Flooding the Heart of Empire
Last Saturday, in major cities across the country, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand a ceasefire in Israel’s brutal siege of Gaza following the October 7 Hamas attacks—and beyond that horizon, a free Palestine. As of this writing, U.S.-backed Israeli bombardment has killed over ten thousand Palestinians in Gaza, nearly half of them children. Meanwhile, our sclerotic political establishment denies that anything other than a “humanitarian pause” in the bombing is called for, and only then to buy Israel “more time” to achieve its unrealizable military goals.
The largest of last weekend’s marches, organized by a diverse coalition—including the Palestinian Youth Movement, ANSWER Coalition, American Muslim Alliance, The People’s Forum, and National Students for Justice in Palestine—was held in Washington, D.C. What follows is a series of reflections from several writers and activists in attendance.
I awoke on Saturday morning to a surprise. I had spent the previous week pasting small posters around my neighborhood, advertising the coming march for Palestine in D.C. I would wait until late in the night, wrap my face tightly in a red-and-white keffiyeh, and then clumsily spread the posters around. Somehow, they stayed up all week. But on that morning, every last one—of which I counted thirty-seven—had been taken down. In many of their places, a now ubiquitous poster appeared instead. Each was different, but the titles were all the same: KIDNAPPED.
I was up early as part of a contingent of seventy bus captains who were organizing the transportation of almost two thousand people from New York to the capital. The march was organized by several groups, led mostly by the Palestinian Youth Movement. Over the preceding week, those organizations guided my fellow captains and I through a series of rigorous orientations. But despite this rehearsal, nothing prepared me for the abundance of Palestinian life on display in D.C. You heard them before you saw them; an enraged chorus of resistance, mostly in Arabic, rumbled ten blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue.
من المية للمية
I listened as cars honked to cheer us on, their windows draped with Palestinian flags. I watched a teenage boy tie his friend’s keffiyeh. I saw a grandmother dressed in a thobe being wheeled around by her son. A block out from Freedom Plaza, I sent my mother a photograph of the crowd. She replied in a familiar tone: “Don’t get in trouble.”
The sheer mass of people was, among other things, a brute-force assault on the isolation that anti-Palestinian fearmongering engenders. Doxxing is a more subtle form of execution: instead of someone’s life, take away their employment, take away their education, and impose social death with such swiftness it serves as a reminder that each and every other dissident could be next. These actions serve to dismantle that fear. Here, the crowd’s sheer scale defied the threat of such an attack with one undeniable fact: You will never get us all.
As the rally transformed into a march, I jockeyed to the front, where suddenly, a high, straining voice stopped me. A young girl no older than seven was propped on her father’s shoulders, leading chants down Pennsylvania Avenue. He gripped her little ankles tightly as she shouted. A few blocks behind them, a poster the width of eight people depicted a collage of children who had been martyred in the attacks. The edges of the frame were lined with bloodied handprints. Turning the corner, another sign caught my eye. It was a list of forty-four individual names. Above it was a description: THE LIST OF MARTYRS FROM MY FAMILY ALONE.
This juxtaposition of life and death is what propelled the march. For many who hadn’t advocated for Palestine before, the extent of death in Gaza had kindled their consciousness. But for the Arabs and Palestinians in attendance, the contrast also beckoned to a foundational truth: the frailty of that boundary. That one decision made long before their birth meant the difference between their being in D.C. and their being in Gaza.
All day, we were told that this was the largest pro-Palestinian protest in U.S. history. And though I welcome that fact, I was reminded that this could not be a culmination, that any instance of mass international Palestinian solidarity always reflected an instance of equal and opposite Palestinian tragedy. This paradigm will persist so long as the occupation does. The only reprieve is Return.
How to count the number of people in a crowd? The result is an estimate, subject to contestation, to discounting. I went to D.C. to add a number to a tally. We demonstrate our revulsion and fury in attendance figures.
Everywhere, a bleak numbers game. A genocide unfolding in the idiom of score-settling. Each new atrocity presented as an equation, civilians for commanders. The President racks up Israel’s dead in 9/11s then denies the number Israel has killed. Pundits stipulate equivalency of grief, while Zionist attacks are measured in multiples of nukes. I think of a student, who wrote in case of death by bombing or starvation: “I am not a number. I am a whole planet.”
