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Dearborn Mayor to Biden: “Lives of Palestinians Should Not Be Measured Simply in Poll Numbers”

Written by on 02/02/2024


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

President Biden traveled to Michigan Thursday for a campaign stop, where he met with members of the United Auto Workers union, which has endorsed him. Michigan is a crucial swing state that could prove decisive in the general election in November. Michigan is also home to the largest percentage of Arab Americans in the United States. In 2020, Biden won Michigan with just 154,000 votes more than Donald Trump, making the Arab American vote a decisive one in the election.

Yet Biden is facing widespread protest over his administration’s support for Israel’s assault on Gaza and his refusal to call for a ceasefire. While the White House did not say ahead of time which town Biden would be visiting on Thursday, only that it was in the Detroit area, hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters were waiting for Biden in Warren outside the UAW offices.

Last week, Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chávez Rodríguez, traveled to Dearborn to rally support for the president’s reelection, yet her trip ended when a group of Arab American leaders and elected officials declined to meet with her over the war in Gaza. Among them was the mayor of Dearborn, Michigan, Abdullah Hammoud. He wrote on X, quote, “I will not entertain conversations about elections while we watch a live-streamed genocide backed by our government.”

Mayor Abdullah Hammoud is joining us now from Dearborn, which is home to one of the largest Muslim and Arab American populations in the United States. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. His new piece for The Nation, “Biden’s Erasure of Arabs Is Part of a Painful History I Know Too Well.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mayor, let’s begin with you in Dearborn. I mean, this was quite a scene this week. When the UAW endorsed President Biden, it was a major rally for him, but a number of people held up Palestinian flags and demanded a ceasefire. He comes back on Thursday. It’s actually in a very small place, as they try to control the possibility of protest inside and out, and we only learned at the last minute where he was going to be. But talk about the stand that you took and what you’re calling on the Biden administration to do, Mayor Abdullah Hammoud.

MAYOR ABDULLAH HAMMOUD: Thank you so much for having me.

You know, the stand that we took was sending the message that this is not a moment that calls for electoral politics. Over the course now of coming close to 120 days, Israel has murdered more than 27,000 Gazans and displaced over 2 million. And for us, the lives of Palestinians should not be measured simply in poll numbers. We want to have meaningful dialogue with senior decision-makers and policymakers who have the ability and the openness to change course in what’s unfolding overseas.

And as you’ve seen at rallies across this country, the position that we’ve taken, one in which we support a ceasefire, is not one just supported by Arab Americans and Muslim Americans. This is supported by over 60% of Americans across the country, over 80% of Democrats and even over 50% of Republicans.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re the first Muslim mayor of Dearborn, also the first Arab American mayor of Dearborn. You refused to meet with President Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chávez Rodríguez. Can you talk about what you told the administration, and her response and the Biden administration response?

MAYOR ABDULLAH HAMMOUD: [inaudible] didn’t communicate it directly back to the campaign. I passed it back to the individual who was trying to organize the meeting. It was a fellow Arab American. And we had all declined simultaneously. So I can’t speak to what that conversation was. But the message that I know that was sent, and generally speaking, was that we believe that community engagement can be powerful, when the conversation we’re having is about saving lives. But again, it has to be with policymakers, and not with campaign staff, in this moment of time.

AMY GOODMAN: Did President Biden meet with any Arab Americans yesterday, that you know of?

MAYOR ABDULLAH HAMMOUD: Not that I know of. I can’t speak to what his itinerary was. But as you saw, hundreds of protesters showed up and rallied outside of where the campaign event was held.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Zogby, can you talk about the significance of this? You’re president of the Arab American Institute. President Biden had overwhelmingly the Arab American vote in the last presidential election. Talk about how it’s dropped precipitously.

