Lebanese-Americans reflect on two uprisings: George Floyd and the October Revolution

A girl walks past a mural commemorating George Floyd, in downtown Los Angeles, California, US, June 4, 2020. (Reuters)

Some Lebanese-American activists who took part in Lebanon’s October Revolution protests are now joining the mass protests that have spread across the United States calling for an end to racism and police brutality.

Sarah Aoun, a Lebanese-American activist living in New Work, was in Lebanon last October and November and was active in the antigovernment protests that began October 17. She was back in New York when the protests kicked off in cities throughout the US last week, sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Floyd, a black man, died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes despite Floyd’s pleas of, “I can’t breathe.” Police were trying to arrest him for allegedly buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.

Read more: George Floyd’s death: Minnesota files civil rights charge against police

Aoun works in the digital security field, training journalists and human rights activists in the Middle East and elsewhere on how to protect their communications from surveillance. She and some friends in Lebanon combined that knowledge with their experience in the streets to put together a guide on protest safety for US protesters, which she posted on Twitter Friday.

People attend a public memorial after the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York, U.S., June 4, 2020. (Reuters)

People attend a public memorial after the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York, U.S., June 4, 2020. (Reuters)

“It was basically just our way of contributing in any meaningful way and showing solidarity with the protests that are happening here,” Aoun told Al Arabiya English.

In a preface to the guide, the Lebanese activists wrote, “We recognize that our experiences and lived realities are different, but in the same way that we’ve found solidarity with Hong Kong and Chile protesters, we wanted to extend ours to others.”

Aoun also joined a protest in Brooklyn Saturday along with a group of friends acting as volunteer medics.

In Lebanon, Aoun said, the protests targeting political corruption and sectarianism were distinctly personal.

“It’s my people, it’s where I grew up, it’s what I identify first and foremost as.” On the other hand, in New York, where she has lived for the past 10 years, she said, “I definitely see my role here more as support, because I’m not the main concern or the main target group of what’s going on. We’re talking here about racism against black communities.”

Lebanese Americans are estimated to make up about one third of the estimated 3 million Americans of Arab descent. Many of them have maintained strong ties to Lebanon and felt invested in the Lebanese uprising.

Two revolutions

“The truth is that both revolutions speak to my heart a lot, because I’ve been part of the problems and what they’re trying to resolve in two different ways,” said Afeef Nessouli, a Lebanese-American journalist who grew up in Atlanta but spent his summers in Lebanon.

Nessouli was living in Lebanon and working on a journalistic project when the October Revolution broke out.

He returned to the United States in March and was the when the anti-racism protests began. Since then, he has been hitting the streets to document the protests with his camera, as he did in Lebanon. In both cases, Nessouli said he sees his role as “supporting and documenting.”

Isis al-Alam, who was born in south Lebanon but moved to Michigan with her family in 2006 after the war between Israel and Hezbollah, was not able to travel back to Lebanon when the October Revolution began.

Protesters use their mobile phones as a structure representing a fist is erected to replace a previous one that was burnt at Martyrs' Square in Beirut. (Reuters)

Protesters use their mobile phones as a structure representing a fist is erected to replace a previous one that was burnt at Martyrs' Square in Beirut. (Reuters)

Instead, she became actively involved in organizing and joining solidarity protests by the diaspora in New York, where she now lives. Like many Lebanese expats, Alam dreams of one day going back to live in Lebanon and saw the protests as a way to push for a country she would want to return to.

At the same time, when the protests started in the US, she joined them because, she said, “I want to see a more just America.”
But like Aoun, she sees her role as supporting.

A supporting role

“I can’t claim to share the same amount of anger with black folks in these protests, not even close,” she said.

The protests in the US have differed from those in Lebanon both in the issues at stake and the level of violence. While in Lebanon, there have been instances of vandalism and property destruction and confrontations between protesters and security forces or between protesters and counter-protesters connected to the Hezbollah and Amal parties, the demonstrations remained overwhelmingly peaceful during their first two months.

In the US, more protesters have resorted to looting and vandalism, while the police response in the US has been considerably more aggressive.

“There are a lot of similarities in the police tactics … but I would say overall the US has a much more violent response than Lebanon, and I’ve definitely felt safer in Lebanese protests than I’ve felt in American protests,” Aoun said. She noted that during the protest she attended with the medic group, police charged at them while they were on the ground treating protesters who had been pepper sprayed and arrested one of her fellow medics.

Read more: Watch: Lebanon's unprecedented crisis, challenges and paths forward

Nessouli speculated that the relatively lower level of conflict between protesters and security forces in Lebanon was a result of the fact that there, security forces generally come from the same communities as the protesters, while in the US the two groups tend to be disconnected.

In Lebanon, it’s personal

“The distance between people makes it easier for violence to feel so impersonal – in Lebanon, everything felt personal,” he said.
For some of the Lebanese-American activists, the increasing tensions in the US call to mind uncomfortable thoughts of Lebanon’s many years of civil war and other conflicts.

“This is probably the most polarized I’ve ever seen this country, and honestly it brings back a lot of memories, and it’s a little triggering,” Alam said. While she plans to keep protesting, she said she’s not very hopeful about the prospects for change in either of her two countries.

A girl has the national flag draped over her shoulders as riot police stand guard, during the ongoing anti-government protest, in Beirut, Lebanon, November 19, 2019. (Reuters)

A girl has the national flag draped over her shoulders as riot police stand guard, during the ongoing anti-government protest, in Beirut, Lebanon, November 19, 2019. (Reuters)

“I’m normally a very optimistic person...I just don’t think we’re close to any true reforms in this country, or in Lebanon,” she said.

Ramsey Nasser, a Lebanese-American who grew up between the two countries, said that his parents, came to the US to give him and his sister a life in a stable and peaceful country.

Now, he said, “So much of what is happening here (in the US) is familiar in a way that makes me very sad.”

Nasser traveled back to Lebanon in December and January and joined the protests there. Now he, too, is joining the protests in New York.

Read more: Major clashes erupt in US cities during protests over killing of George Floyd

Although, like Alam, he is not optimistic about the prospects for change in either country, he said, “To the best of my ability, I want to continue showing up for this uprising and the Lebanese uprising and all the uprisings to come.”

Nessouli, for his part, said he sees reform as a long game.

“These things do not change overnight, and I’m not hopeful that they will change overnight,” he said. “I think that there are a lot of very stressful times ahead in both countries – but I don’t think that that means that progress isn’t being made.”

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Last Update: Friday, 05 June 2020 KSA 14:00 - GMT 11:00
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