Standing in the streets of the Capitol, I faced the impossibility of leveraging U.S. public opinion against U.S. dollars, U.S. legitimacy, U.S. bombs. Defeat is also impossible. Around me, people rejoiced in finding each other. They hugged, joked, flirted, cheered, and complimented strangers’ signs. They climbed on trash cans, trucks, and light posts to get a glimpse of our numbers. You cannot stop hundreds of thousands of people from having fun. I thought of Muin Bseiso and Mahmoud Darwish, poets laughing at Israeli soldiers for cowering in their tanks. I thought of a child with a crown and a cupcake, celebrating a fifth birthday, a date that arrived despite the siege.
Marching through the center of 14th Street, I spotted a scroll of white poster, half a block long. It seemed to float waist-high within the march. A collective effort of pall-bearing. Black text. A name. A parenthesis with a number, an age; so many zeros and ones; 3,760 Palestinian children, murdered in four weeks. A number like a black hole. I thought of the Israeli attack on Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral procession. Her pall-bearers did not let her coffin touch the ground. I thought of a child, borne waist-high on a stretcher, asking, “Are you taking me to the cemetery?” Her rescuer: “No, my dearest. You are alive and beautiful as the moon.”
A corner of the scroll was sagging. I asked someone’s permission to hold it up; they said they’d also just arrived. We carried it together, entering a brief pocket of wordlessness, echoes of chants on both sides. Something is being remade in the streets. Palestine, which stretched the baggy Women’s Marches to breaking, the center of a march that felt just as large. At one point, we were subsumed into the Queer Bloc. (What could we do with the queer knowledge that reality is plastic?) At another, Jews against the ethnostate. (What now that a cynical charge of anti-semitism won’t shield Israel’s violence?)
New people arrived to take up the scroll as others stepped away. I thought of “everyone for everyone,” the demand of the families of Israeli hostages to release some ten thousand imprisoned Palestinians. Solidarity explodes the logic of exchange. I thought of what Fatima Said wrote when Egyptian protesters took Tahrir Square, “Palestine is freeing us.” Our task is a movement refashioned in the clarity of apartheid. A too-late instrument scaled to empire’s war machine. Among the political paradigms rendered inoperative might be the liberal notion that identity precedes commitment. The lesser of two evils. What else?
In the meantime, our forces gather new hands to honor the solar system of the dead. In Oakland, they grip a ladder for hours, stalling a Zim ship. In Bristol, they pry the roof tiles off an Elbit factory. In St. Charles, they link up to blockade a Boeing plant.
I tapped the shoulders of the people next to us. Would they take up my piece of the scroll? Their hands replaced my hands. We all went on in the crowd.
From where we were situated in the mass of people gathered at Freedom Plaza—but there was no more plaza; people had filled all level space in equal distribution, like a liquid—it was impossible to see the full size of the crowd. But we had clues, which we exchanged excitedly. Someone had heard it stretched all the way back to the Capitol. How far is that? A little over a mile, someone else determined, to excited murmurs. As the speeches began, we could hear muted refrains of different chants from multiple directions around us. Maybe they couldn’t hear the programming, or maybe these were still more throngs arriving in formation, tributaries feeding the swelling sea of people.
“From the River to the Sea . . . ”
We couldn’t see the crowd’s size, but we could feel its intensity. We were packed tight, and the sense of building pressure, both literal and figurative, was ubiquitous. As more and more people packed together, I allowed myself the flash of hope that we might be achieving something beyond catharsis.
The speeches went on for hours. The length of the program was absurd. After around the fourth hour, several people in the crowd needed medics; presumably they had fainted. The crowd grew restless and demanded to march. We groaned petulantly with each new speaker—the White House is right there, let’s go now! But, no, more speeches. Each of the many cosponsors of the event had a time slot, as did several prominent Palestinian movement figures—Mohammed El Kurd, Noura Erakat—and non-movement figures (the rapper Macklemore, most comically).
Representatives from other movements, many of them for national liberation, also spoke. We listened to the Koreans, the Filipinos, the Jews, the Pan-Africans, the Black Americans, the American Indians, the Muslims, each a tributary to Palestine. It didn’t strike me as such until later—when we finally did march, and by the tens of thousands approach the White House, a lone sniper waiting patiently on its roof as we pressed up against the gate, announcing our martyrs, announcing our intent to undo the entire apparatus of destruction whose seat was right there in that building—but our gathering, and in particular the litany of speeches, was more than a protest. It was our Bandung Conference. It was a new generation’s commitment to anticolonial struggle.
