Parallels between movements exist, despite history museum’s claims

By now, the Missouri History Museum’s decision last week to cancel a solidarity-building event due to the presence of Palestinian activists on the panel has become citywide news. The event, titled “Ferguson to Ayotzinapa to Palestine: Solidarity and Collaborative Action,” and its cancellation reached the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, airwaves of St. Louis Public Radio and even internationally read blog The Electronic Intifada.

Protestors gathered at the museum during the scheduled time of the event Thursday. On Friday afternoon, activists from Washington University student group AltaVoz and the organization Jewish Voice for Peace, which endorses elements of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel, demanded the release of museum emails pertaining to the event’s cancellation. Museum leaders are expected to deliver more extensive reasoning early this week.

Regardless of people’s feelings about the appropriateness of connecting Ferguson and Ayotzinapa (the location of the college attended by 43 Mexican students kidnapped and allegedly killed in September of 2014) to the Palestinian struggle, the museum erred by abruptly calling off the event.

The museum fumbled in its explanation of why it had cancelled the event, first claiming that student organizers had not been clear about the inclusion of Palestine. When that explanation was debunked by screenshots of a flyer on the museum’s own website and email exchanges between organizers and officials, the new claim was a miscommunication over the event’s nature.

The optics have now become that a civic institution is discriminating against Palestinians and silencing their place in a discussion about social and political movements against state oppression. The effort to remove Palestinians from the panel led to protestors’ accusations of “selective history” by museum officials, as captured by a hashtag expressing discontent with their decision.

Beyond mere optics, the museum is indeed engaging in selective history by denying a connection between the social movements in Ferguson and Mexico with those occurring in Palestine. During the peak of August protests in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip tweeted advice for coping with tear gas at American activists.

Comparisons between Gaza and Ferguson abounded on Twitter, in media and among protestors themselves. Like any political or social issue, people may disagree about the comparison, but in the historical record, the parallels drawn matter and are worth examining. Museum officials themselves may not agree with the comparisons, but history is not a singular narrative, and they have erased an important narrative of worldwide events from the summer of 2014.

Museum president Frances Levine has commented in subsequent interviews that the event did not meet proper standards but that the Israel-Palestine issue would be addressed in a future forum. It will likely transform from a solidarity-building opportunity between different communities to a more traditional Israel-Palestine debate.

The museum seems leery of providing a platform for activist coalitions, which begs a broader question of what purpose the space is meant to serve. Should it, as protestors claim, be treated as a public facility for the collaboration of community members? Or are institutional leaders with more formal training best suited to set the format for dialogue?

As a facility that is mostly publicly funded, the community should be centered with the guidance of those institutional leaders. In the past, the museum has done excellent work planning panels and events with exactly this approach, which makes the stifling of “Ferguson to Ayotzinapa to Palestine” even more disappointing.

Again, not everyone may agree with the event’s premise, but nowhere in history does there exist a unanimous consensus on a given historical narrative. If the event took place in its planned form, dissenters would have had every right to attend, ask questions and make comments expressing their own discontent.

Although that didn’t happen, the museum’s ill-advised actions have brought a worthwhile topic more attention than it otherwise would have received, which perhaps may not be a terrible consequence after all.

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