Notes on a Debacle

I have received a number of comments and emails praising me for my participation in what was intended to be the Gaza Freedom March. As a group, we have gotten a couple of letters from organizations in Gaza, offering their sincere thanks for our efforts on their behalf.

I, for one, do not accept their thanks.

For the sake of morale, it is generally best to stress the positive when examining the results of an effort involving months of work and great personal investment by many good and brave people, and I will try to do so. In the case of the fiasco in Cairo (and “fiasco” is the only word that can do justice to the past week) it seems to me that if we are to dredge anything positive from this experience, it must be the lessons we take from it. This will only work if we are ruthlessly honest with ourselves, and refuse to applaud the sort of self-congratulatory speeches that people are apt make in the midst of a decisive defeat.

For those who have not been following this in the international press (there has been little in the US media, with the exception some extensive coverage by Democracy Now!) I’ll give a short recap of December 31st:

At dawn, the police surrounded the Lotus, the hotel where the largest number of GFM delegates have been staying, including most of the leadership. They set up metal barricades, behind which they formed the now familiar human wall of young men wearing body armor, helmets, and clubs the length of baseball bats. The activists in the Lotus awoke to find themselves prisoners, unable to get to the big march that had been planned to coincide with the march in Gaza. I had gotten up in the early morning, and had gone out to buy food for what I was anticipating would be a multi-day stand-off with police. There was a precedent for this. The 300 person French delegation, in an inspiring display of endurance, had been occupying the sidewalk in front of their embassy for the past four days, surrounded by literally hundreds of police in their own mini-Gaza Strip, refusing to disperse. Their ambassador had even come out to spend some of the first night with them (unlike ours, who not only would not deign to meet with us, but actually asked the Egyptian police to detain us). I had already packed everything else I would need to live on the street for several days and had attended a non-violent resistance training the day before. We were expecting arrests at the very least, and had written the phone number of our legal team on our arms. I happened to pass by the Lotus which, at 8:00 in the morning was already surrounded by 50 or so police officers. I forgot about my shopping and ran back to my hotel, the Sun, to tell people what was happening. I assumed that our hotel would meet with a similar fate, since quite a few of us were staying there as well but, in an affront to our sense of importance, the police never showed up. It was decided that, in spite of the Lotus blockade, we would stick to the original plan, which was to leave our various hotels individually or in small groups at different times, protest paraphernalia hidden, posing as tourists. Taking different, circuitous routes, we would all arrive at the Egyptian Museum, a massive building in a prominent location, where we would begin to march in the general direction of Gaza, until we were stopped, at which point we would all sit down and refuse to move.

Of course, the police already knew what was happening, and were waiting. When they closed in, people decided to sit down, blocking traffic. Naturally, the police dragged demonstrators away. A couple of people were beaten, dragged by their hair, or had their shoulders dislocated by police dragging them from the street. I don’t want to harp too much on the violence against protesters, as it is barely worth mentioning in the context of violence against Palestinians by Israelis, and Egyptians by their own government. Torture of dissidents is common here and I am always aware of the privileges I enjoy as a member of the powerful USA gang. My sympathies lie more with the police than with the protesters, who are probably very poorly paid and have far less freedom than any of us visitors. To make a long story short, we were corralled on a sidewalk in the usual “free speech” cage made of hundreds of cops. People were even allowed to enter and leave the cage eventually, though only individually, and if one left, one might have to wait to get back in. It worked out better for the police to have us quarantined in one area, rather than wandering around and causing trouble. Their main objective, I realized throughout many of these sorts of demonstrations, was to keep Egyptians away from us, and vice versa. If any locals seemed curious about what was happening, they were immediately chased away by the police. They are not afraid of us, I thought, they are afraid of their own people. They did not want anyone photographing or filming the demonstrations, and there were always plainclothes guys all over the periphery whose only job seemed to be to stop people from taking pictures. Some were fairly intimidating, while others would simply wave a hand irritably or wag a scolding finger and say “No photo. No photo.” as if they were just camera-shy. There was no way they could stop it, of course, since everyone had a camera, and taking pictures therefore became a form of protest in itself, or a least a way of irritating the police. After about six hours of a couple of hundred people occupying a filthy piece of sidewalk, chanting, singing protest songs, chatting, delivering rousing speeches, and dancing to the sweet, sweet music of someone who had thought to bring an accordion, a vote was taken. Should we stay for days, as the French were doing, stay until after midnight and the beginning of the new year, or quit right away? The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of quitting right away, which I found disappointing, personally. If the French could do it, why couldn’t we? Still, I have to admit that it did seem a bit futile to take over a sidewalk indefinitely, albeit one at a busy intersection. I watched everyone leave, one by one or in small groups, and played my accordion. The police told me to leave too, and I refused. After all, I was the only one left, what harm could I do? I continued playing as they surrounded me. A couple of the cops tossed coins at me and laughed, and I thanked them. When it was clear that I wasn’t going to stop playing the accordion, they started to drag me by one of my arms, though I was able to keep playing with the other. They started to take my bags away. I looked around, and there was no watching except maybe thirty or forty police. This is stupid and pointless, I thought. I got out of there while the option was still open.

