Interview with BDS activist Willie Burnley Jr.: “I can’t be okay knowing that the people fighting racism are being labelled racist.” – In Palestine Today

Interview with BDS activist Willie Burnley Jr.: “I can’t be okay knowing that the people fighting racism are being labelled racist.”

Willie Burnley Jr. is a socialist, writer, political operative and a founding member of BDS Boston (Boycott Divest and Sanctions) who primarily organizes around racial and environmental justice. Willie traveled throughout Palestine for 10 days with the Eyewitness Palestine delegation. Liberation News interviewed Willie to learn more about the conditions on the ground and the connections between the struggles here in the U.S. and those in Palestine.

Liberation News: How long were you in Palestine, and where did you go? 

Willie Burnley Jr.: We were there for 10 days and we went all over the place. We were in East Jerusalem for most of our time. A lot of the surrounding towns, villages and cities of Jerusalem as well. We went to occupied Syrian Golan. We went to the Dead Sea in the West. We specifically went to the Ahava manufacturing places. They are a cosmetic company that makes a wrinkle remover and they take minerals out of the Red Sea, which basically makes it lose its salt. It transforms the area and deprives it of its identity. It’s also against international law because they are doing in the occupied territory, taking out Palestinian resources and using it for a wealthy company that is marketing itself as Israeli.

What did you do in those places? 

We mostly went around and talked to dozens of groups, activists and NGOs like, UNRWA, Grassroots Jerusalem and alQaws (the largest Palestinian LGBTQ organization). We met with someone from that group and talked about what was going on with them. We met with Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of BDS. We also met with Bassem Tamimi, father of Ahed Tamimi.

In Hebron we saw some of the most explicit militarism in parts of the occupation. Hebron is broken up into two different security sections. It’s all occupied, but it’s occupied differently depending on what part of the city you’re in. For example, in one part, ambulances are not allowed to enter without a permit beforehand, so they don’t really enter because that’s not how ambulances work. Someone told us a story about an elderly woman that collapsed and they had to pick her up since ambulances couldn’t pick her up. They were trying to walk her through a checkpoint in the other part of the city where ambulances could come through. The Israeli Occupation Force soldier at the checkpoint said, “Nope, this checkpoint is closed, you can’t come through.” The woman was dying, but the soldier said “No.” So they had to walk around to meet an ambulance, which took two hours, and by the time they got to the ambulance the woman was dead.

I saw a lot of instances like that. A lot of children whose parents had been killed. We went to a prison that’s now being ran by the [Palestine Liberation Organization] which was a former prison for Palestinians, including children. We were shown the torture techniques the IDF uses, like pressure positions to put prisoners in, forcing prisoners to be in the rain blindfolded for hours or positions where they’d be kicked and pissed on at times. A lot of things like that.

What drove you to travel to Palestine, and could you connect it to the work you did in Boston? 

A section of the apartheid wall in Palestine under construction.

A section of the apartheid wall under construction. Photo courtesy of Willie Burnley Jr. Used with permission.

It’s been a journey in the making for me. I’ve done a lot of organizing over the years on Palestinian solidarity with different groups like [Jewish Voice for Peace] and If Not Now. I’m trying to make BDS Boston my main focus. I originally got interested in Palestine back in 2014. I was in [Washington,] D.C. with Politico in their inaugural journalism institute. In 2014 Politico basically held a contest for journalism students of color around the country. They offered to fly us out, give us money and colleagues. I was like, “f**k it, yeah”. I was one of 12 students around the country who got picked. One day we were behind the scenes at Meet the Press in D.C., and on that day there were a lot of breaking news stories. The one that caught my eye was the war on Gaza in 2014, which the Israelis called “Protective Edge.” For the first time I was really seeing huge discrepancies between casualties. Thousands of Palestinians were being killed while Israelis were suffering almost no losses. Israel had a huge media presence, whereas we only got to hear a Palestinian official over Skype essentially. Before that I had fallen into the trap that the Israelis want you to believe — that it’s a complicated situation or that it has to do with religious differences, but that year I really decided I was going to try to figure out where my sympathies lied. It became very clear immediately that it was with the Palestinian people.

After doing a lot of reading and organizing in the last two or so years, I’ve been really interested in going with Eyewitness Palestine, which is the group I did eventually end up going with. Going into the trip, the thing I wanted to do was try to learn what companies were involved in the occupation, and find some concrete targets I could bring back to have some material to impact the struggle that’s happening on the ground. But when I arrived it became less about “this company or that company”… and more about hearing from the people, interacting with them and seeing how much beauty there was in the land. It was about the hospitality and kindness from the Palestinian people, from kids to the elderly to random people on the street.

