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The Struggle of Ahmad Abuznaid: Palestinian American Social Justice Lawyer of Dream Defenders

Movement lawyer, organizer, advocate. That is how Ahmad Abuznaid describes himself. Whether he is helping organize a historic 31 day sit-in in the Governor of Florida’s Office, presenting before the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, working as Legal and Policy Director for Dream Defenders, or leading a delegation of Black Lives Matter activists to Palestine, Abuznaid, who has been a lawyer for five years, is all about justice.

Beginnings

Ahmad Abuznaid was born in East Jerusalem, Palestine. His father was a professor at Hebron University and later a diplomat who dedicated his life to the Palestinian cause. As a one year old his family moved to the US.  His father had US citizenship, Ahmad and his mother received citizenship later. He returned to Palestine as a 7 year old to live there for five more years. ““As a seven-year-old boy being strip searched next to your mother… that obviously has a lasting effect,” he remembers. “Living in the occupied territories for a few years, I experienced harassment, strip searches, checkpoints and curfews that would extend for weeks. Like millions of Palestinians across the world, I am denied my legal right to return to my homeland by the settler colonial state of Israel. The Apartheid system they have enacted makes it possible for a Jewish child born today in Alaska to have greater rights in historic Palestine than me and my entire family, simply because we do not subscribe to Judaism.”

Returning to Florida he “started hanging out with all the Black and Latino kids. Because of my experience in Palestine, the blinders had been taken off of my eyes. I began to recognize the existence of US systems of injustice which disproportionately affected black, brown, and poor people. It was very easy for me to see parallels in different oppressions. Maybe because of what these systems have done to us, I felt a similar spirit of resistance.”

Early Organizing

In college Abuznaid started organizing. In 2006, while he was attending Florida State University, 14 year old Martin Lee Anderson was murdered in a state-run boot camp youth detention facility in Panama City Florida.   Though law enforcement said Anderson died of sickle cell anemia, surveillance tapes came to light showing he collapsed during mandatory exercise and five officers kneed the dying youth and hit him trying to force him to continue to run.

Abuznaid, who was student body vice president at Florida State University in Tallahassee, joined FSU Senate President Gabriel Pendas, Florida A&M University student body vice president Umi Selah (formerly known as Philip Agnew) and many other student leaders including some from Tallahassee Community College to organize a two day sit-in taking over the office of Florida Governor Jeb Bush. They called themselves the Student Coalition for Justice. “We took over the state capitol and organized a year of campaigns to get justice for Martin Lee, his family, and for accountability of those involved.” Under considerable pressure, Florida shut down the juvenile boot camps. “This group gave me the feeling of organizing and winning by affecting people’s lives. It was addicting.”

After college, he worked as the Florida field director for the United States Student Association. Fortunately, Abuznaid, Selah and Pendas stayed friends after they graduated.

Law School

Abuznaid went to law school at Florida Coastal in Jacksonville. “I knew I wanted to be a lawyer way back in Palestine as a young child. I imagined that being armed with knowledge of the law and its institutions would mean that I could fight back against the colonization of my homeland and the abuse of my family, my people. When I returned to the US I kept that mindset and so for high school I enrolled into a Pre-Law magnet program for high school. I kept focused on that goal until completion in 2011 when I graduated from Law School and passed the Florida Bar.”

One of the highlights of law school was his work in the immigration clinic where he help Iraqi refugees and others seeking to be accepted into the US. Another was the opportunity he received to serve 300 hours of pro bono work in an internship with the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. While some law school faculty members were really helpful and were invested in his future, he could tell he was going down a different path from many of his classmates. While he saw the legal system as inherently flawed, it was clear to him that others in his class really wanted to uphold the system as is.

Trayvon Martin and Dream Defenders

In 2012, less than a year after Abuznaid graduated from law school, 17 year old Trayvon Martin was shot in Sanford Florida.

“After the murder of Trayvon Martin, my colleagues and I who had organized together way back in Tallahassee around Martin Lee Anderson decided to join back together to create something lasting. We realized that we were short sighted and reactionary back in those days and we wanted to make sure we didn’t make those same mistakes again. So we decided to create what is now called the Dream Defenders.”

The three friends, Abuznaid, Selah and Pendas, created a Facebook invitation for a conference call to plan organized action on behalf of Martin. The call drew 150 participants. One of the people on the call suggested the name Dream Defenders and it stuck.

