By: Matt Scott
Video story by: Nolan Huber-Rhoades
This story has been updated to include more recent death tolls and to correct a misspelling of the name of the Palestinian student organizer, Nada.
Led by students, hundreds of people took to the streets of Downtown Atlanta on Thursday in support of Palestine, calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and apartheid against the Palestinian people.
Since 2007, the Israeli government has kept the Gaza border closed, preventing Palestinian people living in Gaza from traveling through Israel and creating the world’s largest open-air prison.
A surprise offensive by Hamas destroyed Israeli military infrastructure and captured police bases near the Gaza border, killing 1,700 Israeli people in the eight days since fighting began. In response, the Israeli government carried out devastating air strikes against the Gaza Strip, leveling buildings throughout the territory. From the start of the fighting on Oct. 7, through 7:20 p.m. local time Sunday, the air strikes and other Israeli military actions have killed 2,670 Palestinian people in Gaza, including at least 500 children and wounded thousands more according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Israel has shut off power to the Gaza Strip, and stopped food, fuel, and medical supplies from entering the territory, leaving its 2.2 million residents in increasing jeopardy.
Thursday’s demonstration in Downtown Atlanta took place just hours before Israel ordered the mass evacuation of Palestinian people in North Gaza – home to 1.1 million – ahead of an expected military ground offensive into the territory.
Supporters of the Palestinian people gathered for a march from Hurt Park around the Georgia State University (GSU) campus, which ended at Centennial Hall. Police officers from the Atlanta Police Department (APD) and the Georgia State Patrol arrived on scene after the march reached Centennial Hall but did not approach the march itself. Two GSU police officers briefly walked into the rally to inform organizers they were not allowed to use audio amplification devices.
Several dozen people attended a pro-Israel rally at nearby Woodruff Park, and organizers of that rally hired off-duty APD officers for security. At least one attendee of the pro-Israel rally was using a megaphone, and the Atlanta Community Press Collective did not witness police instructing that individual not to use amplification devices. After the pro-Israel rally dispersed, several attendees wearing blue and white and waving Israeli flags arrived at the Palestine rally to counter protest. The two sides yelled at each other from across the street before organizers of the pro-Palestine rally instructed attendees to ignore the counter-protesters. Once ignored, the counter-protesters soon departed, though several vehicles continued to drive by the Palestinian rally with occupants waiving Israeli flags and yelling taunts toward the crowd.
Atlanta’s GILEE connection to Palestine
The connection with the Palestinian struggle runs deeply in Atlanta, as evidenced by the diverse mix and large number of attendees at Thursday’s rally.
“A big majority [of the crowd was] Black people,” said Nada, a Palestinian student activist who has family living in the West Bank. “I saw some Jewish people. I saw people who were looking just to stand up for basic human rights, and that’s our goal. It’s not just Palestinians. It’s not just a Palestinian issue.”
Local police departments have trained both here and abroad with Israeli police for decades under the privately funded and controlled Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE) program, which is run out of GSU. The GILEE program was one of the targets of Thursday’s march.
While around 300 people held the rally outside GSU’s Centennial Hall, a small group of GSU students attempted to deliver a letter to the university administrators demanding that GSU sever ties with the GILEE program. A group of GSU police officers informed the students that the building was closed, and they were not allowed to enter. A group gathered inside the building along various balconies overlooking the plaza outside to watch the rally, despite claims of the building’s closure. Eventually two students were allowed inside to deliver the demand letter.
After delivering the letter, organizers announced the rally was over, but the energetic crowd had no interest in calling it quits and set off on another march around Downtown. Dozens of police officers from three different agencies sat in vehicles or stood on sidewalks at cross streets along the march’s path. Police did not interact directly with the crowd, though unmarked police vehicles followed along as the march progressed through the area.
GSU President M. Brian Blake sent a message to university students Friday expressing support for “our Jewish community.” Blake wrote, “we want to ensure all members of our community – especially our Jewish students, colleagues and friends who are hurting in the wake of these terrorist acts – feel safe and supported by Georgia State.” He offered no words of specific support for Palestinian GSU students. The university supported Thursday’s peaceful demonstration, Blake wrote, but “we will not tolerate any escalations to violence or that violate the law or University policy.”
Palestine in the media
GILEE and GSU weren’t the only target of ire for Palestinian supporters, depictions of the Palestinian struggle in the media also drew focus.
“Don’t lie about us,” one Palestinian activist leading the march said directly into ACPC’s camera.
The fear of misrepresentation amongst Palestinians is well founded. In the days since Hamas militants launched their offensive against Israel, numerous unverified stories took hold in both social media and the press. A story about Hamas beheading infant children spread rapidly on Wednesday. President Joe Biden repeated the story while speaking to Jewish community leaders on Wednesday saying, “I never really thought that I would see and have confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children.”
“We’ve found bodies of people who have been butchered,” IDF spokesperson Maj. Libby Weiss is quoted by CBS. “Beheaded children of varying ages, ranging from babies to slightly older children.”
Hours later, CNN reported that an Israeli government official stated those reports could not be confirmed. The White House walked back Biden’s statements. The Washington Post reported Wednesday, “a White House spokesperson later clarified that US officials and the president have not seen pictures or confirmed such reports independently.”
American journalists are not the only source of problematic reporting. Canadian journalist Davide Mastracci compiled a list of “a variety of Canadian columnists, editorial boards, panelists and hosts [who] have called for and/or supported Israel’s brutal actions.”
“You really have to look at Palestinian sources to see what’s going on,” Nada said of the skewed reporting.
But on the ground reporting in the region is increasingly dangerous for journalists, leading to less direct coverage of the devastation caused by Israeli strikes.
A Reuters videographer was killed, and two journalists injured, Friday while covering the conflict in Southern Lebanon where Israel was shelling border villages in retaliation for attacks launched by Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group, in support of Hamas. At least six Palestinian journalists were killed in the Gaza Strip according to Al Jazeera. Three of those journalists were killed moments after evacuating a building Israel warned would be bombed. Al Jazeera reported the three journalists removed themselves hundreds of meters away from the target but were killed when Israeli bombs hit a different building near the journalists instead.
Nada recommended Eye on Palestine as a good source what is happening in Palestine. “They get specific videos from Palestine itself, from people living in Palestine,” she said. “There are some things in there that are very graphic, but honestly you need to look at those to see the extent of what is happening. This is genocide. This is not ok, and I don’t know why our media and our government is making it seem like it’s ok.”
Atlanta’s Palestinian supporters said demonstrations would continue while Gaza was under attack by Israeli forces. A second student-led rally was held on Friday at Georgia Tech, and a third rally by the Palestinian Youth Movement took place Saturday, 4 p.m. at the CNN Center in Downtown Atlanta.
“We will not go silent,” Nada said, “we will not stop talking about it until there is something done.”