JAMES ZOGBY: It’s gone from 59% in 2020 to 17% end of last October. I daresay it’s even lower now. People have gone from shock and disappointment, now to anger. And I think that the mayor — I’m a big fan of Mayor Hammoud, but I think he speaks very well and clearly toward what the attitude of the community is. This isn’t a time to come and talk about voting for you. It’s a time to talk about what the heck are you doing.

And I have to say that in addition to the policy being so awful, so insensitive, so just genocidal in terms of what it’s been doing, not only in terms of supporting Israel, but the ways we’ve been supporting Israel — in addition to that, they’ve been totally ham-fisted in the way that they’ve dealt with the community. There has not been a single Arab American leadership meeting with officials. They’ve brought in meetings — they say this is a Muslim meeting, and they have excluded the Arab American leadership and brought in some random people that they find to fill a room so they can check the box and say, “We met with people.” But it’s never been substantive, and it’s never produced an outcome.

I think they really don’t care. And they think, as they’ve said to me, “Come November, it’s a binary choice, and your folks will vote for us.” They won’t. I’ve seen it before. We saw it in 2000. We saw it in 2016. They’ll vote for a third party, or they won’t vote at all. And that spells disaster for this White House.

AMY GOODMAN: I heard a number of people yesterday in Michigan being interviewed, Arab American voters, when asked, “Well, do you really think President Trump, with his Muslim ban and promising to do it again, and his much closer relationship with Netanyahu and the far right in Israel, would be better?” And time and again, I mean, you had people holding up signs that said “Abandon Biden,” and when saying they wouldn’t vote for either, saying they would simply write in “ceasefire.”

JAMES ZOGBY: Mm-hmm, and that’s what we’re hearing, and that’s what is happening right now, is a move afoot to vote “ceasefire.” I think they’re voting “uncommitted,” is what the trend is in this primary.

I think that the White House is taking for granted that they’ve got support. And they don’t. They don’t have ears on the ground. People who are doing the outreach for them don’t have ears to hear what the community is saying, or simply don’t want to go back and tell their bosses this is what the community is saying.

The result is, is that they’re cut off from reality. They’re cut off from reality that’s taking place on the ground. I mean, it is a genocide. It is unfolding. They told us they were going to do it. They’ve done it. We’re watching it play out every single day. And yet the administration response is, “Oh, we’re urging them to be careful about civilians, and we’re telling them humanitarian aid needs to come through.” It’s not coming through. Genocide is happening. And yet they live in a world of denial. And they think that we’re going to believe the denial instead of what we see with our eyes.

So, that’s how they’re operating with the policy, but it’s also how they’re operating with the politics: “These folks will come around.” Like I said, it’s insulting. It’s demeaning. It doesn’t respect people’s real feelings. And the result is, is that they’re slow-walking the president into the abyss, and November is going to be, I think, a real problem for the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, when you talk about he’s siloed off, he really hardly is. Everywhere he goes, whether it was the AME Church in Charleston, people interrupting, demanding ceasefire, or yesterday, or the UAW announcement just a few days ago, where autoworkers were holding up signs, because UAW was one of the earliest to endorse a ceasefire, President Biden himself is certainly hearing this. And I wanted to go to a reporter questioning White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre Wednesday.

STEVE HOLLAND: The president has faced a lot of criticism in Michigan from the Arab American community. What does he say to — what’s his message to them, those who feel disenchanted by the Gaza operation?

PRESS SECRETARY KARINE JEANPIERRE: Look, the president is going to continue — continues to believe that Israel has a right to defend themself. They have a right to defend itself, as long as they continue — they — it is done in accordance of humanitarian — international humanitarian law. So, we will continue to have those conversations with them. At the same time — at the same time, he is heartbroken, heartbroken by the suffering of innocent Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Karine Jean-Pierre’s message to Michigan as President Biden went there, is that Israel has a right to defend itself. Mayor Hammoud, will you be voting for President Biden?

MAYOR ABDULLAH HAMMOUD: You know, for me, that question falls back to President Biden. What will he do to earn the trust and respect of the constituency that he’s trying to represent?

