Thirty-six years ago, a Lebanese militia known as Phalangists ravaged the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in West Beirut, indiscriminately killing thousands of Palestinian refugees and internally displaced peoples in the Lebanese Civil War. Many activists and historians believe the massacre marked a major point in the Palestinian resistance movement, while revealing a dark human capacity to stand watch as innocents are murdered. Remembering the Sabra and Shatila massacre is important on several levels; it represents how an injustice can transcend time, place, and nationality, and how traumas live on in disembodied forms – in memory, but also in the shape of social and political institutions.
From September 17-18, McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies and Department of History and Classical Studies partnered with the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies Program at San Francisco State University to host ‘Narrations of Women and War: Commemorating Sabra and Shatila’. The two-day symposium “[aimed] to remember and honour its victims and works to build knowledge about women and war”, but also presented an ethos of collective movements for justice, particularly in the closing roundtable ‘Black and Puerto-Rican Solidarity with Palestine Activism’.
The academic-activist panel comprised of three voices from Black-American and Puerto-Rican communities to discuss a life dedicated to ‘the struggle’, and why self-determination in Palestine was an issue their respective groups struggled for, continents away. Two panelists, Sam Anderson and Rosemarie Mealy, are both original members of the Black Panther Party, the seminal Black liberation group formed in 1966. Panelist Jaime Veve was deeply involved in organizing and desegregating the curricula of New York City’s public-school boards, particularly in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighbourhood. Moderating was SFSU’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and internationally-known activist Professor Rabab Adulhadi.
Anderson recounted the immediate costs associated with morally supporting the Palestinian resistance on college and university campuses. Students in the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960’s could expect to lose funding and office spaces for vocalizing an anti-occupation stance. Nevertheless, he maintained, they were resolute in their beliefs.
Veve recounted with amazement “how young the leaders [of revolutions] were”. From Chileans fighting for democracy, to the Cuban revolution, to the Black Liberation Movement, Veve reminded how leaders of the new world are often new leaders themselves, commending today’s generation of young activists for having a “better understanding the intersection of different struggles”. He also gave the same credit to the Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton, whose 1970 speech on women’s and homosexual rights movements were “advanced for the dominant ideas at the time”. Perhaps counterintuitively, a youthful lack of wisdom can prove a huge asset in community and revolutionary organizing.
In Mealy’s eyes, the conviction of an impending revolution made “brave, young people ready to accept death”; having a sense of urgency inspired strength in both numbers and bodies to withstand daily tribulations and the “trauma of war that made some people go crazy, commit suicide”. It was this dedicated determinism that also empowered women to withstand the oppression of sexism and machismo within their movements, in addition to the larger oppressive fixtures they were fighting to change.
Is it possible to feel nostalgia for a time that one never lived? Concerns over romanticizing echoed in questions posed by the audience. The panellists, recognizing the sea of experience which separated them from younger audience members, offered thoughtful, sobering advice: if you don’t know, engage instead of wondering; solidarity is not charity; support one another by carrying on each other’s legacies, and remember that progress in struggle is never linear. Every life incurs varying experiences of oppression and that no struggle is more important than another. It is in acknowledging this that a truly intersectional approach to social justice becomes possible, even achievable.