Durham must act on police exchanges and advance a progressive public safety for all

On April 5, the Durham City Council saw a petition to prevent police exchanges between the Durham Police Department (DPD) and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) or Israeli police. This petition, with well over 1,000 signatures, concerns exchanges such as those participated in by former DPD Chief Lopez and current Chief Davis. In these exchanges, law enforcement officers swap techniques with a state that uses police power to occupy and oppress its ethnic underclass. Opposing these exchanges represents one element of a progressive vision for public safety, both at home and abroad.

The agenda of Israeli forces in occupied territories is nominally anti-terror. Yet Palestinians subject to this policing live in fear of it. Between the highly racialized use of heavy surveillance, over-militarization, and excessive violence to the point of extra-judicial killings, terror in the policed community is not reduced but systematically exacerbated.

In the most heavily policed communities of our own country, Americans describe the same sentiments. Only a third of African-Americans trust police to do what’s right for their community. The explicitly racist history interwoven with policing in America is not confined to the past. Nearly a thousand people in each of the past three years were shot and killed by police in America. Nearly a quarter were black. Two years ago in Durham, African-Americans comprised just 40 percent of the population but over 80 percent of traffic searches yielding no contraband.

In 2010, DPD cited training in Israel as the rationale for shutting down the I-40 over a completely imagined threat. This “threat response” goes from humorous to dangerous when we criminalize an entire community. In America, the claim of fear has proven to be the sole requirement in absolving police for killing civilians, including pre-teen children. And in Israel – in the face of one of the world’s most powerfully armed and trained military forces – hundreds of young Palestinian children such as Ahed Tamimi are arrested as dangerous “security threats.”

Just over a week ago IDF killed Gazan protesters and a journalist, claiming self-defense because Palestinians were “rolling burning tires.” Is the force enacting this state violence supposed to be the model for public safety in Durham? Likewise, should American police forces, which brutalize marginalized people here on a regular basis, be a model where racialized human rights abuses are already prevalent?

Between NYPD’s Muslim-monitoring “Demographics Unit” and St. Louis’s (or Durham’s) use of tear gas on civilian protesters, the overlapping methods used against Americans and Palestinians represent “worst practices” in policing. Their exchange between Israel and Durham won’t benefit communities in America, Palestine, or even Israel. When IDF practices bleed from Palestinian territories into Israel itself, Israelis have expressed alarm at their oppressive nature. “The same machine that has been used to keep Palestinians at bay [is] now being used to prevent Israelis from protesting,” noted the Israeli outlet Haaretz when African Israelis faced police brutality in Tel Aviv. DPD has implied that Israeli exchanges with the Atlanta police were related not to the “counter-terrorism” tactics used against Palestinians, but on the tactics for building “police relations” with the marginalized African communities in Israel. (Atlanta’s mayor would disagree.) However, even if true, Israel is no model for the treatment of low-income African residents, either.

To those who ask why our struggles are specifically linked to Israel and Palestine: Our taxes fund Israeli oppression of Palestinians through unmatched amounts of military aid. Israel uses this aid to purchase military technology from American companies and to develop military capabilities of their own. And finally, our police – themselves armed like soldiers in the leftovers from our highly subsidized military industrial complex –exchange expertise with theirs. In short, we’re literally paying for our own dehumanization as well as that of marginalized people abroad.

Durham is poised to break this loop with the council’s statement on the issue. We and our leaders must decide: what do safety and security mean to us? Are people safe without access to affordable housing? Our undocumented brothers and sisters – do they feel safe with ICE hunting them at work, school, and home? What about access to healthcare? Surely the people of Durham and the United States would feel safer knowing that they’re guaranteed this basic security. Our jails and prisons are unsafe places – Durham has the power to make huge strides in sentencing and bail reform. Whether in the Southeast or the Middle East, these are the securities we can no longer neglect. State violence is not safety. With the power of the people, we can demilitarize – from Durham to Palestine.

Ihab Mikati is an activist with the Demilitarize from Durham2Palestine coalition.