Being a white ally is a very serious matter. They can be "martyred on a shrine of white supremacy in an effort to discourage other whites from following their lead."
This article was originally published in Black Republic Media.
The political economy of white settler colonialism is organized around murder, or its threat: forcing Africans to work at gunpoint; raping and stealing indigenous land at gunpoint; herding Palestinians into open-air jails, at gunpoint; overthrowing elected leaders at gunpoint are all part of the colonial and neocolonial blueprint. In this series, Black Republic Media explores what it means when a junta of homicidal maniacs governs a nation, or a network of nations, across the world.
Twenty years ago today, an Israeli soldier drove a bulldozer over Rachel Corrie, crushing her to death. The 23-year-old from Olympia, Washington was part of an international team of peace activists who had volunteered to protect Palestinian homes from demolition by Israeli settlers. Mother Jones magazine gave this account of her final hours:
At two o’clock on the afternoon of Sunday, March 16, Rachel Corrie received a cell-phone call from a comrade in the International Solidarity Movement. “The Israelis are back,” she told Corrie. “Get over here right away. I think they’re heading for Dr. Samir’s house.” The news alarmed Corrie. Samir Nasrallah was a Palestinian pharmacist who lived with his wife and three children a few hundred yards from the battle-scarred Egyptian border in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah. Corrie and other pro-Palestinian activists based in Rafah had frequently spent the night in Nasrallah’s house, acting as human shields against the Israeli tanks and bulldozers, clearing a security zone around the border. Almost every other structure in the area had been knocked down in recent months; Nasrallah’s abode now stood alone in a sea of sand and debris.
Certain that the pharmacist’s house was about to be razed, Corrie caught a taxi to the Hai as-Salam neighborhood. The paved roads of downtown Rafah gave way to sandy tracks lined with scrabbly olive groves, mosques, modest houses, and dirt pitches where Corrie often played soccer—badly but enthusiastically—with local youths. At 2:30, a neighbor of Nasrallah’s named Abu Ahmed caught sight of the activist hurrying past his house. Slight, hazel-eyed, with high cheekbones and dirty blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, she carried a megaphone in one hand and an orange fluorescent jacket in the other. “Come inside and have some tea,” he urged her. But Corrie told him she didn’t have time, and he watched as she disappeared around the corner of his house, heading toward the roar of machinery.
This much has never been contested: placing herself in the path of an Israeli bulldozer that she believed was about to flatten Nasrallah’s house, Rachel Corrie was crushed to death—her skull fractured, her ribs shattered, her lungs punctured. But the bitter accusations and violent recriminations that followed obscured almost everything else about the incident. Palestinians hailed her as a martyr of the Intifada. Several eyewitnesses charged that the bulldozer operator ran her down deliberately and called her killing “a war crime.” The Israeli government, which rarely acknowledges the deaths of Palestinian civilians killed during its military operations, went into damage-control mode. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised President Bush a “thorough, credible, and transparent investigation.” Later Israel declared the killing a “regrettable accident” and blamed it on overzealous Corrie and the other activists working as human shields. Charges and countercharges flew back and forth until, like Rashomon, the facts of Rachel Corrie’s death dissolved into a half-dozen competing versions of the truth, none of them fully convincing.
Maybe, maybe not. But if there were any doubts that Israel deliberately killed Corrie, they were surely erased by the fatal shooting last spring of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist who had worked for the Arabic language channel, Al Jazeera, for 25 years at the time of her death.
On May 11, 2022, while covering a raid by Israeli soldiers on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, Abu Akleh was standing with a group of colleagues, wearing a vest clearly marked “PRESS,” when she was shot in the head by sniper fire. Israel initially blamed the shooting on Palestinians, but separate investigations by the Washington Post, the New York Times, Bellingcat, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights and the U.S. State Department concluded that the fatal shot was fired by an Israeli soldier; CNN went a step further and asserted that Abu Akleh was targeted by Israel Defense Forces.
Rachel’s death was eerily similar to Abu Akleh’s. She was wearing a fluorescent orange jacket with reflective stripes and had been on the scene for hours with other activists from the International Solidarity Movement, standing in the path of the bulldozer and occasionally speaking into a megaphone. According to witnesses, Rachel climbed onto a mound of dirt to be clearly visible as the driver pushed the bulldozer forward. When she fell to the ground, the dirt engulfed her, but the driver continued to move forward, and after running over her the first time, monstrously, put the bulldozer in reverse and did it again. It would be revealed later that a spotter accompanied the driver of the bulldozer that killed Rachel and that his sole function was to report any obstructions in the machine’s path.
“She was standing on top of a pile of earth,” an activist who witnessed the killing, Richard Purssell, told reporters. “The driver cannot have failed to see her. As the blade pushed the pile, the earth rose up. Rachel slid down the pile. It looks as if her foot got caught. The driver didn’t slow down; he just ran over her. Then he reversed the bulldozer back over her again.”
Said another activist: “The bulldozer went towards her very slowly, she was fully in clear view, straight in front of them.”
