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Dear friends and supporters,
Today is Ramarley Graham’s 24th birthday, Or–it would have been–if on Feb 2, 2012, the NYPD had not trailed Ramarley (an unarmed teenager), broke down the door to his house, and shot him at close range in the chest, killing him–in front of his grandmother and 6-year-old brother.
I hope you will take a moment to read the article I wrote for Colorlines (with Amy Myers, intern at the Center for Constitutional Rights) about Ramarley, how he was killed, and the family’s struggle for some modicum of justice.
Excerpt of the article (published today in Colorlines) is below, and you can also read it here.
As always, thoughts, questions, responses are welcomed.
In solidarity with all who have lost a loved one to police violence,
1 Teen, 6 Cops, 1 Bullet and 5 Years of a Black Family Screaming for Justice
by Jen Marlowe and Amy Myers
A few months before his big brother, Ramarley Graham, was shot to death by a New York Police Department (NYPD) officer, 6-year-old Chinnor Campbell was being bullied in school. His 18-year-old brother showed him how to put up his hands to defend himself and demonstrated how to punch using a pillow. “You’ve got to fight back, or people will keep bullying you,” Ramarley coached.
Their mother, Constance Malcolm, says these lessons were typical of their relationship: “Ramarley would take him to the park, pick him up from school, just do what a big brother would do with his little brother.”
Chinnor didn’t have his big brother’s guidance for much longer. On February 2, 2012, a White NYPD officer named Richard Haste entered Graham’s Bronx apartment and fired a fatal shot into his chest. He was only feet away, as was their maternal grandmother, Patricia Hartley.
Graham would be turning 24 today (April 12) if Haste and his colleagues had not followed him home from a bodega they were surveilling, kicked in the door and fatally shot him.
Read the rest of the article here
This morning. Learned that another COPINH activist, a colleague of Berta Caceres, was found murdered in Honduras.
Last night–thousands in the streets all over the U.S. demanding an end to state violence that disproportionately targets Black people, in the wake of police extra-judicial executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Also last night–5 Dallas police officers murdered, more wounded, in an act that will make everybody–especially activists in the movement for Black lives–not more, but less, safe. In the past weeks–ISIS attacks in Bangladesh, Istanbul and Baghdad killing hundreds, on the heels of mass murder in Orlando.
And in the midst of all this–remembering two years since Israel’s horrifying assault on the Gaza Strip.
Sometimes there are no new words. At this moment, at least, I have no new words. Instead, I want to re-post some of what I’ve already said, already written–pieces that affirm life, humanity, the dignity inherent in every human being. This piece–about Gaza, and about my friend Amer Shurrab–is also (in its message) about Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Berta Caceres and her courageous colleagues in Honduruas, the Pulse massacre vicitims, all of the victims of all of the attacks.
Each of them, a world.
We were sitting at Lincoln Park in West Seattle, with a handful of friends who had gathered for a picnic potluck, awaiting others who would be joining us shortly.
A Facebook message came through on my Smartphone from my friend Yousef Munayyer.
Hey Jen, just saw some news about a young man from the Shurrab family in khan yunis being the latest victim, Name is Tayseer. Have you heard from Amer recently?
Amer Shurrab was, as a matter of fact, sitting across the picnic table from me at that very moment. He had come for a few day visit from Monterrey, where he is finishing his MBA. Though we had planned the visit weeks before the shit hit the fan in Gaza, the timing of it felt oddly right. I think it felt somewhat comforting to Amer to be surrounded by people who had some notion of what he…
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“The war is manifest right here where I am” (Response to The Hour of Sunlight from George Wilkerson on NC’s death row)
(Some more thoughts from my friend George Wilkerson–this time responding to having read “The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker,” the book I wrote with, and about, Sami Al Jundi.)
I just finished reading your book and answering those questions (below.) Fuck—it’s a game-changer. For real. It’s going to take me some time to pull it all together, but your book has impacted me in a profound way, and there’s a storm of ideas and emotions banging inside me. It brought some deep-rooted ideas to the surface of me, helped me articulate them. In many ways, watching Sami’s transformation was me watching my own. It would take a book more more to express the similarities.
