What Democracy Feels Like: Report from the Largest Pro-Palestine Protest in US History


Photo by Julia Franco

by Julia Franco

The National March for a Free Palestine on Saturday November 4 was the first march I’ve ever attended. An estimated 300,000 protesters shut down the streets of Washington D.C. in the largest pro-Palestine demonstration in US history. I was grateful to be one of them. Palestinian flags, kufiyas, watermelons, and Pro-Palestine signs decorated the crowd in Palestinian pride as they packed into Freedom Plaza in the early afternoon. After an imam led the Dhuhr prayer, the speaker program kicked-off, which was emceed by the Palestinian Youth Movement, ANSWER Coalition, The People’s Forum, and Al-Awda: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition, and more. 

A defining feature of the rally was the diversity of the people there pledging solidarity with the Free Palestine movement and demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Amongst the crowd were self-identified feminists, Filipinos, members of the LGBTQ+ community, Haitians, Cubans, Koreans, Indigenous peoples, Bangladeshis, Pan-Africanist, members of the Black Resistance, youths, Latinx, Hindus and Buddhists. Protesters present could get the sense that Palestinian resistance is a universal resistance that connects  communities who resonate with experiences of oppression and discrimination. The phrases ‘injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere’ and ‘none of us are free until all of us are free’ were repeated throughout the rally to emphasize this. 

The presence of the Jewish community was particularly notable. Many signs and banners in the crowd read ‘Jews for a Free Palestine’ and ‘Zionism is not Judaism.’A group of Haredi Jews belonging to the Orthodox Jews United Against Zionism organization named Neturei Karta condemned Israel’s occupation of Palestine, via a spokesperson due to it being Shabbat. It was especially surprising to hear an Orthodox Jewish group support a ‘Free Palestine’ seeing as how the current Israeli government is partly composed of Orthodox Jewish political parties. Generally, Orthodox Jews tend to have Zionist political views, but this group was an exception to that norm and represents the diversity of political ideology and conceptions of religious traditionalism within the Jewish community.

“We oppose Zionism and the very concept of the State of Israel and until the present day condemn all of its atrocities,” their spokesperson said. “These atrocities are a violation of Judaism and are criminal and barbaric. According to Jewish belief, Jews are forbidden to create their own state since God placed them in exile, and they are forbidden to end this divine decree of exile by any physical means. This is especially the case with respect to killing and occupying, both of which are totally forbidden in the Jewish religion. Opposing the state of Israel is not anti-Jewish and not anti-Semitism, rather the state of Israel is the personification of anti-Jewish and anti-Semitism. Please never refer to the state of Israel as a Jewish state.”

In addition to the cultural diversity present at the march, there was ideological diversity in the protesters’ purpose for attending and the action steps they proposed as most effective. Overall, the message of the national march was primarily to pressure Biden to ‘End the Siege on Gaza Now!’and to ‘End all U.S. aid to Israel.’ Many people argued that Americans are not innocent in this war because U.S. citizens’ tax dollars are funding the Israeli military and this genocide. One protester who I traveled with on the bus from Boston echoed this.  

“To witness your government not only be complicit in what is effectively genocide, but to actively endorse it, to fund it with the same tax dollars we’ve been told aren’t available for the purpose of universally beneficial programs like free health care or subsidized education, is nothing short of infuriating,” a young biostatistician named Elham said. 

Another way that protesters expressed economic resistance was to encourage people to boycott Starbucks and McDonalds. Starbucks sued their workers union for supporting Palestine after the Hamas attack and McDonalds Israel has given out free meals to Israeli soldiers. As we marched past Starbucks and McDonalds stores, protesters stuck ‘Free Palestine’ stickers on their windows and chanted ‘Boycott Starbucks/McDonalds.’ It was really interesting to see how powerful corporations use their global reach to participate in the political economy of war. As consumers, not just citizens, we have the collective power to refuse financing corporations whose politics we disagree with. 

Perhaps more often, blame and shame was directed at Netanyahu and Biden as the leaders responsible for accrediting the siege on Gaza, and the protesters urged for Biden to change his policy on Israel. I was among the Americans at the march who felt the political duty as a citizen of the country funding this genocide to communicate disapproval of our government’s actions.

“As an American, I feel complicit in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians as our country has timelessly provided unconditional support for Israel’s claims of self defense,” an anonymous protester said. “I felt that protesting with thousands in our nation’s capital with the demand that our representatives call for a ceasefire had the potential to be a powerful action. Not sure if it will be, but the point is to try.”

Many speakers and banners took special care to frame the Siege on Gaza as not an attack isolated or unique to 2023, but rather as the latest scheme of violence against Palestinians in a long history of Israel as a settler-colonial, apartheid, genocidal, terrorist and even fascist state. They connected Palestine’s fight for freedom to the larger fight of every group who has been exploited, removed and killed by colonial, imperial and capitalist regimes. There is a debate as to whether Israel meets the criteria for what seemed to me at first as radical titles and accusations.

I hesitated to call-out Israel so strongly because I felt like, on one hand, to take an extreme approach in dichotomously labeling any side as completely right or wrong can disable people from considering and understanding the nuance of “the other side’s” perspective. Some signs read ‘there’s no 2 sides to genocide’ and I understand that to mean that genocide is so evil an act that there can’t be any valid moral justification in support of it. It feels like once I assign labels like genocide, apartheid and terrorism to Israel’s actions, those are such potent truths that require a wholehearted, and perhaps radical, commitment to actively disrupting this system of oppression. Herein arises a moral dilemma in me: should I hesitate to pick a side because it puts me in an easier position to stay curious to the intersecting perspectives or should I fight in solidarity with Palestinians in active opposition to genocide, apartheid and terrorism? These stances seem to be mutually exclusive, but I see the value and importance of both. I’m wondering if I will look back at this moment in history and feel in hindsight that I wasn’t active enough in fighting against injustice or that I was blind to various aspects of this narrative that could’ve caused holistic understanding.

