Same Rules, Different Skin in the Game: Discriminatory State Violence from America to Palestine

CW: Police and State Violence

Cars lined up as far as the eye could see, retreating into the darkness of the Lincoln Tunnel up ahead. Mama shot a panicked expression at Baba before glancing at the gas gauge in front of her reading, “empty.” Even at five years old, I could tell that this meant we would likely not make it to the nearest gas station on the other side of the tunnel. After weaving out of traffic and pulling over to the side of the road, my parents began to seamlessly dart between discussing possible next steps and playing an elaborate blame game in regards to the empty tank.

Between “You drove the car last,” “It’s your fault we didn’t leave the house earlier,” “So what do we do now?” and “This is how you welcome my sister and her husband?” my aunt and uncle shifted uncomfortably in the backseat. With carry-on bags in their laps and blood-shot eyes from their international flight just hours prior, the two came to the same realization that I had a moment earlier: We were likely stuck here. As a defeated silence replaced my parents’ bickering, a police car parked closely behind us. The driver’s seat door flew open and a towering white male officer stepped out. 

Baba explained our situation to the officer who went as far as to give us his phone number, encouraging us to call him should our car stop running in the middle of the tunnel. The interaction was friendly and polite, the offered gesture was undoubtedly helpful, and notably not a word of Arabic was spoken in his presence. At the time, this moment must have felt like a heroic rescue to me on behalf of a uniformed authority figure. I now recognize that this same rear view mirror image of a police officer exiting their car would be one of the last things that a number of Black folks like Philando Castille, Walter Scott, and Korryn Gaines would ever see.

Police brutality affects Black folks most violently and substantially in the United States, and therefore officers whom I may have perceived as protective could be the same ones that systematically take Black lives with little to no retroactive justice for their victims. In a study conducted by The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, only 33 percent of police officers were convicted in criminal cases and 36 percent of those convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Furthermore, according to a study of 2900 officers on behalf of the Plain View Project, “1 in 5 of the current officers, and 2 in 5 of the retired officers, made public posts or comments that met [the threshold of discriminatory content] — typically by displaying bias, applauding violence, scoffing at due process, or using dehumanizing language. The officers mocked Mexicans, women, and black people, celebrated the Confederate flag, and showed a man wearing a keffiyeh scarf in the crosshairs of a gun.” Such a study exposes a widespread institutional bigotry among American police forces that marginalized communities have recognized and resisted for as long as they have been situated in the States. 

Among the particular targetted posts identified are both anti-Black content and a demonization of the keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress often associated with Palestinian culture and resistence. As a signifier of Arab culture, racism and xenophobia victimize those wearing it. The particular post of “a man wearing a keffiyeh scarf in the crosshairs of a gun” is the most explicitly and descriptively violent of those listed – yet the man’s features other than his attire remain unmentioned. Most notably, his race remains ambiguous. Unlike many members of the other groups targeted like “Mexicans, women, and black people,” the identity for which he is being preyed upon is evidently exposed by a removable physical signifier. This man would seemingly avoid the brunt of such hatred when not donning the traditional Arab dress (which is likely the majority of the time).

Similarly, the officer whose phone number now rested in our car’s cup holder as we apprehensively rolled through the Lincoln Tunnel likely had no way of identifying our Palestinian identity. None of us wore keffiyehs at the time or any other physical signifier of Palestinian identity. Due to the calmness of the interaction, I likely would not have considered associating this officer with the Israeli soldier who pointed a gun at my father and held him for hours of questioning at a Bethlehem checkpoint a year earlier. Upon the police officer’s return to his vehicle, my uncle released a sigh and reverted to our native language. He proclaimed his shock regarding such a comfortable interaction with police forces, given his experiences with the militant Israeli counterparts in Israel/Palestine.
Though we ultimately made it through the tunnel and arrived to the station with no need to call the number given, this interaction and my uncle’s response has lingered in my subconscious, especially given the resonance of the Black Lives Matter movement (a movement that explicitly mentions Palestinian liberation within its platform and promotes the intrinsic similarites of our resistance movements). In reflecting on this moment, it again occurs to me that the officer had no way of discerning our Palestinian identity whatsoever. Like many Arabs, we benefit from the privilege of passing as white and therefore of reaping the benefits of white privilege in interactions such as these. I often wonder how distinctly this moment would have transpired had we physically presented differently, or had spoken in Arabic, or if we had found ourselves in the same position while in Israel/Palestine, as my uncle alluded to. Would he have given us his phone number? Would he have pulled aside at all? Would we have made it out alive?