The underlying principles of conflict and conflict resolution are formulaic and can wear the clothes of racism, sexism, classism, etc. I believe anyone involved in activism ought to read it. It perfectly describes conflict through the lens of a Palestinian embedded in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Admittedly, most people involved in conflict never see past the surface issue of racism, sexism, etc—but Dr. King and Gandhi did. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to share it with others here and recommend it to everyone I know involved in social activism.
I knew next to nothing about the situation over there, but now I feel conversant. Seldom has any on book impacted me so deeply, inspired me, enlightened me, educated me, humbled me. There is a treasure trove of experience and philosophical achievements contained in your book.
[…] I understand the war is manifest right here where I am (where each of us is, in fact) and I actively fight it. Not only do I try to demonstrate the love of God to those around me, but I also try to take it to the next level and participate in large-scale activism projects.
Q: Were there any experiences that Sami had growing up as a Palestinian boy living under Israeli occupation that felt familiar to you, or that you could relate to?
A: This is such as complex question—or rather, requires a complex answer. To be honest, I identify with Sami on so many levels as a human being struggling to make sense of the world around me. Culturally, we are very different. The unique reality of being Palestinian living under Israeli occupation disconnects most of the world from relating, though our common humanity allows me to relate to his emotions; what caused his and mine differ, but the effect was the same.
Rather than give a detailed list of similarities and differences that link he and I (or divide us), I would like instead to highlight one example, distill it to a principle, then show the universal applicability to each of our lives as members of the human race.
On page 2, paragraph 2, Sami describes “…joining a line of [vehicles] heading west (off road); creeping around rocks and trees on a path in the Hebron Hills that scarcely existed, all of them filled with Palestinians going to work inside the green line, none of whom had permits from the Israeli army to be there…They did this to bypass the checkpoint. It was illegal, according to Israeli law, and it was dangerous, but what choice did we have? We had the right to work and feed our families.”
I point this out because, ultimately, we’re all just trying to survive and “feed our families.” This value becomes the superceding law. He claims it as a “right”—but where do rights come from? Are they inherent, or granted by authorities? My argument isn’t about whether his claim is valid or not. It’s about the consequences of the idea of rights.
If I believe I have a right, it will shape my emotions and behaviors and thoughts, most especially if it’s violated, or if an obstacle stands in the way. Laws are secondary. Rights violations are at the heart of conflict…or desire is: one person wants one thing, one person wants another, so they fight. Who actually has the right is debatable, and depends on which moral framework (religion/secularism, etc) and laws one uses. It’s tempting to pick a side.
Here’s an example: Let’s say America passed a law saying it was okay to rape women and children. Would that be okay? Why not? For those who wish to justify their behavior of doing or desiring those things, they will claim they have the right—according to law. For those who wish to argue/protest it will cite laws they believe supercede it. They may even fight/kill each other, believing they’re right.
As a Christian, I accept the values of God. By doing so, He establishes my framework for reality, my morals, my rights, defines right/wrong, etc. But someone from another faith may have opposing morals, values, etc. It is powerful! Ideas (ideology) has tremendous consequences. My “life of crime” flowed from doing what I felt I needed to do to survive. I’ve done a lot of things which are considered illegal according to American law. Even now, I break prison rules because I obey a higher moral law. For example, we aren’t supposed to give other prisoners anything, but I give (and receive) anyway because I can’t stand to see someone go hungry.
Q: Was there any character that reminded you of yourself in any way?
A: Every character in the book mirrored me in some way, i.e., I saw myself in them. The beautiful and the ugly.
Q: What were your responses to Sami’s prison experience? What, if any, aspects felt connected to your own experience in prison? What did not?
A: I sympathized with him, and felt compassion toward him, especially when they were being “interrogated” and abused. Other than that extreme abuse, our prison experiences were nearly identical: the guards, the medical, the food, the divisions.
