Home From Gaza Square
Saturday had prepared a place for us, and we went to it gratefully. In what was rechristened as Gaza Square in Washington, DC, there was no room, yet thousands of placards hung high, weaving a tapestry of catharsis above an ocean of black-and-white keffiyehs. Most posters were irate, some comic, one near us cataloged dozens of recent Palestinian deaths—all belonging to one demonstrator’s family. A group of men next to us raised a large body bag with bloodied letters that read HUMANITY. Others had the phone numbers of lawyer guilds Sharpie’d on their forearms. A cryptic helicopter hovered in vertiginous slants. By the end of the “Mawtini” anthem, a couple unfurled a Palestinian flag atop the Pennsylvania Building, where most of the press was bunkered, and hung it like a pretty kite above our heads.
Like most in DC that afternoon, I had boarded a charter bus hundreds of miles away to, at a minimum, demand a ceasefire from our useless government, but perhaps even more to nestle our heads on communal trust, and transform Israel’s genocide into a space from which to become a roused political force for humanness.
But then you’re in the crowd. The incessant stream of demonstrators squeezed the multitude in all directions until maintaining order amidst countless political speeches became no easier than herding a hurricane. One march sprouted countless others. Disjointed chants and percussion obscured the massive screens and speakers: “One, two, three, four. Occupation no more / Five, six, seven, eight. Israel’s a terrorist state”; “There is only one solution / Intifada revolution.” Several started distractedly heading toward the Capitol instead of the White House, while many others heckled the stage: “Let us march! Let us march!” If the air was thick with enthusiasm at the rally’s dawn, it was drenched in irritability three hours into the lectures. Groans and eye-rolls welcomed the last few speakers onto the stage. Children toyed with banners, teens contemplated dinner plans. A stranger offered us blank posters and we sat on the asphalt drawing insults against the president.
Maybe some of us had attended not to listen but to merely perform our own righteous form of outrage and earn social currency. But it’s far likelier that those who had traveled for several hours had greater aspirations for such a historic gathering than to stand under the November sun hanging on to the words of Macklemore or Susan Sarandon.
By five o’clock, the colored smoke bombs burst and, at last, the talking was finished and the string-along songs of ceasefires, liberations, and nickels and dimes began, and a symphony of claps and fists carpeted Fourteenth Street. We crossed a corner where a DJ blasted hip-hop under a tent. We paused by the cop cars and the Starbucks to slap stickers that read “Resist Colonial Power By Any Means Necessary.” Girls jostled for the bullhorns, some men receded to the parks to pray, and boys waved flags atop bus stop shelters. We parked our posters in front of the White House and saw its gates vanish.
On the ride back home, we checked the news for coverage of what was speculated to be the largest pro-Palestenian march in American history, but found very little. How often are over a quarter of a million protesters convening in the country’s capital, along with millions across the world, to condemn our nation’s imperialism? From the perspective of the largest U.S. publications, there was nothing special about Saturday. Even in the days after, it’s like it never happened. I wondered how much more these national outlets would’ve preferred it if the protest had turned into a riot, and even then, their words would’ve been deficient. I’m reminded of the press’ apathy in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines:
What is it that makes all those things called “politics” so eloquent and these other unnameable things so silent? ... we can only use words of description when they happen and then fall silent, for to look for words of any other kind would be to give them meaning, and that is a risk we cannot take any more than we can afford to listen to madness.
Mainstream media revolves on wheels of sameness and detachment, and these colossal gatherings of dissent are roadblocks far richer in truth than statistics, infographics, or experts’ soundbites. I guess they have no room in their programs and scheduled social media posts for coverage of how communal rage and grief, that sprawling river, the longest of all, spills into the sea of unity—in all its shambles. What they refuse to cover is that when momentum builds to such a scale there’s something swelling far more powerful than what the harrowing images and accounts shared by the heroic Palestinian journalists produce in us.
We see the videos of the children being amputated without anesthesia, of the starving elders fleeing south by foot, Israeli weapons blasting white flags. Seeing these faraway atrocities may produce the type of fury and sorrow that easily leads to exhaustion, maybe even paralysis, which then morphs into hopelessness. But stepping away from the genocide-as-reality-TV spectacle and taking over the streets can create a shrine for something far more galvanizing than mourning, hoping, or waiting: a shrine for that brassbound empathy that unites peoples regardless of governments. This shrine is an enemy of the state, we know this. It is a reminder, if only temporary but no less vital, that everything depends on us, as it should, because the resilience of the Palestinian martyrs and their loved ones demands from us far more than mere spectatorship.
To believe, however, that we’re giving more than receiving would be naive. That same weekend, Israeli’s military escalated their aggression, increasing the death count in Gaza to over 11,000, which translates to over 300 civilian deaths per day, the deadliest siege since World War II. Several Gaza City hospitals, the last resort for thousands of desperate civilians, are currently surrounded by Israeli officers. Without food, fuel, electricity, or medicine, the many that still remain are unlikely to survive the trek southward, while countless others in refugee camps are forced to choose between death by airstrike or disease. In the U.S. this past Tuesday, countless spineless city officials, who can’t fathom condemning Israel with the same zeal they reserve for Hamas, were elected or reappointed without much contest, including right here in New Haven. Responding to the recent influx of calls and emails by their constituents, the offices of state representatives and senators have been mailing response letters this past week reaffirming their allegiance to Israel’s self-defense. (What, after all, are they defending? What is the appropriate atonement for ethnic cleansing?) In about a year from now, we’ll have this same Democratic Party pleading for our votes, painting the next election day as the most important of our lifetimes, yet again. This Thursday, we’ll be commemorating a sanctified genocide like we do every year. In a few decades, repentant Oscar-winning films will posit this genocide as fated and unstoppable.
