"This is how I understand the struggle...To stand steadily like spears, and never give up." Naji Al-Ali

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Highlights From San Francisco Protest In Solidarity with Libya

On Saturday, February 26th, hundreds of East Bay and San Francisco residents rallied in solidarity with Middle East and North African protesters. Organizers scheduled the event at UN Plaza, the same location as previous marches for Egypt and Tunisia. Sponsored by more than 20 different organizations, the protest focused primarily on Libya, though attention was given to uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Iran, as well as all nations currently fighting for freedom. Many attendees wore keffiyehs. Activists were also joined by marchers from a nearby rally held at City Hall in support of Wisconsin workers fighting to retain their right to unionize.

Turn-out was low in comparison to the rally for Egypt, due in part to the absence of the ANSWER coalition (usually a permanent fixture at such events) which pulled out due to a disagreement "with some of the wording in the protest organizers' press release" and the demonstration lacked the momentum of previous gatherings. One could perhaps attribute the change in tone to the gravity of the events currently unfolding as Gadhafi continues to massacre his own people. Indeed, the protest's largest banner read, "STOP GENOCIDE IN LIBYA" and one speaker began his address with a protracted moment of silence to honor the ever-growing number of martyrs. While most speeches were both hopeful and defiant, a sense of tension pervaded the day, as if we were all holding our collective breath in the hope that the violence will end soon.

Interestingly, there was a lack of consensus among the organizers and the crowd about what should be done to induce Gadhafi's ouster. One Tunisian speaker called on the United Nations to act, warning, "Don't let this be another Rwanda," while another suggested American military intervention. Others felt that that the brave Libyan people should be allowed to claim their own revolution, asking for help only to facilitating the passage of refugees fleeing for their safety.

The crowd was extremely diverse, with many families attending. At one point I stood with a hijabi woman and her three children to my left, a latino socialist passing out copies of The Militant to my right, and a queer Jewish activist (with whom I had just come from a workshop on Palestine education) directly behind me.

The most popular refrain of the entire event was the message that the fear barrier has been broken. Person after person took the microphone to shout that the Arab world will no longer be intimidated by dictators, the military, fears of instability, Islamists, Americans or anyone else as the protesters roared in agreement.

I noticed many faces from previous demonstrations, including one woman in particular. She was carrying a sign that contained a large crescent along with a star of David, a cross and a capital "A" (meant to represent atheism). "I wanted to be inclusive, to show that this is about all people coming together against tyranny," she told me. As the crowd chanted "the people united will never be divided" I looked over to her once more to see her waving her arms emphatically. I couldn't help but smile.

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What I find most beautiful about these events is the sense of unity and togetherness they induce. Most people agree that the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa are powerful. But why so? They are powerful precisely because they have broken down borders and shown the intersection of struggles between peoples. At same time they have "humanized the other" for many Westerners whose only conception of "Arab" is backward and violent.

To some, standing arm in arm with a crowd full of strangers, shouting at the top of your lungs for the freedom of a group of people whom you have never met in a place you may never go is absolutely foolish. But these events have confirmed, for me and for others I am sure, the belief in a common humanity. Some ask why we protest. They ask why we show up time after time, considering it "changes nothing". I think they're wrong. We're sending messages when we assemble -messages to our representatives and our president, messages to our fellow citizens, but most importantly messages to our Arab brothers and sisters. For me that message is best expressed by a line from the film V for Vendetta. If I could, I would say this to every person struggling for freedom the world over:

"I hope that whoever you are, you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better. But what I hope most of all is that you understand what I mean when I tell you that even though I do not know you, and even though I may never meet you, laugh with you, cry with you, or kiss you. I love you. With all my heart, I love you."

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