Q: Sami describes the system of organization that Palestinian political prisoners built: the education system, the self-governance system, the way older prisoners nurtured the growth of younger prisoners. Is this something that happens in U.S. prisons?
A: I can’t speak for U.S. prisons as a whole, because I don’t know. I only know about this prison I’m at. The way Sami described it wouldn’t work here. The Administration would squash it immediately. Sami and his group were political prisoners. They shared a common goal. Over here, we aren’t political prisoners, and there are any number of cliques, gangs, faiths, etc—all with their own goals/values. The Administration would label such a group as a “Security Threat Gang,” and put everyone in isolation.
However, we do have an informal way of applying that same principle of education. The guys who share similar values converse, meet together on the rec yard, eat together, share/discuss reading material, attend the same classes.
The “governance system” is called “the convict code.” As an ideology, it’s distorted and only promotes crime, the suppression of justice, and violence—yet many live by it, even above their religious system.
I relate to Sami’s personal growth, too. I’ve followed the group and then saw its flaws, hypocrisy, betrayals, and so on. I too found a higher way. I too see the foolishness of hate and violence. As a Christian, I’ve come to understand God’s way is straightforward: It’s all about love. “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins.” “God is love.” “Love does no harm to its neighbor.” It doesn’t matter what we do, in terms of “good deeds”—if they aren’t done from a heart of love, they count for nothing. “Love is kind and patient. It doesn’t envy or boast, and isn’t proud. It isn’t rude or self-seeking, nor easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs (forgives). It doesn’t delight in evil, but rejoices with the Truth…” “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
Being here, I’ve come to learn there are many things that divide humans: race, culture, sex, age, greed, pride, etc. First, I must have the courage to see, then to feel, then to act. It’s about building relationships. If I can’t build relationships on a one-to-one level, lasting relationships that cross the divides, how can I hope to bring peace between two cultures? It begins on a granular level of two people. If we can figure out how to build solid, lasting relationships on that level, then we can work our way up.
Q: Is there anything else about Sami’s prison experience that would be interesting or important for prisoners here in the U.S. to think about, study, engage with?
A: The one thing that was striking was their solidarity and how powerful it was. You know this already, but I never thought of it til I read it in your book: there’s a distinction between “unity” and “solidarity.” I believe solidarity subsumes unity as a necessary component, but it also connotes action, bearing responsibilities in an effort to reach goals. They emphasized learning about their history, and the history of others who were oppressed, how they handled it, etc. They operated from a common knowledge base, which strengthened their unity. The more we have in common, the more each member cares for the common good. They willingly suffered and bled together. I believe your book is the perfect entry point for anyone who wishes to understand the philosophical (ideological) and practical mechanics of a revolution. It touches on every aspect and gives a point of reference for those interested in exploring individual acts deeply; it gives a sort of overview. It speaks honestly about the hopes, dreams, obstacles, betrayals, and so on, even about the corruption. The book is worth of study or being part of a curriculum about the topic —I’d consider it mandatory reading. I’ll bet if Sami would’ve had this book when he first entered prison, it would’ve changed the pace of his education and transformation.
Q: The lack of indictments in the Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice (and more) and have sparked protests and resistance which some have called a renewed civil rights movement. Does this struggle in the U.S. have similarities to Sami’s struggle?
A: One thing you’ll notice about me, is that I try to look for the deeper issue. On the surface, what’s going on over here has no real connection/parallel to Sami’s struggle, because the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is uniquely complex: just about everything that can divide people are dividing them. I am not politically correct, and know it, so I’m careful about how I speak about the situation here—it’s so sensitive and volatile. What I’ll do is look for the deeper issue. I’ve mentioned we’re in a war, one in which people like you and I are fighters. I understand it as spiritual, but it can be explained in secular terms. Racism, classism, etc—all these represent hate, and are obstacles to peace. They are all symptoms of a deeper sickness. These things divide humanity itself. It’s not a problem between unarmed black men and cops; it’s not a problem between Palestinians and Israelis; it’s not a problem between rich and poor, male and female, religion and religion, gay and straight, prisoner and society, gang and gang, white and black. Those are all symptoms of the same problem. It boils down to a lack of love, a focus on one’s own interests…at the cost of others’. The war is between love and unlove; I say it like that because hatred, indifference, ignorance, all are enemies to love. Without love, true agape love, there can never be peace. There will only be appeasement. No doubt, reaching a truce is better than actively being at war, but human nature always gets in the way. Greed and pride, lust for power. We put band-aids on cancer. Band-aids are temporary, superficial solutions.