For now, I am on the journey to discover how I can be attentive to all perspectives while fighting for what I believe is right, which is the end to occupying and violating the human rights of Palestinians by Israel. The research and arguments developed by credible social justice and human rights organizations in conjunction with the awareness of my moral intuition persuades me to do everything in my power to free Palestinians from violent expulsion and oppression.   

The decision to use labels like genocide, apartheid, settler-colonialism, terrorism and fascism feel pivotal because recognizing that these terms as mostly applicable feels like there is a subsequent moral requirement to act against them, and this would lead me down a different path of questioning how I should be active and to what extent. The debate of the use of nonviolence vs. violence in activism came up multiple times at the march. I met one of student protesters who led the UMass Amherst Pro-Palestinian protest and sit-in on Oct. 25 and was one of the 57 students arrested by campus police. They expressed their opinion that when nonviolence seems to be futile or not enough, violence is then a necessary form of disruption that yields effective results.

There was also the language of ‘by any means necessary’ utilized by the speeches, chants and signs which leaves an open invitation to employ whatever types of resistance works. I understand that this language stems from a place of frustration and an urgency to stop the wheel of trauma and violence. It must feel disparaging to feel like no change is being made to ensure the security of Palestinian human rights, and as it worsens in Gaza and the West Bank right now, I understand how the desperation to find a way out is heightened. However, I don’t know if fighting fire with fire can cancel out the violence, or if it will only serve to multiply it instead. Maybe using violence against violent systems of oppression shakes the beast, but violent activism is then portrayed as terrorism, which then takes away attention from the Israeli state as committing acts of terrorism. It can fuel the justification for their attacks. I implore people to consider how violence begets violence, but also to be critical of which nonviolent forms of activism have proven to be most effective.

The National March in D.C was a great example of how peaceful, yet emphatic protests that mobilize large populations grab the attention of media and political leaders. To what extent protests are effective is hard to tell in the short-term, but encompassing and visible events like the National March trigger a ripple effect of inspiration, education and activism in those who attend and those who hear about it. 

I’m not the only one who felt impacted by how diverse groups came together in a demonstration of unity in fighting for social justice and to honor universal standards for human rights. 

“The march was nothing short of awe-inspiring,” Elham said. “The courage of the Palestinians who’ve lost so much, the determination of those who’ve dedicated their lives to ensuring it comes to a stop, the solidarity and support of other minority groups who’ve suffered similarly under colonial rule – it further reinforced the belief that living by your principles, acting upon them, is the most effective means by which individual wants can be translated into real-word change.”

It was empowering to march to the White House and chant ‘Ceasefire Now’ with thousands of people at the gates of our president’s home. I had this overwhelming feeling, an epiphany in which I thought ‘oh, so this is what democracy feels like.’ Whether our calls for a ceasefire and to defund the Israeli military are implemented, that’s up to our government. My hopes are that they hear our needs and perform their duty of representing the voice of the people in politics, but I know that the legacy of the Israeli and American alliance is hard or close to impossible to reverse.

President Biden is running for a second term in 2024. That might present a leverage point. Many protesters spoke about how Biden is crazy if he thinks he will have their vote after his choice to abide by genocide. If Biden fears he is losing too many votes, this may be the most realistic motivation for him to do more than urge for ‘a pause’ on this humanitarian crisis. Accountability through democracy might serve the Palestinian cause, so applying pressure on American politicians is perhaps the best strategy citizens can take to affect this issue. 

“I hope that this protest moves the needle and I will keep doing what I can to keep pushing for a future in which this Palestinian freedom is possible,” a protester named Fatima said. “I implore whoever reads this to think about what you can do in your daily life to push for that future as well. Call your representatives, share information, protest, organize, do whatever you can. All of us need to come together as we did for this protest to end this genocide. Free Palestine.”

The National March in D.C. was a celebration of Palestinian identity and a historical event in the insistence for Palestinian freedom from oppression. One thing I felt was missing after boarding the overnight bus back to Boston was that there was no mention of Hamas to my knowledge. Condemnation of hate crimes against Jews was mentioned, but a condemnation of Hamas was not. I feel it’s important to hold Hamas accountable for the more than 1,400 Israelis killed, but not cite Hamas’ violence as a justification for genocide in Gaza. 

My takeaways from the march also include an understanding of the difference between standing in solidarity with oppressed peoples and fighting in solidarity with them. Standing in solidarity is passive and relatively distanced while fighting in solidarity connotes a progression of more active and committed involvement. The march was the first time where I felt like I was a part of the larger mechanism of social justice movements, and contributed to the functioning, presence and success of the Free Palestine movement in particular. It’s hard to ignore the plight of Palestinians now that I’ve spent sacred time listening to their stories and absorbing the pain of their struggle. It was important that I placed myself in an environment where I was confronted with the Palestinian reality like never before. At the march, numerous speakers pointed to how ‘communities that are oppressed carry the solutions’ and this is an important reminder for me to share space with the agents who have been enveloped in the consequences of imperialism, colonialism and systematic oppression. It is one of my goals to learn more from oppressed communities in how they view and strategize for freedom and equality because no one is ever just a victim. The march was a result of courage, strength and resilience in the fight for a Free Palestine. Given how inspirational and impactful the march was, I also realize that the protesters who were present can’t affect as much change alone as they could with more support from Americans. Palestinians need all of our help, and we should start from our shared identity as humans to guide us towards unity in action.