You know, I was watching that press conference, and it really is a slap to the face. Every military expert and humanitarian expert across this globe has demonstrated that Israel is not abiding by any international law. That is why the International Court of Justice actually moved forward with South Africa’s case, indicating that it’s very plausible that what is unfolding in Israel — in Gaza, excuse me, by the state of Israel is a genocide, and upheld again by a federal judge here in the United States just this week, in which he dismissed a case of an organization tried suing President Biden. And in the judge’s opinion, he said, “I do believe it is very plausible that Israel is committing a genocide, that is being supported and upheld and defended by these United States of America.”

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Hammoud, you have constituents whose families are in Gaza. What are they saying to you? And do you think the situation will be very different in, well, almost a year from now, when the election takes place?

MAYOR ABDULLAH HAMMOUD: People feel betrayed. We were promised in 2020 a president who was going to bring back decency to the White House, who led with humanity. And what we’ve seen since October 7th is anything but. We have seen an alignment with Benjamin Netanyahu and the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. And we cannot, for the life of us, understand why — why, understanding that Trump being a threat to our American democracy, is that alignment with Benjamin Netanyahu worth the unraveling of the very fabric of our American democracy. And so, that’s how people are feeling right now.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to an Al Jazeera reporter, Fadi Mansour, who questioned Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in his first news conference since he was hospitalized, about U.S. military support for Israel.

FADI MANSOUR: Back in December in your speech at the Reagan Library, you told Israeli leaders they have to protect civilian lives in Gaza. Since that speech, 12,000 more Palestinians have been killed. We’re now at 27,000 killed. Why are you still supporting this war, when this government, that is the most extreme in the history of Israel, led by someone who refuses to recognize any political right for the Palestinians, and with elements that are calling for ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians? Do Palestinians have the right to dignity, as you said in Angola when I was with you on the trip? You said the future belongs to those who protect dignity, not trample it.

DEFENSE SECRETARY LLOYD AUSTIN: Yeah. I said that in the speech at the Reagan Forum. I’ve said that to my counterpart, Minister Gallant, every time that I talk to him, and I talk to him every week. And I emphasize the importance of protecting civilian lives. I also emphasize the importance of providing humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary, being questioned by Al Jazeera. Jim Zogby, if you can talk about what you feel needs to happen right now, and the people you’re polling, you’re talking to, what could make the difference?

JAMES ZOGBY: At this point, in terms of electoral politics, I’m not sure that anything makes a real difference. The wound is too deep. The losses are too great. The hurt is real. And they’re doing nothing to address it.

But at least to have a conversation, they have to make some dramatic changes in policy. The first, of course, is a ceasefire. We had a summit with Reverend Jackson’s Operation PUSH and interfaith collection of organizations a couple weeks back in Chicago. We had three demands: an immediate, sustainable ceasefire; increase in humanitarian aid and reconstruction aid in Gaza; and conditioning U.S. aid to Israel, military aid to Israel, stopping it and then conditioning future aid based on U.S. law. Those are the three essential demands, I think, to move it forward. They’re not listening to us. They’re not even asking us. And yet they want our vote.

And so, I think that you can get a conversation, which is an important thing moving forward. Any community needs a conversation with those in the White House. But getting our vote? There’s a lot of hurt here to get over. It’s sort of like a serial cheat coming home to his wife and saying, “This time I’m going to change.” You’ve got to show it. Even to have a conversation, you have to show it. And we’re not seeing that from these guys now at all.

AMY GOODMAN: James Zogby, president of Arab American Institute, we will link to your article in The Nation, “Biden’s Erasure of Arabs Is Part of a Painful History I Know [Too] Well.” And thanks so much to Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud.

This is Democracy Now! Coming up, we speak with award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay about her new film, Origin. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “I Am,” by the New Zealand Māori artist Stan Walker for the soundtrack of Ava DuVernay’s new film, Origin.



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