Thousands of pro-Palestine demonstrators gathered in D.C.’s Freedom Plaza on Jan. 13 as part of a “global day of action” to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and a halt to United States aid to Israel.
Activists and supporters came together in response to the Palestinian death toll exceeding 23,000 in the Israel-Hamas war, which reached its 100-day mark on Jan. 14. Half a million Gaza residents have been displaced and 25 percent of Gaza’s land has been destroyed since the war began, according to Yasir Qadhi, the dean of the The Islamic Seminary of America and a speaker at the event.
The American Muslim Task Force for Palestine partnered with the ANSWER Coalition to organize the demonstration, which featured prominent speakers such as political activist Cornel West, former presidential candidate Jill Stein, Colorado Rep. Iman Jodeh and more. The ANSWER Coalition also organized a November march, which was recorded as the largest pro-Palestine demonstration in U.S. history.
Introduced by Palestinian author and speaker Laila El-Haddad, six Palestinian Americans also spoke about family members who they said have been killed, injured, displaced or abducted since Oct. 7.
The rally also included video speeches from rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, who spoke to being anti-Zionist as a Jewish person, and Gaza journalists Wael al-Dahdouh and Belal Khaled, who condemned Israel’s targeting of journalists in Gaza. As of Jan. 17, at least 83 journalists have been killed and 25 arrested in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“At what point does the mass intentional killing of innocent civilians constitute a genocide?” Qadhi asked the crowd. “The most powerful nation in that region, one of the most powerful militaries of the world, is bombing one of the most defenseless communities on the face of the Earth, and yet, still, we are not allowed to call it a genocide.”
‘No ceasefire, no votes’
Attendees at the rally frequently condemned President Joe Biden for his ongoing support of Israel. Many protesters at the rally held signs with the same message, some of which read “Abandon Biden, Ceasefire Now” and “Genocide Joe Gotta Go.”
Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of CODEPINK, said she and other members of the anti-imperialist grassroots organization have walked the halls of Congress every day for the past three months to advocate for a ceasefire. She spoke at the rally to hold Biden accountable for his actions.
“Joe Biden used to cultivate an image of himself as this nice, kind uncle Joe. He knew the value of human life because he had suffered such losses himself,” Benjamin said to the crowd. “Now, he is no longer the comforter-in-chief; he is known as ‘Genocide Joe.’”
Joel Cornell, a father from Sterling, Virginia, attended the rally holding a sign that read “Jews Say: Ceasefire Now! L’chaim Intifada,” which translates to “Long live the intifada,” Arabic for a resistance or rebellion movement.
“We, as Jews, have been told to hold the words ‘never again’ as sacred,” Cornell said. “And our tax dollars are directly going to making it happen again and again in — what is in Palestine — one of the most clearly documented genocides of all time.”
The U.S. also vetoed a call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza at a United Nations meeting on Jan. 9, while 153 countries voted in support of a ceasefire.
“President Biden, the overwhelming majority of countries came together in the U.N. to put an end to the slaughter, and instead you vetoed the U.N. resolution,” Benjamin said. “And when your own campaign staff say that it is a moral and elective imperative to publicly call for a ceasefire, please don’t wonder why you’ve lost the support of young people, the Muslim community, progressive Jews like myself. Time will not heal this wound. Come November, we will remember.”
Kyle McSweegan, a case manager for the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants and an American University alumnus, came to the rally from Connecticut.
“I don’t know how people can vote for [the Biden] administration again,” McSweegan told The Eagle. “I think they need to see us out here and they can’t just take our votes for granted because we’re on the left.”
According to a New York Times/Siena College poll, around 57 percent of U.S. adults disapprove of the Biden administration’s response to the war, while 33 percent approve. For adults aged 18-29 years old, 72 percent disapprove, while only 20 percent approve.
Qudsia Saeed, a senior in AU’s School of Education, said that elected officials’ apathy regarding Palestine has diminished her expectations of U.S. politics.
“I’ve really lost hope and I think that that’s made me really demotivated to engage in the electoral process and the elections coming up,” Saeed told The Eagle after the rally. “I’m interested to see what’s going to happen and how this movement is going to shake that and what changes, but I think that we’ve seen, like 100 days and 75 years and counting of the genocide, how much there’s that lack of care or compassion for people of Palestine in the United States, especially in higher leadership.”
Paki Wieland, a member of CODEPINK who came to attend the rally from western Massachusetts, said she grew up in the aftermath of the Holocaust and World War II and felt “outraged about the genocide.”
“[I’m here] to basically call out my government that is complicit in the genocide that is going on in Gaza right now,” Wieland said. “They have to stop; they have some morality. And even if they don’t have morality, they have the international laws that they’re violating. When we send money and arms to Israel, we are complicit in genocide.”
Wieland added that she plans to vote in local elections, but “can’t support Biden.”
“Ask people: what makes you feel secure? Is it [knowing] you have a house? Is it knowing you have a roof over your head? Is it knowing you have food to eat? Is it knowing that if you get sick, you can have medical care? If it’s your children, that they can go to school and they can learn things?” Wieland said. “That’s what makes us secure, not having nuclear weapons, not having drones, killer drones; that there’s just the opposite because they make us more threatened.”
