Guest Post: Brandon Tonner-Connolly and A Mostly Peaceful Protest
A NYC production designer marches for Palestine, transcending "the unstated rule that to go beyond a certain level of questioning is to identify yourself as very fringe and a borderline hate-monger."
When it comes to our views on the carnage in Israel and Palestine, most of us are captive to our chosen news feeds, programmed as they are not to deescalate the rhetoric but to whip up horror at what the "other side" is doing. I certainly am. Maybe you are too.
In an effort to look past today’s enraging video or questionable meme, I will occasionally be turning over my Substack to people who have differing points of view and experiences.
Today’s essay comes from Brandon Tonner-Connolly, a production designer for film and TV whose credits include the series “Reservation Dogs,” on which my daughter also worked. When I learned Tonner-Connolly, 39, attended the pro-Palestine protest in Washington DC on November 4, I asked him to write up his experience.
This is the first in a series. Next up we hear from a Harvard student whose early interest in progressive ideology was fully torpedoed after October 7.
The Conflict at Home: Brandon Tonner-Connolly and a Mostly Peaceful Protest
I went to D.C. because it feels like a unique, especially urgent moment in a multi-generational crisis.
Right after college, I participated in a human rights/media program run through a Brazilian NGO and spent a few weeks in Rio working at youth media centers where kids have an opportunity to express their experiences through photography, filmmaking etc. That experience led me to seek out other similar programs in different parts of the world, including one in the West Bank, Jenin specifically. I worked with a youth media center there remotely and I’ve continued to learn about the situation and communicate with people in the program for years.
All that is to say, I’ve been interested in the conflict for some time. But aside from the rare really passionate Zionist or really passionate Palestinian rights person spotting an Edward Said book on my book shelf, no one I encountered really wanted to talk about it beyond extremely broad strokes, with the unstated rule that to go beyond a certain level of questioning the overall dynamic was to identify yourself as very fringe and a borderline hate-monger.
But all that feels very different in the present moment, as if everything is suddenly up for examination and reevaluation. What I noticed in D.C. was people from a broad spectrum of groups coming together to invest time in the cause of solidarity with people they perceive as being victims of oppression, in the same way people were drawn to Standing Rock or Black Lives Matter in 2020. Though I think this is purer than the latter example because we haven’t reached the level of virtue signaling where people are posting black squares on their IG. Maybe there are similarities to the way people were drawn to the streets during Vietnam or the anti-Apartheid movement, but I can’t say for sure because I wasn’t there.
The rally started in Freedom Plaza, which is a football field sized patch of grass surrounded on three sides by imposing federal office buildings. A small stage with a “Free Palestine” banner had been set up, with giant video screens at every intersection going back for blocks in anticipation of the massive crowd. The setup, especially the mobile video screens, reminded me of Obama’s inauguration and I swear I saw the same guy who was selling bootleg Shepard Fairey t-shirts in 2008 selling “Free Palestine” buttons and shirts.
I got there at about 1pm, the rally started at 2pm, and the march started at 6pm. That entire time people were streaming into the plaza and the surrounding streets without pause. It was one of those moments where you get there early, end up close to the stage, and then are shocked to see an ocean of people when you turn around hours later.
Everyone spoke for about 3-5 minutes each, generally revving up the crowd before and after with chants:
“Free, free Palestine!”
“No Justice, No Peace!”
It was a remarkably diverse lineup. Native American activists with "Land Back" banners were followed by Orthodox Jews who gave the mic to representatives from CAIR who made way for feminist speakers from Code Pink. Everyone spoke directly about how their own group approached the conflict and how they found solidarity with the Palestinian people. Obviously, there was a lot of language about decolonization, liberation, and resisting occupation, which is part of why this current moment is attracting so many people who previously weren’t involved. Using the terminology of “resistance" that people became familiar with during Trump’s presidency frames the movement for Palestinian rights as part of the same struggle that liberals accepted as legitimate in the summer of 2020. Politics aside, whoever came up with the messaging that many major Palestinian rights orgs are using to speak about the situation in this moment is a fucking genius.
I was amazed by the diversity of the crowd as well. There were grizzled lefty veteran protestors in all black, and college age and younger kids with handmade signs that echoed Vietnam slogans (“Hey Joe Biden, What Do You Say? How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?”). Occasionally, a family in keffiyehs with a Palestinian flag would move through the crowd and everyone would part to let them to the front. A list about 20-feet long of all the people killed in Gaza since 10/7 was passed from the stage, crowd surfing to the back of the plaza and beyond.
