Photos by Anna Codrea-Rado
They gathered at Sistas’ Place, a jazz and blues restaurant on Nostrand Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant to remember Muammar el-Qaddafi.
They spoke of him as “a freedom fighter,” and a “great revolutionary.” They chanted his name and condemned the United States and NATO for their roles in his demise. No matter that across the world, and throughout Libya, Qaddafi’s death at the hands of his own people after 42 years of brutal and at times bizarre rule has been hailed as a highpoint in the Arab Spring.
Tonight there was no talk of Qaddafi sponsoring terrorism, no talk of deaths threats against vast numbers of his people. Instead, those who gathered did so to tell a story that followed a very different narrative. Some one hundred people filled the room. One by one, the speakers walked to the stage at the front. Qaddafi’s portait – taken years ago, when he was still the young, charismatic and handsome colonel who overthrew a king – was flanked by photographs of the Zimbabwean ruler Robert Mugabe, the Sandanista leader Daniel Ortega, and the young Qaddafi’s hero, the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Elsewhere in the room hung portraits of John Coltrane.
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The event was organized by the December 12th Movement – an organization founded by the late and fiery community organizer Sonny Carson to protest police brutality against black people. The group plans to “put NATO on trial” at a tribunal it plans to hold in January. The event’s emcee was Viola Plummer, a former City Council aide fired in 2007 after threatening the assassination of Councilman Leroy G. Comrie Jr. She is also a prominent member of the December 12th Movement.
She scoffed at the idea of the revolt against Qaddafi happening in “some place I never heard of called the Middle East.” She chanted “Libya is in…
“Africa!” the crowd screamed in response.
“Libya is in Africa,” she chanted. The crowd chanted with her.
“Egypt is in Africa.”
“Tunisia is in Africa.”
She reminded everyone about the tribunal and the petition drive to “put the criminals on trial.” The group, she explained, needed a minimum of “400 Africans” to sign the petition it plans to present to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Four hundred, she added, “is a magic number,” because it is the same number of Africans who went to South Africa for the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, where the trans-Atlantic slave trade was declared a crime against humanity.
Andre T., 25, a CUNY student, said he had come to the memorial to learn about a man portrayed as an “evil terrorist.” He said the service showed him that Qaddafi “did a lot of good stuff for Africans.” He added that believed Qaddafi was killed because of the imperialism of the CIA, NATO and the United States.
Sylvestre Kouadio, from the African Diaspora for Democracy and Development – an organization that delivers aid to the people of his native Ivory Coast – spoke about the political situation in his homeland. He cited last April’s arrest of Laurent Gbagbo, former president of Ivory Coast. Seeing that the crowd was no longer with him, he brought the discussion back to Qaddafi, whom he said “helped African countries, and instilled in the African leaders the idea of pan-Africanism.”
Andree Crawford, 47, who is also from the Ivory Coast and works with Kouadio, said Qaddafi was a great leader for Africa and that the “world didn’t understand his fight,” which she said was for freedom.
When asked whether she thought the Libyan people shared her view, she replied that it would take time for the Libyans to understand they “have lost a big man.”
Plummer screamed into the microphone, “We are an African people!”
The crowd echoed her words.
“And African people will be free,” she said.
She introduced Charles Barron, the Brooklyn city council member, former Black Panther, and founder of the Freedom Party of New York. Immaculately dressed in a gray Nehru suit, Barron radiated presence. In a magnetic deep timbre, he told the crowd, “Out there, they don’t know that Qaddafi was our brother.” He dismissed claims of Qaddafi’s brutality. “People say ‘Didn’t he kill all those people?’ I say, ‘I don’t know anything. The man was a freedom fighter.” He gestured to a poster of a young Qaddafi. “Can you imagine what this man had to go through?” He urged the crowd to rise up and organize. “You might as well get bold, black, and bad, and take care of business.” He asked them to chant “Long live Muammar Qaddafi,” four times, and exulted, “Long live African freedom,” before walking off the stage to rapturous applause.
Eric Borenstein, 70, came to the event from the Bronx because he wanted to know why the United States killed the Libyan leader – although by all accounts it was the Libyans themselves who killed him. Borenstein, who described himself as a communist, said he “disagrees with everything that goes on in the US.” He said New York is “ugly” and “full of decay,” and that he would like the opportunity to go to Cuba to “get his teeth fixed.” He said he didn’t know a lot about Qaddafi.
As if to offer an explanation for the decades of abuse and terror ascribed to Qaddafi, Douglas Mohammad, former secretary of the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Mosque No. 7, told the audience that “every regime has to perform some uncivilized tasks. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” This, he explained, was in reference to the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mohammad said that he “was hurt” when he heard the news of Qaddafi’s death. He said he felt “somewhat embarrassed” that his organization was not able to mobilize a large turnout in August to protest NATO’s bombing of Libya. He characterized American policies as “an attempt to recolonize Africa,” and said that Qaddafi had stood against it.
He was “a revolutionary leader,” Mohammad said. “A great revolutionary leader.”