Vic Mensa: What Palestine Taught Me About American Racism

Last summer, I traveled to Palestine with a group of African-American artists, scholars and activists organized by Dream Defenders. I am not anti-Semitic, and the views expressed in this essay are in no way an attack on people of the Jewish faith. My words are a reflection of my experiences on my trip, and my criticism lies with the treatment of Palestinian civilians by the state of Israel, no more and no less. As a black man in America, being stereotyped as a criminal is more than familiar to me, as is being unwanted on the streets of my own home and profiled by law enforcement.

Her eyes looked like she’d been crying for 30 years. Hearing her impassioned pleas for freedom beneath the flaking walls of her home in the Old City of Jerusalem, I don’t doubt that she had. Nora has been embattled in a tortuous legal struggle for her family home since the 1980s. Oftentimes carrying children, in her arms and in the womb, she labors in and out of Israeli courtrooms. She was born in this house. Her children were born in this house. Now just holding on to it has been the fight of her life.

The state of Israel has gone to unbelievable lengths to try to evict her and replace her with Jewish settlers. At one point the Israeli government even had her front door blockaded, forcing her to climb from a window ten feet up and barely bigger than a dog-door. As she guides us outside to the patio that shares a window with the settlers next door, a net filled with trash and stones thrown at her family by her new neighbors sits directly above our heads. How’s that for hospitality?

Vic Mensa with his father

Nora’s home is just one heartbreaking casualty of war in the ongoing struggle between Israel and Palestine, in which heinous acts of violence have been committed by both Jews and Arabs. The blood on both sides runs deep. I do not pretend to be familiar with every nuance of the longstanding turmoil that engulfs Israel and Palestine; it is no doubt as aged and tangled as the family trees ripped apart by its brutality. I can only speak to the experiences I had there, to the humiliating checkpoints where Palestinians were not only stripped of their possessions but of their dignity. Walking the ancient streets of the Old City, I watched a Palestinian boy thrown against the wall and frisked by Israeli soldiers in full military gear, carrying assault rifles with their fingers ever present on the trigger. Our guide tells us he’s likely been accused of throwing stones, a crime punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of four years in prison. Take a moment to process that. Throwing stones. Punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence. Further down the busy street was the startling image of an Israeli civilian walking by a group of Palestinian children complete with an AR-15–style rifle by his side and a pair of flip-flops on. The magnitude of the double standard is dumbfounding.

Just outside of Jerusalem we visited a Bedouin camp, where a sectarian group of Muslims told us they have seen their elementary school demolished ten times, as well as broken into and vandalized by armed settlers that live in the hills above. The Bedouins are a naturally nomadic community who prefer to live in tents and ask for only the freedom to the most basic of human rights; even these are unequivocally denied. Solar panels donated and built by European institutions for the camp were destroyed by the Israeli government, citing a lack of permission to build. Even toys donated by an Italian institution for the children of the camp were confiscated. An elderly man with a face of leather spoke to us in Arabic saying, “Now that you have seen with your own eyes, return home and explain what you saw. Place pressure on the U.S. government to place pressure on Israel.”

Herein lies the purpose of this composition. I write to inform all those who will hear me of the treacherous denial of human rights to the Palestinian people living under occupation. These scenes of oppression and abuse will be forever etched into my memory, burned into my mind’s eye.

The parallels between the black American experience and the Palestinian experience are overwhelming. Staring into the worm-infested water tank on top of a dilapidated house in Aida refugee camp, I can’t help but think of Flint, Michigan, and the rust-colored lead-poisoned water that flows through their faucets. As I gaze over the 25-foot “separation wall,” the economic disparity is acutely transparent; the Israeli side of the wall looks like the Capitol in The Hunger Games, while the Palestinian side reads like a snapshot from a war photographer. It’s as if the South Side of Chicago’s most forgotten and disenfranchised neighborhoods were separated from the luxury of Downtown’s Gold Coast by a simple concrete wall. The sight alone is emotional, and many people in the group cried on that roof. Rage cannot describe how I feel thinking of the insects swimming in that water tank, while just across the wall is an Israeli settlement with an Olympic-size swimming pool.

In a West Bank village called Nabi Saleh, I saw the most graphic account of these crimes against humanity I would be exposed to whilst in Palestine. The people of Nabi Saleh have mounted a long-term, non-violent resistance to martial law that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have responded to with extreme brutality. We sat in silence and watched a series of YouTube videos filmed by villagers of soldiers terrorizing the demonstrating civilians, primarily women and children. The videos show hundreds of metal tear-gas canisters raining on peaceful protests, elderly women punched in the face, children beaten and arrested, and even a villager who’s face was literally removed by a gas can at point blank range. “It’s our Palestinian 4th of July. You have fireworks, we have gas canisters,” jokes our host. It’s hard to find the strength to laugh.

As with the black community in the U.S., the use of incarceration, racial profiling and targeting the youth as methods of control are heavily prevalent in the occupied West Bank. The main difference I see between our oppression in America and that of Palestinians is how overt and shameless the face of discrimination is in the occupied West Bank. As much as we ruminate on our metaphorical police state in Black America, martial law is a very real and tangible condition in Palestine. Thinking of the young men I saw being detained by the roadside, my mind floats to the story of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old boy incarcerated for three years without trial in Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack. Consumed by the cruelty that robbed him of his childhood, Kalief hung himself with a bed sheet two years after his release. In Palestine, I met children as young as 12 years old that had been detained by the IDF. At any given time, hundreds of Palestinian children are detained in Israeli prisons, many of them under the age of 16. It gave me chilling flashbacks to my earliest experiences with police as a black boy in America; officers forced us to the ground with pistols drawn for the common crime of mistaken identity.

For once in my life I didn’t feel like the nigger. As I sat comfortably at a coffee shop, gawking at a group of Israeli soldiers harassing a Palestinian teenager, it was clear who was the nigger. My American passport, ironically, had awarded me a higher position in the social hierarchy of Jerusalem than it did in my hometown of Chicago. As insensitive as it sounds, it was almost a feeling of relief to be out of oppression’s crosshairs for a moment, albeit a very short one.

As we sat in the home of an elderly woman in Hebron, the emotion of the room stuck to the air like tear gas. “Every day is suffering,” she confesses to us. She’s seen 18 of her people killed in front of her home, been jailed 25 times and beaten into the wall by soldiers and even forced to remove her Islamic dress at the checkpoint nearby. She wipes a single tear from her eye as she recounts to us how her husband left her because she wouldn’t leave the home. Still she refuses to hand over the house. “This is my home, it protected me and I will protect it,” she tells us.

This seems to be the overarching attitude of the Palestinians, one of pain but of pride, of darkness but of dignity. They have been made strangers in their own land, second-class citizens in the home of their forefathers, but they refuse to be a memory. They fight as if their existence depends on it, because it does. And all they ask of us is to tell their story.

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