Lying Down to Stand Up for What Is Right

A curious strength emerges when lying on the earth in solidarity with the dead. On October 26, 2023, I joined a die-in on the USC campus as a faculty ally. There, in the act of laying my body on the university ground, I realized that the adage “strength in numbers” can work in reverse: “strength in few.” We—undergraduate and graduate students and a few faculty—had assembled to protest the ongoing genocide in Gaza and to mourn what at that point had been close to 7,000 Palestinians in Gaza, half of whom were children, killed by the Israeli military bombardment. Following the lead of Palestinian children—in case they were to die under the rubble—we wrote the names of Gaza’s dead on our forearms. Dressed in black, we lay down on the grass, our dissenting bodies visible to passers-by.

The recitation of the names of the dead punctuated our silence. For over an hour, a young Lebanese woman read them out from a list, her voice strong, unwavering. Names like Muhammad and Ahmad and Salama echoed along the parkway. I had worked at USC for over fifteen years, yet it was the first time I had heard Arabic enunciated in the public sphere of our university. But while the language’s dulcet consonants sounded like mournful music to me and to fellow protestors, to the hecklers that harassed us, the language was apparently disruptive noise. Upon hearing the Arabic names and viewing our banner that read “End the Genocide in Gaza,” they called us “disgusting” and told us to “rot in hell.” We were undeterred. In defiance, we grew from ten, to twenty, to thirty, and then forty. From the strength we found in being few, we blossomed into a collective.

I remember the young man lying beside me. He did not wear black, but instead, denim shorts and a white t-shirt. Whereas I wrote on my arm in red ink, he had chosen black. At one point, he sat up and raised his arm in the air. I did the same. His arm bore the name “Abdallah Mustafa Hussain, age 14,” and mine had the name Abdel Fattah Samir Al-Tahani written on it. In our synchrony, we embodied—literally—the resistance to a warmongering regime, the indiscriminate use of collective punishment, and the billions of US dollars that shored up a genocide against a besieged Indigenous people.

The young man’s courage inspired me. When you lie on the ground, a vulnerable body exposed to intimidators (including several who saw it fit to take pictures of us with the intention to dox us), you need to trust someone. You need to trust in another. And as for this man beside me, I came to trust in him. Looking out across the grass at the other participants, I saw this dynamic of care replicated.

On November 9, 2023, during the global walkout for Palestine, when we rallied after a silent march through campus, I saw the young man again. This time, however, that strong few became many. While the provost had sent out an email to alert faculty of the protest and maintained that the organizers were “not our students or anyone from USC,” we knew this was not the case. To make the point, a USC student organizer asked through his megaphone for all those who were USC students to raise their hands. Hundreds of young people responded to the call. In their collective, they said yes, we are here, yes to a ceasefire, no to genocide. A young Filipino man recounted how he had learned resilience from his Palestinian and Arab friends. An African American woman spoke of the interconnected struggles for justice between Black and Palestinian liberation movements. A Latino graduate student worker noted how workers around the world expressed their solidarity with Palestine by refusing to transport arms to Israel.

I show up to these protests because I want to bear witness. I remember how important it was, when I was an undergraduate student organizer at McGill University, to see faculty stand beside me during the first Intifada of 1987, when Israel deployed its “iron fist policy” of lethal force, torture, and imprisonment to crush uprisings that included peaceful boycotts, demonstrations, and sporadic acts such as Palestinian youth throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails. At the time, there was one faculty member on my campus who served as a resource, who made us feel less alone, less powerless. I show up because I’m exhausted by the political climate among faculty at my school that insists on, to paraphrase the scholar and journalist Marc Lamont Hill, being progressive—“except for Palestine.” I show up because I remember what it meant to be in communion with AIDS activists in the 1990s, who staged their own embodied activism by wearing shirts with the words SILENCE = DEATH. At the walk-out, one of the young activists said that, had ceasefire been implemented a week ago, four thousand Palestinian children would still be alive. In my experience as an activist over the last several decades, that slogan SILENCE = DEATH resonated anew.

I used to participate in the Palestine solidarity movement thinking that, as a seasoned organizer and a scholar of Arab American history, I could teach students something. When a pro-Israeli heckler refused to stop berating a young female protester on the ground at our die-in, for example, I intervened and put my back to him and held my kufiyah up as a screen. At the end of our action, I suggested to the lead organizers that they introduce themselves to the “Free Expression” team member from USC Student Life who had come to observe the protest and, it must be said, facilitate the delivery of the graduate students’ letter to the President’s office.  Often it is at the edges of the power structure that openings are made, and students can turn direct action into organic sites for charting next steps and crafting oppositional strategies and allyship.

The truth is the students are also the ones who teach me. These young organizers embody diversity—a genuine diversity, not in the corporate sense of “let’s hang a lot of different flags outside a newly renamed building,” but in a practice of forging coalition that challenges inequality in the pursuit of real social justice.

These young people, despite having few resources—no institute, no foundation, no dedicated counsellors—are connecting and building a movement together. They are refusing to uphold the university administration’s commitment to Zionism as manifest in a glaring silence around the ongoing genocide against Palestinians and a decades long tradition of fostering Israeli ethnonationalism on campus. These students know by now that when they comb through official university statements and resources on what has been called a “network of informational and support resources in times of conflict,” they will not find the three words that offer explanatory power to the current war: anti-Palestinian racism. And when they are pulled out of class for wearing kufiyahs, spat upon for saying “let Gaza live,” and harangued by senior faculty while commemorating the ongoing nakba (catastrophe) in Palestine, they are refusing to cower. They see the elaborate reporting systems of Title IX to which they are constantly routed as a mechanism to manage the toll of their activism and as a form of enclosure, of containment.

The critical geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the chair of my current department when I was hired at USC, reminds us that the key thinkers in global liberation movements met at school. In her words, universities are “places where people who otherwise might never meet have the opportunity to make something happen through the thinking and working their encounters enable.” While I have felt despair the last two months, I have also felt hope in these young people. Through their commitments to Palestinian liberation, to global social justice, they bring us closer to fulfilling the mission of the university: the pursuit of transformative education through the collective act of study in order to change the world. Perhaps soon my university will acknowledge their courage and moral clarity.

Sarah M.A. Gualtieri

Sarah M.A. Gualtieri is professor of American studies and ethnicity, Middle East studies, and history at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She is the author of Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Syrian American Diaspora (University of California Press, 2009) and Arab Routes: Pathways to Syrian California (Stanford University Press, 2019). She moved to the United States from Canada in 1990 to write her master’s thesis entitled “The Palestinian Women’s Movement and Occupation Feminism.” She then stayed at the University of Chicago to pursue her doctorate.