I received a letter from Tina Brown, a woman on Florida’s death row who read “I Am Troy Davis.” With Tina’s permission, I am posting her letter here:
Hello, my name is Tina Brown 155917. I’m a female Death Row inmate in Ocala Florida. You may have by now received mail from one of my Death Row sisters Emilia Carr. She let me read her “I Am Troy Davis” story. I would like to thank you and a host of others for doing such a remarkable job. You showed the Love, Strength, Courage, hope and fight Troy, his family and friends around the world shared. Also a family that stayed together against all odds. The story so clearly pointed out how racist, unfair, bias and corrupt our legal and judicial can be. Starting with police, detectives, jails, courts and prisons. I thank you for using your talents to deliver such a story of awareness on all levels. Thank you and the others so much.
Our lives are really in the hands of other human beings that we know not their intentions or their hearts. When will these people in these life-changing positions, our legal and judicial system stand for what’s right and not just simply agree? how can you believe some of what someone says and choose not to hear the rest, or How can you know that what someone is telling you wasn’t to direct attention off themselves? How do you know? So how can our legal and judicial system really know how to judge someone’s life? 2 or 3 words can determine a person’s life or death. “I’m sorry.” Sorry for exactly what? “He/she did it.” Did exactly what? A person’s facial expressions can determine their guilt? A smirk or a smile could be of “fear” or “I have to be brave.” Everyone is not the same, so how do you know? So, who gives anyone the right to assume without knowing? Something has to change the legal and judicial system. It’s so obvious that bullies are not just dealt with among children.
Someone needs to speak up in the Circle, someone needs to ask the questions that others are afraid to ask. Who in the Circle is going to stop being a follower of injustice and speak up? Who in the Circle is going to stop thinking that their opinions, their questions, their reasonable doubts are going to interfere with their job security or their health? Who in the Circle is going to stop being afraid and state the obvious: “Do we really believe we have the right person?” or will you just go along with “It really doesn’t matter because someone has to pay regardless.” When will this type of reasoning stop?
Jury, how do you really know? Sure, some cases are without a doubt to the point but there are other cases that leave behind unanswered questions. Why is intimidation, tampered questioning, recanted testimony, mistaken identity or coerced answers not an issue? Why is that not of major importance? Who’s going to ask the question or state the obvious, “Something’s not right here, there’s more to this.”
Why are there higher levels of court to address when the lower level of court won’t let in all the facts for the high levels of courts to see? God forbid someone says, “We need more proof for why this and why that.” Why is the evidence that is so needed to make a difference always the evidence not forthcoming?
Someone needs to ask those big pink elephant in the room questions. I dare you to stop letting that Circle intimidate or bully you any further. Don’t just simply agree when you know it’s not justice.
Yesterday marks 10 years since my dear friend Amer Shurrab’s brothers were killed by the Israeli military in a military assault in Gaza the army termed “Operation Cast Lead.” Below, is what I wrote for WorldFocus.com after visiting Amer’s family in Gaza a few months later
Bullet holes, grief remain for Gaza family after war (first published in Sept 2009)
Abu Absal Shurrab stood in front of his red jeep and waved energetically when he saw me. I walked towards him. “Salaam aleikum!” we greeted each other warmly, and Abu Absal indicated that I should get into the jeep.
My heart stopped momentarily as he stepped out of the way and the vehicle became fully
visible. The windshield was splattered with bullet holes. This was the car Abu Absal was driving the day he was shot and his sons, Kassab and Ibrahim, were killed.
