PSU sends a message of solidarity

December 17, 2015

Neil Loehlein and John Monroe report on a day of resistance at Portland State University to the war at home and the war abroad.

SOME 200 people came out at Portland State University (PSU) on December 3 to show their solidarity with Syrian refugees and the victims of racist violence.

Since the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, politicians and pundits have been ratcheting up their hate-filled rhetoric to stoke support for more war and the scapegoating of refugees as potential terror threats. Republican Party presidential hopeful Donald Trump has been leading the pack in spewing racist and xenophobic bile, with plenty more eager to match his outlandish claims about Muslims and calls to refuse their entry into the U.S.

Two events--a rally against racist fear and violence and an evening event on the rise of ISIS, imperialism and the anti-refugee backlash--were a welcome response to the recent wave of racism and Islamophobia that have saturated the news media and given confidence to bigots to commit acts of violence against Muslims, refugees and Black people.

The message of the rally at Portland State was unmistakable: We will not stand by and let Islamophobia, racism and hate-driven violence and intimidation silence our voices of solidarity.

PSU students show their solidarity with victims of racist violence
PSU students show their solidarity with victims of racist violence (Neil Loehlein | SW)

THE DAYTIME rally was organized and co-sponsored by a broad range of student and community groups, including the Portland State University Student Union (PSUSU), the PSU International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). In spite of final exams beginning in four days, more than 100 students and faculty members came out for the demonstration.

Chants of "Don't give in to racist fear, refugees are welcome here!" and "Black lives matter!" punctuated the rally, as speakers emphasized the need for solidarity with those who have been victims of reactionary hate and violence, such as Arabs and Muslims across the country, while drawing connections to the attacks on Black Lives Matter activists in Minneapolis and Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs.

A student from Lewis & Clark College, the site of a recent racist attack, spoke as a Black Arab Muslim against the escalating racism, linking the struggle on their campus to other campuses, such as the University of Missouri. A member of PSUSU also spoke, a Black female student who has received threats from the university administration for her activism, while JVP brought solidarity statements with Palestine.

Nico JB, speaking on behalf of the ISO, stressed the need to understand the right-wing backlash as part of capitalism's drive to divide working people and justify its wars for global dominance. "We on the left cannot create a world without war and violence without challenging the economic and political structures of capitalism that pursue profit and accumulation at any and all cost," said Nico. "We must unite to build a broad, well-organized movement that has the politics capable of winning reforms in the short term, and ultimately creating a new world that puts human need over corporate greed."

PORTLAND HAS seen its share of the backlash in the wake of the Paris attacks. On November 15, the Portland Rizwan Mosque was targeted by an anti-Muslim demonstration. Though there were only a handful of protesters, the event signaled an increasing confidence among right-wing zealots in carrying out acts of hate and intimidation towards Muslims.

One week after the mosque demonstration, a Rwandan student attending Lewis & Clark College was the victim of racist violence at the hands of three white men who taunted the student with racial slurs and assaulted him. This attack follows racist comments made to social media site Yik Yak on the college's campus.

But the events at Lewis & Clark and the Rizwan Mosque were met with responses countering the hatred. So while Donald Trump and his ilk may be giving a newfound confidence to bigots in the U.S., there are still many people who oppose their hate.

The PSU campus has itself been the site of racist intimidation and hate. On November 22, a PSU White Student Union group appeared on Facebook. Shortly thereafter, handwritten posters appeared around campus stating, "Islam is terror."

In the wake of these developments, PSU's student government president Dana Ghazi sent a campus-wide e-mail standing up to the recent wave of anti-refugee, anti-immigrant and racist discourse in the media. In response to her e-mail, Ghazi, a Syrian immigrant, has received hate mail for taking a stand against Islamophobia and racism. Students at PSU believe that the university has failed to properly deal with all of these developments.

Kurt Schrader, a Democratic member of Congress from Oregon, has decided to join in on the wave of Islamophobic scapegoating by supporting legislation to block Syrian and Iraqi refugees from settling in the U.S. This resolution bars refugees from entering the country unless cleared by top U.S. security officials. These restrictions on refugees completely ignore the fact that all of the identified Paris attackers have turned out to be European nationals, not refugees.

According to the New York Times, "Since September 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, anti-government fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims." Even after the San Bernardino attacks, right-wing attackers still come out on top.

THE EVENING event on December 3--titled "ISIS, imperialism, and the anti-refugee backlash: How the 'war on terror' made the world more dangerous"--was an important response to the political disorientation and demoralization generated by the recent backlash. The event attracted roughly 80 attendees to discuss war, terrorism and the way forward for activists in the current climate of war mongering and Islamophobia.

Wael Elasady, a Palestinian-Syrian activist and member of the ISO, gave a presentation outlining the rise of ISIS in the context of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the counterrevolution against the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that swept across North Africa and the Middle East. It was actually the U.S. "war on terror" that destroyed Iraq, explained Elasady, and stoked sectarianism within the country, laying the groundwork upon which ISIS could develop and thrive.

He also illuminated the role of regional actors, such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Saudi monarchy, in supporting radical Islam as a counterweight to the pro-democracy movements of the Arab Spring. The United States' role in the Middle East "devastates the region, and it creates terror," explained Elasady. The terror attacks, in turn, give politicians the green light to increase attacks in Syria and Iraq, creating two mutually reinforcing circuits of violence.

Following the presentation, the room was filled with vibrant discussion, including a generous collection of donations for a Syrian refugee charity. Speakers offered important insights into what activists can do in the here and now to confront the growing tide of anti-refugee sentiment and the calls for more bombs dropped on Syria and Iraq.

Throughout both events, organizers called for a broad response to the outburst of bigotry and racism that has followed the Paris attacks. At the evening event, Elasady echoed this with a call for a politics of solidarity. A politics of solidarity calls for activists to consciously work to win over ever-broader layers of people to fight racism by showing how white supremacy has been historically used to oppress not only people of color, but the entire working class.

On the basis of a politics of solidarity, we can build broad movements capable of organizing effective actions and giving confidence to people who want to counter the current climate of racism and scapegoating. By making connections to other struggles and pointing out our common goals, we can broaden our movement. In this process we can form a united voice against the global reactionary backlash.

In addition to building a broad movement, we must be vigilant, so we are prepared to mobilize against any form of bigoted violence that rears its head. The December 3 events at PSU were a step in this direction.

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