All day, I kept looking above me, hoping there was someone filming from the sky, wondering: How big are we? This feels huge. It must be huge. The people of the world, speaker after speaker had reassured us, are with you. And by fighting for Gaza, you are with them. Could this be the beginning of the end, the prehistory of a world to come?
I didn’t want to leave the White House. The moment was too intense, too spectacular to turn away from. We were at the gates—and then, gradually, we all went home.
On Saturday I saw the White House for the first time. Its gates were covered in handprints of blood. It was a fitting comment on the American imperial project and the enduring terror it has wrought across the world “from the Philippines to Palestine,” in the words of one speaker. As I observed the startling coalition of people present—LANDBACK activists, BLM voices, Korean and Filipino anti-imperialists, queers, Palestinians, Arabs, and of course anti-Zionist Jews—I had the vertiginous feeling that our shared future was being determined in Gaza. I also couldn’t help but think that the demonstration symbolized the full transformation of the Palestine solidarity movement from a putatively sectional concern of Arabs—hopelessly enmeshed in the particularism of their identity politics, their alleged anti-Semitism, and the suspect religious and fanatical allegiances with which they are frequently tarnished—into an internationalist movement of universal importance.
When I started Palestine activism at Oxford University in 2006, a year after the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions call was issued, that former interpretation was very much the dominant one. At the second ever “Israel Apartheid Week,” now a staple of Palestine solidarity activism globally, the very word apartheid seemed unutterable to many. Even sympathetic supporters feared that the use of such supposedly incendiary language would backfire. But as the numbers at Saturday’s rally demonstrate, the interpretive framework of settler colonialism, of apartheid and white supremacy, has become dominant.
Through a mutual nourishment that far predated 2020, Palestine solidarity and anti-racist movements have lent each other not just tactics and strategies but conceptual vocabularies. It’s been a surprising success, the measure of which is the moral panic—through censorship and other oppressive instruments—that it has provoked in response. Screeds against “decolonization” are merely morbid symptoms of a narrative that refuses to die quietly, in which Palestinians and their allies are regarded as hateful and irrationally violent rather than people committed to justice, equality, freedom, and the like.
The progress that Palestinians and their allies have thus far made in overturning dominant media representations pitched against them is familiar to me from the Arab Spring. Out of Tahrir Square, many of us invested our intellectual armature into overturning claims that pro-democracy activists were but Islamists in disguise, or that anti-torture campaigners were but pawns of foreign powers in a geopolitical struggle. Many of us first learned our activist techniques advocating for Palestine. Many of us have brought those activist techniques back with us into the diaspora.
As an Egyptian, I often remind Zionist critics who object to the “singling out” of Israel that the liberation of Palestine means the liberation of the country of my birth as well. Since the 1970s, Egypt’s successive tyrannical governments have been propped up by U.S. tax dollars, which also prop up Israeli apartheid. The purpose of Israeli apartheid and Egyptian military rule alike is to make Palestinian statehood impossible. Egyptians, Palestinians, and perhaps Israelis unbeknownst to them, too, are but hostages. “Palestine” is neither a symbol nor a metaphor, as liberal commentators allege: its liberation might quite literally set us all free.
The first thing I lost was any ability to estimate time, or scale. It felt like we had been standing still in Freedom Plaza for hours, but, imperceptibly, tiny shifts in posture accumulated to make room for countless new arrivals. Soon, it became impossible to discern the borders of our gathering. I tried to make it out of the crowd to find a restroom, weaving through keffiyehs and handmade signs, only to realize that there was no outside of the crowd, just more people. Turning around to find my way back to the group I had come with, I was instantly disheartened at the prospect of doing so—everyone seemed nearly identical within the density of anticipation and excitement emanating from everywhere. I began to despair that we’d have to reconnect in New York, until I eventually spotted them and squeezed back into my old spot.
The speeches from movement leaders and sponsoring organizations began, and continued, and continued. Initially, all the rousing language was exhilarating and confirmed our great hopes; just that morning, a friend and I kept giggling that we were about to march on Washington, a refrain that attempted to balance our earnest belief that something of historic dimension was unfolding with an incredulousness that Palestine could make even a blip on this country’s consciousness. Palestinian movement leaders, global representatives of peoples who had suffered under the yoke of imperialism, Macklemore, and various allied organizers were each given a chance to make brief remarks—altogether, there must’ve been over three and a half hours of speaking. It was clear that the crowd was getting exhausted and wanted to do something. With each new person that approached the podium, I began to dread that the once in a generation momentum for our march on Washington was dwindling alongside the daylight and the battery on the vape we’d bought for the car ride.
