“I never assume that most people share my politics,” Prof. Russell Rickford, history, told The Sun.
Activist and scholar of black American history, Rickford joined Black Lives Matter in Ithaca in 2015 and became a founding member of Cornell Coalition for Inclusive Democracy last year, which led protests demanding the University to protect and support international Cornellians in March.
More recently, and more controversially, at a knee-in last Wednesday following the professional athletes and Cornell students who had been protesting racial violence, Rickford led the chant “Free Palestine” just before the crowd kneeled.
Rickford’s chant was followed by a scattered applause and a palpable unease among some in the crowd. Shortly later, the chant “Free Palestine” was dubbed by conservative blog Legal Insurrection as the “hijacking of other ‘social justice”’ causes to turn them against Israel.” It also called Rickford “an anti-capitalist, anti-Israel activist” after the protest.
Following the protest, Rickford was met with criticism that he misused a platform framed for solidarity with athletes and black Cornell students in addressing the hotly debated Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Prof. Rickford assumed that because we were here to protest racism on Cornell’s campus, we all shared an opinion and belief on a separate issue,” wrote Arielle Hazi ’18 in a Guest Room for The Sun. Hazi said she was “frustrated” with Rickford’s decision to initiate the chant.
Rickford said his rhetorical strategy in leading the crowd in the chant “Free Palestine” was precisely aligned with the aim of the protest.
“The colonial occupation of Palestine remains one of the world’s most visible campaigns of white supremacist violence,” Rickford said. The event was held not just to bring awareness to violence against black Americans, but as an expression of resistance against acts of white supremacy — to which Rickford said Palestinians were subject without exception under Israeli occupation.
Rickford said his chant connected expressions of white supremacy on campus and in the United States to systemic colonial violence abroad.
Comparisons of his chant with anti-Semitism, Rickford said, is effectively an insulation of ongoing colonial powers.
“It is also an attempt to silence the millions of Jews around the world who condemn Israel’s apartheid policies,” he said.
When Rickford was growing up, black nationalism, amid its the cultural resurgence in the 1990s, was a basis for his “early resistance to white supremacy.” As he continued to evolve politically after college, he studied the works of Marxist and Third Word theorists, from Frantz Fanon to Amilcar Cabral, and has embraced a leftist view of society.
“I began to link anti-racism with anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and anti-militarism,” he said.
Protests against racism in America today too often avoid a “direct confrontation of power,” Rickford said. This avoidance of confrontation is something Rickford said he has attempted to counteract in his speeches.
That is why he said he has called for liberation and anti-colonialism not only at home but, more importantly, around the world.
In fact, Rickford said he had also mentioned the history of genocide and dispossession of indigenous peoples in North America in his speech. But he said that there was no complaint about it following the protest, because that statement was not regarded as a serious challenge to the ongoing practice of colonialist power.
“Those in power reserve the right to define the limits of acceptable political expression,” he said.
The fact that people were specifically unhappy with Rickford’s remarks on Palestine demonstrated that, to Rickford, his challenge of Palestinian occupation was a threat to those in power in America.
“The Palestinian people remain colonized,” he said. “Their oppression is routinely justified in the United States, a society steeped in the culture and logic of settler colonialism. All the great structures of U.S. violence — mass incarceration, militarism, police terror, racism, etc. — converge in the occupation of Palestine.”
Rickford said one’s dedication to principles of social justice and equality should not end at home.
“If we’re committed to liberation, connecting the local and the global seems not only appropriate, but absolutely necessary,” he said, adding that his motivation behind leading the chant at the knee-in was to challenge listeners to place their values in a global context.
The Palestinian people, as a group that has long endured colonial occupation and apartheid, to Rickford, were thus necessary to include in the conversation about race and hate in America.
“I always invoke Palestine when I speak publicly. It is part of my attempt to demonstrate solidarity, as the Palestinian people have long done in relation to the black freedom struggle,” he said.