And yet another said, “All the activists there were screaming, running towards the bulldozer, trying to get them to stop. But they just kept on going.”
Rachel was taken by a Red Crescent ambulance to the Najar hospital, arriving at the emergency room at 5.05pm; She was pronounced dead 15 minutes later.
The slayings of two American women 19 years apart share a great deal in common, not least of which is that no one has been held accountable for either of their deaths. But they differ in one critical aspect: Corrie was white, and Abu Akleh was not.
To anyone with an understanding of settler psychopathy, that suggests that Abu Akleh’s killing was motivated purely out of spite, similar to the Chicago police who raided the Black Panthers’ headquarters on the city’s west side in the months leading up to Fred Hampton’s assassination for no reason other than to empty the boxes of breakfast cereal used to feed poor children.
But Rachel was likely killed for violating the racial covenant between apartheid states—such as those in Israel and the U.S.—and the amalgam of Europeans who identify themselves as “white.” What is typically left unsaid in any exploration of settler colonialism or its proxy, racial capitalism, is that the system’s survival relies almost wholly on whites’ unquestioning complicity with its kleptocratic aims, or alternately, their indifference to the terror visited upon marginalized groups–Blacks, Palestinians, the indigenous tribes of the Americas, and the people of the global South–to achieve its objective.
In exchange for their silence, the settler elite extends to whites a guarantee of safety and a meager share of the spoils that accrue from the dispossession of the colonized. Hence, a genetic marker of settler colonialism is the normalization of political violence against Black and Brown people while it is mostly absent from the state’s relationship to whites.
It is lost on virtually no one, for example, that police kill unarmed Black men for speeding, selling untaxed cigarettes, or merely acknowledging the presence of a legally-owned firearm in their automobile, while mass murdering white gunmen such as Payton Gendron and Dylan Roof are typically arrested without incident, and even, in the case of Roof, treated to a Burger King happy meal.
In the days immediately following her death, editorial writers and bloggers tried to portray Rachel as naive; she was nothing of the sort. From a small internet cafe, she wrote to her parents almost daily, although she took pains not to worry them.
It wasn’t that Rachel was fearless, but the risks undertaken by her and her comrades with the International Solidarity Movement were part of a strategy calculated to exploit Israel’s racism and leverage their own white privilege.
In the end, Rachel miscalculated but only just: on the same day that she died, nine Palestinians were killed, including a 4-year-old girl and 90-year-old man. None merited so much as a mention in the Western news media.
As they are wont to do, white people occasionally conflate my love of Black people with a hatred of white people and charge me, idiotically, with racism. My retort, mindful of the Black Panthers, is always the same:
I don’t hate white people; I hate the oppressor.
But if I am being totally honest, that defense is a bit too pat, or reductive. I have indeed met or known of so-called white people who are, like Rachel Corrie, or her parents, Craig and Cindy, what my friend Noluthando Crockett calls TDWPs, or Truly Decent White People. But here’s the thing: they are outliers, and so rare, frankly, that it begs the question: are they even white?
(I should mention here that it has even been said that I, at times, resemble John Turturro’s character in Spike Lee’s classic film, Do the Right Thing, who reconciles his liberal use of the n-word with his adoration of Prince, Michael Jackson and Eddie Murphy by offering that “they’re not really Black.”)
I first heard of Rachel Corrie’s death on the BBC in a hotel room in Brazil, if memory serves. I was moved to tears, in large measure because her story reminded me of a profile I had written two years earlier for the Washington Post, about Linda and Peter Biehl, whose daughter Amy was murdered in 1993 by two Black teenagers in the runup to South Africa’s first all-races election.
Referring to their work in the all-Black Cape Town township where their daughter, Amy, a Stanford grad and Rhodes scholar was slain, I wrote:
This is the Biehls’ philanthropic version of good cop, bad cop, developed in the eight years since a mob stoned and beat their blond, blue-eyed daughter, then plunged a pocketknife into her heart as the sun set on South Africa’s final, wrathful days of white-minority rule. Far from home, the Biehls are building housing, schools and golf courses for the same community where Amy drew her last breath. With a small staff of volunteers and an almost cult-like following, they have raised money for scholarships, museums and adult literacy projects. They have opened bakeries, a print shop and a construction company, giving jobs to men and women who live in the squalid townships that were reserved for blacks when apartheid divided black from white. And they have funded latchkey programs to look after children while their parents work.
Somewhere, they know, Amy’s eyes are rimmed with tears because she’s laughing so hard at the two of them. The graying high school football star and the former model from Geneva, Ill., whose grandfathers both worked at International Harvester. A soccer mom, the kind of woman who cleans the house in anticipation of the maid’s arrival, and a onetime GOP committeeman who used to host cocktail parties for Gerald Ford and Robert J. Dole.
To get a rise out of her dad, Amy would sometimes call home after a long week spent organizing voter education projects in the townships here alongside the “comrades” in the African National Congress. With all the theatrical alarm she could muster, she would proclaim: “Dad, I’m consorting with communists.”
When a pair of white supremacists gunned down Chris Hani, a popular ANC leader, in 1993, a distraught Amy called her mom. Linda Biehl consoled her daughter as best she could, but it was difficult, because, well, she really had no earthly idea who Hani was.