Later that night, a New Year’s Eve gathering was called in Tahrir Square. We tried to walk to the Nile, but were stopped by police, and so instead stayed in the square to ring in the new year with candles, and a large number of our old club and gun-wielding friends in attendance. Some people made speeches. I can’t recall ever feeling so sad on New Year’s Eve before. I left the crowd, to sit alone on a bench and look at the moon, which was full and hung directly overhead like a dim, yellowish light bulb. There was no one in the huge square except the activists and the police. Everyone else knew to keep their distance. Eventually, people started calling for music. “Where’s the accordion player?” people were shouting. I tried to slip away, but was caught. They wanted something upbeat. They wanted to dance. My heart wasn’t really in it, but I did my best to help people forget the sadness that we all must have been feeling. It was the least I could do.

No one had really been ready for the incredible challenge of trying to organize a large, physically diffuse and philosophically and linguistically diverse group of people in a totalitarian police state. Making decisions by consensus is difficult, time-consuming, and exhausting, as anyone who has tried to do so knows. Trying to do so without even being able to hold a general meeting is still more difficult. The night before, I attended a planning meeting which filled several hotel rooms, the hotel hallway, the stairwell, and the hallway downstairs. It was simply impossible to hear what anyone was saying, or to see or get anywhere near those who were speaking. The hotel staff tried to squeeze past us to perform their duties. Every so often, a loud simultaneous “Aye!” would be heard as some decision was made, yet there was no way for most of us to find out what was being decided. Nearly every bit of information that one heard from one person would soon be contradicted by another from someone else. It’s likely that the Egyptian police had a clearer idea of what we were going to do than 2/3 of the activists did. It did turn out that some of the supposed hotel employers were actually police spies, though this was hardly a surprise.

Added to the communication problem was the fact that no one had really prepared, psychologically or tactically, for the possibility that we would not be able to get into Gaza. This was no accident. Though we all knew we might not get in, the Egyptian officials with whom the March organizers had been negotiating for months had given indications that we would be allowed in, as long as all of the proper protocol was followed. When it was announced, a week before we were scheduled to enter Gaza, that we were being denied, long after everyone had purchased plane tickets and many delegates were already in Cairo, a sort of panic began to emerge. There had been no discussion of a “plan B” among the larger group and, in fact, such discussion was strongly discouraged by the organizers of the March, who had invested everything in a diplomatic, non-confrontational strategy with the Egyptian government. We had to assume that our emails were being read, our phones tapped, and our meetings infiltrated by Egyptian intelligence, and we were told by the organizers that any discussion of possible protests in Cairo would only antagonize the government and lessen our chances of getting into Gaza.

