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The Fight for Palestinian Liberation Is a Crucial Issue for Detroit

A protest of a Detroit congressperson, who is backing the genocidal policies of the Israeli government, has raised tensions between the Black and Arab communities, threatening growing solidarity between the two oppressed groups.

Tristan Taylor

December 23, 2023
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Photo: Viola Klocko/via X

In social media posts that have since gone viral, protesters calling for a ceasefire attempted to disrupt the speech of U.S. Congressperson Shri Thanedar — a former DSA member and a millionaire entrepreneur — at the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party Organization’s annual holiday party in Detroit, Michigan. These protesters had a specific aim, which was to demand that Shri call for a ceasefire. The annual holiday party, though, was not simply a gathering for Shri supporters, but everyone from Detroit Democratic Party leaders to community activists, some of whom are known to be critical voices of different policies of the Democratic Party. In other words, the annual holiday party is a community event.

The disruption has received so much attention in part because the 13th District holds historic symbolism in Detroit for its connection to the Civil Rights Movement. At a time when Black political representation is dwindling, and Detroiters are contending with a shift in demographics that are the result of gentrification and displacement, it makes sense that people at the party saw this as yet another forceful intrusion on their space. However, what happened was far from an intrusion, but a struggle for demands that are widely supported by Black people in Detroit.  

It was unfortunate that a physical confrontation occurred between the protesters — the majority of whom were not Black — and party attendees — the vast majority of whom were Black. This physical confrontation is ultimately the result of the failure of the Democratic Party as a political party that can unite the oppressed together for justice and liberation. Instead, community leaders and politicians within the 13th Congressional District have failed to challenge Thanedar’s opposition to the ceasefire demand, a position that is out of step with public opinion polls and the sentiments of a majority of Black people in Detroit. 

What Made A Public Confrontation With Thanedar Necessary

It is understandable that many attendees were frustrated that their community event was disrupted, but the situation in Gaza is so intense and dire that any genuine organization standing with the oppressed should have found a way to make space for a real discussion. Thanedar, though, had no interest in addressing the legitimate issues of the protesters. Worse, he sought to use Black Detroiters as a shield against the struggle for Palestinian liberation. 

Like all populist politicians, Thanedar has a record of swinging from the left to the right. While a member of the Michigan State Senate, he voted for a resolution demanding that the U.S. government stop sending military aid to Israel. He was allowed to join the DSA (why are millionaires allowed to do that?), but publicly renounced the organization and quit paying dues because of its support for a pro-Palestine rally in New York shortly after October 7th, one that Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio Cortez also accused of being antisemitic. According to an email Metro Detroit DSA co-chair Mikal Goodman sent to the Detroit Free Press, Thanedar was voted out of the DSA in September because of his support for far-right wing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Many at the party have sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Jonathan Kinloch, a leading figure in the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party Organization and Wayne County Commissioner, told reporters after the press conference that he supports a ceasefire. For Black people, the conditions we see people in Gaza go through remind us of our own experiences fighting Jim Crow. This makes it all the more important that Detroiters, including leaders of the 13th Congressional Democratic Party Organization like Kinloch, issue a strong repudiation of Thanedar’s position, and declare their support for the demand of the protesters. In fact, they should have fought for more restraint from Thanedar’s staff and other members of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party Organization whose reaction – whether they wanted to or not – defended a politician with an indefensible position. 

A Tool of Co-optation in the Interest of the Capitalists

The civil rights legacy of the 13th Congressional District adds another element of tension expressed in Black Detroiters’ response to the disruption of the holiday party. The 13th Congressional District was home to John Conyers, one of the first Black representatives elected to Congress from Michigan, and one of the most progressive. The 13th District was an area where radical grassroots activists lived and  challenged racist policing and segregation in the city and region, beginning in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The 13th Congressional District Democratic Party Organization became a gathering space for grassroots activists fighting against racism and discrimination inside and outside the Democratic Party. 

Even though the 13th District represented Black political power, it also represented the co-optation of the movement and grew to play a moderating force on activists. Those activists or issues the organization  could not moderate, it gradually marginalized and isolated. Moreover, progressive members of the organization often found themselves mistreated and neglected by the Democratic Party as a whole. 

In truth, the focus on and faith in the Democratic Party greatly reduced the ability of activists to build politically independent organizations needed to challenge and endure the oncoming neoliberal offensive. The reliance on the Democratic Party took away the ability of working-class Detroiters to resist, with any real resolve, mass school closures, water shut offs, home foreclosures, and the privatization of public services. Instead of mobilizing the majority Black working class of Detroit, many community leaders, under pressure from the Democratic Party establishment, called for restraint and to accept defeat. Instead of independently organizing and employing militant methods of the working class, such as strikes and mass mobilizations, they relied on elections as the only way to fight.

