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Pro-Palestinian protestors embrace disruption to push politicians to act on Gaza war


Pro-Palestinian protestors embrace disruption to push politicians to act on Gaza war

Feb 22, 2024 | 7:04 am ET
By Dana DiFilippo
Pro-Palestinian protestors embrace disruption to push politicians to act on Gaza war
Hundreds of people rallied in Princeton on Nov. 4, 2023, to call for a ceasefire in Gaza as the Israel-Hamas war continues. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

The breakfast at Poppy’s Bagels in Teaneck Tuesday was supposed to be a meet-and-greet with U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the kind of community glad-handing politicians do to solidify voter support.

Organizers who postponed it just hours before the first schmear got spread said too many people registered to come and they’d reschedule at a larger venue.

Pro-Palestinian protestors embrace disruption to push politicians to act on Gaza war
Graphic circulating by activists after U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer postponed a community breakfast on Feb. 20, 2024.

But pro-Palestinian activists weren’t buying it. They’d planned to disrupt the breakfast to demand a cease-fire in Gaza and took credit for its cancellation, celebrating with a graphic highlighted by a cartoon referencing “Ghostbusters:” “VICTORY! GENOCIDE JOSH GOTTHEIMER GOTT SPOOKED! BAGEL BREAKFAST CANCELLED!”

“This is what horrible reps get for being horrible!” activist Omayma Mansour said of the derailed event.

Disruption has long been a protest strategy of activists frustrated when marches, leafletting, and phone calls fail to move policymakers. It’s especially popular among climate activists in Europe, who have glued themselves to roads, scaled buildings and bridges to drape banners, vandalized priceless paintings in museums, and even blocked jets at airports to protest global inaction on worsening climate change.

But it’s become an increasingly deployed tactic for pro-Palestinian activists to drive attention to the mounting Palestinian death toll in Gaza, where the Israeli military’s response to Hamas’ deadly October attack has been denounced by critics as genocidal.

In New Jersey, activists have disrupted speeches by lawmakers, including Sen. Cory Booker and U.S. Rep. (and Senate hopeful) Andy Kim, stormed their offices to unfurl banners listing the dead, and confronted Gov. Phil Murphy and First Lady Tammy Murphy at a Lunar New Year celebration at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton.

“When you catch them off-guard in public, it shows their true colors, like they’re not prepared with a speech to hide behind,” said Gabi Green of Howell, who interrupted a Kim speech in South Orange last month to demand a cease-fire. “These politicians are not untouchable. They’re regular people just like us, and we need to hold them more accountable for the horrible actions they are doing. And when they won’t meet with us face to face, this gives us that opportunity. They can’t just hide behind closed doors.”

The responses of ambushed politicians have run the gamut.

Kim halted his speech to talk with activists, who then left peacefully after securing a promise for a follow-up meeting. Booker returned protesters’ chants of “Cease-fire now!” with chants of “Column A, all the way” (that protest disrupted a pre-Election Day rally). State troopers removed the Drumthwacket protestors after the governor dismissed their demands to disband the New Jersey-Israel Commission with: “We’re not gonna do that. Do you want a picture or not?”

Gottheimer spokesman Zachary Florman disputed any idea that Tuesday’s bagel breakfast was canceled to dodge protesters. Gottheimer is a vocal Israel supporter and four-term Democrat now seeking reelection in New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District.

“Given that there is nothing more important than public safety, and at the recommendation of law enforcement, the event had to be postponed, so we can move it to a larger venue,” Florman said.

Organizers of a Gottheimer event at Rider University Thursday night flirted with closing his talk to the public after hearing Palestinian supporters would attend, citing security concerns. But instead, they closed registration early and barred anyone who hadn’t already registered from attending, including the press.

Pro-Palestinian protestors embrace disruption to push politicians to act on Gaza war
A pro-cease-fire protest outside the Monmouth County Democratic convention in Long Branch on Feb. 10, 2024. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

Driven by faith … and social media

While critics revel in politicians’ public humiliations, activists acknowledge the disruptions don’t often change policymakers’ minds. Mansour, who has joined protests in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., said talking to some lawmakers “is like you’re talking to the wall, like there’s no heart there.”

“You show them images of family members in Gaza, pictures of amputated children, but the dehumanization of the Arab people has gotten to where people are like: ‘These people are borderline terrorists, Hamas human shields, we shouldn’t really care for them,’” Mansour said. “As an activist, it’s tough.”