That worry was dispelled the moment we began to march. It took several minutes of shuffling a few inches at a time for all of us to funnel into a city block until we could move freely. People were everywhere and had brought different instruments to mark their grief, rage, and hope. Three men carried a cardboard casket draped in a Palestinian flag. A scroll of paper bearing the names of thousands martyred in Gaza since October 7, maybe a hundred feet long, was unfurled overhead. I saw people craning their bodies just to touch it. Someone played a trombone to the vague tune of our chanting, giving certain moments a joyful, almost parade-like feeling. In Lafayette Park, boys with their faces wrapped in keffiyehs climbed onto a massive bronze statue of Comte de Rochambeau, a French nobleman who aided the American colonies in their war against Britain. That day, his likeness was festooned in Palestinian flags, his legacy reprised for the Palestinian struggle against an imperial government dedicated to its destruction.
When we reached the White House, the sun had begun to set. Demands for a ceasefire were made close enough and loud enough that someone inside could hear. It was surreal to have such a focused target for our chanting, for our demonstration to fall on specific ears—a young girl no more than six years old screamed “Genocide Joe” from atop her father’s shoulders. The White House loomed before us coldly and silently.
Before long, the crowd began to thin out, atomized once again into discrete individuals. But even as it became totally dark, some stayed, steadfast, sitting cross-legged on the ground.
I arrived at Freedom Plaza on the morning of November 4 with deep excitement. Despite not sleeping, I was wide awake with anticipation. The atmosphere was electric as I made my way to the center of the plaza with my comrades in the Palestinian Youth Movement, where we were met with a sea of people who had all arrived four hours early. The sun came out to greet us and joined us for the entire march, as if to tell us it, too, stood on the side of justice.
I arrived carrying the voices and the spirit of my grandparents, who had their home destroyed by Israeli militias in 1948. I was not alive for the catastrophe that forced my grandparents out of their homeland. But I am alive for today’s Nakba happening in Gaza.
Today, we gather around TVs that run in all our homes continuously, watching the atrocities committed against our people. Children screaming from beneath rubble; a father crying as he pulls the limbs of his kids from the remains of his house; ambulances carrying pieces of people; doctors pleading for electricity to keep patients alive, pleading to not be bombed. At the same time, we see mainstream media manufacturing consent for Palestinian genocide and the U.S. government continuing to throw billions of dollars at the Israeli military, facilitating war crimes against our people at every level. This blatant injustice is what compelled hundreds of thousands of us to fly, ride, drive, and walk from all over the United States to the heart of its empire, the capital of this country, marking the largest Palestine protest in U.S. history. All of us on November 4 set the record. This is the principled stance that history will remember.
Lamis Deek from Al-Awda Coalition said at the march, “We are not gathered here today because of tragedy. We are gathered here today because of the truth.” We gathered on November 4 to remind ourselves that the truth will always be stronger than lies. To show the Palestinian people that the people of the United States, the people of the world, stand with them and will never abandon them. To demonstrate to the U.S. government and the mainstream media that the people of conscience who support the Palestinian cause are larger, more united, and more powerful than ever. To prove that there is a tidal wave washing away Zionist propaganda which has failed to take root. What has grown in its place is a love for truth, justice, and freedom.
Together, we shut down streets of Washington, D.C., for the entire day. The march filled us with the energy and hope we need to carry forward our struggle—not just because of this one day but because of what this one day meant for the future of our people and struggle. Together, we committed not just to a moment, but to a movement that will continue to march forward, despite all efforts to halt and silence us. The sea of people chanting for a free Palestine affirmed the deep conviction that the Palestinian people are not alone. When Palestine is free, the world will remember who was silent and who stood up for liberation.
I was not alive for the Nakba of 1948 that massacred or displaced more than 80 percent of the Palestinian people, including my grandparents. But we are all alive for today’s Nakba, today’s catastrophe, today’s genocide. When my grandchildren ask me what we did to stop the Nakba of 2023, I will show them with pride what we did on November 4.
Anything less than a world remade to the measure of our shared survival is not enough. We were many, we were loud. Returning to New York that evening, I compulsively checked Al Jazeera. Large white lettering tucked beneath the scarlet urgency of BREAKING read: “Israel bombs Gaza water station as ground forces engage in heavy fighting.” No water, no life. Genocide proceeds.
