On April 30, over 100 Black women activists gathered in Washington, DC, to support Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar in the face of Islamophobic incitement from the Trump White House. The event, Black Women in Defense of Ilhan Omar—organized by Angela Davis, Barbara Ransby, Black Lives Matter co-founders, and others—drew participants from around the country. Together they called for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats to censure President Donald Trump for tweeting a video of the 9/11 attacks, complete with flaming images of the twin towers, falsely accusing Omar of minimizing the attacks. The tweet was the latest incident in a cycle of incitement against Omar and spurred a spike in death threats targeting her.
For the past few months, Omar has repeatedly come under fire for her comments criticizing America’s pro-Israel policies and the role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in pushing US support for the occupation. She has also become a scapegoat for right-wing commentators who have sought to turn her into a symbol of left-wing anti-Semitism, at a time when white-nationalist violence against Jewish and Muslim places of worship is on the rise.
The protest came as a moment of Black women’s unity in the face of Islamophobic misogynoir, with speakers such as Representative Ayanna Pressley contextualizing the attacks on Omar as part of a long-standing pattern of silencing of Black women’s voices. Speaking at the event, Omar described the attacks on her in the broader context of white supremacy, including anti-Jewish violence like the attack on a synagogue in Poway, California, saying, “We collectively must make sure that we are dismantling all systems of oppression.”
Before the rally, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, who helped organize the event but was unable to attend, spoke to The Nation about the critical significance of Black women showing up to support Omar.
Rebecca Pierce: What are the goals you set out to accomplish with this event, and why were these demands so important?
Patrisse Cullors: I think one of the first things is that people need to understand that part of the mission of the Black Lives Matter Global Network is to protect Black women and girls and that, at the height of BLM, we were labeled as terrorists and very few people came to our aid. Representative Ilhan is an elected official. She was voted in. She has been treated terribly the entire time she has been in office by the right, and I think it is important that Black women stand up for her—and visibly stand up for her.
RP: Why do you think Omar is such a target not only for the far right but also some Democrats?
PC: It’s simple. She’s Black, she’s Muslim, she’s hijab-wearing. That is literally the image of fear that Trump has invoked in order to win over his base. She is a scapegoat for him and the right wing. I also think the Democratic Party doesn’t know what to do with her. They don’t know how to protect her, and they aren’t being the fierce advocates that we need them to be.
RP: One reason Omar has come under attack is her support for Palestinian rights. How does this fit into a larger context of attacks on Black leaders in solidarity with Palestine?
PC: I think there is a long history of Black people being in solidarity with Palestinian people. This isn’t in a vacuum. Representative Ilhan’s support or my support or Marc Lamont Hill’s support or Angela Davis’s support [is part of] a long legacy of Black people and Palestinian people fighting for each other and being in solidarity with one another. And so, I think that the minute that Ilhan was open and transparent and not afraid to talk on behalf of Palestine, she really became a target of the right.
RP: Why is it so important to defend Palestine solidarity in Black organizing?
PC: The first time I went to Palestine was in the winter of 2015, right after the Ferguson uprising, and I was invited by the Dream Defenders delegation. I had studied a lot about Palestinian rights. I was not new to the issue of the occupation, but nothing prepares you for that level of violence. For that level of, honestly, dissonance. Dissonance from Zionists in America. So when I sat and had conversations with Palestinian people, especially Palestinian elders, one of the first things they said is, “Black people and Palestinian people have a natural alliance.” I think part of that history, whether it was Malcolm X or other Black leaders that were thinking about self-determination, these are some of the themes that are at the intersections of Palestine and Black American people.
RP: Do you think that these kinds of coalitions are a threat to the status quo?
PC: Everybody knew you don’t talk about Palestine, especially in social-justice spaces. That if you agreed with that, you kind of kept it to yourself. I would say in the last five to seven years, we have seen a significant shift when it comes to the cultural conversation about Palestine and Israel and that more and more young people, more and more white Jews, more and more folks of color are having a much more honest conversation about the occupation. That we don’t want our tax dollars going to Israel’s apartheid country. So we are in a position now, a cultural-shift position, and I think Ilhan is in some ways the messenger of that.
RP: What do the attacks on Omar say about the fight against white supremacy in this moment, when there is a threat not only to Black and brown people but also to Jewish communities and other minorities?
PC: Ilhan has become the latest representation around how the right wing is establishing what is white nationalism. And I think for our movement, protecting Ilhan means we are fighting against white supremacy. We actually have to be better at that, at protecting her as a symbol really, at protecting the rights of Jewish people, at protecting the rights of communities of color, of women, of trans folks, of queer folks. This is that moment where we have the opportunity to really fight hard for everybody.