A few weeks ago, I learned that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken would be delivering the commencement speech at my graduation ceremony from Georgetown University on May 21. The news caught me off guard as I walked to work, and I immediately sent the information to my peers in the Arab Studies program.
As students of the Middle East, and with many of us hailing from the region, we were intensely aware of the role played by the U.S. government in aiding and abetting the Israeli occupation, among many other policies that are facilitating wars, authoritarian regimes, and economic hardships in Arab countries. Furthermore, the secretary of state is an extremely influential figure; Blinken is President Joe Biden’s chief advisor on foreign affairs, and has been unabashed about his pro-Israel views. For myself and my peers, this was an opportunity to confront power face-to-face.
In the midst of finals and papers, I began to brainstorm with other students in my cohort to initiate some form of protest for Palestine. What kind of message should we send Blinken? Would we focus on the expulsions of over 1,000 Palestinians in Masafer Yatta? Or the continued displacement of Palestinian families in Jerusalem? Maybe the 15-year blockade on the Gaza Strip?
Two days later, I woke up to find video after video of the late Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was murdered in broad daylight by Israeli soldiers during a military raid in the Jenin Refugee Camp. Two days after that, I watched in horror as her funeral in Jerusalem was attacked by Israeli forces. Then I came across a tweet by Blinken, in which he stated: “We were deeply troubled by the images of Israeli police intruding into the funeral procession of Palestinian American Shireen Abu Akleh. Every family deserves to lay their loved ones to rest in a dignified and unimpeded manner.”
Blinken’s toothless tweet enraged me. There was everything wrong with American foreign policy vis-a-vis Palestine. Labeling the attack on Shireen’s funeral an “intrusion.” No statement that recognized her death as cold-blooded murder by Israel. An extension of Biden’s policies, which have done nothing to change the “status quo” since the Trump administration. I messaged my peers immediately and we began to plan our action.
We ultimately decided to carry out a silent protest; we wanted others in our cohort, who either held citizenship in Arab countries that do not respect free speech or were here on student visas, to participate without fear of consequences. We would don the Palestinian keffiyeh and carry photos of Shireen both during the commencement procession and throughout Blinken’s address. We even thoroughly investigated Georgetown’s free speech policies and ensured that we were in line with its protocols.
On commencement day, I rushed my family to get to campus early. I had not told them what my peers and I had been planning. My parents rightfully worry about me; Palestinian students and activists in the United States are routinely blacklisted, smeared, and punished for their advocacy. However, honoring Shireen’s legacy, and taking advantage of this rare opportunity to make our voices heard in front of a high-ranking U.S. policymaker, was far more important to me than any personal risk I would face.
‘We know the truth’
When the procession began, I was the first in line carrying a photo of Shireen. More than half of the Arab Studies cohort participated. Our plan was executed flawlessly. But then came time for our walk across the graduation stage. We were all surprised when we saw that Secretary Blinken stayed; we had assumed he would leave the event directly after his speech. Upon realizing that I was expected to fist bump the secretary of state after receiving my diploma, a detail that I had not been informed about prior, I made a split second decision to ignore the gesture and instead relay a message to him personally.
— Robert Cox (@RobertCox) May 21, 2022
A video clip of me raising the Palestinian flag and speaking to Blinken on stage has since gone viral. I had not planned our interaction, nor expected that clip to be so widely shared. Even the Palestinian flag I raised was given to me at the last minute by an American peer of mine. When I raised it on stage, I heard cheers and applause.
On stage, I looked Secretary Blinken in the eye and said: “We demand an independent investigation of Shireen’s murder, and we demand an end to all American aid to the Israeli military now. Please.” I could barely hear what his one word response to me was. All I knew was that, in that moment, I was practicing the principles that grounded me so deeply in all the work that I and countless others do for Palestine. I was hooded for my Masters degree on stage and then returned to my seat.
As the ceremony ended, Secretary Blinken motioned at me with his hands, signaling for me not to leave. As he left the stage, he stopped in front of my peers and I, and said, “I see you. I hear you.” I reiterated to him that we demand an independent investigation into Shireen’s murder. He replied, “We are committed to finding the truth.”
I felt enraged all over again. We knew the truth. What we wanted was to put that truth on the global record, so that one day Israel could be held accountable.
My mother has always said I have a sharp tongue. I immediately responded, “We know the truth. She was murdered by the Israeli military that we bankroll. We should stop funding the Israeli military, we need to cut all American aid to Israel.” I don’t know if he heard me, because he walked away.
Secretary Blinken sadly represents everything wrong with the American foreign policy establishment. They hear and see Palestinians and our grievances. They know that Shireen Abu Akleh was murdered, that Palestinians in Masafer Yatta are experiencing ethnic cleansing, that two million people in Gaza are being collectively punished. But they choose not to act. They choose to continue supporting Israel with immense military and financial aid. They choose to block every attempt to hold Israel accountable.
My peers and I have since released a public statement explaining our action and reaffirming our demands. We hope that anyone inspired by our small, symbolic act of resistance in the belly of the beast that is the American empire will take the first steps in organizing for Palestinian liberation — be it adhering to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, writing to their local politicians about Israel’s ongoing policies, educating others about the plight of Palestinians, sharing Palestinian calls for justice on social media, donating to organizations supporting Palestinian refugees, and many other actions. We know that these efforts are small in size, but small streams make great rivers.