Last month, scholar, activist and former political prisoner Angela Davis gave the keynote address at a Chicago rally in defense of Palestinian political prisoner Rasmea Odeh. Odeh is a 67-year-old Chicago-based activist who has been stripped of her US citizenship and faces imprisonment and deportation, pending appeal.
The event, "Freedom Beyond Occupation & Incarceration – An Afternoon with Angela Davis and Rasmea Odeh," was organized by a number of activist groups, including the Rasmea Defense Committee, the Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter, BYP100, and We Charge Genocide.
Together, Davis and Odeh discussed the importance of Black-Palestinian solidarity, political imprisonment in the US and Israel, as well as the need for the abolition of prisons and ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Odeh has been an active organizer with the Arab American Action Network (AAAN), a 600-person organization that advocates for civil liberties and immigrant rights.
In 1969, an Israeli military court arrested and convicted Odeh of participating in a bombing, using a false confession that she said was the result of physical and sexual torture:
“I was raped and brutally tortured by the Israelis into a confession in 1969 and then convicted in an unlawful military court in 1970,” Odeh said. “I lived the difficult life of a political prisoner for 10 years in Israeli jails.”
Odeh noted there are almost 6,000 Palestinian political prisoners today, including 20 women and 160 children.
Though Odeh became a naturalized US citizen in 2003, the US government arrested her in 2013, charging her with immigration fraud for failing to indicate her Israeli prison sentence. While cases like these are usually tried in immigration court, Rasmea faced prosecution on the federal level. Her judge forbade her from testifying about her assault and torture in Israel, as well as her PTSD from the experience.
In November 2014, Odeh was found guilty and sentenced to prison time before facing deportation. After sentencing, Odeh spent five weeks in a Michigan prison, including three weeks in solitary confinement, before being released on bond as she and her defense team await a fall appeal.
Davis said that defending Rasmea from criminalization and targeting is part of the broader struggle against political imprisonment in the US.
“I identify with [Rasmea] because I know that it is through individuals that entire movements are attacked,” Davis said. “I knew when I was placed on the FBI’s '10 Most Wanted List' that it would have made no sense to put a single person on that list in that way unless the target was much larger.”
Davis said her arrest and trial were meant to send warning messages to Black people, and specifically to Black women warning them against political organizing.
“That very act in many ways was an act of terror,” Davis said.
Beyond comparisons to her own case, Davis connected Odeh’s situation, Assata Shakur’s 2013 naming to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List, US political prisoners who still remain incarcerated such as Black Panther Party member Mumia Abu Jamal and American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier, as well as the recently-released Cuban Five.
She argued that the federal government is targeting Odeh because she represents the “ever-expanding” movement for a free Palestine, including growth of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Davis has taken an active stance on the Palestinian issue since participating in a women of color delegation to the Occupied Territories in 2011. She said she’s recently been inspired by the ongoing protests in Ferguson as well as “the increasing numbers of young Black students, who recognize Palestine as their generation’s South Africa.”
Recounting the past year of Black-Palestinian solidarity, she cited the 68 Stanford University students who unfurled a Palestinian flag during a Black Lives Matter protest in January, the consistent support of Palestinian activists living in St. Louis for protesters in Ferguson, the solidarity visit 10 Palestinian students made to St. Louis in November, and the “strategic trip” of Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter, and Ferguson organizers to Palestine earlier this year.
These developments have helped build a broad consciousness of the work ahead, Davis said:
“Now especially, Black solidarity with Palestine allows us to understand the nature of contemporary racism more deeply.”
This nature includes the centrality of challenging US settler colonialism in the fight against racism, as well as the exposure of sexual violence as a political tool.
“We should applaud Rasmea for her courage in speaking out,” Davis said. “The struggle against racism cannot go forth without linking sexual violence to police and vigilante violence.”
Davis said that we are in the midst of what may be a new and revolutionary political juncture. In this moment, she argued, “We need to start demanding what we really want – not what we think we can get.”
These demands include keeping Rasmea free, pressuring President Obama to grant clemency to all remaining political prisoners from the Black Panther’s era, and ending the occupation of Palestine.
“If the US withdrew support from Israel, the occupation would be over tomorrow,” Davis said.
One local demand is the Chicago initiative to establish a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC). Frank Chapman, who founded the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression (CAARPR) with Davis and other activists in 1970, said during the event that the CPAC would create a shift in power relations.
“It is a radical, democratic demand and we intend to fight for it,” he said.
Chapman and CAARPR plan to organize a march of over 10,000 people in Chicago in late August towards this goal.
For Davis, the council carries more weight than the internal review boards many cities set up for police:
“We’re talking about a civilian council that has the power to stipulate exactly what policing is all about,” she said.
All of these actions fit into the larger picture of prison abolition, which Davis has advocated since for decades.
Odeh said that her prison experience helped her connect with Davis’s work:
“I now more fully understand the prison-industrial-complex that sister Angela Davis so eloquently talks and writes about and the reason that she discusses the need for the abolition of prisons and not simply reform.”
Odeh said her time in prison also informs her commitment to supporting all liberation movements.
“This is why we talk about joint struggle and our responsibility to support the struggle of the oppressed in this country, in Palestine, and all over the world.”
Odeh said that she learned about the US Black Liberation struggle as a young person in Palestine. Palestinians have drawn inspiration from the Black struggle in the US, as well as anti-colonial movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America she said. This support continues today.
“We Palestinians stand in unqualified solidarity with the brave Black communities who are rising up against every instance of vicious police violence against them in this country…We recognize that Black liberation in this country will lead to liberation for us all.”