On Mourning as a Motive Force: Grief and Black-Palestinian Solidarity
There is so much on my mind. My thoughts, like my feelings and even the sensations in my body are tangled, the emotion I have felt most recently is terrified. What a season of extreme loss, and this – a moment of heightened visible brutality. What the Palestinian people have been experiencing as a matter of policy for more than 50 years has now been felt more widely across the United States and around the world. The brutality we are witness to is soul crushing. No one should have to suffer this particular juncture of violence or experience state-sponsored genocide as both Jews and Palestinians have, as enslaved Africans and indigenous people of the Americas have— no one.
And yet, we have. As a direct result of colonial expansion, many of us have been collectively starved, beaten, tortured, enslaved, jailed, dispossessed and displaced, exploited and excluded, denied basic needs and basic human rights. As we suffer, as we die, a communications system decentralized in voice but consolidated in power echoes all the judgements about how we should or should not save our own lives. In a time of rising authoritarianism, climate disasters, and political violence – the Left needs a real and honest conversation about the role of armed struggle against the most powerful militaries of the world. Because more war is coming, and it will be asymmetrical.
I’ve been asking myself, who will I be when it comes? I hope I will be someone who stands with all of the dead, who wields grief as both sword and shield. I hope I will be someone living a life I would die for.
Someone asked me recently whether I would have critiqued the U.S. as bodies were being pulled from the rubble following the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers? As a native New Yorker, a Panther Cub and a committed Leftist, I replied, “I would and I did”. As I waited on that fateful day in abject fear to hear from my family, I blamed the United States for its violence, the violence that brought terror to my bones and my home.
I held the U.S. responsible because though I was profoundly afraid, worried and grieving, though my breath had quickened and hollowed at pace with the news reports of dangerous terrorists among us, my trauma and my politics are not the same. They cannot be if I am to be the kind of changemaker the world needs and the future deserves. Trauma and politics of course inform each other but I’ve worked hard to ensure that neither generational nor acute trauma drives my politics; that my politics are centered and grounded in principle, in history, in methodology, in vision, in strategy — not simply in my individual experience of loss.
I wonder if, in the midst of our grief, our movements for justice and peace can remain grounded through this collective experience of extreme loss of life. Can we, in this moment and the next, allow our grief to radicalize us. Can we refuse to disenfranchise each others’ grief while also remaining crystal clear that the enemy is neither Jewish nor Palestinian? The enemy is Occupation. Colonial occupation driven by white imperial power is the cause of all of every death, on all sides.
I think we can mourn the dead, comfort the bereaved, and see the system of authorized colonial violence clearly at the same time. In fact, I think that to lay a true path to peace, we must be able to multitask. This is what I believe. I have been told it is more complicated than that. That I don’t know the thousand year history. That I don’t understand the exceptional nature of this “conflict,” this “terrorism.”
I don’t know the entire history of decolonization efforts throughout Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. I don’t know the details of every fight of Indigenous people throughout the world. But, as a Black activist I understand the precarity of life under colonial rule, have my own distinct experience of military occupation, know the pain of being landless and dispossessed, of having a tenuous citizenship that can be and is relentlessly revoked. I know that resisting beyond the rules and double standards of the colonial power is often labeled terrorism.
I wonder if progressives and Leftists can choose to not use the term terrorist. I rarely use the term because the Black Panther Party (my mother’s Party), and the Communist Party (party of my elders) were called terrorists when they forcefully demanded freedom, economic justice and an immediate end to the police brutality and murder of Black people. My uncle was unjustly prosecuted and sentenced to life in prison as a so-called terrorist under laws made by the Homeland Security Act of 2022. I have worked alongside many for many years to free Black political prisoners unjustly imprisoned for decades by the American judicial system who were considered “terrorists.” We know the authorized terror of official governments, of banks and developers, of patriarchs and authoritarians. I am absolutely frightened now of the kind of right wing militancy and vigilante violence it spawns. I’m sure some of you are too. But we need a new way to talk about this that does not blanket the mind with racist criminalization or conflate armed struggle and terrorism.
That said, war is always the most right wing we will ever be. It embodies the greatest desperation, the most brutal aspects of ourselves, the sharpest edge of patriarchy. Can there be principle inside of that much pain? I hope so, but I don’t know. I only know that as a Black person in America, I understand violence in ways I wish I didn’t. I understand the feeling that I would do anything, Anything, to remove the noose from my neck. I wonder if this is something you can empathize with?
If you have lost loved ones in Israel, or Palestine my heart is with you today. My grief is always with all of our dead, guilty or innocent. I oppose anyone targeting civilians in violation of international law, despite the fact that Israel has violated this many times, as has the United States. And still, my political solidarity is with the end of occupation and the liberation of Palestine, solutions which I believe will protect everyone. I wonder what it would take for our movements to simultaneously grieve and remain focused ideologically and principally on that goal.
I pray for principled approaches to armed struggle.
I pray that decolonization leads to the end of the occupation and the liberation of the region, and that it does not lead to dictators as we have seen in many of our homelands.
I pray for self-determination and for both lateral and horizontal solidarity that follows the messaging and political vision of Palestinians and Israelis who support an end to the occupation.
I pray for journalists that can place this moment in historical and political context for the international community, for a media that does only report the moment of shock and awe but also the staccato rhythm of slow systemic genocide.
I pray for safe passage to hospitals.
I pray for the kind of justice that would protect every child, every life.
As I re-read Fanon, Jean-Paul Satre, and all those who have written about the role of violence in decolonization, I grieve the erosion of our humanity. I grieve with and pray (in my secular way) for all of you. For us. May we mourn, and may our mourning be a motive force, may it be a light in the dark. Harder times are coming, but so are we. And we are beautiful.
Malkia Devich-Cyril, is a writer, public speaker and award winning activist on issues of digital rights, narrative power, Black liberation and collective grief. They are a 2023 Changemaker Author currently working on their book, Radical Loss: Black Grief Can Change the World. Read their interview here on how to reframe grief as a powerful driver for movements, rather than a private experience.