Rasmea and Oscar: Resisting the Criminalization of Freedom Fighting

Oscar Lopez Rivera and Rasmea Odeh.

On May 18, 2017 Oscar López Rivera was welcomed  by a large and loving crowd in Chicago’s Paseo Boricua after 35 years of imprisonment for the “crime” of supporting Puerto Rican independence.  One of the people who greeted Oscar was Rasmea Yousef Odeh who will soon be punitively deported from her home in the United States for the “crime” of supporting Palestinian freedom.

In her greeting at the event, Rasmea stated “Oscar, I was released after 10 years as a political prisoner in Palestine, two years before you started your sentence, and I know your story very well, because your life is an example to all of us.”  The image of Rasmea embracing Oscar and then gifting him with a red keffiyeh was shared by thousands around the world, an emotional testament to the common commitments of these two elder freedom fighters.  The moment’s potent symbolism highlighted the long arc of resistance by the Puerto Rican and Palestinian people against colonial control.  It also demonstrated how struggles to support freedom fighters can strengthen popular movements for self-determination and liberation.

When Oscar was arrested as a member of the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional) in 1981 and was then imprisoned for 35 years on the political charge of seditious conspiracy, he became part of a long line of independentistas who spent years in U.S. prisons because of their militant resistance to the U.S. conquest of Puerto Rico in 1898. Starting with Pedro Albizu Campos in the 1930’s who was imprisoned for the “crime” of sedition,the U.S. has consistently used surveillance, infiltration, and imprisonment as a major part of its arsenal to suppress the Puertan Rican movement.  Puerto Ricans were one of the first targets of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, dating back to the 1930’s, which was aimed at disrupting, undermining and criminalizing all political activism on the island and in the United States.

One of the  major goals of the FALN in the 1970’s was to win the freedom of the five Puerto Rican Nationalist prisoners who had been disappeared for  over two decades within U.S. prisons. The Nationalists had brought the demand for Puerto Rican independence to the U.S. mainland with attacks on Blair House in 1950 and the U.S Congress in 1954.  In its very first action in 1974, the FALN demanded the release of the Five, noting that they were “the longest held political prisoners in the Western Hemisphere.”(communique Oct 1974).  The FALN identification of the Nationalists as an integral part of the independence movement helped to spark a multi-pronged campaign that ultimately resulted in their release by then President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

International law denounces colonialism as a crime and recognizes a colonized people’s right to end colonialism by any means at their disposal. But the resurgent Puerto Rican independence movement of the seventies and eighties  was met with a full battery of repressive tactics which resulted in the imprisonment of many independentistas.  In the nineties, the fight to free this new generation of political prisoners once again became a leading focus of struggle, uniting a broad spectrum of Puerto Ricans across political tendencies.  In 1999 the struggle for the freedom of the prisoners converged with the fight against the U.S. Navy’s control over the Puerto Rican island of Vieques which it used as a site for its bloody war games.  Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Puerto Rico in a series of demonstrations  demanding the return of Vieques and unconditional amnesty for the prisoners.  On September 11, 1999 eleven of the Puerto Rican prisoners were released by Clinton and greeted as national heroes all over Puerto Rico and the U.S.

Oscar didn’t accept Clinton’s commutation because two other Puerto Rican prisoners were not included at the time.  After the others were released, Oscar and his supporters began a broad-based effort to win his freedom.  Refusing to accept the Federal Parole Board’s ruling in 2011 that he serve 12-15 more years, his campaign gathered strength, winning impressively broad support,  including several members of Congress, 10 Nobel Peace Prize winners, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Senator Bernie Sanders as well as a global coalition of human rights and religious, labor, and business leaders. Once again a campaign for the freedom of a political prisoner became a unifying force within the Puerto Rican movement.  The passage of PROMESA in June 2016 caused outrage among Puerto Ricans and fueled the mobilization for Oscar’s freedom. On January 17, 2017, Obama commuted Oscar’s sentence and on May 17, 2017 Oscar was released from house arrest in Puerto Rico.

Oscar’s designation  by the New York Puerto Rican Parade Committee as its first ever “National Freedom Hero” shortly after his release, became a flashpoint for controversy.  Corporate sponsors  and politicians withdrew support from the Parade, denouncing Oscar as a terrorist and condemning the Parade Committee. But  as Johanna Fernández and Carlito Rovira pointed out,  “On closer inspection, the outcry against the Puerto Rican Day Parade Committee and the defamation of Oscar Lopez are smokescreens for the real injustice—that Puerto Ricans are daily terrorized by systemic racism and poverty in the US mainland and colonial domination in their homeland. Consider, for example, the passage of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) — a ploy recently imposed by Washington officials to assure the payment of a $73 billion dollar debt, created not by Puerto Ricans but by the colonizers themselves.”

The corporate effort failed.  Oscar refused the hero designation but marched in the parade among tens of thousands as a “humble Puerto Rican and grandfather who at 74 continues to be committed to helping raise awareness about the fiscal, health-care and human-rights crisis Puerto Rico is facing at this historic juncture.”  Besides continually advocating for Puerto Rican sovereignty since his release, Oscar has been outspoken in his declarations of solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution, as well as with Cuba, Nicargua and Palestine.   He has also continued to use every opportunity he can to oppose the criminalization of other freedom fighters by calling for the release of other U.S.-held political prisoners .