I climbed inside the passenger seat, trying to discreetly count the bullet holes as Abu Absal guided the car onto the road. Twenty that I could see, including the semi-shattered rear-view mirror. Abu Absal noticed my preoccupation.
Kassab was sitting exactly where you are now,” he told me. “Ibrahim was in the back seat, directly behind him. When the shooting started, I shouted for them to crouch down low. But the bullets went through the front of the car. I tried to replace the windshield, but because of the siege, there is no glass available anywhere in Gaza Strip.”
The final days of 2008 and the first weeks of 2009 saw a large-scale Israeli military bombardment and invasion of Gaza Strip. Israel termed the incursion “Operation Cast Lead,” saying it was intended to protect the citizens of the southern community of Sderot, 24 of whom had been killed by Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza over the past eight years.
According to a report released by the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, 1,387 Palestinians were killed during the 22- day attack, over half of them civilians, including more than 300 children. Several thousand more innocent people were injured, more than 3,000 homes were destroyed and 20,000 were damaged. United Nations schools, clinics and other humanitarian facilities were bombed.
On January 16, 2009, towards the end of the onslaught, I received an email with the horrifying subject line: “Help me save my dad’s life.”
It was from Amer Shurrab. I’d known Amer for 10 years, since he was 14 years old. Amer is from Khan Yunis, Gaza, but had recently graduated from Middlebury College and had just moved to Washington, D.C.
With dread, I opened the email. Amer wrote:
“My father’s car was bombed today, he was in it with two of my brothers. My older brother 27 was killed while my dad 64 and my little brother 17 have been bleeding for over 14 hours and Israeli troops blocking ambulances access. Please contact any media outlets, your congressmen, senators, any international organizations and try to get them help.”
Several hours later, I got another email from Amer with more details about the incident and an update. The morning of the attack, his father and brothers had gone to check on their farm during the daily three-hour humanitarian “ceasefire.” On their way home, his father’s red jeep was bombarded by a hail of bullets from IDF troops who had commandeered a house approximately fifty meters away. Amer’s older brother, Kassab, was shot in the chest and stomach 18 times and died on the spot. His father was shot in the arm and his younger brother, Ibrahim, was shot below the knee.
Abu Absal shouted to the soldiers that he and his sons needed medical attention. They shouted back for him to call an ambulance. He did, via cell phone, but was told by the Red Crescent that the Israeli army would not permit them access. Abu Absal managed to contact media and human rights groups, who launched an immediate campaign to pressure the army to allow medical care to reach the wounded civilians. Nearly 24 hours later, the IDF permitted an ambulance to reach Abu Absal and his sons. By then it was too late for Amer’s younger brother. Ibrahim had already bled to death.
Abu Absal parked the jeep outside an apartment building in Khan Yunis. “Here’s where we live,” he told me. “Any time you are in Gaza, you should make this your home!” We climbed the steps and entered. Abu Absal introduced me cheerfully to his wife and his two daughters. Heaviness and grief was palpable in the home, especially in the eyes of Amer’s mother and sisters. Nevertheless, Abu Absal was determined that my visit be an occasion for happiness. He instructed me to sit in an easy chair, next to his.
“We must speak of many things!” Abu Absal said brightly. “Your visit is like a breeze of fresh air to the family. Only…” He leaned towards me and adopted the tone of a fatherly scolding. “You are not staying long enough! So early tomorrow morning we will visit the farm, before you have to return to Gaza City!”
“Do you go to the farm often?” I asked his university-aged daughter, hoping to engage her in the conversation. “Not really,” she replied, barely making eye contact.
“The girls no longer like the farm,” Abu Absal explained. “They blame the farm for the death of their brothers. After all, if we hadn’t gone that morning…” He didn’t complete the sentence.
