The place where there are angry people

What do you bring to a protest?

Definitely, a camera. A notebook. Pens. An audio recorder. Videocamera? No, too much.

The police are expecting violence. But it’s their job to anticipate the worst. The idea I think is if it goes to shit, at least no one can say, “I wasn’t warned.”

The fear goes back to a protest earlier this summer that turned violent as a mob ransacked African stores and threatened Africans on the street.

Definitely should not have this much cash in my wallet. If I’m going to get mugged, at least the thief should not make $300. I’m just not going to think about the expensive dSLR digital camera I’m carrying.

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It’s almost too bizarre and horrible a story to be believable. An 83-year-old woman was raped on December 21. The police arrested an Eritrean man in his 20s, a resident of south Tel Aviv with a criminal record, with DNA evidence linking him to the crime. A gag order was lifted, which sparked the protest I’m on my way to report on. Whether the suspect’s ethnic identity should have been released to the public is a subject for discussion.

I get out of the cab a few blocks from the protest. The driver warns me to “be careful.” I answer in Hebrew that this is my job and I’m a journalist. Having just learned the word for journalist in Hebrew a few days before, I’m still enjoying any excuse to use it. Not to mention, saying “I’m a journalist” somehow makes the whole thing feel more real.

As I walk west toward the Central Bus Station, I see two black, presumably Eritrean, men walking in the same direction behind me. I figure this is probably the time to get over my own fear and I turn around.

“I’m a journalist,” I say. “Can I ask you a few questions?”

Suspicious faces slowly change into accommodating ones.

“Do you know anything about the protest?” I ask in a slow clear voice in English.

I point in the direction just down the road, but they don’t seem to understand what I’m talking about. They seem hung up on the word “protest.” I don’t know how to explain what I mean and I’m not sure what the word is in Hebrew either.

At a loss, I say, “the place where there are angry people” in Hebrew, but that doesn’t quite register either. Besides, I can barely make out the response, which is stated in a heavy Eritrean accent.

Bemused and exasperated, I give up and thank them. Continuing down the road, I can now make out the blue flashing lights and the throng of people.

Sometimes I think I’m a little bit racist. I think of that song from Avenue Q, “everyone’s just a little bit racist, sometimes.” I grew up in a somewhat uniform environment. Yes, I’m tolerant and I believe in pluralism. But I think I also unconsciously picked up some stereotypes. I mean, I see it all the time in otherwise tolerant people. “You’re Jewish, you must be smart.” It’s really only a hop away from “you’re Jewish, you’re cheap” and then, “you know a lot of Jews didn’t show up for work on the day of the World Trade Centre attack. Just saying.” Mine is this: when I pass a group of young black males on the street in a less-than-perfect neighbourhood, I get nervous. But I believe the only way to change a stereotype – which has an emotional anchor – is to confront it by interacting with people. You know, be a journalist.

I can now hear the rally as well as see it.

“Ha’am doresh hasudanim legoresh,” they chant. “The people demand the Sudanese be expelled.” It rhymes in Hebrew. It’s an adaptation of a similar chant used in the social justice rallies that swept Israel last year.

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There are maybe 100 people, some holding placards, some yelling, some just milling about. The protest seems to have jammed up under the sweeping tentacles of the central bus station. We’re in the heart of the neighbourhood inundated with Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and asylum-seekers. There is a heavy police presence and a media one as well. Videocameras roll as reporters interview protestors and the Army Radio reporter looks overwhelmed with the attention.

I take a few minutes to track down my translator. Then we set to work. We’re looking for a variety of protestors to talk to – old, young, religious, secular, men, women. “Why are you here? Who do you blame? What is the solution?” Most are residents, including one who says her mother was killed by an Eritrean. The answers indicate a little anger and a lot of fear.

It’s fascinating to explore that line between legitimate fear and grievance, ignorance and racism.

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Their neighbourhood was neglected for years, only to be used as a dumping ground for the thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese who crossed the border into Israel, seeking asylum. And work. Without a policy and without enough space in the country’s prisons, the state would drop them off by the busload in the central bus station. They were permitted to stay in Israel, but not to work. On any given day, in the neighbourhoods surrounding the central bus station, there are far more Sudanese and Eritreans on the street than Israeli residents.

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After interviews with six or seven Israeli protestors, my translator and I approach a group of Eritreans standing on the sidelines. I wonder what they make of this all. But we run into the same language difficulties and I wish I had brought along a Tigrinyan translator as well.

Meanwhile, a man is yelling on a megaphone in Hebrew. I can only catch snippets:

“…government neglecting…”

“…nothing will happen if we sit quietly…”

“…Bibi will wake only by force…” [Bibi is short for the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu]

“…I’m not an activist…”

“…I’m a resident who worries for his family…”

And the collective chant resumes, “the people demand the Sudanese be expelled. The people demand the Sudanese be expelled. The people demand…”

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I’m meeting with residents this week. More to come.

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