When we were in Bethlehem I was walking down the street and I had a camera with me the whole time. We passed this man who had his whole family with him in this moving truck in the middle of the road, and he was like, “Take a picture of me!” and he repeated it. I took a picture of him on my Canon camera and he was very grateful, and then he drove away, very happy. He’s never going to see the picture! But we’d be walking down the street and everyone would be saying “Hi” to us. Even though most people spoke Arabic, and we could tell they didn’t speak [English] fluently, everyone went out of their way to greet us in both Arabic and in English. Being there was such a happy experience for me, despite being tempered with the visible reality of one of the most militarized places in the world.

What is your relationship to the struggle in Palestine? 

I personally feel very connected with the fight that’s going on [in Palestine] as a Black person in the United States. There’s a long history of solidarity between Black and Palestinian people — from Angela Davis, to Nelson Mandela, to Marc Lamont Hill to Ilhan Omar now. I draw a lot of connections and parallels between the two experiences, especially in terms of dealing with a colonial empire regime and apartheid.

What are the similarities between the occupation of Palestine and the segregation and racism that exists in Boston, and everywhere in the United States? 

The Tufts Police Department Chief actually went to Israel during what the JVP calls “The Deadly Exchange.” This is program lets the police, ICE, the CIA, the FBI and other federal agencies go to Israel to learn supposed “counter-terrorism” techniques. There was a point where we were driving somewhere in the desert, where we saw this mock Palestinian village that was not a real town. It was completely fake. We were told that the Israelis go there to train sometimes, but also that the U.S. military goes there as well since it’s similar to Afghani villages. So we were seeing these incredibly direct connections between what happens in Palestine and U.S. imperialist foreign policy.

Beyond police, I’m very worried about the erosion of our own constitutional rights based on Israel’s actions. Recently, Germany essentially banned BDS, saying “if you support BDS you can’t have government office.” Israel is apparently trying achieve something similar in the UK right now, and I think 27 states in the U.S. have passed something like that as well. I don’t think there’s a legitimately constitutional way you could ban the support of BDS unless there’s a complete rationalization that BDS is inherently anti-Semitic, which I do not believe that it is. Israel has had success around the world with their message that, “you can’t critique us, you can’t boycott us, you can’t actually use your moralization to try to counteract our settler colonialism.” I worry how that’s going to not only impact our free speech and BDS organizing, but also our ability to organize and protest in general.

From the police to the military, there’s so many direct connections to what’s happening [here and in Palestine], and you know, as a person from a tradition of protest and fighting for my own rights, I can’t abide by that. I can’t be okay knowing that the people fighting racism are being labelled racist.

What are some tangible things that people were telling your delegation to support or bring back to the U.S., as activists and organizers? 

Eyewitness Palestine prioritized going back and telling these stories. There’s such a huge discrepancy in the way that the American media is tilted to support a regime that is extremely militaristic, violent and racist. So little of the Palestinian narratives get out into our conversations so people repeatedly told us, “when you go back, tell your friends and families everything. Write stories about the things you saw here. Make sure the world knows we’re fighting.” That’s the biggest tangible thing we’re actually given.

Obviously there’s some companies and corporations that were doing f**ked up things. There were things I didn’t know about different kinds of settlements. There are settlements that are really just extracting resources from Palestinian land on behalf of Israel, which would actually be going to a Palestinian state if it existed… We saw different ways the occupation was actually like, depriving Palestinians of wealth and giving that wealth to the Israelis. I think that should inform our strategies, making sure that in the U.S., things are clearly labeled as coming from occupied territories.

How do you see this experience impacting your organizing and your own life moving forward?

A couple years ago I went back to my college as an alumni because Angela Davis was giving a talk, and she said something about this specifically. She said that no matter what cause we fight for, we need to make sure we include Palestine in it. I think there’s so many things that we can learn from this struggle and from the BDS call. Palestinians don’t get enough credit for it, but they’ve built a lot of international coalitions with the Black community. My dream is standing shoulder to shoulder with Palestinian people while they lead their own self-determination. We as organizers in the U.S. need to learn how to build an anti-colonial, anti-war, anti-racist movement. We need to get good at targeting corporations that are invested in our own oppression. I see Palestinian liberation as built on bringing people together to fight against all these evils that are currently f**king up the entire world. I think we can do that same thing here if we’re smart enough and we use this as an example.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

Before I went I expected to see bad things. I expected to have to deal with very unpleasant emotions and in reality I definitely did. But something I was not expecting was the kindness, the hospitality, the friendliness… all these things. People danced with us. They gave us so much food and they opened their homes to us.

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