More than 50 years ago I walked down the main street of Selma, Ala., to the jeers of hundreds of angry people. I was one of a small group of college students who had arrived late to the Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights.
Because we were late, we brought up the rear of the march, and the red-faced crowd turned its full-throated fury on us, deterred only by the armed federal troops who stood between us. We were about to cross the now famous Edmund Pettus Bridge. Weeks earlier on a day known as Bloody Sunday, civil rights protesters had been brutally billy-clubbed and attacked by state troopers mounted on horseback when they tried to cross this bridge.
There is nothing like walking a gauntlet of hate to understand what it means to be divisive. Just a few weeks ago I was once again accused of being divisive. This time it was because I testified along with dozens of other people supporting Occupation-Free Portland (OFP), a coalition of peace, faith and social justice organizations. We asked Portland’s City Council to stop using our taxpayer dollars to invest in Caterpillar Inc., a company that is complicit in violating the human rights of the Palestinian people. Since 2014, the city of Portland has invested $110 million in commercial paper issued by Caterpillar.
Specifically, we called out Caterpillar for selling D9 bulldozers to Israel, knowing that these gigantic two-story militarized weapons would be used to punish entire families, sometimes entire neighborhoods and villages, for any defiance of Israel’s illegal occupation. This type of action is called collective punishment, and it’s a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which our country has ratified.
We pointed out that Caterpillar bulldozers are also used to destroy Palestinian farmland, razing olive trees and orchards to make way for illegal settlements in the West Bank, also in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Caterpillar equipment was also used to help build the Separation Wall on Palestinian land, a wall ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
We outlined many other reasons why Portland should not invest in Caterpillar. Caterpillar violates six of the seven criteria outlined in Portland’s Socially Responsible Investments policy. The city’s advisory body, the Socially Responsible Investments Committee (SRIC), agreed with our findings and recommended putting Caterpillar on the city’s Do-Not-Buy list. Both of us cited its role in building the Dakota Access Pipeline, razing burial ground sacred to the Sioux Nation at Standing Rock, evading $2.4 billion in federal taxes by setting up a phony subsidiary in Switzerland and contributing to global warming through its Oil and Gas Division.
But we were not being called “divisive” for those reasons. We were labeled “divisive” specifically because we called attention to violations of Palestinians’ human rights. Why?
Why should human rights for one group of people be singled out for disapproval? When Portland’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) endorsed our recommendation to stop investing in Caterpillar, members of the HRC reported receiving intimidating and threatening emails and phone calls. Rather than being supportive of their action, leading public officials, including Mayor Charlie Hales and even Portland State University President Wim Wiewel, signed a statement accusing the HRC of being “divisive.” The HRC had merely studied the evidence and after a community hearing concluded that they had heard nothing to dispute the evidence.
More than 5 million Palestinians living under occupation cannot vote for the Israeli government that controls their lives. The Israeli government has been systematically dispossessing Palestinians since 1948 in the pursuit of a state ideology known as political Zionism that lifts one ethnic group over all others, even though 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are Palestinian Arabs.
Today an iconic halo has descended over the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march. It is as if the whole world crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day. Now even white supremacists cannot openly argue against black people having the right to vote; instead, they try to suppress that right. There were only 3,000 of us that day in March 1965. We were considered divisive then because many white Americans saw us as disrupters of the status quo. They believed each state had the right to decide its own laws, and if white supremacy was enshrined in state law and the social order, then so be it.
If we had not been divisive, it would still be that way today. Every struggle for human rights has been divisive. When any group is oppressed, there is always an oppressor attempting to justify the oppression. So many of us have decided to remain divisive and to wear it as a badge of honor, knowing that one day the world will acknowledge and help repair the injustice done to the Palestinian people. Unity only comes when everyone is free. And first you have to cross the bridge.
UPDATE: Fortunately, on December 21, the Portland City Council held a second hearing and ignored the charges of divisiveness, voting unanimously to suspend all investments in corporate securities, including Caterpillar and Wells Fargo, during the first quarter of 2017. In the interim the city will study its investment policies.
Rod Such is a member of the steering committee of Occupation-Free Portland.