This lightly edited speech was written for the November 4 Free Palestine: National Day of Action in Montreal that was organized by the Palestinian Youth Movement.
I am standing here in solidarity with the Palestinian peoples who are today demanding an end to genocide, occupation, and apartheid. I am standing here, with all of you, in defense of life.
It is not the first time many of us have come together in defense of lives made not to matter.
I have spent countless hours in Montreal––with hundreds and sometimes thousands of you––on this city’s streets in defense of Black lives. I remember Bony Jean-Pierre, I remember Nicholas Gibbs, and I remember Pierre Coriolan, whose lives were stolen by the Service de la police de Montréal (SPVM), may they rest in power.
Many of you have spent more time, still. Montrealers older than I were just a short walk west of here protesting in NDG during the uprisings of 1987, when the Montreal police shot and killed a Black teenager, Anthony Griffon. And record-breaking numbers took to these streets in 2020 after the police murdered Sheffield Matthews, not far west of where we stand today.
It is not only the defense of Black life that has brought me out, that has brought us out. The reason that people come together in struggle is in the defense of life. We gather in the service of defending life when it is in danger of being eclipsed, maimed, and silenced by organized tyranny.
Only a few subway stops from here, a crowd of 15,000 gathered when Nelson Mandela visited Montreal in 1990, four months after he was released after spending twenty-seven years as a political prisoner. Mandela was steadfast, until he became an ancestor, that South Africa would not be free until Palestine was free.
There is, as many of us know, and more of us ought to, a long history of Black liberation struggles standing alongside the Palestinian freedom struggle, and of Palestinian support for Black liberation—including the mural of George Floyd painted on the apartheid wall in the occupied West Bank.
Black feminists like June Jordan, Dionne Brand, and Angela Y. Davis, who have long supported Palestinian liberation, knew what people who are here today know now: that “none of us are free until all of us are free.”
Solidarity stems from the need to value and protect human life. For this reason, it would be necessary to reject apartheid, occupation, and racist hierarchies, even if we did not share commonalities of oppression.
But we do.
As I wrote this past October with my colleagues Nisrin Elamin and Alissa Trotz, “Black people too have often been likened to animals and relegated to the realm of darkness and ‘the jungle.’”
Black folks too, know genocide at the hands of the Europeans and their outposts in the Americas: we know mass kidnappings and enslavement, and we know the colonial atrocities of Belgium in the Congo and King Leopold’s slaughter of ten million Congolese people.
In 1951, Black Americans petitioned the United Nations with a document called “We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of The United States against the Negro People” (1951).
They wrote: “To many an American the police are the government…We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States….”
To charge genocide, to defend ones’ own life, asks of us ethically not only to condemn tyranny, but to defend and protect life everywhere.
Mandela himself was incarcerated by an apartheid government that was supported militarily, economically, morally, and politically by the Israeli government.
On November 1, 1970, the Committee of Black Americans for Truth About the Middle East published “An Appeal by Black Americans Against United States Support for the Zionist Government of Israel” in a full-page advertisement in the New York Times. It included a rejection of antisemitism, compared the number of political prisoners in Israel to those in South Africa, and stated “We call for Afro-American solidarity with the Palestinian people’s struggle for national liberation and to regain all of their stolen land.”
In the summer of 1988, Toronto’s Black Women’s Collective published “Statement of the Black Women’s Collective on the 32nd Anniversary of South Africa Women’s Day,” which linked the struggles of the South African women against apartheid to women’s liberation struggles in Palestine, Namibia, Western Sahara, and El Salvador.
The struggle against racist dehumanization and premature death is wide-spanning and transnational. So too, is the defense of life.
Even if there were not commonalities in our oppression, even if there were not Afro-Palestinians who call Gaza their home; even were there not a long, rich tradition of crisscrossing solidarities from which to draw our inspiration, the Palestinian peoples’ struggle to stop the genocide and put an end to apartheid and occupation is a struggle that concerns all of us here today.
Every single liberatory struggle in defense of human and earthly life needs to be attuned to what is happening today: to the relentless and preventable slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West bank, and to the mass detention of thousands of Gazan workers interned inside of Israel.
There are no “human animals.”
Angela Davis said recently that “Palestine is a moral litmus test for the world.”
We have, all of us, a moral responsibility not to turn away as ambulances, hospitals, schools, and refugee camps are bombed.
This responsibility weighs heavy on those living in Canada because we are all responsible for what is being done in our name.
This is true whether it is here at home, where our taxpayer dollars fund the salaries of the killers of Quilem Registre, Chantel Moore, and Eisha Hudson, and it is true abroad.
We become complicit, even, and perhaps especially when we are silent on what is subsidized, in part or in whole, by our work, our lives, our pensions, our institutions. We bear, if unevenly, a responsibility for the wreckage that our government brings to the people of Haiti, Somalia.
