“Someone get Rania Khalek,” reads one of a series of violent tweets from mid-August, “because tonight is a night I’ll rip a head off a shoulders [sic] online.”
The vitriol was triggered by a tweet from Rania, an independent journalist, which asserted that the militarized police repression of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri was US foreign policy imported to “further marginalize black communities at home.” She was referring to the fact that many of the weapons the police were using were first tested on Palestinians in occupied territory. Her claim is also supported by the existence of exchange programs that send officers, including the St. Louis County police, to the Middle East for training by Israeli personnel, as reported by Max Blumenthal, Ali Abunimah, and Rania herself.
“rania khalek is an antiblack, ahistoric troll!” reads another. “the u.s. didn’t start with overseas occupation, it began w native genocide and black slavery!”
140 characters do not allow much room for nuance, which makes twitter a forum ripe for misunderstandings and crosstalk. But these attacks were part of a larger and very troubling trend on social media, where a few online personalities with a large following use left-wing rhetoric as a weapon against anti-imperialist critique—and they seem to be especially hostile to Palestinians and their supporters.
“I first noticed this trend last year, when Obama gave an address on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Rania says, referring to the event that was satirized online with the hashtag #IHaveADrone. “All these people started defending Obama by saying the meme was co-opting Black history. One even said that drones are a ‘white people issue.’”
Since then, Rania has found herself under attack, over and over again, whenever she attempts to connect Black and Palestinian struggles, two topics she frequently writes about. Invariably, her detractors center the conversation on identity, particularly Blackness and gender, and draw a firm line separating them from Third World politics.
Perhaps the most visible among them is Imani Gandy, the blogger, foreclosure litigator, and social media personality better known as Angry Black Lady. Her twitter followers number almost 27,000.
In May, during the height of popularity for the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, she tweeted: “Michelle Obama, like every black woman in this country is a VICTIM of imperialism. It’s not that hard of a concept.”
When the First Lady publicly endorsed the campaign behind #BringBackOurGirls, which called for foreign intervention to rescue nearly 300 kidnapped Nigerian girls, it triggered an instant backlash. The Muslim Political Affairs Council responded with memes that called her a hypocrite and criticized her husband’s wars of aggression in Yemen and Pakistan. Twitter’s anti-imperialists soon followed suit, and before long #BringBackYourDrones was trending.
Imani went on the offensive, accusing Rania, Max Blumenthal, and others of anti-blackness for appropriating the hashtag and derailing a conversation about Black girls. Journalist Josh Shahryar joined in, and castigated his fellow brown people for “treating the causes of Black people like they should take a back seat.”
“Let’s not turn #BringBackOurGirls into a conversation about ‘imperialism’ or ‘colonialism’ and especially ‘drones’,” he implored.
In the middle of all this, Nigerian author Teju Cole produced a series of carefully considered tweets that echoed the anti-imperialists’ worries. They were shared widely, but any discussion they might have generated was drowned out by the polemics against Arabs and Pakistanis.
Twitter users with thousands of followers, like Imani and Josh, know better than anyone else that popular hashtags are bound to go through all kinds of irreverent permutations. But they insisted #BringBackYourGirls was somehow exceptional, despite the legitimate concerns that the White House was exploiting the kidnapping of West African girls to drum up support for military incursions in the region—another foreign policy initiative that Obama has quietly escalated over the course of his presidency.
Charges of “anti-blackness” became the identity polemicists’ favored trope following the #BringBackOurGirls debacle. Steven Salaita, a Palestinian academic who is also repeatedly slandered on twitter, deconstructed this discourse in an online post that was circulated on tumblr. He noted that the discussions include “virtually no analysis of class” but rely on a “general critique of the Arab World as a place of little more than slavery and racism….”
Of course racism is a problem in Arab societies. It’s also a problem in South and East Asia, and in Latin America, as Steven points out. But how does that preclude Black people taking a moral stance on Obama’s drone strikes, which Imani has repeatedly and vocally refused to do?
Steven also questioned the relationship of this discourse with the “long and brilliant tradition of Black internationalism.” Indeed, one can only wonder what Huey Newton would make of all this. The co-founder of the Black Panther Party was explicit in his support for Palestinians, and he condemned the Zionist project as an extension of Western power, which he regarded as their common enemy.
Malcolm X and James Baldwin were also unequivocal on the subject, as are Angela Davis and Alice Walker, among others. For many pioneers of Black liberation, their struggle and the Palestinians’ are inextricably linked.
The history of Black solidarity with the Third World is irreconcilable with the narrative pushed by twitter’s gatekeepers of acceptable discourse. Just as the Zionist “anti-semitism” smear is itself anti-semitic, its imperialist counterpart tokenizes Black people and undermines decades of struggle to place Black liberation in a global context. So we should call it what it is: reactionary propaganda dressed up in identity politics.
The whirlwind social justice power struggles on twitter involve too many participants to name here. People from different backgrounds take sides for all kinds of reasons. But while some of the ringleaders have dubious motives (Josh Shahryar, for instance, was a fellow at the Zionist think-tank Fellowship for Defense of Democracies), many of the users who close ranks with them seem perfectly sincere.
Regardless of intent, the underlying problem is bad politics. This is not unique to twitter. The discourse that increasingly governs activist spaces has atomized struggle. Call-out culture has normalized aggression in the name of “safe spaces”. And the terminology of privilege, allyship, appropriation, and so on, has proven sufficiently malleable to be used against people advocating for human rights.
The ease with which reactionaries have been able to abuse Leftist rhetoric proves how very seriously dysfunctional our politics are. Political theory that prioritizes interpersonal dynamics over the systemic injustices that give rise to them encourages performance at the expense of authentic solidarity and substantive change. Nowhere does this play out more nakedly than the spectacle of social media.
The sustained violence against protesters in Ferguson shows how threatening they are to those in power. That’s why the pseudo-Left commentariat has had to coalesce around the uprising and control the narrative. Many of the voices that tried to pacify the movement by blaming the violence on “outside agitators” and “white anarchists,” instead of the police, are the same usual suspects who work to silence anti-imperialist critique, using similar tactics. And they’ll be damned if Rania Khalek has anything to say about it.
A shared struggle that unites Black Americans and the Palestinian diaspora would pose a considerable threat to the white supremacist and colonialist ruling class that subjugates them both. This is unacceptable to some, but for those of us who believe in justice for all, there’s hope; for as quick as the identity police were to silence Rania and others for daring to relate Ferguson to Palestine, they could not drown out the chorus of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank sending messages of love and affirmation, nor could they stop the Black citizens of Ferguson from responding in kind.« Representing Race and Identity in Online Journalism How Gay Liberation Became a Family Values Movement »