Palestine liberation activists take on Durham

Durham flag and Palestinian flag

Graphic by Sydney Brainard

“You all have been able to do something, whether you’re in this room or you’re watching online, you all have been able to do something that I haven’t seen in a really long time.”

It was nearing the end of an almost 6 hour long Durham City Council meeting, and Mayor Leonardo Williams was addressing a crowd of community members gathered inside the room and beyond.

“I mean, I’m talking like the 60s,” Williams said. 

On Feb. 20, 2024, Durham passed a resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza. The city council meeting had been long and exhausting, however, the work to get there had been much longer. 

Passed just before one in the morning, the ceasefire agreement was the culmination of months of work from a coalition of various social justice groups in the community, including Jewish Voice for Peace, Muslims for Social Justice, Voices for Justice in Palestine and the Democratic Socialists of America. Activists organized speakers and attendees for the city council meetings, hosted education events and held rallies in the Triangle area in the months leading up to its passing.

Rania Masri, an organizer for Palestinian liberation and co-director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, described the long process of strategizing in preparation for meetings, building relationships with City Council members and creating powerful and compelling theater within the space.

“City council is an open space for us to be in,” Masri said. “It’s the first and most direct form of communication that citizens have. And therefore, it also becomes a really powerful organizing space.”

The city council is a place where community members can speak face-to-face with their representatives. While scheduling meetings with Congresswoman Deborah Ross and Governor Roy Cooper was a lengthy ordeal for activists, and one that involved certain restrictions for attendees, there were much fewer hurdles in the city council.

“The reality is that local representatives and city councils are probably the last vestige of real democracy in this country,” J. Mark Davidson, executive director of Voices for Justice in Palestine said. “So people do feel that they can go to their city council and speak up and there’s a mechanism for them to raise their voice and be listened to by their city council people.”

In fact, many people did want to speak up. During the city council meeting, 30 pro-Palestinian speakers addressed the council. One speaker honored Hind Rajab, the six-year-old Palestinian girl killed in Gaza after being trapped in a car with her dead relatives for hours. Another held up a photo of three-year-old Imad Abu Al-Qare’a, a Palestinian boy killed by Israeli snipers. Even more of the speakers addressed their own experiences and heritage.

“I think that has to do with the organizing abilities of it, of being able to mobilize a large number of people through their relational networks—relatives, friends, important people in people’s lives—and bringing them out to testify, some people participating for the first time ever in government and municipal politics, especially,” Travis Wayne, co-chair of the North Carolina Triangle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, said. 

And a 5-2 vote in favor of the resolution indicates their voices were heard. Even though many weren’t happy that the agreement failed to use the term “genocide” within its language, the resolution was still a win. Its passing indicated support for the Palestinian liberation movement would only continue to grow.

This recent work on the ceasefire campaign didn’t come from nowhere, however. In fact, the foundation for the resolution was laid years ago when the Durham City Council banned the police exchange with the Israeli military in 2018, becoming the first city in the United States to do so. 

The campaign to end the exchange was piloted by a coalition of many of the same social justice groups responsible for the recent agreement’s passing and functioned as an affiliate to the larger national Deadly Exchange campaign that was launched in 2017.

The work to ban the police exchange in Durham began how most would expect: lots and lots of research.

“This is the underrated stuff of any campaign, but just making sure we had all of our facts straight, we had a lot of material, we were prepared to answer any question,” Sandra Korn, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, said. “We found out every possible public bit of information about these training programs that was available and sort of studied up on it because we knew that when we approached City Council, they would want to know what was going on at these training programs.”

The campaign launched with a petition. Activists collected signatures from libraries, grocery stores, events and locations across town. Vital conversations between residents and members of Durham City Council took place. By the time the petition was introduced to the city council, every member had already signed it. 

Needless to say, the resolution passed unanimously. 

The decision received national and international attention. The news even made its way to Palestine.

“The Palestinian community, in general, I remember, people reported back like, ‘People in Palestine, know about what Durham, North Carolina has done, and are inspired by our actions.’” Korn said. “And that felt really meaningful.”

One of the reasons why Durham is such an ideal setting for resolutions like these, Korn said, has to do with its long history of international solidarity and a strong legacy of Black-led organizing. 

Durham has been a hotbed for civil rights and Black liberation movements for decades. Some of the first sit-in protests against segregation occurred in the Bull City.

“That’s been important for me as a white person who moved to Durham as an adult, to sort of root myself in and learn about,” she said.

Following the ceasefire resolution, much of the focus during this election season is on Raleigh, with certain progressive candidates on less sturdy ground than in Durham. Still, the movement isn’t done with Durham. Masri would like to see a divestment resolution passed. 

 “That means we make sure that none of the public monies in the city are used to support genocide,” Masri said. “Which means that not only are they not invested in Israel, but they’re not invested in anything related to the production of weaponry.”

In terms of the larger movement, Wayne sees North Carolina, especially the Triangle area, as leading the way for the south in Palestinian liberation.

“And you have people from all across North Carolina, and Asheville, Wilmington and Charlotte who are looking to the Triangle and seeing what we’re doing as inspiration,” Wayne said. “This is the site where we can be engaged in this battle for human rights, more than anything.”

And so, they press on.

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