The institutionalized discrimination and brutality perpetrated by American police forces like the NYPD confirms a deep connection to the Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF) soldiers upholding a military occupation in my homeland. (Note: The force I refer to as the IOF calls itself the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as consistent with the government’s broader propaganda defining their occupation of Palestinians and the theft of their land as an issue of national security.) The distinct histories of colonization within the United States and the Occupied Palestinian West Bank in particular, where the IOF maintains ultimate jurisdiction, have manifested in similar discriminatory systems that prey most brutally upon the Black and Indigenous communities. The differences between these countries’ dangerous policing systems manifest in their particular methods of racial profiling which ultimately target the most directly marginalized Black and Indigenous communities in America and Indigenous Palestinian communities in Israel/Palestine.

It was in hearing the news of American officers traveling to Israel in order to receive “anti-terrorism” training from the IOF that the direct similarities between the two policing forces were proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. “Anti-terrorism” is a concept that Arabs in particular comprehend the coded discriminatory and often violent implications of post 9/11. In seeing the Israeli government’s subjugation of Black communities as well as the heavy policing of Indigenous communities here in the States, I began noticing how these separate oppressive systems which operate more than 5,000 miles apart fundamentally support one another. It is not a coincidence that Israeli propaganda promotes the fear of solidarity movements among distinct marginalized communities for collective freedom from their like-minded oppressors.

I am cognizant that as a white-passing non-Black person of color in the States, my ability to hide my identity is a privilege. In Israel/Palestine, this is far more difficult. Palestinian citizens of the West Bank and East Jerusalem must carry Israeli-administred Palestinian ID cards designed to more easily identify and subsequently restrict the Palestinian population. Palestinians learning Hebrew in addition to their native language of Arabic, recently downgraded in its legal status within the ‘48 territories (the land seized by Zionist forces in the 1948 Nakba which has since been often referred to as “Israel proper”) as part of the “Jewish Nation State Law,” mimics adaptive code-switching among a number of Black communities in the States. In its continued displacement and occupation of Palestinians in particular, the Israeli policing system has been designed to explicitly identify and target them further. This is particularly relevant when considering the shared physical traits of many Israelis and Palestinians as opposed to the greater emphasis on physical difference in America’s oppressive systems (though white supremacy undoubtedly plays a role in both). American policing systems, on the other hand, have designed legal systems most deliberately coded to target Black and Indigenous communities following a history of their genocide, land theft, kidnapping, slavery, and general criminilization.

I very clearly recall that upon hearing several of my white peers tout the danger of my Morningside Heights neighborhood, I often mentioned the number of security guards stationed on my block as a sign of safety. I now recognize that those same guards to which I directed the coveted eyes of my white peers as evidence of security were likely considered to be inciters of fear by many of my neighbors. Trayvon Martin’s murder at the hands of a night guard justifiably worried many folks of color about the well-being of their own children while passing the ironically dubbed “public safety” booths. Like the police officer outside of the tunnel, the figures I had the privilege of crediting with my protection were quite the opposite to others. Since then, I have started questioning how similar such guards in increasingly gentrified neighborhoods like my own are to the IOF soldiers stationed outside illegal Israeli settlements.

Although our district’s NYPD precinct has publicly championed a model of transformative justice as of late, I am simultaneously aware of the inherently irreformable nature of such intentionally and systematically violent institutions, particularly in the eyes of groups most heavily targeted by them. I have long considered the IOF to be beyond reform because it is at its core a militaristic entity stationed in my ancestral homeland with the intention of upholding a military occupation under the guise of “defense.” I have seen its soldiers point their guns at my father and question him for hours for simply talking back at an illegal and racist checkpoint. Although I have not personally experienced such brutality on behalf of police in America, I recognize that this is due to my relative privilege as a white-passing non-Black person of color. I also affirm that no one should have to experience police brutality directly or indirectly in order to acknowledge its widespread institutional nature and to unequivocally oppose it.

I have come to terms with the truth that the systematic brutality in my homeland from which I thought my family had been lucky enough to escape has simultaneously been stationed here all along in a different form. The discriminatory rules of both colonial endeavors were the same, they just featured different skin in the game. Literally.