This strategy of diplomacy, though nobly intended, was a failure. In retrospect, I believe that Egypt never had any intention of letting us in. I suspect that as soon as organizing began for this march, the governments of the US, Israel, and Egypt decided how they would handle it. Their strategy was to continue to negotiate until the 11th hour, withholding an answer but giving every indication of their willingness to cooperate, while for months thousands of activists squandered millions of dollars and untold of hours of labor, and then to clamp down suddenly and completely once it was too late to divert those resources, making it impossible for us to gather or move in large groups, or even to travel out of Cairo. A further divisive tactic, that of offering a deal to the organizers, at the last minute, to allow 100 “good” activists to enter Gaza, to be chosen instantly by edict or not at all, while denying the 1,260 remaining “hooligans” proved extremely effective at damaging the solidarity of the movement, and the credibility of its leaders.

From the beginning, and at every crucial step, we walked directly in the traps that were set for us. Noble intentions, when ineptly applied, are not especially heroic. Therefore, I will not accept the thanks of the people of Gaza, who will continue to rot in a maximum security prison, reduced to what the director of operations for the UN Refugee and Works Agency calls a “subhuman existence”, until they are freed by a less diplomatic, less credulous, less easily divided mass movement.

Did we accomplish anything? Certainly. There was some press, which will help at least to get a few people thinking about Palestine, which may lead to a desire for more knowledge about it. The more one learns about the historical record and the current situation (I’m speaking of actual facts, not the propaganda that passes for responsible discourse in the US) of Israel and the US’s behavior toward Palestinians, the more appalled and outraged one becomes. That sense of outrage occasionally leads to action. Perhaps more importantly, I hope that our little effort, combined with the simultaneous demonstrations that took place all over the world on the 31st, will help the people in Gaza to feel less alone. It’s true that the world has turned away, has forgotten about Gaza. It was thought by many that the especially barbaric and sadistic character of “Operation Cast Lead” would finally shock the world into taking the side of Israel’s victims, but this has not happened. I imagine being at the bottom of a deep well, calling out for help. I can hear voices, and see shadows of people walking past, but no one stops. Also, gratifyingly, many Egyptians have quietly expressed to us their appreciation for our efforts on behalf of their “brothers”, as well as envy that they are not able to do same without grave personal risk. I have been inspired, personally, by the remarkable people I have met here, people whose conscience and bravery and dedication are humbling. If we can make a million more of these people, we will win.

Could our resources have been more wisely used? Without a doubt, though it’s easier to criticize than to envision.

Thank you for reading,

David Symons

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6 Responses to “Notes on a Debacle”

  1. Caroline Says:

    Oh David. I am saddened beyond words at the futility of it all and at my own lack of surprise at any of this. Once, when we were on the phone, I told you a story I had heard and you did not hesitate for a moment to insist it was untrue. Whilst still on the phone you ‘googled’ the story and debunked it utterly. I told you I admired your incredulity. You said that people were far too credulous in general. I feel like you have just gone swimming in a Sea of Uselessness with a School of Credulous Fish and were swept up in a Net of Bureaucracy.

    I spent New Years in my room alone with a candle burning for Gaza. It was a candle I found in the trash in Rutland, a prayer candle with a prayer to Saint Jude, the Saint of Difficult Situations, on it. What you did was one million times more meaningful than what I did, but all we can do is remember, everyday, in our own way, the plight of everyone that suffers. Especially those that suffer at the hands of our own government. Specifically, and most heinously, the people of Gaza.

    I know this effort was not intended to be symbolic, but as things did not go as planned, the symbolism with which we are left, the message you sent to Gaza, that people care, that there are Americans that wish to something, anything, to set them free— you with your long, flying fingers, your mournful, lusty accordion and your astonishing dedication— I believe you did more than you could see right now.

    Your writing and your passion are staggering and inspiring. Whether you care or not, I am thankful for all that you have done in this effort, on this trip and ever.

    -Caroline

  2. Joseph Says:

    These diaries have been riveting. Thank you for sharing your experiences. As your student, I appreciate the surreal, heroic, and tragicomic role of the accordion in your story.

