Some 1,000 protesters gathered again in Tel Aviv Monday for a second time in recent weeks to demonstrate against police brutality and discrimination against the Ethiopian-Israeli community. But while Monday’s zigzagging march across the city center was undisturbed by violence, it was beset by infighting.
Many participants expressed disappointment at internal disagreements and at the event’s overall tame nature compared to the May 3 protest in Rabin Square, in which dozens of police and protesters were arrested and injured.
Ethiopian Israelis and their supporters have staged demonstrations across the country in response to video footage released last month showing a policeman and a police volunteer assaulting an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier in Holon.
Organizers invited protesters to Monday’s demonstration through a Facebook event, encouraging people to arrive at 3:00 p.m. at the corner of Allenby Street and Rothschild Boulevard, a trendy area close to Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, with plans to march toward the Habima Theater Square.
Though few people actually arrived at the scheduled time, hundreds more joined as the protesters chanted and spoke through bullhorns at the busy intersection.
The organizers, a small group of young Israelis of Ethiopian descent, stressed to the crowd and reporters that this protest had no formal leadership. “You are all leaders,” Inbar Bogala, one of the organizers, said.
Bogala is a 20-something Ethiopian woman with long bleached and multi-colored dreadlocks who has become one of the most visible activists in the recent protests.
Temperatures in Tel Aviv topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius), but organizers did not let the sweltering heat deter them.
“More draining, more exhausting than the weather is this situation,” Adva Zimro, another organizer, said.
While the protest was getting started on Rothschild, police officials met with Zimro, Bogala and several other organizers to get them to agree to a limited timeframe for the protest and to have them sign documents that designated them as personally responsible for the event.
Noise laws go into effect at 11:00 p.m. in Tel Aviv, but protesters wanted to extend that an additional three hours. Police refused to budge on the issue and though the organizers initially scoffed at the demand to sign documents, they eventually agreed.
With the paperwork resolved, and after nearly three hours of chanting and cheering, protesters braved the heat and began moving the procession down the tree-lined boulevard toward the theater.
Protesters chanted in Hebrew, “A violent cop must be locked up!” “No to violence! Yes to unity!” and “The nation demands social justice!”
Many crossed their arms and held them above their heads, as if handcuffed, to protest the “police state.”
Protesters claimed that despite politicians’ promises to address the Ethiopian community’s concerns, nothing has been done yet.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Sunday at a ceremony in memory of the Ethiopian Jews who died making their way through Sudan to Israel. In his speech he outlined his plans to establish and head a ministerial committee which would investigate and treat the problems plaguing Ethiopian Israelis.
Protesters, however, dismissed his remarks as “mere words.”
“We want actions,” one protester shouted to the crowd through a bullhorn. “We’re sick of promises.”
“We will protest every day,” Zimro said. “We want to see results.”
Yitzhak Hizkiyahu, who owns a vegan Ethiopian restaurant called Tenat in south Tel Aviv, explained that though these protests began in response to a case of police brutality the root of the problem is much deeper. It’s not just the police, Hizkiyahu said, you can see discrimination in the Education Ministry, the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, and Defense Ministry as well.
“The problem is institutional. You fail once, and that’s it,” he said.
The teeming, cheering protest proceeded from the theater square to a plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, but once there it began to fall apart.
As the crowd gathered and individuals started cheering or shared their personal stories and reasons for protesting, many protesters began feeling restless. Suddenly a cheer spread through the crowd, “Let’s go block the Ayalon [Highway]!”
The violent protest in Tel Aviv two weeks earlier began with demonstrators blocking the city’s main artery, shutting down traffic on one of Israel’s busiest thoroughfares.
A breakaway group of over a hundred protesters left the art museum and began walking toward the Ayalon, but soon encountered a line of policemen in full riot gear blocking their path. The protest’s organizers rushed to the site and pleaded with the splinter group to return to the main demonstration.
“They expect us to fight them,” one of the organizers told the breakaway protesters, referring the police. “Don’t play into their hands.”
But that didn’t sit well with the group wanting to obstruct the highway. “You’re acting just the like the police,” a protester told the man trying to herd them back to the crowd.
“We didn’t come out here to be violent,” another protester added. “There’s no point. There’s no point.”
Eventually the demonstration’s organizers and the police convinced the breakaways to give up on blocking the highway, and they rejoined the fold.
Around 9:30 p.m., the protest left the art museum and made its way to Rabin Square, where violence broke out during the May 3 protest. Rabin Square was the last stop on the protest’s 2.5 mile meander through Tel Aviv.
Protesters sang songs, continued cheering and listened to more impassioned speeches that called for government action and an end to police brutality.
Many protesters welcomed the relaxed, nonviolent nature of the protest, saying they saw it as a part of an ongoing process to bring about real change in the community. Others said they felt it was ineffectual and lacked the impact that a more dramatic, even violent protest would have on the Israeli public.
By the end of May 3’s protest, Rabin Square was covered in broken glass, fragments of stun grenades and burned garbage. It took days before the square was entirely clean again and the burn marks from the stun grenades had faded.
Monday’s protest left no such visual reminders, but with Netanyahu’s cabinet slated to discuss the formation of his ministerial committee on Tuesday, the effects may still be felt.