Now Peter Biehl will break bread with unreconstructed Marxists or the Devil himself if it will help pay for, say, golf lessons for a few poor kids. And a picture of Hani’s widow hangs on the Biehls’ office wall.
Theirs is not a story for cynics. It is about redemption and transformation and the symbiotic relationship between this bloodied country and the Biehls, who cremated their 26-year-old daughter in Southern California and returned to the land where she died to give birth all over again.
To South Africans, the Biehls have offered their help. To Amy’s killers, they have offered not just absolution but friendship, taking them out to the movies or dinner just as casually as they would old friends of Amy’s from high school. And from the deepest hurt anyone can know, they have exhumed an unimaginable peace and a stirring sense of purpose that they struggle to explain even to their other children or closest friends.
“Amy’s death changed us in ways that are unquantifiable,” said Peter, a gentle but blunt-spoken man. “I guess this is really our way of keeping her.”
His wife completes the thought. “In all the world,” Linda said softly, “this is the one place Amy feels most alive to us.”
Amy, I had come to understand, was a white ally, that rarest of breeds, and had so immersed herself in the all-Black Cape Town township where she worked that many of the Black South Africans pleaded with her assailants to stop, shouting, “She is a comrade.” Continuing I wrote:
Fueled by the donations that poured in and by Amy’s own words, the Biehls found themselves returning to South Africa with increasing frequency, meeting people who had known Amy and taking on one development project after another. They dined with the paramedic whose failure to save Amy’s life drove him to alcohol and Prozac, told him to forgive himself because there was nothing more he could have done, then hired him to teach CPR to township residents who live miles away from the closest hospital. “I haven’t touched any form of alcohol since that day,” said the paramedic, Victor West, “and we’ve trained 4,000 people in CPR.”
Like Amy, or Viola Liuzzo, or Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwener, or Ruth First in South Africa, Rachel Corrie was an ally, martyred on a shrine of white supremacy in an effort to discourage other whites from following their lead, forfeiting their white privileges to find their humanity in revolution, and join in solidarity with Blacks, Africans, or Palestinians.
You might call white allies like Rachel Corrie outliers, or even unicorns, but even more importantly, they are to the white settler Republic what Kryptonite is to Superman.
And that is why, every blue moon or so, and to everyone’s surprise, settler colonies takes time out from killing Black folks, or Palestinians, to points their guns at their own.
In the spring of 1970, the National Guard shot dead four Kent State students protesting the United States’ expansion of the Vietnam war into Cambodia. All four were white.
Lending credence to suspicions that Nixon ordered the attacks on Kent State to deter Black-white unity, the president of the Black Student Union, Charles Eberhardt, spotted the National Guardsmen milling around the campus on the morning of the rally, and deducing that Black students would be targeted as was typically the case, the got word out that African American students should stay inside their dorm rooms for the duration of the afternoon rally. They did.
Eberhardt told the Los Angeles Times in 2020:
I couldn’t believe they were shooting, with live ammunition, on a college campus. I couldn’t believe they would do that against white students.
Following the Kent State massacre, white anti-war activists began to desert their already tenuous alliance with Black radicals on and off campus.
A Gallup Poll taken days after the shootings suggests that Kent State had a chilling effect on public attitudes: 58 percent of respondents blamed the students for the violence and only 11 percent held the National Guard culpable. In his book exploring the radical, white organization, Students for a Democratic Society, A Hard Rain: SDS and Why It Failed, David Barber wrote:
“The New Left failed because it ultimately came to reflect the dominant white culture’s understanding of race, gender, class, and nation. While all these elements are inextricably intertwined, race is the key element in understanding the trajectory of the New Left. Pushed by the black movement, white New Leftists struggled to come to grips with their own white upbringing. But the young white activists of the 1960s never succeeded in decisively breaking with the traditional American notions of race. The New Left’s failure fully to come to terms with its own whiteness finally doomed its efforts.”
The FBI actively sowed seeds of racial division to turn white and black activists against each other. According to a May 1, 1969 FBI memo obtained by Jacobin magazine:
“The concept of white students studying in universities while Black Panthers are going to jail or being killed in the ghetto would be encouraged.”
Craig Corrie was in Cambodia when the National Guard attacked the Kent State protesters. Like the Biehls, the Corries, are native Midwesterners (Iowa). They met at Drake University and married five months before Craig was shipped off to Vietnam. Cindy left for San Francisco to teach, and while they weren’t radicals per se, the anti-war ethos of the late 1960s and early 1970s shaped their politics to a large extent.
They also share with the Biehls a droll wit—“Craig likes to drive and I like to be a passenger,” Cindy jokes—and grace, warm and bright like the sun, that they attribute in large measure, to their daughter.
Cindy Corrie, Rachel Corrie's mother, can be heard in the original article in Black Republic Media.
A former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People and the co-author of A Day Late and a Dollar Short: Dark Days and Bright Nights in Obama's Postracial America. His work can be found on Patreon as well as Black Republic Media.