Israeli and Palestinian counter protests fill Washington Square Park

October 17, 2023 – Washington Square Park: Hundreds of protesters filled Washington Square Park Tuesday afternoon. (Photo by Andy Harris)

An escalation in military-grade violence across Israel and Palestine remains the leading topic of discussion across timelines, headlines and New York City’s Washington Square Park. The sun prepared to tuck itself in for the evening as a blanket of marked New York Police Department (NYPD) vehicles coated the perimeter of Washington Square Park. Nestled inside the field of concrete, trees and patches of unkempt grass, a sea of demonstrators come face to face as they volley remarks back and forth.

A lively chorus of rehearsed “Free Palestine” and “You’re racist” chants are met with voluminous statements about protecting Israel from a crowd of civilians draped in Israeli flags and Orthodox Jewish ensembles. In the midst of the tense staredown, a man of cocoa brown complexion with a “Cop City” t-shirt and a young girl wearing a pair of pink Jordan 1s emerged from the tense crowd.

“Free Palestine until it’s backward,” he yelled for all to hear.

Gripping the young girl’s hand with all his might, he turned and was quick to let the reporters in earshot know that he’s not interested in speaking to them. However, he was happy to stop and let nearby photographers take pictures of the sign in his opposite hand.

“Murdered,” the sign reads as is centered the photo of a young woman whose face closely resembles the toddler clinging to him.

October 17, 2023 – Washington Square Park: Pro-Palestinian protests filled Washington Square Park Tuesday afternoon. (Photo by Andy Harris)

October 17, 2023 – Washington Square Park: Jewish-based protests against the occupation of Palestine. (Photo by Andy Harris)

Hospital explosions, deadly bombings and gun violence have ravaged communities of Israeli and Palestinian civilians. As a result, the families of at least 2,787 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis have been asked to bury their loved ones in the last week as tensions west of the Mediterranean Sea rise to epic proportions. Geographically, the conflict has hit those near the Gaza Strip most immediately, but a collection of more than two million Palestinians and Jewish New Yorkers living thousands of miles away are grappling with the impact of each gunshot and explosion.

From the Harlem Jewish Community Center (JCC Harlem) and Old Broadway Synagogue surrounding Columbia University to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism near 125th Street, cultural gathering spots for the Jewish community around New York have been closed to the press and open to those in need of grief counseling. Beyond prayer and a helping hand, many wish to point to prepared statements rather than public discourse.

“We are with the families who mourn. We are with those who have been taken captive, and we are with their families. We are with our literal shomrim, the brave IDF soldiers who are our family members and friends who defend us. We are with one another and we are with the people and the State of Israel,” a statement from a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism spokesperson reads.

“Our souls melt with sorrow as we recall these brutal events, but we stand with one another in love and compassion, and determination.”

The process of mourning, contemplation and protest runs from the culturally rich streets of Harlem down to the fast-paced concrete runways of Midtown. A train ride away from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Kameron Hurt sits inside The People’s Forum on West 37th Street discussing international politics and conflict. Wearing a Black t-shirt with red lettering and a watch that captivates the eye before a word is said, the University of Southern California graduate is reluctant to talk for long, but has more to say than can be captured within a single story.

October 17, 2023 – Midtown: The front door of The People’s Forum on W. 37th Street. (Photo by Ryan Shepard)

“I believe the biggest mistake that many media outlets have made is beginning their coverage of this story within the past two weeks,” he said with confidence.

“When you start the discussion of this conflict with a bomb going off in Israel, everything that’s done afterward will be presented as retaliation,” he said.

The USC-bred academic and activist explains that the way in which mainstream media outlets inform the public about the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine can be unfair to the civilians who died while attempting to exit the country or the “700,000” Palestinian civilians “who were forcibly removed from their homes.” Moving forward, Hurt is worried that presenting the ongoing conflict as a breaking news story that began earlier this month will have an impact on Palestinians across the world, including America.

“A young, six-year-old child was just murdered this weekend inside his home,” he said, referring to the killing of Wadea Al-Fayoume in Plainfield, Illinois.

“We’re witnessing a sickening type of violence here and there. They’re bombing safe zones and cutting off access. They’re turning [Palestine] into an extermination camp,” he added.

Despite recent acts of violence stateside and globally, Hurt remains cautiously optimistic in his advocacy for civilians attempting to seek safety and community. Ultimately, he hopes that those impacted by the conflict and those advocating for their safety are not painted in a light that is unfair.

“It’s not about us against them. It’s about fighting against imperialism and colonialism. It’s about finding safe places for people to live,” Hurt continued.

“It’s about freedom.”