‘State of the Union is genocide’: Gaza protesters challenge Biden speech

Demonstrators in the US capital say they represent the ideals Biden claims to speak for, as they call for full ceasefire in Gaza.

Protesters with US Capitol in background
Pro-Gaza ceasefire protesters gather on March 7 in Washington, DC, the United States [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Washington, DC – United States President Joe Biden may have been preparing to address Congress, but protesters gathered outside of the US Capitol had their own message: “Stop funding Israel” and “Complete ceasefire now”.

About 150 protesters gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue – the arterial road that connects the White House to the seat of the US legislature in Washington, DC – ahead of the annual address on Thursday.

Organisers said they wanted to block Biden’s way, or at least make him find another route, as he travelled to the 9pm local (00:00 GMT Friday) speech. Five months into the war in Gaza, they said more pressure than ever was needed, with more than 30,000 Palestinians dead and nearly two million facing humanitarian catastrophe.

“As President Biden prepares to give the State of the Union address, we’re here to say, no more genocide with our tax dollars,” Cat Knarr, of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, told Al Jazeera.

Protesters near the Capitol laid out a swimming-pool-sized Palestinian flag across the avenue’s asphalt. They held signs that said “Biden’s legacy is genocide” and “End the occupation”.

Protester with sign that says ceasefire
Demonstrators demanding a ceasefire gather near the US Capitol, on March 7 [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

“When Palestine is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” they chanted, with some holding electric candles.

“From DC to Palestine, occupation is a crime,” they said.

With the eyes of the nation preparing to watch Biden, protester Joanna, a 39-year-old accountant by day, said it was more important than ever to take the streets.

“I feel like they’re killing with my hands with my tax dollars,” she said.

“I just cannot be silent while genocide is happening. It’s wrong because it is wrong, so I have to use my voice every day.”

Organiser Knarr also the people of Gaza are on her mind every day: “As a Palestinian person, a granddaughter of a man who survived the Nakba, these are my people, and I have no choice but to wake up every single day and think about what they are living through.” The Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic, refers to the expulsion of more than 750,000 Palestinians from their historic lands and villages in 1948 during the creation of Israel. About 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed during the Nakba.

US officials said Biden is set to announce a plan to construct a temporary port to deliver more aid to Gaza. That comes shortly after the administration began airdropping aid to the enclave, and Vice President Kamala Harris called for a short-term “ceasefire” as part of a captive release deal, in a rhetorical, but largely empty, shift.

Still, after months of unequivocal support for Israel’s war – and the continued transfer of aid and weapons – protesters say the administration is still only playing at the margins.

Protesters with shirts that read, "Jews say ceasefire now"
Protesters demanding a ceasefire block a road leading to the US Capitol [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

For its part, the United Nations has said a famine is imminent in the enclave, and that Israel continues to slow aid deliveries into and within Gaza.  A surge in reliable ground deliveries – not maritime or air drops – is needed to prevent more deaths from hunger, UN officials have said.

Knarr dismissed the new Biden plan, which is expected to take weeks to implement, as more “publicity stunts”.

“After funding all of these bombs that Israel dropped that completely devastated Gaza and killed 30,000 Palestinian people,” she said. “It’s just infuriating that Palestinian life is not valued.”

Thursday’s State of the Union comes days after voters in several states sent a message to the Biden administration at the ballot box. In Minnesota, more than 45,000 voters cast “uncommitted” votes in protest. That came a week after at least 100,000 voters in Michigan did the same.

The protest on Thursday underscored that same solidarity, organiser Jennifer Falcon told Al Jazeera

“We see people now taking their anger into the voting booth and that is something that Democrats should be very afraid of,” Falcon said. “[Democrats] have lost the moral standing to use Trump as a fear tactic and people are tired of this.”

The State of the Union is typically a time when US presidents hail their administration’s successes and offer a vision for the path forward.

But Palestinian American human rights lawyer Huwaida Arraf said the protesters in Washington, DC, actually represented the ideals Biden claims to speak for.

“We know as Joe Biden will stand in front of millions of people and gaslight people that the state of the union is prosperous and people are doing well,” Arraf, wielding a megaphone, told protesters in a speech.

“We know the State of the Union, the State of the Union is genocide,” she said. “We will not accept a president who claims to be fighting for democracy while ignoring the majority of people he represents.”

Shortly after she spoke, the presidential motorcade approached Pennsylvania Ave, taking a left turn to avoid the protesters on the way to the Capitol Building.

Source: Al Jazeera