It was more than a coincidence that on the day Rasmea greeted Oscar in Chicago, Palestinian political prisoners were on the 31st day of an open-ended hunger strike in Israeli jails.  Rasmea made the connections clear when she explained, “Oscar, over six thousand Palestinians are political prisoners in Israeli jails because they fight for what you fight for, self-determination and an end to colonialism and full and complete independence.”  In Palestine, where 40% of the male population has spent time in prison, the role of imprisonment as a weapon of repression is widely understood.  Political prisoners are consistently recognized for their leading role in the struggle which has been ongoing since Israel colonized Palestine in 1948, fifty years after the U.S. colonization of Puerto Rico, Rasmea’s history exemplifies the extent  to which Israel and the U.S. have worked closely together for decades to develop coordinated strategies of criminalization and imprisonment. Rasmea was tortured and raped in an Israeli prison for 45 days in 1969 after she was accused of  two bombings which she denied doing.  When the Israelis arrested her father and threatened to make him have sex with her, Rasmea issued a coerced confession to the bombing that she repudiated afterwards.  She spent ten years in Israeli prisons before being released as part of a prisoner exchange in 1979.  Upon her release she testified about her physical and sexual torture at a UN special hearing in Geneva.

Rasmea emigrated to the U.S. and became a citizen in 2004.  She has been a leading organizer with the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) of Chicago, coordinating its Arab Women’s Committee and continuing her active support for Palestinian freedom. Then in 2013, Rasmea was arrested on charges of immigration fraud,  a bogus pretext for persecuting a leading, effective Palestinian woman activist.   Rasmea was jailed, tried, and convicted.   Her conviction was overturned on appeal because presiding Judge Drain had refused to allow an expert  to testify about the PTSD Rasmea suffered from as a result of her torture and rape.  Rasmea was preparing for a second trial on the immigration charges when the U.S. government suddenly added new charges of belonging to a terrorist organization  to her indictment in December 2016.  In the extreme Trump administration right-wing  climate, Rasmea decided to accept a plea agreement that will mean deportation and loss of U.S. citizenship but avoids many years of possible prison time.

The campaign to win Justice4Rasmea has mobilized widespread support  across the United States and in many other parts of the world.  As her defense committee has stated, “Through a massive, organized defense campaign, Rasmea Odeh — a long-time icon of the Palestine liberation movement — is now a name known in every corner of the movement for social justice in the U.S….This fight not only brought her story to the U.S. and the world, but also pushed forward the cause of the liberation of Palestine.”

Rasmea’s prosecution has coincided with a growing Zionist offensive within the United States aimed at intimidating and stopping scholars, students and activists who support Palestinian freedom and the Palestinian-initiated Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.  Recently, Zionist groups have expanded their targets to a Bay Area community bakery started by a Palestinian woman activist, Reem Assil, because it features a striking mural of Rasmea  on its walls.  Since Reem’s  opened in early 2017, the bakery has been demonized on social media and Yelp, Zionist groups have held a protest rally in front of the restaurant, and Breitbart News has taken up the chorus of denunciations.

Mural of Rasmea Odeh at Reem’s Bakery, Oakland.

Reem has been clear about her reasons for commissioning the mural. “I put Rasmea up there because she is an emblem of resilience.  She reminds me that as an Arab woman, I should never be afraid to speak up against injustice, not matter what the consequence. “  In response to the orchestrated attacks, the community has organized to defend Reem’s.   They recognize the attacks as part and parcel of the anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, white supremacist escalations occurring across the country since the Trump election.

While Zionist forces have tried to erase Rasmea’s image in an Oakland bakery, Judge Drain, who has presided over her case since its beginning, once again tried to silence Rasmea’s voice when she appeared for her final court hearing in Detroit on August 17, 2017.  He threatened to jail Rasmea for contempt of court as she attempted to read the final statement  she had prepared.  When she was forced to stop reading, she went ahead and ad-libbed,  “I’m not a terrorist and my people are not terrorists. [The Israeli military] tortured me. They raped me. They destroyed my house…I will raise my voice to say this: we have the right to struggle for our country.” 

In her suppressed statement, Rasmea also made comparisons between the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville that occurred the weekend before and similar violent acts occurring against Palestinians in Israel. “Black-Palestinian unity and solidarity is at its absolute height in the U.S., because both peoples recognize that the racist nature of the U.S. government and the racist nature of Israel are the same.”  Rasmea has made it clear that wherever she creates her new home in the future, she will not be silent.

When Rasmea and Oscar reached out and hugged each other in Humboldt Park, they won a victory over the power of imprisonment, torture,erasure, and criminalization in a political climate where  repressive power looms large. They affirmed that the love and defense of their homelands has persisted over generations despite decades of colonial control.  And they reminded us all of the inextricable connections between struggles and the necessity for international solidarity in the fight against imperialism and for liberation. As Rasmea remarked about the occasion, “I felt stronger than ever that I was part of the universal struggle to make changes in our countries and all over the world!”

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Diana Block is the author of a novel, Clandestine Occupations – An Imaginary History (PM Press, 2015) and a memoir, Arm the Spirit – A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back (AK Press, 2009).  She is an active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners  and the anti-prison coalition CURB. She is a member of the editorial collective of The Fire Inside newsletter and she writes periodically for various online journals.

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