People look at an art exhibit hosted by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network on Oct. 25, 2023 before attending a teach-in on Palestine. Credit: Aviva Bechky/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO LAWN — Muslim organizers are advocating for solidarity among Chicago’s communities of color as the Israel-Hamas war continues, linking the struggles Palestinians face in Gaza to decades of oppression in Chicago at a Wednesday “teach-in.”

About 90 people attended the event hosted by the Southwest Side nonprofit Inner-City Muslim Action Network, 2745 W. 63rd St., to learn and share emotions about the ongoing war in Gaza.

Following Hamas’ Oct. 7 surprise attack in Israel that Israeli officials said killed more than 1,400 people, mostly civilians, Israel declared war on Hamas. Thus far, its assault on Gaza has killed over 7,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Gazan Health Ministry.

Chicagoans have held several large protests in recent weeks, where thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators have called for a cease-fire in the war as civilian lives are lost.

At the Wednesday event, Ahmad Jitan, IMAN’s director of organizing and advocacy, highlighted the connections between marginalized people around the world who are fighting for their rights. He led the teach-in the hopes of creating a space for Chicagoans from different backgrounds to talk honestly and build relationships with each other.

“We don’t want to paper over any of the divisions in our communities, Black and Brown,” he said. “We create spaces to talk about the division, to build trust, build relationships and also start to undo some of the harms.”

Youth organizers at IMAN helped lead the event, walking groups of attendees through six pre-prepared questions. Among them: “How is the violence in Palestine impacting people we care about?” “How are communities impacted when the U.S. decides to become involved in war and occupation?”

As people talked, they wrote down their thoughts on sticky notes and stuck them to posters around the room, a way of sharing their grief, anger and hope.

Much of the event focused on building ties between different activist causes. Benji Hart, a Woodlawn resident, said that as a Black person, they’ve appreciated the value of coalition-building.

“Folks in this community have been working really hard on solidarity work between the Black and the Palestinian community,” Hart said.

During Jitan’s presentation, Jitan emphasized connections between violence in the Chicago and in Palestine, asking attendees to consider whether they felt his comparisons were accurate.

For instance, he explained the concept of “internally displaced people” as it refers to Palestinians who’ve been forced to flee their homes while remaining in Gaza, the West Bank or Israel. He then linked that idea to Chicago: Black residents who fled the South for the Midwest during the Great Migration were internally displaced too, he said.

Jitan also asked attendees to consider the term “apartheid” — a crime against humanity built around racism and segregation — in the two contexts. (Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both described Israeli oppression of Palestinians as apartheid.)

In Chicago, Jitan called food deserts, where residents of color often lack easy access to groceries, a form of apartheid. Though discrimination plays out very differently against Palestinians, he argued similar colonial and racist forces affect both situations.

And because the U.S. sends billions of dollars to support Israel’s military each year, Jitan said Chicagoans do have a stake in the Israel-Hamas war and fallout in Gaza.

“We really need a ceasefire,” Jitan said. “We don’t want to be responsible for the death of any children of any families, anyone, whether here in the South Side of Chicago, across our borders or in Palestine.”

IMAN deputy executive director Alia Bilal said it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of violence. But to her, that’s why events like the teach-in are valuable: They help people begin working together to find power as a community.

“It feels like things are stacked up against us,” Bilal said. “But we don’t have to stay in that state of despair — that we actually have tools to get us out of that. And building relationships is actually a critically under-appreciated tool.”

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