Thousands of demonstrators came out on Wednesday to central Tel Aviv to protest police violence against Israelis of Ethiopian descent. Several protesters clashed with police at the end of the event.
The demonstration was triggered by last week’s incident in which police shot and killed Yehuda Biadga, a mentally ill Ethiopian-Israeli. But organizers say that was merely the latest in a long list of cases of police violence, particularly aimed at Ethiopian Jews.
Biadga's father spoke at the protest, saying that he hopes the cop who shot his father will serve time. "I'm glad everyone is out here protesting for Yehuda," he said. "They took my child away and the pain is great, but today I saw how much people love him and it lifts my spirits."
One of the protesters said she decided to join the demonstration because "there is racism everywhere. I feel like I don't belong to this country." She added: "Both my brothers served as combat soldiers in the military. It's unreal, you give your soul and they end up murdering you."
After the protest ended, some protesters broke off and headed toward the train station, where violent clashes with police took place. Some protesters threw rocks and bottles at officers and pushed over construction fences. Five protesters and six officers were lightly injured and received medical care on the spot. At least nine people were arrested.
The vehicle of a police brigadier general got stuck in the middle of a major intersection, which protesters blocked. Demonstrators shouted at him: "Murderer, a gang of murderers!"
The protest's organizers said in response that "the protest ended in a wonderful way without disturbances... at some point mounted police began violently dispersing the protesters. They blocked the entrance to the train station and didn't let us go home."
The police responded saying: "Israel police respects the freedom of expression of all citizens but police officers will continue to act against all violence, physical or verbal. We will not allow officers in uniform to be harmed and we have no patience for those seeking to disturb the peace while putting people at risk."
Police deployed additional units in the city ahead of the protest. Protesters blocked Ayalon Highway, as they did in a similar protest in 2015. Police said they would permit protesters to block the highway and would not intervene as long as the demonstration remained nonviolent.
The protest's organizers announced ahead of time that they had no intention of provoking the police or use violence. They distributed flyers that said: "Anyone provoking police in order to draw violence should know - you are alone. Restraint is a strength, not a weakness."
The organizers of Wednesday’s protest convened a press conference Tuesday to present their demands. They also accused police of waging a delegitimization campaign against them.
Another protester said: "Our goal is to have our voices heard, we don't want problems. There is an entire generation born here who doesn't know what Ethiopia is but we're labeled as Ethiopians because of our skin color."
On Biadga, he added: "I came here when I was 13, I served in the border police, I know what the rules engagement are when facing a person holding non-firearm weapons. The officer could have shot Yehuda in the leg. This is unacceptable and I am very angry."
A social activist said in his speech at the protest: "I'm excited because we've changed our image. They say we're a violent community but we've proved we're united... I'm proud to see a lot of citizens here who are not of Ethiopian descent... we've hit a record of violence against us."
Another activist said: "Instead of feeling part of the nation, we feel like annexes to Israeli society... I don't need people to learn my culture. I'm not a monkey. I speak Hebrew, I was born here."
MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz) came to the protest as well. Organizers had said politicians will not speak on the podium, only activists and protesters. Gilon told Haaretz: "The police have only one role, to keep public order and protect citizens. It's not the other way around. We still see a culture of impunity, silence, denial and apathy, a police that refuses to check itself and how it operates. And that's why I'm here, why we're here."
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Tebeka, an Ethiopian-Israeli advocacy organization, that he has ordered all of the police officers assigned to guard the demonstration to wear body cameras, “to facilitate appropriate protest and to encourage moderation and transparency.”
Demonstrators gathered at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Junction at 3 P.M., and then marched toward Rabin Square. Organizers said they are encouraging participants to bring cameras to document any arrests or incidents of police violence.
Before the protest, Police said they fear extremists plan to exploit the demonstration to clash with cops. That led Shahar Molla, one of the organizers, to accuse the police of trying to delegitimize the protest. There have been a few violent Facebook posts, he said, but thousands of other Ethiopian-Israelis denounced them.
“We want to say, ‘Yes to the protest, no to violence,’” added Ethiopian Jewish religious leader Kes Samai Elias.
Elias Inbram, another organizer, stressed that police violence isn’t solely an Ethiopian-Israeli problem; many other Israelis also suffer from it.
The demonstrators are demanding the appointment of an investigating judge to probe Biadga’s death, saying they don’t trust the Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct to do it. They also demand full implementation of the Palmor Committee’s recommendations on ending discrimination against Ethiopian-Israelis, an emergency cabinet session on police violence, and additions to the existing government task force on combating racism, which they said currently consists of a single person with no authority.
In addition, they want the acting police commissioner to appoint an outside officer to investigate three acts of violence committed by officers from a single Bat Yam station: the shootings of Biadga and of Shahar Maman and the brutal beating of Damas Pakada.
Though Molla acknowledged that previous protests produced “no serious change,” he voiced hope that this time will be different.
“We aren’t against the police; this protest is so the police will be better,” added another organizer, Rachel Yosef. “I want to be sure that when I have children, they can walk proudly. ... It’s impossible to live in fear.”
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