In my observation, the atmosphere was overwhelmingly positive. If someone stepped on someone’s shoe or whacked someone with their sign, both parties apologized. Three different times a speaker was interrupted by an organizer who directed medic attention to a specific place in the crowd where people were signaling they needed help. Each time the crowd chanted, “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe!” You could hear different contingents (from Baltimore, Philly, etc) arriving at the back, chanting as they came in and then growing silent as they joined the crowd and listened to the speakers.
The rhetoric was pointed but not violent. There were no "Death to Israel" chants and the word Hamas was barely spoken. There were many mentions of the current conflict as a genocide and of Biden/Netanyahu as war criminals. But the overriding focus was on a ceasefire, with everything else a secondary priority. The speaker from CAIR made the remarks most relevant to domestic politics, noting Biden had lost the support of Muslim communities in the US and it would be consequential in 2024 (“No Ceasefire, No Votes”). A common theme was voters of color and Muslims would not be used as they were in 2020, forced into voting for Biden by one party holding up the boogeyman of Trump as the alternative. Instead, they would sit the election out or vote for a more ideologically aligned third party. I can’t say I feel any differently.
Finally, at about 6pm, after the crowd had been chanting “We want to march!” in between speakers for about an hour, the organizers announced it was time to march to the White House.
“Everyone exit at the Northeast corner of the plaza!” was basically the only direction they gave. People familiar with D.C. helpfully pointed out the proper corner and everyone slowly moved in that direction. I was dreading it because funneling thousands of people to one small point without much organization seemed like a recipe for a Who in Cincinnati-style disaster, but it was actually more pleasant than getting off the subway at rush hour. Everyone was very courteous and made sure no one was getting jammed up or trampled as we spilled into the streets.
The march was passionate with nonstop chanting led by organizers, who took a turn for five minutes and then passed the bull horns around the crowd. At one point I looked over and saw a 10-year-old Middle Eastern boy leading chants, his tiny hand holding the microphone and someone who looked like his father holding the bullhorn above him. Later, a faux coffin draped in the Palestinian flag was carried on the shoulders of a group of men next to me. Every intersection was blocked off by police with bystanders recording on their phones.
At this point, my feet and lower back hurt enough to justify checking my phone to see exactly how close we were to the White House. When we finally arrived, I was surprised. I assumed we would hit it head-on since it would be the most cinematic, but we actually slipped in via a side street and then looped around in front of it. At that point, things got a little loose. Some people continued flowing past while others stopped in place. Some gathered close to the fence and others in the middle of the street. Others in the park across the street climbed the statue of Andrew Jackson and popped a red smoke canister.
I flowed with the traffic and stopped in various estuaries, joining chants and generally being amazed we were this close to the residence of the leader of the free world (while calling him a war criminal). It felt like every time I moved further down the street another twenty feet, I discovered an entirely new world of activity. People from the march continued to pile in and be absorbed every minute. I couldn’t believe no one was getting hurt. The conditions were perfect for people to get shoved, trampled, generally bruised but no one seemed to put the importance of their own space above anyone else’s.
While I had assumed we would just disperse when we hit the WH, I realized instead this was the main event everything else had been building toward. I kept thinking about those scenes in Oliver Stone’s Nixon where Anthony Hopkins is sitting in the WH listening to the Vietnam protestors outside calling him a baby killer over and over. I’d like to believe no one likes being called a child killer, no matter how many defense contractors donate to their campaign, but who can say?
The rally ended with about 200 people (myself included) sitting in the street in front of the White House while an organizer read off a list of people killed in Gaza. A crowd of thousands quietly listened. After a few prayers from Muslims in attendance, a woman with a bullhorn thanked everyone for coming, said the protest was officially over, and told everyone to get home safely. Most people left their signs leaning against the WH fence. A teenage boy threw a water bottle over the fence and several older people chided him, telling him it wasn’t acceptable behavior.
I’ve been to a few protests in NYC since then and it’s been mostly the same story: rally with a diverse group of speakers, march somewhere that gets maximum attention (from City Hall over the Manhattan Bridge, from the UN down 42nd St to Grand Central), mass together while chanting to disrupt business as usual; disperse. The only tension or hostility I’ve seen has been at the UN protest when a group of about a dozen pro-Israel counter-protestors set up across the extremely narrow side street. Lots of chanting and counter chanting (including a particularly delightful chant of “Kill them all, kill them all” from the pro-Israel folks) but still no violence or threats. More and more the people leading the chants are young woman wearing keffiyehs and Palestinian flags. It’s powerful to watch them shout so loud with such emotion that their voices crack and completely give out after a few minutes. I did see a rabbi who was marching next to one such woman. He offered her a cough drop after her voice broke, which I thought would’ve made a hell of a NYT front page photo.