0)
On May 13, something remarkable happened on the floor of the U.S. Congress: 11 Democratic representatives delivered blunt speeches criticizing Israel for its military assault on Gaza and its crackdown on Palestinian protests in Jerusalem. Perhaps the most powerful speeches came from two Black Congresswomen — Ayanna Pressley and Cori Bush — who connected the Black freedom struggle in the United States to the Palestinian movement for liberation.
“When Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets to demand justice, they were met with force,” said Pressley, who represents the Boston area in Massachusetts. “They faced tear gas, rubber bullets, and a militarized police just as our Palestinian brothers and sisters are facing in Jerusalem today.” Her fellow Congresswoman Bush, who represents St. Louis, Missouri, said “When heavily militarized police forces showed up in Ferguson in 2014… our Palestinian siblings showed up too.”
The speeches signaled the growing prominence of a small bloc of Black Democrats — which includes Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Ilhan Omar, in addition to Bush and Pressley — who are drawing on their support for the Black Lives Matter movement to denounce Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians. While there have been past Black Democrats who were openly critical of Israel — figures like former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney — the current crop of Black representatives are more robust in numbers and far more influential within the party and its base.
“My heart instinctively goes out to the minority group that’s being harmed by a government that’s made clear its disdain for them, and it’s why I believe the world needs to value Palestinian life the way that we value Israeli life,” Congressman Bowman, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County in New York, told +972. “When I say Palestinian lives matter, much like when I say Black Lives Matter, I’m highlighting an unjust status quo that inflicts disproportionate harm on a specific group of people.”