She attended the rally with Ridgely Fuller, another member of CODEPINK, who traveled to D.C. from Maine. Fuller, who has spent 20 years advocating for the Palestinian liberation movement, said she has “always been committed to Palestine.”
“The number of young people out here is heartening,” Fuller said. “[It] really is the people that make such a difference.”
Several speakers quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in their speeches, referencing the federal holiday on Monday. Ismahan Abdullahi, the director of the Muslim American Society’s Public Affairs and Civic Engagement work, said in her speech that Palestinian liberation is intertwined with the Civil Rights Movement.
“When you see those in power quoting MLK Jr. in the next week, yet remain silent on the Palestinian genocide, I ask you to charge them with hypocrisy,” Abdullahi said to the crowd. “Charge them with hypocrisy, for do not be for justice only when it is written in the history books made popular by the times, be for justice when the injustice is being witnessed live as it is in Gaza and all of Palestine.”
Watfae Zayed, a Palestinian student from Chicago and a speaker at the rally, said there has been an increase in hate crimes against Muslim and Palestinian students that universities and colleges have failed to address. Muslim students across the country have reported feeling increasingly unsafe since the start of the war and the shooting of three Palestinian students in Vermont on Nov. 25.
“Students are losing their internships, presidents of universities are being forced to resign and worst of all, we are not safe. Wearing the hijab, wearing the keffiyeh, praying in public, even our names make us targets,” Zayed said to the crowd. “But if we look back to the first Intifada of 1987, we are reminded that the revolution was led by the shabab, by the youth of Palestine. I’d be remiss if I did not acknowledge that most of the efforts we have seen throughout the past three months are led by college students.”
Zayed urged students to get involved in their schools’ chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and their Muslim Student Associations.
“Being an organizer is not an uncool thing; it’s the coolest thing you can do,” Zayed said.
McSweegan, who graduated from AU’s School of International Service in 2010, said there is strength in numbers and that if they can, students should show up in support of Palestine because pro-Palestinian activism is about human rights.
“I think it’s sad that these days, students are thinking twice about coming out publicly and vocally because there could be consequences for their careers,” McSweegan said.
Saeed, the AU student, said she attends pro-Palestinian protests once or twice a week.
“I think [protests have] been that one space for me to consistently show up and be around people that have similar perspectives as me in terms of the occupation,” Saeed said. “I feel like it’s just a nice way to not feel isolated, [to] feel empowered and feel like more people care about this. And it seems like not enough people care at AU or in our environments outside of these protests.”
She added that speaking up for Palestine is a priority, especially for those who may not have to worry as much about the risks associated with speaking out publicly.
“I don’t want an opportunity if it comes at the cost of my values,” Saeed said. “And so I have been vocal and open to naming that and being okay with putting my name on it, but I know that that also comes with a point of privilege; I know a lot of people can’t do that.”
Saeed, who is Muslim, said the call to prayer during the rally, led by Imam Omar Suleiman, was “really beautiful.”
“I think I really needed that,” Saeed said. “I think the opportunity to pray in a crowd of people is always so beautiful.”
About 15 AU students attended the March on Washington for Gaza with AU Students for Justice in Palestine to show solidarity and support for the people of Gaza.
“It was held in D.C. because Americans wanted to express their anger to our government, specifically President Biden, who is using our tax dollars to fund the murder of innocent Palestinians,” AU SJP said in a statement to The Eagle.
Addressing the White House
The protest concluded with a march to the White House, where attendees gathered at the White House’s north lawn gate, some threw water bottles, bloodied dolls and flags at police officers who attempted to prevent them from gathering, and one attendee attempted to climb the north lawn’s fence.
Chants such as “Hey hey, ho ho, Genocide Joe has got to go” permeated the crowd as attendees held signs denouncing Biden.
The Bread and Puppet Theatre performed at the rally and later led the march to the White House. The troupe was established in 1963 by artist Peter Schumann and is known for anti-war public performances.
Around 40 people dressed in white donned handmade “dove wings” and held up giant papier-mâché birds on long poles. Some performers blew horns while Schumann instructed others to flap their cardboard and cloth wings as they walked.
William Knowles-Kellett, a Baltimore resident and volunteer with the group, told The Eagle he decided to put on the dove wings to urge the U.S. government to support a ceasefire in Gaza.
“A lot of people disagree on exactly how this conflict should end, but it’s pretty clear that it needs to end in a ceasefire,” Knowles-Kellett said. “And so, the dove is a symbol of peace. I’m here telling my government regardless of what all the differing opinions are, we all agree that it needs to stop. And so, I’m just hoping they’re listening.”
Schumann said he uses his art and symbolism — specifically the metaphor of bird droppings — to lead people to action.
“We say let’s go to the White House and put the bird droppings on the White House so that all the shit can be removed because the White House is full of shit, and the bad problems can go on top of it,” Schumann told The Eagle, adding that the doves represent flight and forward movement.
Schumann said he came to the U.S. from Germany in 1961 and participated in the Women’s Strike for Peace in the streets of New York City to call for an end to the arms race.
“Since then, we have never stopped protesting one genocide after another,” Schumann said. “America is so full of genocides, you can’t even believe it. It’s one after the other … so we have never stopped protesting genocides.”
This story was edited by Abigail Hatting, Abigail Turner and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Olivia Citarella and Charlie Mennuti.