About 20,000 people marched on Michigan Avenue on October 21, 2023 to demand a ceasefire for Gaza and end to the occupation of Palestine. Credit: Jim Daley

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden won Michigan’s Democratic primary handily, but more than 100,000 “uncommitted” ballots, or about 13 percent, were cast after organizers mounted a protest-vote campaign to send a message regarding the president’s support of Israel in its war on Gaza. In Chicago, activists say the war could impact the primary here, as well as the Democratic National Convention in August and the general election in November.

Since the October 7 attack by Hamas, in which approximately 1,200 Israelis were killed and hundreds taken hostage according to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Israel launched a bombing campaign and ground invasion of Gaza. The IDF has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, the majority of whom have been women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Protests have been held throughout the country, including in Chicago, regarding Israel’s response to the attack and its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands. 

Palestinians and other activists across the city have fiercely opposed Biden’s handling of the Gaza war, and Illinois could become a focal point of dissent. Last month, Chicago became the largest city in the country to pass a resolution in favor of a ceasefire. Alderperson Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward), who voted for the resolution, said Biden’s inaction on the war, as well as his immigration policy, could spell doom for his general election rematch with former President and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump in November. He said Biden should expect a very tense DNC when it arrives in August.

Sigcho-Lopez pointed to the campaign in Michigan and said he will similarly abstain from participating in the Democratic primary here, citing the urgency of the moment.

“This could lead to a bigger tragedy that could affect the world if we don’t take immediate action. We see the escalation of hostilities of suffering and human life,” he said.

Sigcho-Lopez said Trump—who currently faces multiple indictments on charges of election interference stemming from his efforts to overturn his defeat in the 2020 presidential election—is a fierce threat to democracy. But he stopped short of committing to vote for Biden in the general.

“I will fight to stop a criminal like Trump from coming back to office. But I don’t want to commit my vote to a party that is enabling this slaughter,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “We’re arming a far-right government that is committing a genocide. This is an attack on human decency.”

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As the March 19 primary approaches, activists throughout Chicago plan on protesting during the spring and summer, until the Democratic National Convention in August, to demand a ceasefire and hold Israel accountable for what they consider to be Israeli war crimes.

Frank Chapman, the executive director of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, (NAARPR) said he is organizing with other activists to protest the party at various platforms in the coming months, including a coalition to march at the DNC in August.

Chapman worked alongside the African National Congress in the 1970s and ’80s against the apartheid government of South Africa, which segregated the majority-Black population from the minority white population in deplorable living conditions. He said the way Israel treats the Palestinian populace is similar to those apartheid policies.

NAARPR has been organizing for Palestinian rights for a decade and Chapman said the United States is far too willing to unconditionally support Israel. “Our government is involved in genocide. The entire world sees this for what it is and our government is funding it,” he said.

A January ruling by the International Court of Justice found that it is “plausible” that Israel is committing genocide. Biden, despite privately saying he abhorred Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct during the war, has yet to signify any large shift in how the government responds. The U.S. recently vetoed a UN resolution for a ceasefire.

A recent Associated Press-NORC poll shows half of Americans believe Israel has gone too far in its military response, up from 40 percent when measured last October. Democrats’ approval of Biden’s handling of the war also dropped significantly, down from 59 percent November to 46 percent in January.

The divide is split by age as well, with younger Americans more sympathetic to Palestinians than Israelis in the conflict compared to older groups. In January, hundreds of CPS students staged a walkout to protest the U.S.’s financial and military support of Israel. 

Lesley Williams, the chair of the Chicago chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, says that while the terror Jewish people live with regarding antisemitic violence is real, it should not come at the cost of Palestinian lives. She said it’s often hard to get the message out there in fear of retaliation from academia to people’s jobs being threatened.

“When people feel like they take support for granted such as they’ve done with Black communities, the way marginalized groups express their power is not voting,” she said. The Democratic Party “will need those votes in those swing states.”

Chapman said he is also protesting out of dissatisfaction with Biden’s administration in regards to campaign promises such as voting rights and police reform. 

“They are not building back better like they said they would. He’s giving the election to Trump, not us. The Democratic Party has been taking Black communities for granted and we are beyond fed up with it,” Chapman said.

Hatem Abuddayeh, chair of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network, said he is also working with other organizations in the city to protest the convention and the primary throughout the city. 

He said write-in campaigns such as the “uncommitted” protest vote in Michigan, which was championed by Representative Rashida Tlaib, are an important rebuke to the party. But he added that refusing to vote for Biden in the general election will make an even bigger difference.

To Abuddayeh, who still has family members living in Gaza, Biden is enabling the war to continue and is unsure if the Palestinian and Muslim community at large will ever forgive Biden, even if a ceasefire is called.

“There’s going to be no business as usual [for the Democrats] as long as Israel is allowed to continue this genocide,” he said. “If he loses to Trump, there’s no way he is going to blame Palestinians, Arabs, or Black people for it.”

Abuddayeh said his organization and others plan to protest at the DNC regardless of a ceasefire resolution. 

Communities of color have been instrumental in support for Palestinian liberation, he said. He was encouraged when the City Council voted in favor of the ceasefire resolution, and noted that nearly all of the alderpersons who supported it were nonwhite.

Cydney Wallace, a Black Jewish community activist, said the war has heightened her anxiety as she has had hard conversations with members of both the Jewish and Black communities.

Wallace, who is supportive of Palestinian rights and has previously criticized the Israeli government’s treatment of Ethiopian women, has had to call friends and organizers who may say antisemitic things without knowing it while also talking to other Jews about Israel’s treatment of Palestine.

Last year, the Anti-Defamation League claimed it found 2,031 antisemitic incidents nationwide between October 7 and December 7, a 337 percent increase in reports compared with 2022. It is also the highest number of any two-month period since the ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979. 

“Jews are not a monolith, some [people] couldn’t comprehend that Jews are not on the same page about everything,” Wallace said. “I’m a mother of four and I could not imagine the violence they are seeing dealing with happening to my own.”

Wallace hesitated to speak out at first, but said that it was necessary for her mental health and friends around her to show support.

“I only wish I had done so sooner,” she said. “In the silence, people assume what they want about you, so it’s important that people speak up sooner about what they see is wrong. This is a matter of human decency and freedom.”

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Trey Arline is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.

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