A 45-year-old mother of four from Princeton, Mansour might seem like an unlikely agitator. But activism has become her full-time mission, and she’s participated in disruptive actions by anti-war group Code Pink, greeted politicians with red-painted hands to represent the blood spilled in Gaza, and shouted during politicians’ speeches to demand a cease-fire.

Pro-Palestinian protestors embrace disruption to push politicians to act on Gaza war
Omayma Mansour of Princeton, center in keffiyeh, speaks to a staffer in a congressman’s office on Capitol Hill. (Photo courtesy of Omayma Mansour)

Her activism is rooted in her Muslim faith, and she has no plans to stop, even if policymakers don’t seem swayed.

“It’s an obligation in our religion that if you see something wrong, you should change it with your hand. If not, then with your mouth; you have to speak up. And if you can’t even do that, then you have to change within your heart, and that’s the weakest level of faith,” she said.

While activists’ loudest call has been for a cease-fire, they have pushed other priorities, including cutting U.S. military aid to Israel, supporting humanitarian work in Gaza, and helping Palestinians safely escape the war zone.

Ajaz Siddiqui of Hillsborough is especially concerned about rising Islamophobia and has distributed flyers at the Statehouse in Trenton and participated in rallies to demand policymakers act.

“We keep talking about the rise in antisemitism, but Islamophobia is going along with that because the rhetoric used by the federal government and state and local politicians is all about Israel’s right to defend themselves,” Siddiqui said. “They don’t look at the other side of the equation and think: ‘Is it appropriate to kill 30,000 civilians?’”

One bill now in the Statehouse that Siddiqui has lobbied legislators to support would adopt a state definition of Islamophobia. But it has been introduced three times since 2021 and hasn’t moved. And there are far more bills supporting Israel, including proposals to grant public employees unpaid leave to assist the Israeli military or government, establish an Israel evacuation reimbursement fund, and recognize Israel’s right to use decisive force in defense of Hamas’ attacks.

Erik Alhussaina of Carteret has largely focused his activism on calling and emailing lawmakers to ask for help in getting Gazans to safety.

His father, Ahmed Alhussaina, was vice president of Israa University in Gaza, which Israeli troops took over and then destroyed last month. His family wants him home in New Jersey, but it took 47 days for him to escape Gaza, and he and other relatives are now stuck in Egypt, waiting for the State Department to approve a visa for Alhussaina’s 3-year-old niece.

Disruptive protests aren’t his thing, but social media has cemented their crucial role in promoting the Palestinian cause, he said.

“You can really see how TikTok has taken this whole incident by storm,” he said.

Tea Burns, an activist who publicized the Drumthwacket protesters’ confrontation, agreed “there’s not just one linear mechanism” for social change.

“Not everyone is going to be the marcher, not everyone is going to be on the streets,” she said.

Disruptive protest and civil disobedience can be tools for public accountability in ways that letters and calls cannot, she said.

“It’s putting them in the hot seat, putting them in the spotlight, and not letting up, so that they know this will not be dismissed easily,” Burns said.

Pro-Palestinian protestors embrace disruption to push politicians to act on Gaza war
Hundreds of people rallied in Princeton on Nov. 4, 2023, to call for a ceasefire in Gaza as the Israel-Hamas war continues. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

A price at the polls?

It’s tough to imagine politicians haven’t been brainstorming furiously behind the scenes how to stave off the next surprise protest.

Some of those contacted by the New Jersey Monitor declined to share how protests have altered their routines or security practices, although Murphy spokeswoman Natalie Hamilton said the Drumthwacket disruption prompted officials to reevaluate event protocols.

Others, including Kim’s team, were more philosophical.

“The Congressman feels very strongly that democracy is stronger when everyone has a right to have their voices heard. He leads with listening, empathy, humility, and respect,” spokeswoman Katey Sabo said.

As much as Mansour appreciates someone listening, she said she and others are growing weary of lawmakers who don’t act.

She pointed to New Jersey’s growing Palestinian community. Arab Americans haven’t historically been counted as a distinct demographic in the U.S. census. But the census does track religion, and census figures show more than 300,000 Muslims live in New Jersey.

Many of them are voters, Mansour warned. She pointed to the “Abandon Biden” movement that progressives angry about the Biden administration’s policies on Israel have pushed mostly in swing states as primaries approach. Along with rejecting Biden, she and other activists in New Jersey plan to support Larry Hamm for Senate instead of front-runners Kim and Tammy Murphy. Hamm is a longtime activist in Newark who has long called for a cease-fire in Gaza.

“The way we’re going to punish these representatives is that we’re not going to vote for them again,” Mansour said. “And it’s not just the Muslim community — it’s people who care about humanity.”