It is, then, fitting that no politician was present last Saturday in D.C. They won’t have the solutions. Beyond being the largest national reckoning on U.S. imperialism since the Iraq War, this moment should also reawaken the need to seriously and routinely imagine movement-building bereft of conventional institutional aid. Like always, your colleges will abandon you, your workplaces will betray you, your non-profits will disappear. We must entice ourselves and our loved ones to believe in something above democracy, to believe in something beyond calling our lawmakers, signing petitions, and begging celebrities for Notes-app apologies.
Even the 501(c)(3)-ification of these issues is part of the problem. That surges in uprisings over the last few years—the Black Lives Matter rallies, Roe v. Wade marches, etc.— have been deescalated through institutionalization and co-opting by career activists and liberal corporations suggest that momentums can’t be sustained without strategies, radical in ways both large and small. Whether you’re down on Grand Ave. or Fountain St., up on Ella T. Grasso or Whitney, I need you to care because I depend on you. I need you to care because imagination is a collective struggle. If we aim to disrupt the genocide supply chain, we must collectively make direct action consistent and irresistible. How will we, for instance, be there for those of us that may risk incarceration, or doxxing, or any of the myriad of trials with which our carceral society is obsessed? The seeds of future healing need our hands right now. Not only because of Palestine, but also because as capitalism advances so too will climate crises, epidemics, warfare, economic recessions, and insurmountable inequality.
I’m unsure if writing this is any part of the collective re-imagining. I’m unsettled by how moved I’ve been since the march on Washington because I know not enough has changed and was never going to, although the increase in spirit and action, like the blockade at the Colt Manufacturing Company in West Hartford this week, prove that support and efficacy is mounting. Still, I’m torn between an avid alarmism and the need to slow down and reflect; between shutting the fuck up and being part of the engine of conversation in my community; between succumbing to poise and wanting us to notice—deeply, viscerally—all the ways we’re poisoned with privilege.
Maybe I decided to document last Saturday because I want to preserve the faces of those in attendance, safeguard them deep in my heart for when exhaustion and pessimism inevitably strike, for when I’m required to lift them up as they lifted me. But I suppose it’s also remembrance as meager self-preservation in an age of memory extinction, or as the corporeal resistance to the rampant pathologization that Palestinian author Karim Kattan describes:
This wanton carelessness and dehumanization is why we feel a compelling urge to document and describe everything, big and small, to make sure that people understand what is at stake: “But this was a child,” we want to say, “and this an adult.” Not a thing bound to die a gruesome death in a devastated city ... “And this,” we want to say, “was a residential building, this a restaurant on the seashore, this a house with a garden, where someone played or got into a fight in the kitchen, and this is all gone.”
Israel’s policy is hellbent turning Palestine into a void, so I guess I’m writing for you to make time today to resist the emptiness, to remember. You are, after all, directly implicit. Remember who, reluctantly or not, spoke out and became lighthouses in an ocean of negligence. Remember the breathtaking acts of solidarity and perseverance, let it heal something inside of you. You will need it because others will need you. What we ought to recall when seeing images of Gaza Square, or the many other pro-Palestine demonstrations around Connecticut and the globe still unfolding, is that our lives have always been intractably contoured by colonialism, apartheid, and genocide. What are borders and wars if not mirrors? What is Palestinian resistance if not a reflection of the rest of the world’s quiet occupation? As Palestinian-Ameican writer Fady Joudah explains,
If you examine, with an open, honorable heart all the negative things by which “Palestine” is named in English, you will find that those things also name America and Israel. ... Palestine becomes the mirror of a Western self that struggles to recognize itself in the mirror. Each time this version of the self plays peekaboo in front of the mirror, it cannot see itself. When it opens its eyes, the person in the mirror is Palestinian.
So I guess by writing about Gaza Square, about Palestine, I’m really writing about myself. Around three hundred thousand of us had closed off the avenues of D.C. to open the floodgates of communion. Fittingly, since the waves have a hold on me. I’ve been running toward bodies of water to get away from things since I’ve had things to get away from. These days, heaven is a constellation of the Thames, the Cape, the Sound, the Cliff Walk. “From the river to the sea” will always make sense to me. That Saturday in DC, I could close my eyes and almost feel the silky foam of the tides, the violent wind, the brazen gulls, the crackling of sand. It wasn’t relief exactly, but something like it, although it feels like we don’t deserve it right now.
During the major protests of the last few years, I’ve fled to the most remote corners of my bookshelves and isolated myself from others. I’ve figured I could best cope with the increasing depravity of our times through voiceless loyalty to my anarchist boyfriends and communist girlfriends, by becoming a conscientious objector to justified fervor, by writing and reading alone, neglecting agency over my own body and community in favor of that over fiction, hoping to find life under the floorboards, peace inside darkness. That was then. Last week, I needed a crowd, I craved a deluge. It’s coming. I need you.