Standing up to Cuomo’s attack on BDS

June 14, 2016

Ronnie Almonte reports on a protest against the governor of New York for his unconstitutional attack on the campaign to boycott Israel in solidarity with Palestine.

OVER 400 protestors gathered after work on Thursday June 9 outside the Manhattan office of New York State Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Chanting "Cuomo don't you know? Israeli apartheid has got to go!", the demonstrators had come to protest the governor's outrageous decree ordering state agencies to divest from organizations aligned with the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

Some of the major chants at the protest looked to the past to justify the tactics of BDS: "South Africa, Montgomery! We will boycott to get free!" Others looked to what justice will look like in the future: "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!"

But it was not merely the content of the chants, but their volume and tone that conveyed the attitude and outrage of the crowd.

The first few dozen activists who arrived were greeted by the NYPD assembling a police pen in which to contain them. Satisfied with what appeared to be a low turnout, the cops relocated the protestors to a side street, hidden from the rush hour commuters.

New Yorkers protest Gov. Andrew Cuomo's anti-BDS order
New Yorkers protest Gov. Andrew Cuomo's anti-BDS order (

But more people trickled in. The group on the side street swelled, spilling onto the street. The cops used blue police tape to block the protesters' access to the front of Cuomo's office. But individuals broke off from the crowd on the side street in ones and twos and diffused onto the main street.

Within minutes, dozens became hundreds, and the feeling of solidarity snowballed. Signs were raised higher, chants grew angrier and the ratio of protestors to counterprotesters spiked. Employees in the governor's office watched it, passerby in taxis and buses saw it, the cops and counterprotesters realized it and the protesters felt it.

The protesters continued to march in an oval on the congested sidewalk, in spite of the efforts of their opponents to provoke them into swinging fists--the perfect pretext to discredit the demonstration and for police to shut it down.

The angry crowd stayed focused, chanting over counterprotesters' shouts of "Thank you Governor Cuomo" and "Thank you NYPD." It marched on despite fleeting whispers of "Kill all Muslims" and the not-so-subtle verbal threats of rape to woman protestors. On the contrary, these whispers and threats seemed to have energized the crowd in spite of them.

The police ordered the large crowd to leave the sidewalk and enter the pen but protestors seemed to silently but collectively agree to ignore this command. They entered the second hour of the protest still marching and chanting.

UNDER CUOMO'S executive order, companies and institutions will lose state funding if they boycott Israel. A list of their names will be compiled and made publicly available on the internet.

Before the ink of Cuomo's signature could dry, legal groups accused Cuomo of violating the constitutional right to freedom of speech. Decades ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to boycott is protected by the Constitution. Cuomo, as a government official, is violating that right by selectively penalizing organizations who exercise their right to freedom of expression.

Cuomo's executive order undermines democracy in another way. In the state legislature, two bills had been introduced identical to Cuomo's decree. Cuomo claimed to use his executive powers to bypass the state legislature because passing legislation can "often be a tedious affair."

Many organizations have passed resolutions in support of BDS in recent years, from the National Union of Students in the United Kingdom to various U.S. academic associations and labor unions--most recently the union of graduate student workers at New York University.

In response to these victories, several states have pushed through bills attacking BDS over the past 18 months, in what Palestine Legal has characterized as the "second wave of anti-BDS legislation."

Cuomo is far from the only government official to take matters into his own hands when these legislative attacks have stalled. The British government this past February sidestepped parliament and issued a ban preventing public bodies--including student unions, universities and city councils--from adopting an Israeli boycott policy.

As the BDS movement accumulates victories and shifts public opinion, governments worldwide will continue to counterattack, even if they have to resort to the most undemocratic means. Everyone in solidarity with the Palestinian people should defend the BDS campaign from these attacks and expand it to new campuses and unions.

Further Reading

From the archives