November 4 was alchemical. From my vantage: a loose constellation of Black people, meeting for the first time or finding each other again after too long, losing signal and losing Signal, all present in steadfast commitment to Palestine, freed. Before this started (again), I had not organized for three years. Returning these past weeks through the resurrected network of Black4Palestine, I’ve been reminded that from here—collective action—it is harder to dismiss or condemn the efforts that fall short. Too much has fallen short. A statement is not enough. A protest is not enough. A ceasefire is not enough. But what’s truly unforgivably insufficient is to stop trying, with everything we have.
Black-Palestinian solidarity, which importantly includes but also exceeds the erased existence of Afro-Palestinians, demands much more. Deep-rooted in kinships of insurgency—from the Third World liberation struggles of the 1960s to the 2014 conjuncture of war on Gaza and the Ferguson uprisings—is the knowledge that we are still under the same boot of mercenary imperialism and genocidal ethno-nationalism. What Aimé Césaire saw as the conjoined barbarism of colonialism and fascism in 1950 is why now, in 2023, we link Palestine, Sudan, and Haiti. Anything less than the total transformation of those systems, anything less than a political imaginary stretched to the fullness of our inevitably tied fate, is not enough.
Through Sylvia Wynter, I hear Césaire (again) saying that the only thing in the world worth beginning is the end of the world. Because the world that is structured to not only allow this catastrophic violence being enacted on Palestinians but to sustain and profit from that violence is irredeemable, irreformable. It will not deliver anything but the changing same. We have failed each other: we right now, and the global left (or call it something else) we inherited, in its shards and its ashes. November 4 was a reminder that there is less than no time for moral upper hands, for betrayals of innocence, for more concessions, for trying to bend the oppressor’s terms—death-dealing and profit-driven—to accommodate our needs. What can we do but begin anew to take on the collective task of ending and remaking every single one of the structures enshrining a world order that requires elimination to endure. There have been infinite beginnings. Let this be another.
Impossible. This has been my word, my answer, for everyone who has asked me how I’ve fared through this month of slaughter. “It feels impossible,” I say, and I mean everything—impossible to breathe, impossible to function, impossible to fathom the daily, heinous, and flagrant carnage perpetrated by Israel in Gaza and across Palestine. Impossible to believe the silence—of the world’s most powerful, of the corporate media, and of one’s own friends—in the face of clear genocide. Yet, in the midst of this unbearable, endless moment, we Palestinians, and people of conscience, press against the sense that it is impossible that things can change.
In D.C. on Saturday, bodies flooded the heart of empire, choking the arteries of power with a radically diverse, and historically large, crowd. For hours, we affirmed Palestinian life, denounced both Zionism and anti-Semitism, indicted Israel for its atrocities, and excoriated American complicity. We mourned and loved the bodies others have tried to erase. In everything, the interconnectedness of oppressions and the necessity of global, decolonial struggle was clear: “We are all Gaza” was one closing chant. Standing in the crowd, submerged in our collective grief and outrage, surrounded by every manner of human beauty and decency, I felt the scream in my spirit settle into a hum.
In this now-rare inner quiet, I was reminded that the word protest is often used interchangeably with demonstration. I pondered the necessity of both. I was radicalized as a teenager by the death of Trayvon Martin. Attending my first march, it was the need to object, to refuse, to condemn the brutalization of Black life that drove me to the streets. Again and again, I have been led to register my refusal in this way. It is clear what I must stand against—racism, misogyny, homo/transphobia, etc.—but I have often struggled to imagine a world beyond. When comrades broke out in chants or songs of triumph—“we will overcome,” “Palestine will be free”—I felt my voice sink.
Impossible is an understandable conclusion when contemplating our odds; and yet, to do this is to surrender our future, a priori, to the inhumanity of the past. Building one’s imagination on memory is a natural, even reflexive, choice. It is harder to imagine what one has never seen. Yet it is clearer than ever that our survival requires this—and I am speaking not only of my Gazan family but of everyone. And so I turn to the word demonstration, and review November 4 through this lens. On that day, we were not only standing against; we were also performing possibility. To ourselves, we demonstrated our sheer and growing numbers. We practiced political love and courage. In front of the White House, raising our flag, we created kernels of futurity. We carried those seeds home.