The sun was just beginning to rise the next morning when Abu Absal and I climbed back into his battered jeep. The sandy roads of Khan Yunis were bathed in golden light and early morning silence. We turned off the main road after passing the European Hospital. Less than a minute later, we approached an intersection. Abu Absal slowed down. “This was where they were killed,” he said. “You see that brown house?” he pointed. “That’s where the soldiers shot from. I didn’t know they were there. If I had known, I could have taken another route…”
Amer had told me how close the hospital was to the scene of the killings, but seeing it for myself felt like a punch in my gut. Kassab could not have been helped, but Abu Absal and Ibrahim, even with their injuries, could have made it there, walking or crawling or both. But the soldiers had threatened to shoot them if they moved.
Ten minutes later, Abu Absal was giving me a tour of the farm, pointing out with love and devotion each fig and citrus tree, every pepper, the collection of bee hives. From the window of the elevated farm house, he asked me if I could see the fence and the military tower in the distance. I could. “That’s the border with Israel,” he told me. “I watched dozens of tanks roll into Gaza from there. I must guard the farm every day to make sure no one uses it to launch rockets. I don’t want the Israelis to have any excuse to destroy my farm.”
The destruction was not always related to rocket fire. The day before, I had filmed the remains of a school bombed by fighter jets, a clinic that had been shelled and a residential neighborhood reduced to rubble. I had also seen a mosque sprayed with bullets from a recent shootout between Hamas and an Islamic militant group. But in the midst of this destruction, I also witnessed resilience and ingenuity. I saw tent-dwellers whose homes were destroyed tap into a main power line, providing their families with electricity. I watched a youth soccer tournament and broke the Ramadan fast with families at sundown. Though people were going about their daily lives, loss and pain in Gaza still run very deep.
Abu Absal tenderly showed me his baby eggplants nestled in rich soil. He offered me a ripe pomegranate dangling temptingly off a tree. A warm light glowed in his eyes.
“Your farm is beautiful,” I said, hoping my appreciation would further boost his spirits.
A cloud passed over Abu Absal’s face. He fingered the rubbery leaves of his olive tree silently. Finally he spoke, echoing, it seemed to me, the sentiment of thousands of Gazan civilians. Those who lost loved ones, their homes, their schools. Those who saw crushed in front of their eyes whatever hope they still nurtured, whatever shards of a normal life they had managed to preserve throughout decades of occupation and years of escalating violence.
“It is very beautiful here indeed. But the beauty means nothing since my sons are gone.”
“[My art] is community resistance and political resistance—resistance by insisting on life.” Thus says Gazan theatre artist Ali Abu Yassin in my new piece for Yes! Magazine, looking at art as a powerful form of resistance in Gaza. An excerpt of the article is below and the full article can be read here.
Mohammed al-Saedi leads me through the densely populated Gaza City neighborhood of al-Zaitoun. Walls are painted in blues and pinks, with wooden shutters of purple and yellow. Plants are potted in colorful buckets at each corner.
“Color and flowers give the human positive energy, relax him, and provide much-needed comfort to the soul, heart, and mind,” says al-Saedi, a slender man of 57, wearing a paint-splattered shirt.
The initial idea had been small in scope: to beautify his home with flowers and paint. But neighbors took notice and encouraged al-Saedi to spread the beauty. Some donated funds, others labor or ideas. Abu Adnan Nayef was experienced with wood and iron and offered to partner with al-Saedi. “Our idea became bigger: to make all Gaza Strip as beautiful as possible.”
Nayef points to an overhead lattice with colorful bucket planters and lanterns dangling from hooks. “These are broomsticks. Don’t be surprised! We make beautiful things with simple materials.” Tires, wood, iron—all are salvaged and recycled to adorn al-Zaitoun.
“Paintings and flowers are psychological treatments to reduce the severity and pain of poverty. It brings self-reliance,” al-Saedi says. They believe the beautification project helps lessen the pain in Gaza from wars, siege, and destruction, especially for children.
Throughout Gaza Strip, painters, photographers, theater artists, musicians, and filmmakers are using their art not just as a form of therapy, but also as a tool of resistance. (Read the rest of the article here!)