How George Floyd’s Filmed Murder Has Changed How Palestinians Are Viewed In The Mainstream

When Rania Mustafa began organizing pro-Palestine rallies in Northern New Jersey, she could easily recognize many faces in the local crowds.

There were only a couple hundred people, said Mustafa, who is the executive director of the Palestinian American Community Center in Clifton. As a child she said she would participate with her family in local protests against Israeli occupation of Palestine, discrimination and police aggression. But the events rarely attracted media coverage or interest from people outside the local Arab community, she recalled. 

“We always called any protest that we had in Paterson [New Jersey] kind of like talking to our echo chamber,” Mustafa told Gothamist. “The majority of residents there should know or were involved with what was going on.”

But since the murder of George Floyd was posted online last May, Mustafa has seen a marked change in how her community is perceived. “The last protest that we saw on Sunday was the largest protest that’s ever taken place in Paterson specifically for the Palestinian cause,” Mustafa said last week. 

“What happened after the killing of George Floyd really woke up a lot of people and had them start thinking critically about their position and their privilege.” 

Outrage over Floyd’s killing last year triggered a summer of protests, with multi-racial, multi-faith and inter-generational groups of people marching against  police brutality and systemic racism in nearly every major city in the United States and around the world. 

Mustafa said the demonstration in Paterson brought together over 4,000 people. Before that, the largest pro-Palestinian rally the city hosted about 1,000 in 2014, she estimated. 

Earlier this month, Israeli forces, targeting the group Hamas, attacked the Gaza Strip in an 11-day war in which at least 248 people were killed, mostly civilians, including 66 children and 39 women. In Israel, 12 people were killed, including two children, according to the Associated Press.

Some experts and pro-Palestinian activists like Mustafa believe the videotaped recording of George Floyd’s murder at the knee of former police officer Derek Chauvin has served to humanize events abroad that, before Floyd, felt distant.

They say it prompted Americans to see a connection between crises worldwide and here at home, including and changing the way Palestinians are viewed in the mainstream. 

“One of the extraordinary things about the past year is that a movement against racial injustice in the U,S, captured the imagination of global civil society,” said Kendall Thomas, a professor and scholar of comparative constitutional law and human rights at Columbia University. 

“I can make sense of what’s happening to me as someone who lives in New York City or someone who lives in Ramallah that I couldn’t make before because I can watch and listen to stories about events that are similar to and resonate with my own experience.”

Some activists say social media has been a significant factor in the protest movement last year – much like it was during the Arab Spring a decade ago. 

The video of George Floyd only went public after a witness, then 17-year-old Darnella Frazier posted it on Facebook.

Likewise, videos and images of the forced removal of Palestinians in East Jerusalem – along with the reports of the deaths of children in Gaza, have gone viral online and ignited a wave of protests on the ground. The May 15th pro-Palestine rally in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn saw thousands of protesters, with organizers estimating tens of thousands in the crowd. 

“We’ve seen at least six, seven, eight protests that number in the thousands in support of Palestine” this month, saud Jordan Baruch, a senior reporter and editor at Protest_NYC, an organization that formed after George Floyd murder to track and report on protests in the region.

“You’re seeing a similar thing [to the protests for George Floyd] where thousands of people are in the streets, and it’s becoming pretty regular and pretty sustained.”

Like organizer Rania Mustafa, Rutgers University law professor Sahar Aziz, also looks to the faces in the crowds at rallies–not for the familiar faces, but the ones not typically seen. It’s where she sees evidence of a shift in public sentiment.

“You are seeing more diversity where it’s not simply people who are of Arab heritage or people who are Muslim,” said Aziz, who is also a Middle East legal studies scholar. “It is African Americans, Latino Americans, white Americans and Jewish Americans.”

Mustafa said it is also evidence that some in the public have become more willing to engage with other communities and people suffering abroad, and seeing them as more than numbers.

“They’re showing that if you can stand for George Floyd, then you should stand for this, too.” 

Joseph Gedeon reported this story for the Gothamist/WNYC’s Race & Justice Unit. If you have a tip, some data, or a story idea, email him at jgedeon@wnyc.orgor reach out on Twitter @JGedeon1. You can also text him tips via the encrypted phone app Signal, or otherwise, at 929-351-5374.