The significance and lessons of student Palestine solidarity organizing under Trump


Matt Lester interviews Samia Saliba


Tell me about the demonstration that you organized on December 10th.

It was in response to Trump’s announcement about moving the capital and the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. I felt there needed to be a response. A call to action was made from Palestinian Civil Society for “three days of rage” to the international community. I felt it was important for the Olympia community to respond to that call—especially given the history we have with Palestine: the Olympia Rafah sister city project and Rachel Cory’s death in Palestine. I organized it with the help of the Rachel Corrie Foundation.

How did you organize that demonstration? You did it with the help of the Rachel Corrie Foundation, but what does that actually look like? Did you send out emails?

It was really last minute and that obviously posed a significant challenge because you want to get people out. You need existing political infrastructure in order to get a lot of people out, which is why I connected to the Rachel Corrie foundation and got in touch with other organizers I knew through my parents. They have been doing political organizing in Olympia for a long time, so they have contacts. The Rachel Corrie Foundation made a Facebook event so it was spread through their page and then they also sent out an message to their email list.

I also called Dan Leahy and other people who I knew had connections and they sent it out to their mailing list. The word was passed on to the local mosque and several other congregations such as the Quakers and Unitarians. For a last-minute event social media like facebook was really helpful.

A lot of people who showed up found out through Facebook. But also I think you can’t just rely on Facebook. It worked because the Rachel Corrie Foundation has an existing facebook following in the area but if you just as a person posting an event you have go to a lot of effort to spread it.

The reason I asked is that sometimes people say, “oh, everything we do is spontaneous”. I think the demonstration you helped organize was much different than the demonstration in response to Charlottseville in Olympia where there was no plan. It was just get people there and have them be angry.

Yeah, it was definitely planned. I contacted people to be speakers and I made a schedule of speakers in an order that I thought would be good. There were also people who came to the demonstration who wanted to talk who hadn’t been on the list. I let them talk because I felt they had something important to say. Last minute changes work if you have a plan. I tracked down a bullhorn and I made signs in case people couldn’t bring their own. You have to put some effort into these demonstrations—even if it’s short notice. I organized it within a day.

What would you say to someone that thinks that Palestine is not as important as focusing on what’s going on in the United States with Trump?

I understand the impulse to just deal with the most immediate problem that threatens your own safety and livelihood. The reason my fellow organizers and I focus on Palestine is because we think these struggles are connected in many ways. For instance, you can look at the deadly exchange the Israeli military has with police officers in the United States that leads to greater police violence.

There are even parallel environmental threats. The way the environment is used against certain minority groups is prevalent in both the United States and in Palestine.There’s immediate connections like that but then there’s also the culture of colonialism and violence that has affected both our communities and Palestinian communities.
There are countless connections you can make that show these parallels but we can’t just combat our own issues. Somebody has to make that connection and deal with both of these issues at the same time because if one of them gets solved but the other doesn’t then it’s not really a victory against the culture of violence we have.

The U.S. provides 4 billion dollars a year to the Israeli government. That’s goes to imprisonment of Palestinian children. We’re complicit in this violence so even if we can fix our society, we cannot say our society is just and free.

Tell me a little bit about Palestine solidarity at Western Washington University.

Western can be a difficult campus. It’s 80% white and not a lot students know or care that much about Palestine. It’s easy to feel isolated and think the work you are doing isn’t that impactful. But when you have a national community, you’re all doing work together, you’re all sharing ideas, you know that even if you get 10 people on your campus to be interested in Palestine it’s adding to the overall number.

Many college campuses are hooked up with the national Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization and that is really effective. It allows people to share their work with others so people don’t have to redo the same work.

All these BDS campaigns can work off the same template as a previous one. For example, blueprints from a mock apartheid wall at one campus can be shared with other campuses. It cuts down a lot of work. Also it allows people to feel less alone.

A national network is really interesting because it could address the  problems associated with students moving away from a place once they graduate. If you were a student at another school and you wanted to tap into that network, how would you do it? Do you talk to someone at another campus or do you go online?

Yeah they have a website, it’s Nationalsjp.org, with resources and  their conference information.

Anybody can go to their conference, but you have to show that you’re taking steps to start an SJP chapter because they don’t want people to infiltrate the conferences.

The network helps us keep institutional memory. We’ve set up an online folder that has institutional memory reports that we use to record any backlash we face, and if we have documentation or video or something it goes on there too. The folder has all of our past work we’ve done and when new people come in we can share that folder with them and they have all this information.

What were the impressive things you saw at that conference?

This conference had a real range of workshops. Some were about the history of the conflict, the present day from Palestinians, specific tactics to deal with repression, conversations about solidarity, and there was also an SJP 101 workshop. It was how to build your organization from the ground up or revive it and how to make it effective. It was super invigorating to be around all these activists who are doing great work and knowing that they started at a similar place like everyone else and you can get there too, sooner than you probably thought.

Talking to students were there light bulbs turning on, realizations that you and another group had the same problem?  

There were definitely a lot of recurring issues such as people being put on Canary Mission, posters put up calling them terrorist, Islamophobia that a lot of Palestine face on a daily basis. There were people dealing with campus apathy which I also found helpful to hear about and how they dealt with it. One person told me that nobody would talk about Palestine on their campus and then they started a BDS campaign and that began their campus conversation. They said you don’t have to wait to until you feel safe talking about Palestine to take action on campus. 

What is something that you want to see change or continue in Palestine solidarity activism?

There could be better effort towards bridging this generational gap. This conference really made me think the center of Palestine activism in the United States are college campuses. There should be a lot more energy and support and funding going towards college groups from community groups because that’s historically who gets noticed and gets stuff done.

There’s a mutual relationship: college students have a lot of energy and a lot of ideas and groups composed of older activist can bring financial and institutional help. College students can bring a lot of energy to people who have a lot of experience and knowledge of organizing. Older organizer have a lot to offer and college students need help. I wanna see more people saying “here’s my number, if you ever need help of any kind when you plan something call me.” I think there’s a tendency not to engage with older generations but I definitely think there’s a lot of value in that.

So energy from the students and the institutions and networks from older generations, and maybe even relationships, which you may not have had without your parents.

Even in a small City like Olympia having networks that people can tap into is helpful for a young organizer. I’m an older person

Do you have any ideas how to do that? It seems like RCF is maybe an example of a community group that invites students to events and the students do the same in return.

I’ve suggested having workshops together with older organizers and students. But not so it’s “we’re going to teach you all the things you should know, students.” It has to feel like we’re exchanging ideas. There are things that students know that older organizers don’t necessarily have as much experience with, like social media. I think it would be helpful if there could be community conversations about how activist techniques have changed and how they have stayed the same. Maybe in these conversations we could discuss when social media is helpful and when it’s not. Together we could come up with other options. Maybe we decide it’s better to print out a bunch of flyers and put them on telephone poles like my Dad is always talking about.