All Photos by Joe Catron for MintPress News (Click to expand Slideshow)
WASHINGTON — Hundreds rallied outside the White House before marching to the nearby Verizon Center on Sunday in a show of support for Palestine and protest of an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference.
According to many participants, the gathering, organized by Al-Awda: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition and the ANSWER Coalition, marked the largest pro-Palestine demonstration in the United States since Israel’s 2014 offensive against the Gaza Strip.
Among the crowd stood participants from across the country, as well as a few visitors from overseas
“It’s really important that people start to wake up,” Robert Martin told MintPress News.
A Palestine supporter from Melbourne, Australia, Martin may have traveled the furthest of anyone to reach the mobilization, with most participants arriving in cars or buses.
“The American public needs to realize what AIPAC’s doing,” Martin said. “It’s tragic. It’s doing damage to humanity.”
AIPAC, the largest Zionist organization in the U.S., lobbies Congress and the White House to support policies favorable to Israel, including military aid. Its well-funded gatherings draw thousands of participants, including political candidates hoping to gain support from donors and voters affiliated with the group. This year’s policy conference featured speeches by presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, with only Bernie Sanders declining to appear.
Washington insiders consider it one of the District’s most powerful lobbies, although its strength has faced repeated challenges in recent years. AIPAC led failed drives to push a U.S.-led bombing campaign against Syria in 2013, then to block the nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015.
On military appropriations to support Israel against occupied Palestinians, AIPAC’s influence remains largely unchallenged on Capitol Hill. But the U.S. and Israeli governments have yet to reach an agreement on a new round of military aid, with Israel demanding more as “compensation” for the Iran deal.
The impasse caused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unusual absence from this year’s AIPAC conference, with his deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, telling Israel Radio, “There was a decision not to go to the president as long as the agreement over the compensation package is not concluded.”
Netanyahu demands at least $10 billion more over the next decade than the Obama administration has offered.
“It’s not just about Palestine,” Martin added. “It’s for human rights. If it’s Palestine today, who’s it going to be tomorrow? AIPAC’s like a criminal organization, and it frightens me. It really, actually frightens me.”
As Martin spoke, uniformed Secret Service officers barked orders for protesters to move from their permitted location on Pennsylvania Avenue, directly in front of the White House, into Lafayette Square across the street.
Several police vehicles nudged the edges of the crowd, seemingly trying to push it away.
But protesters held their ground, and the officers and their vehicles soon disappeared.
‘A 68-year, ongoing atrocity’
From 1601 Pennsylvania Avenue, on the edge of Lafayette Square across Pennsylvania Avenue, Philipos Melaku watched the events unfold.
If Martin traveled the furthest to reach the gathering, Melaku certainly traveled the least.
He lives there, in a small protest encampment made famous over three and a half decades by Concepcion Picciotto, a Spanish-born advocate of nuclear disarmament, Palestine, and other progressive causes.
Melaku’s involvement in what many consider the longest-running continuous protest in the U.S. started not long after its launch in 1981.
“I’ve been organizing protests since 1974 for the cause,” he told MintPress. “Here, I came and started helping in the early 80s, originally with about six overnights a month, to eventually seven days a week.”
Like many in the crowd, Melaku’s political involvement started at an early age.
“My father was in front of the White House, on the White House side of the street, for picket-sign protests December of ’52 through March of ‘53, protesting against the Korean War,” he said. “When the family moved to California in 1964, there was a continuation, protests that were trying to stop what eventually became the Watts Riots.”
“My parents were taking me to these protests, and it became – I mean, it’s me. That’s how I grew up.”
Melaku cited not only his family’s political background, but also his own experiences during turbulent periods of history, to explain his unusual level of commitment.
“In 1974, my next-door neighbors get that knock on the door,” he said. “I’m spending the night over there. The door gets opened, and his mother gets handed an American flag by a U.S. Marine. She collapsed right there.”
This episode, Melaku said, marked the beginning of his own political activities.
“That weekend me, my brothers and our next-door neighbor – all of us between 13 and 15 years old – organized protests at West Los Angeles City Hall only one week later. Over 300 13- through 25-year-olds showed up at that protest. From then until now, I still don’t drop the banner.”
Another experience, Melaku said, had propelled his support for Palestine.
“I myself was in Gaza in 1986,” he said. “I saw a young boy only about 60 feet away from me murdered. He was Palestinian. It changed my life. That’s why I can’t let down the cause until I see Palestinian territory renamed back to that name.”
“Every human rights violation is an atrocity,” Melaku added. “The Palestinian situation happens to be a 68-year, ongoing atrocity. ”
‘It would be nice to see more’
After several hours in front of the White House, the crowd left, marching east to the site of AIPAC’s conference at the Verizon Center.
There, chants quickly drowned out any further speakers, as police whisked AIPAC attendees past an angry gauntlet of demonstrators.
Several clashes broke out as participants from each side confronted the other.
Police reported no arrests on Sunday, although one Palestine supporter, Ariel Gold, of the women’s activist group CODEPINK, was arrested at a subsequent protest outside the Verizon Center on Monday.
The demonstration continued for several hours, dissipating only when numerous groups had to leave to catch their buses home.
About the mobilization outside his front door – one of many he has seen and joined over the years – Melaku said, “It’s great to be amongst hundreds of brothers and sisters that are like-minded who are protesting for our cause.”
But asked about protests in front of the White House, he added, “I’d like to see more.”
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