New Orleans adopts divestment measure proposed by BDS campaigners

Today the city council of New Orleans unanimously passed a resolution which calls on the city to review and divest from companies that perpetrate human rights violations anywhere in the world. Proposed by local Palestine solidarity activists who support the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement for Palestinian human rights, the resolution is not on its face an endorsement of the official BDS campaign, but activists are celebrating a move that opens up that possibility.

“Even though [the resolution] is a significantly watered down version,” Tabitha Mustafa, co-writer of the first draft, told Mondoweiss, “we see it as a first step in a process that will potentially include other resolutions and culminate in a far-reaching ordinance.”

The symbolic victory for Palestinians and Palestine solidarity activists comes amidst a political climate in which anti-BDS measures written by Israel lobby groups inundate state legislatures across the country, and governors from New York to Maryland and dozens of other states have outlawed doing business with those supporting BDS, echoing Israel’s talking points while doing so. Similar bills wait in Congress, inertia building along with Israel’s international isolation.

While the resolution does not specifically mention or target Israel for its ongoing human rights abuses against Palestinians, proponents of the resolution view it as part of their city’s trajectory to adopting an official boycott of Israel, as it did apartheid South Africa.

“It’s not very different from the stance that a number of entities took when apartheid was commonplace in South Africa,” Councilmember-at-large and cosponsor Jason Williams said in adopting the resolution.

As a city, Williams continued, New Orleans must “evaluate what our goals are and whether our goals are in line with people who want to make money from us.”

Resolution 18-5 is predicated on the City of New Orleans’ adherence to international statutes and measures that prohibit the perpetuation of human rights violations — and the call for BDS is predicated on the same internationally recognized human rights standards.

“Consistent with its responsibilities to residents,” the resolution reads in part, “the City of New Orleans has social and ethical obligations to take steps to avoid contracting with or investing in corporations whose practices consistently violate human rights, civil rights or labor rights, or corporations whose practices egregiously contradict efforts to create a prosperous, educated, healthy and equitable society.”

This resolution holds the city to account for each of its “direct investments and contractions,” creating a review process to decide which companies warrant “removal from the City’s list of corporate securities and contractual partners,” i.e. divestment.

It has been a hard won battle for the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee (NOPSC), the group behind the resolution, just to get it in the hands of lawmakers. They say this is not the end goal but an important step in growing the BDS movement in their city.

The next steps must include  “another resolution or a series of resolutions…. there needs to be an ordinance” Mustafa told Mondoweiss after the resolution passed. “And ultimately there needs to be a committee that oversees the implementation of this measure once it becomes law.”

The BDS campaign first launched by the NOPSC a few years ago was slow to start, said Mustafa, a co-founder of the group, but “through meetings, phone calls, billboards, articles, we’ve been able to shift the discussion around Israel/Palestine locally.”

By forging alliances with other grassroots organizations — many of whom already fight alongside the Palestinian solidarity movement — the NOPSC shifted its focus from BDS in particular to a more general human rights platform.

“What has changed most recently in the past year is we changed the way we were framing things to be more about human rights,” Mustafa said. “We believe that this is a broader issue, that human rights are of importance whether we’re talking about Israel or we’re talking about Honduras.”

“The shift has been that we’ve contextualized it in the broader human rights framework that allows more people than folks who just care about Palestine to tap into it and to benefit from the legislation” she added.

Momentum picked up one year ago at a press conference NOPSC held outside city hall, calling on the municipal government to take a stance on human rights. Some 200 community members joined the action that day, undoubtedly stoked by looming fears of a Trump White House.

“January 2017 is when things really took off. We started to show the impact that our people have. It’s not just one or two outliers who hold views that human rights are important and that Palestinian lives matter,” Mustafa told Mondoweiss. “We’re showing up with hundreds of people in the middle of the day on a Monday.”

In addition to hosting a phone-a-thon in March, writing letters, emails and communications to city council members consistently, the NOPSC has been organizing amongst New Orleans’ large Arab-American community.

Members of the Palestinian community of New Orleans were jubilant at the news.

“As a Palestinian and a student in New Orleans,” said Marco Saah, an undergraduate student at Loyola College, “I don’t want to see the city I live in contracting with companies that profit off of the suffering and occupation of my homeland. Today’s vote by the City Council is a first step towards ending the City of New Orleans’ complicity with human rights violations and holding corporations accountable for supporting Israel’s illegal occupation.”

Some 20,000 Palestinians live in Orleans and surrounding parishes such as Jefferson, making Palestinians the largest Arab population in the city.

“Our strategy has been to make sure Palestinians are involved at every step of the process,” Mustafa said. She herself is from Qalandiya and much of her family still live in Palestine, some on the East Jerusalem side of the occupation wall, others on the West Bank side.

“We’re relatively young so it’s easier for us to get younger folks to come out but we try to do a good job of going to the mosques, and talking to elders in the community and making sure we have their support and we have their feedback, that we can learn from all of their knowledge.”

Still, it wasn’t until recently that any of this seemed possible.

After months of stalling from the city, the NOPSC finally wrote the resolution themselves and in December of 2017, delivered it to council members during a press conference outside City Hall.

To their surprise, mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell, who in her capacity as a councilperson represents District B, followed up and met with the group.

NOPSC says that Cantrell and council member-at-large Williams were the two council people who most entertained their requests, but as it stood today, the resolution was introduced by Cantrell with five of the seven council members as co-sponsors.

Although there is speculation that the city council simply doesn’t realize how divisive the issues of Palestine and especially BDS can be, the passage of the resolution suggests a larger movement toward the active protection of human rights, including and not exclusive of Palestinians.

Max Geller, another member of the NOPSC, said there was no ambiguity in the dialogue about the resolution however. “It’s always been about Palestine.”

“You can do this in your city too,” Geller said, encouraging other Palestinian communities and those working for human rights.

Repeated calls and requests for comment from Mondoweiss were not returned by mayor-elect Cantrell, nor city council cosponsors Brossett, Gray, Head or Williams.

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