To expect the Democratic Party to be an institution that the working class and oppressed can use is to expect a fox to safely guard a hen house. It won’t happen. In fact, the Democrats have a track record of “eating their own” progressive politicians. The recent censure of Rashida Tlaib; the voter redistricting that made it easier for Democrats to get elected but harder to elect Black representatives in the state legislature; and the many struggles between progressive Democrats and establishment leaders like Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan are examples of this. 

Our Real Problem Isn’t Each Other, Its Capitalism 

There is certainly a history of tension between the Black and Arab communities. In Detroit, these tensions have taken shape within the context of a hypersegregated region that has experienced major disinvestment and economic hardships. The dog eat dog nature of capitalism means that our two communities often found themselves fighting each other over resources and opportunities historically withheld from Black people. Prejudice exists on both sides, but those prejudices are not the same as the racism or Islamophobia of the state, whose systematic policies maintain the social oppression and inequality that both groups experience. 

The movement for Palestine, in exposing the Democrats’ support for genocide, raises the need for a working class party that takes up consistently and in earnest the issues of the working class and oppressed. Neither Black nor Arab people are fully represented by either the Democrats or Republicans, which are capitalist parties. The Biden regime is refusing to acknowledge that a genocide is taking place – in fact he is doubling down on it – in a similar way that the Clinton administration refused to acknowledge that genocide was taking place in Rwanda. This, among other things, is why Left Voice has put out a call and proposal for the Left to join forces to build a working class party that fights for socialism, and can be the vehicle for independent class struggle and self-organization that we so desperately need. 

To Achieve Liberation, Our Struggles Must Unite 

The liberation of Black and Arab people are tied to one another. This requires us to combat the prejudices we have for one another. That unity for liberation can only be realized in full by the fight for socialism and against the capitalist system that divides us.

We have examples to build off of. The most recent was made explicit during the 2020 BLM movement in Detroit, the 2021 mobilizations against a military offensive by the Israeli government against Palestine, and the (successful) campaign demanding that  the Detroit City Council call for a ceasefire. But there are historical examples too, like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, who were based out of Detroit, public support for Palestinian liberation, and the participation of Black workers in a wildcat strike organized by the Arab Workers Caucus inside the UAW in support of Palestine in 1973.

Yet, we must also reckon with the ways our communities are pitted against one another, and bear prejudices that must be worked out in common, especially since we do have common ground and experience to do so.  

Those in the movement must never let our righteous rage lead us to make enemies out of people who are not our enemies, or allow the Democratic Party to use regular Detroiters as a shield. The spaces and organizations created to plan actions should also be a space for reflection, political discussion, and debate. These spaces and organizations must also create a way to have conversations with broader layers of people in order to expand the movement and win the working-class and oppressed away from the dead-end and reactionary leadership of the Democratic Party and community misleaders.

Detroiters must never make space or give defense for those who support genocide. We cannot let their desire for bold and new representation allow us to be duped by millionaires and grifters incapable of truly representing us. We must never make space for those who support genocide. Only when we recover the radical tradition of mass action, and create organizations where we collectively decide the goals and strategy of those mass actions, will we be able to develop the leadership we need to confront the challenges we face.

To build a united movement for Palestine, and strengthen solidarity between Black and Arab communities means continuing to confront and challenge the misleaders of each community who are unwilling to take a stand against the reactionary agenda of U.S. imperialism at home and abroad. We need to continue organizing discussions, movie screenings, and protests that highlight how our struggles are linked. To fight for a free Palestine means fighting for an end to Israeli military operations in Gaza and the West Bank, the end of the siege and embargo, the right to return, and an end to U.S. funding of Israel. To fight for Black liberation means the defeat of U.S. imperialism, which uses the resources and money it pillages from neo-colonial countries – from the Middle East to Africa – to create hyper segregated, heavily policed, and increasingly unequal urban cities in the imperialist core. We need guaranteed housing, jobs, healthcare, and quality education instead of displacement, segregation, prisons, and police. 

Finally, we must not allow the forces of reaction, including the police, to use this incident to repress the movement for Palestine and the right to protest. We must oppose and confront any effort to criminalize our right to protest, or create an atmosphere that doesn’t allow for dissent of both the U.S. and Israeli governments. After all, the fight against state repression and violence is for Black and Arab people an important aspect of our radical and revolutionary traditions.

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