This past weekend I watched J.Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only. It is a short 2016 documentary that consists of J.Cole rapping songs from his most recent album of the same name, spliced with footage from his travels through Greensboro, Alabama, Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Ferguson, Missouri. From the documentary two scenes stand out. The first is when J.Cole’s house is raided by a SWAT team because his neighbors suspected him to be a drug dealer. Ten heavily armed officers, with rifles and bulletproof vests, bang down his front door and shift his security cameras so their actions will remain unseen. The second scene shows J.Cole attempting to find Mike Brown’s memorial. He runs into Mike Brown’s older cousin, who chauffeurs him to the memorial. These two experiences highlight themes of racial discrimination and government militarization. More interesting that the documentary itself was considering J.Cole’s experiences and these themes alongside the February panel “When I See Them, I See Us: Black Palestinian Solidarity in an Age of Struggle,” part of NYU Gallatin’s Black History Month.
J.Cole’s song “Neighbors” is a narrative of the SWAT team raid referenced above. J.Cole raps:
Some things you can’t escape:
Death / taxes / and a racist society that make /
Every nigga feel like a candidate /
For a Trayvon kinda fate /
Even when your crib sit on a lake…
In these lyrics, Cole highlights that Black people are constantly mistreated and systematically criminalized regardless of how hard they work to decriminalize their bodies. J.Cole speaks from an American perspective, but the criminalization of the Black body is global. From the contemporary U.S. viewpoint, very often the Black body becomes synonymous with any form of oppression. This is a point that was highlighted at the “When I See Them, I See Us” event. Although the Black body is often used as synonymous for various forms of oppression, the analogy is often quite inaccurate. Black Palestinian solidarity is a nuanced, emerging movement.
“Neighbors” provides a perfect opportunity to highlight the main commonality and difference between the Black and Palestinian experience. In “Neighbors” Cole paints an accurate picture of a country where Black people are under attack simply for living. Regardless of how they attempt to make their bodies valuable, they are surveilled and criminalized, even subject to state-sanctioned murder. The Palestinian body is not under this same form of attack. The Palestinian body is not globally recognized a threat. However there are intersections at how the Palestinian body and Black body are policed within their homes and communities. Panelist Nour Ekart describes this as the “disposability, assault, and destruction of Black American and Palestinian bodies by state power.” This means that while not all Palestinians across the globe may be able to relate specifically to “a Trayvon kinda fate,” Palestinians will be able to relate to their personal space and autonomy being attacked and controlled by militarized forces — similar to how J.Cole’s home was raided by a S.W.A.T team in 4 Your Eyez Only.
The communication between Palestinians and Ferguson protesters after Mike Brown was killed is a perfect example of what I referenced above. The decision not to charge Brown’s killer with murder sparked protests in Ferguson. Protesters were met by a militarized police force in possession of rifles and batons. When Palestinians saw this, they immediately began sending Ferguson protesters strategy suggestions, including telling protesters to pour milk in their eyes and never rub them after being tear gassed, to get closer to police because the closer they are, the harder it is to be tear gassed, and to run against the wind instead of towards it. Protesters were able to provide so many useful tactics because they had similar experiences. They knew what it felt like to be attacked by militarized officers in brutal ways. Although the reasons Ferguson protesters and Palestinians were attacked was different, the militarized police responses were similar.
The final line in “Neighbors” is “I’m movin’ back to South Side.” J.Cole’s decision to move back to “South Side” is his attempt to avoid as much physical contact with White people who oppress him through day to day interactions and institutionalized strategies. However, in the 4 Your Eyez Only documentary J.Cole welcomes more complex solutions to racial discrimination. He stands back as two men from Ferguson discuss if freedom for Black people can be found through transforming the players within the institutions that already exist, or if they should just admit that they can never eradicate the burdens of their race, and subsequently should accept their lives as they stand today. Although this discussion cannot be directly applied to Black-Palestinian solidarity, the complexity of the problem can. J.Cole ends his song with what seems like a simple solution, but his documentary highlights that the answer is actually more complex. Solidarity for these two groups mean that each group considers each other’s complex — or intersectional — identities, histories, and relationships to their oppressors. Until this framework is prioritized, sustainable solidarity will not be reached.
The perspective on Black-Palestinian solidarity that I have expressed above was developed after attending the “When I See Them, I See Us: Black Palestinian Solidarity in an Age of Struggle.” As a Black woman from a low-socioeconomic status, the complexities of my identities have often made it challenging for me to see the value in Black-Palestinian solidarity. I have asked myself: why should I be committed to a group of people whose racial and historical experiences are radically different from mine — individuals who probably view me in a similar light as my oppressor? While this is the reality, I recognize that violent militarized state powers have made Black-American and Palestinians unfair victims. My identities are not the same as Palestinians, but my identities help me understand Palestinians. In my opinion, to turn my back on a group of people who have experiences in common with my own would mean that my oppression has gone in vain. As a Black woman, I see my job as doing all that I can to ensure that people that look like me receive justice. My role is also to use my distinct experience to recognize injustices to other identities when I see them, call them out, and engage in the work toward solutions when possible. Believe it or not, both can be done. J.Cole’s most recent album talks about over-consumption, love, fatherhood, and as explained above, his experiences as a Black man in America. Maybe his next one will provide some suggestions for how Black-American experiences can prompt global solidarity.