|Organizers William Copeland and Dawud Walid at a Gaza solidarity protest in Detroit, July 13.
DETROIT — “Our struggle is theirs and their struggle is ours,” said Hatem Abudayyeh, the executive director of the Chicago-based Arab American Action Network (AAAN), to emphasize the need for solidarity between Arab and African Americans.
He spoke at a Detroit rally for Rasmea Odeh last week. African American activist Frank Chapman, who also came from Chicago to show support for Odeh, stood next to him.
This week, AAAN joined a delegation to Ferguson, MO to demand justice for Michael Brown, the unarmed Black teenager who was shot by the police there last month.
Organizers from both communities have been promoting this kind of solidarity, but debates, prompted by the war in Gaza and the events in Ferguson, have recently flared on social, media questioning whether the oppression of Black Americans is comparable to the injustices that Palestinians face.
Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI), has been vocal in his advocacy for increased cooperation in activism between the Arab and African American communities. Walid said the situation in Black American neighborhoods is not completely analogous with the occupation in Palestine in terms of specifics.
“But a comparison can be made in terms of two groups of people that suffer marginalization at the hands of unjust government structures and policies put into effect to keep the people oppressed and unable to fulfill their aspirations,” he said.
Walid criticized the lack of local Arab American participation in political events for Black causes. He said Arab Americans should be active in demanding justice for everybody, not only their own community.
“You can’t complain about the Latino or Black community not showing solidarity with the Arab American community if they’re not seeing the same solidarity from Arabs; it’s unrealistic,” he added.
Walid also said political education and socialization could increase the empathy toward African American issues in the Arab American community.
“Metro Detroit suffers hyper segregation,” he said. “Communities are divided by invisible walls. A neighborhood that’s a mile away could look very different. There is a clear demarcation between Dearborn Heights and Inkster, between south Dearborn and Southwest Detroit. Arabs do not live among African Americans. There is limited social interaction.”
Walid said African American leaders have historically stood with Arabs, politically.
“In the late 1960’s and 70’s, there was a strong Black movement that identified with liberation movements in North Africa as well as the struggle in Palestine,” he said. “It lessened over time, but people like Dr. Angela Davis and Cornel West have always stood in solidarity with Palestinians.”
Abayomi Azikiwe, a Detroit community organizer and the editor of the Pan-African News Wire, said Arab and African Americans should work together for their mutual interests.
“Arabs and Africans share a similar history,” Azikiwe told The Arab American News. “They are both oppressed. They both suffered from colonialism and imperialism.”
The recent war in Gaza coincided with the Detroit water crisis, when some residents’ water was being shut off because of unpaid bills. Azikiwe said many local protests often addressed both issues simultaneously in a growing sign of solidarity between different ethnic communities.
“The right to housing, water resources and security are under threat for the people in Palestine as well as oppressed communities in the United States,” Azikiwe said.
He added that while solidarity exists between the two communities, “it is not nearly enough.”
Some people think their problems are paramount and do not see the need for solidarity,” Azikiwe said.
He added that political solidarity could open the door for dialogue to resolve racial tensions between Arab merchants and African American customers in Detroit.
“Anybody who is serious about doing business in the city of Detroit should treat customers with respect and care about the wellbeing of the community,” he said.
Will Copeland, a Detroit activist, said the African American and Arab American should cooperate for their own benefits.
“It’s not altruistic when we work together,” he said. “We are facing the same kind of oppression, the same tactics from the same entities. When we talk about police brutality, we see how Israel is using surveillance technology against Palestinians and marketing it to police forces around the world.”
Copeland spoke at a protest for Palestine in Detroit during the war in Gaza. Asked if he has witnessed Arab American solidarity for Black causes, he said he cannot say no.
“At the end of 2013, my answer would have been different,” he said. “But there has been a new energy emerging this summer. I have seen Arab American activists at protests for Detroit, people holding signs and speaking out about the issues. There aren’t as many people as I would like to see, but I cannot say there isn’t any solidarity.”
Copeland praised the solidarity effort of the Z Collective, an Arab and Muslim feminist network that advocates for social and gender equality.
As for the racial tensions in Detroit, Copeland asked Arab Americans to criticize members of their own community when they mistreat, disrespect or abuse Black customers.
“When we see people confront their own for being wrong, greater trust and solidarity can be built,” he said.
Local activist Zena Ozeir said there is a connection between the state of Black Americans and Palestinians’ suffering, but she added that the comparison is irrelevant to the needed solidarity between the two communities.
“It is not a competition of who is more oppressed,” she said. “Each struggle is unique. We are different groups facing oppression. It is more beneficial for us to work together.”
She added that the same forces are inflicting injustice on both communities, which should bring them together.
“The tear gas canisters used on protesters in Ferguson are the same as the ones used against protesters in Egypt and the West Bank,” she said. “Look at where the money to bomb Gaza is coming from.”
Ozeir slammed some Arab Americans’ lack of support for Black causes.
“We have a very problematic view on race in the area,” she said. “As Arab Americans, we were able to become comfortable in our position as business owners and local politicians. That left other folks who might not be in the same fortunate position behind.”
However, she added that political awareness and solidarity with other groups are on the rise in the Arab American community, especially among college students.
Ozeir said political solidarity between the Arab and African American communities could ease some of the social strains between the two groups in Detroit.
“There is a lot of animosity toward Arab business owners in Detroit,” she said. “I don’t completely blame the people who hold those feelings. We need to work together and bridge the gap, not only the merchant-customer relationship, but everywhere. Knowing that we care for each other’s causes could defuse the tension.”
Ozeir, who helped organize one of the biggest protests for Gaza in Detroit in July, said addressing multiple causes at rallies because it introduces the people in the crowd to issues they might not be familiar with.
“We cannot enclose ourselves in a single-issue world,” she said. “It is important to address the intersectionality of the struggle, not only with race but also class, gender and sexuality and all groups demanding justice.”