    It seems that for a long time, the Left in our country has had naive expectations regarding direct action. I appreciate your refusal to accept thanks for another triumph of the symbolic gesture.

    A single light can banish darkness from a room. That is why darkness has vast legions of soldiers, police, and intelligence officers to squash it out or least confine it to the smallest possible closet.

  3. Edward Says:

    From the River to the Sea,
    Pal-e-SWINE will NEVER BE.

    INSHALLAH!

  4. Reality Says:

    If you want to free gaza, you need to get rid of the crazy lunatic terrorists who rule gaza. Hamas want to destroy Israel. Islamic Jihad do, too. They launched nonstop terrorist attacks against Israel, so Israel put a defensive barrier up and made it hard for terrorists to sneak into Israel. So the terrorists spent years launching rockets into Israel. So then Israel did operation Cast Lead and since then, most of the rockets have stopped. If you want Gaza free, you need to focus on getting the insane islamic fundamentalists who rule gaza out of control and put sane, reasonable people in charge of gaza — and have the palestinians support those sane, peaceful leaders. Then Israel can open borders up without fear of Jews being murdered as a result.

    If you care about peace, that’s what you’ll focus on.

    If you only care about harming Israel, however, then you’ll try to get gaza’s borders opened without changing the fact that crazy terrorist lunatics are in control of gaza and will just use the additional freedom to try to focus harder on murdering Israeli Jews.

    • klezhobo Says:

      There are two problems with this. One is a problem of facts, the other of attitude. With regard to the facts, the record is quite clear that the Egyptian-brokered six-month ceasefire between Hamas and Israel which preceded Cast Lead was a great success from the perspective of Israel. Hamas rocket fire completely stopped during that period, and in fact Hamas was arresting people from other groups who were still trying to fire rockets. Consider this statement from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs from July 27th, 2008:

      “Publicly, Hamas leaders have stated time and again that the lull is a Palestinian national interest. On several occasions, Hamas members have arrested Fatah operatives who were involved in firing at Israel and confiscated their arms.”

      From the Palestinian perspective, the agreement was not honored, as Israel failed to loosen its blockade as promised. Nevertheless, Hamas held up their end of the deal. The ceasefire was unambiguously broken by Israel on November 4th, 2008 (when attention of the whole world was fixed on the US Presidential election) with aerial bombardments and an armed incursion into Gaza which killed six people. Hamas responded exactly as expected, by resuming rocket fire into Israel. Two weeks later, Israel’s largest circulation newspaper quoted Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak admitting that Israel had broken the ceasefire:

      “the recent waves of rocket attacks are a result of our operations, which have resulted in the killing of twenty Hamas gunmen.”

      Still, Hamas offered to re-instate and extend the ceasefire on December 23rd, 2008. Israel refused an agreement that would have once again ended Hamas rocket fire and brought the security they claimed to seek, choosing instead to launch a bloody massacre, the gruesome details and criminality of which have been so well documented by now, that there is no need to say more about it here. So much for Israel’s self-defense argument.

      I can forgive your ignorance of the basic facts, as the media coverage has been extremely biased, particularly in the US. What I find harder to understand is the racial double standard implicit in your line of reasoning. I agree that Israel has a right to security. Do Palestinians also have a right to security, in your view? Israel has a right to self-defense. Do Palestinians have the same right? You seem to take it for granted that Israel has a right to collectively punish an entire population because some people within that population might pose a danger to it (this is assuming we accept the self-defense argument, which I don’t). Every independent investigation by a reputable organization, from the UN to Amnesty International to the National Lawyers Guild has concluded that Israel targeted, and continues to target the people of Gaza as a whole. This is illegal behavior under international law, and only a moral cretin could condone it.

  5. Reality Says:

    Also, if you are against enemies of common decency, you should be fighting against hamas and islamic jihad more than you should be fighting against Israelis who for the most part are motivated by genuine aims of simply living their lives without being terrorized by the people who run gaza or the west bank.

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