And so, we are today, if we fail to act, complicit for what has been and is being wreaked on the people of Gaza.
In 2022, Canada sent over $21 million in military goods and technology to Israel.
As Alex Cosh reports, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has consistently opposed and condemned peaceful forms of Palestinian protest, from Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanction movement to Israeli Apartheid Week. He opposed a UN independent investigation into the Israeli military’s shooting of live ammunition at protesters during 2018’s peaceful Great March of Return protests, and he opposed the ICC investigation into Israeli war crimes against Palestinians in West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza strip.
This is not the first time this country, supposedly a bastion of human rights, has been on the wrong side of apartheid, genocide, and racist dehumanization. Let us remember what took place only a half hour drive from where we stand today: the so-called Oka Crisis, or what Kanien’kehá:ka Mohawk filmmaker and land-defender Ellen Gabriel has termed the “1990 siege of Kanesatake and Kahnawake.” The same Canadian state that now refuses to call for a ceasefire in Gaza unleashed the Quebec police, the RCMP, and the Canadian armed forces on Mohawk communities in a violent occupation that included the use of SWAT helicopters, live ammunition, stun grenades. The same occupation in which a fourteen-year-old girl, Waneek Horn-Miller was stabbed in the chest with a bayonet by a Canadian soldier.
We can’t look for our states––the architects of Indigenous genocide and Black enslavement––to give us permission to take a moral stand. There has been no historical moment of which I am aware when Western states, as a group, stood in defense of the powerless until they were forced to do so (or if it would benefit them materially).
But if, once again, state orchestrated mass murder and ethnic cleansing is being supported, justified, denied, downplayed, armed, and funded by Canada, the United States, and European nations, it is being challenged by a global majority that grows larger with every passing day.
And so we do not look upward at states to tell us what is just, but we look around us. We turn to the people around us and choose to defend and protect life.
Every historic movement in support of human liberation has faced opposition and demonization.
The cost of speaking out is high but the cost of silence is higher when a child is being killed every ten minutes by weapons that our country has helped to furnish. The moral cost of complicity with genocide is a price none of us ought to be willing to pay.
Systems of apartheid and occupations have been undone by the power of global peoples’ movements. They have been undone before and they will be undone again.
Even as we are witnessing a violence visited upon Palestinians that is almost impossible to comprehend—governance upheld by brute violence simply cannot hold: not with any permanence, and certainly not with any moral authority.
Remember: the British response to the Kenyan independence struggle was to confine 1.5 million Kenyans to detention camps, cordoned off by barbed wire, spiked trenches, and watchtowers. The British met resistance with forced labor, torture, starvation, rape, and murder on an unimaginable scale. And yet colonialism––at least in that form––did come to an end.
Breaking the silence has worked and is working.
Today we are witnessing an unprecedented and historic global outpouring of solidarity with Palestinians: this spans Montreal, New York, London, Madrid, Casablanca, Istanbul. These are the largest anti-war demonstrations since the war on Iraq.
The world’s eyes are on Gaza, and a global majority supports a free Palestine, not only from this moment of collective punishment, but from 16, 56, and 75 years of occupation and apartheid. This movement is growing and will continue to grow.
This movement is powerful because it crosses religious, ethnic, and geographic lines: it is powerful because it is multi-racial.
We are a global movement that is made up of people who are Black, Indigenous, South Asian, white, Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Christian. We are parents, high school students, scholars, workers, holocaust survivors, who are coming together in defense of life.
This movement is not only multiracial, it is anti-racist. We are here because we support an end to all forms of racist dehumanization, and we stand here against every form of race and caste-based domination including anti-Palestinian racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism.
Let us choose instead to defend and protect life. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us who refused to be silent and complicit in genocide and colonial violence across the global north and south. We stand today on the side of justice and a meaningful peace for those who will come after us.
To quote the words of June Jordan,
I need to speak about living room
where my children will grow without horror
I need to speak about living room where the men
of my family between the ages of six and sixty-five
marched into a roundup that leads to the grave
I need to talk about living room
where I can sit without grief without wailing aloud
for my loved ones
where I must not ask where is Abu Fadi
because he will be there beside me
I need to talk about living room
because I need to talk about home
I was born a Black woman
I become a Palestinian
against the relentless laughter of evil
there is less and less living room
and where are my loved ones?
It is time to make our way home.
This speech was also presented at the 2023 American Studies Association panel “Making Palestinian Solidarity Public: A Roundtable,” prior to the ASA/MESA walkout that joined the demonstration. Thanks to Nisrin Elamin for her generous feedback.
Cover image by D. Maltby, from Our Lives: Canada’s First Black Women’s Newspaper, Vol. 2, No. 5 and 6, accessed via Riseup! A Digital Archive of Feminist Activism.