Forty leaders immediately organized a 40 mile three day protest march from Daytona Beach to Sanford. Many of those people stayed on to found Dream Defenders. When Martin’s killer was acquitted, they organized a 31 day sit in of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office. Abuznaid wrote in Law at the Margins, “We are demanding justice not only in the name of Trayvon Martin, but also in the name of every young person who has been and/or will be profiled, marginalized, and criminalized under the current system. We will work to educate, organize, and mobilize this generation. They are ready. We will never forget his name, nor the anger we have felt since he was taken from us. Be the power.” Dream Defenders then turned their energy to the legislature to fight stand your ground gun laws and to fight to stop the school to prison pipeline.

Abuznaid has served as the Legal and Policy Director for Dream Defenders since he helping co-found it. At the beginning it was all volunteer work.  He supported himself with short term contract jobs until Dream Defenders had enough money to hire him full-time. “I have learned so much since we founded this organization that it is hard to put into words, I feel like a gained a life’s worth of insight and wisdom within these short 4 plus years. I get satisfaction from touching people’s hearts with our work and winning.

“Personally, I have evolved as a lawyer and organizer just the way Dream Defenders has continued to evolve as an organization. I specialize in counteracting violence against communities of color in Florida as well as making connections internationally with human rights defenders in Palestine. This is an effort to revive the internationalism we have seen historically from the radical left in the US.”

Abuznaid has returned to Palestine many times. In 2015 he co-organized a trip to Palestine for black journalists, artists, organizers from Ferguson Missouri, Black Lives Matter, Hands Up United, Justice League NYC, and Black Youth Project 100 in order to connect and build relationships between people on the ground leading fights for liberation. “In the spirit of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and many others, we thought the connections between the African American leadership of the movement in the US and those on the ground in Palestine needed to be reestablished and fortified.” He also organized another trip to Palestine in 2016 which connected Black Lives Matter activists, Puente Arizona, PICO National Network and others with grassroots organizations and Palestinian civil rights activists in Ramallah, Jerusalem and Haifa to explore their parallel fights.

With Dream Defenders his legal work has included advocacy before the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Conference.

“Mass incarceration and state violence are particular cases of interest to me. They hold back so many of our people, often eliminating them from the possibilities of advancement. These are old issues that we face all over the world at different levels and so the fight against these systems is also a rallying cry for us all.”

He has a clear vision of how social change comes about. “Justice comes when the people at the grassroots level are able to create enough momentum, attention and energy to shift the culture. The problems with our system are often that it is top down from the government to us. We have to reverse that dynamic, only then do we see real justice, “by the people and for the people”

To sustain himself, he mediates in the morning and enjoys reading. He admits to a sneaky sense of humor and tries to walk to the beach whenever he has the chance. When asked for books he recommends, he suggests The Autobiography of Malcom X and Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere.

For students looking for advice, Abuznaid suggests, “Lay out a plan for yourself. Try to identify what work you would really like to do, the type that gets you going in the morning. Attend the meetings, gatherings, conferences and meet the people you want to learn from. Also, get involved in your local community, build relationships, learn and grow. The greatest impact always happens on the local level.”

Dream Defenders is an organization with transformational vision. It describes itself and its vision “as an uprising of communities in struggle, shifting culture through transformational organizing. We believe that our liberation necessitates the destruction of the political and economic systems of Capitalism and Imperialism as well as Patriarchy. We believe in People over profits. We believe that nonviolent resistance is “the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom” and are fundamentally committed to nonviolence as our means of struggle against a violent oppressor. We want an immediate end to the police state and murder of Black people, other people of color, and other oppressed peoples in the United States, the immediate release of the 2.5 million prisoners of the United States’ War on the Poor, and trials by juries of our peers. We want an immediate end to all wars of aggression (domestic & abroad). We want a democracy that is fair and protects the right to vote for all. We want free, fully-funded public education for all that teaches us our true history and our role in present day society. We want community control of land, bread, housing, education, justice, peace and technology. We want more. We deserve more. We will organize, train, act and win.”

Abuznaid and Dream Defenders demonstrate what a movement and a movement lawyer can do for social justice.

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Bill Quigley teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans and can be reached at quigley77@gmail.com.

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