For young Ethiopian Israelis protesting on Tuesday against another police killing of a member of their community, this was not only an expression of anger against what they see as deep-rooted systematic police racism, but also a cry of frustration that repeated promises of change have come to nothing.
Across the country, thousands of demonstrators from the community and their supporters blocked roads to protest the fatal shooting of unarmed 19-year-old Solomon Tekah by an off-duty cop earlier this week. The protests continued through the night and frequently turned violent.
Police said 47 officers were injured on Tuesday and 60 demonstrators were arrested. It did not offer a tally on protester injuries. One demonstrator was moderately injured in a hit-and-run on Tuesday evening, medics said.
At a busy Tel Aviv intersection where hundreds gathered to block traffic, the mood was one of frustration. During the hour and a half this reporter spent among the demonstrators, there was no violence but rather pained and thoughtful reflections about the plight of Ethiopians in Israeli society. Many people at the protest declined to be interviewed and those who agreed did so on condition that they not be identified.
Later Tuesday rioters smashed in the windshield of a car at this junction and set it on fire.
We are here to protest because “the racism and discrimination has been going on a long time,” a 30-something Ethiopian-Israeli from Tel Aviv said. “The police can shoot a young man so easily and it’s because of their origin. If he hadn’t been Ethiopian it wouldn’t have ended the way it did.”
He expressed his frustration that there had been shootings of Ethiopians in the past and that nothing would likely change. “You feel like this can happen to you at any time. It’s a cycle that keeps turning infinitely.”
A 20-something woman in a sun dress from Nes Ziona in central Israel said, “I am very emotionally distraught. You say to yourself, OK, it happened once but won’t happen again. The next time it happens you think, OK, maybe they’ll fix it. But when it becomes systematic, you think to yourself are our lives worth less?”
“This boy,” she added of Tekah, “his parents gave him everything they had. They raised him all these years and then some person gives himself permission to shoot him.”
Tekah was shot dead during an altercation in the Kiryat Haim neighborhood of Haifa on Sunday. An eyewitness to the shooting has reportedly told the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department that, contrary to the officer’s claims, he did not appear to have been in danger when he opened fire. The officer was briefly arrested before being released to house arrest, sparking further rage in the community.
While protests Monday against the police were primarily attended by Ethiopian-Israeli demonstrators, Tuesday saw a mobilization of members of the general Israeli public, who joined the chants against police brutality toward the minority community.
However, three Ethiopian-Israeli teenagers from Yafo sitting near to the main Tel Aviv demonstration said that racism was not just a police issue, but pervaded much of Israeli society.
“There’s discrimination against us,” one said. “We experience it every day, in school, in the neighborhood. At or school there are cliques and Ethiopians are separate, we hang out with each other.”
More than 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel; most are children of immigrants who came to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s. A large percentage of Ethiopian children grow up in poverty and have often struggled to integrate into Israeli society.
As protesters blocked traffic, some motorists took the delay in stride. One even emerged from his car to join the protest. Others began to shout and argue with the demonstrators.
“What if it were your son?” a protester asked an angry driver.
“You should be grateful we brought you here,” he snapped back.
A group of young women shouted, “Not black nor white; we are all people,” and “Police who are you protecting?”
Avi, 30, an Ethiopian-Israel from Ashkelon, pointed out that this was the second police killing of an Ethiopian in six months, with more than a dozen occurring in the last five years.
“It’s easier for police to draw their guns when they see black,” said Avi.
“That‘s what we feel and that’s the reality. We want police to clean up their act. This can’t continue. These kids are our brothers and cousins.”
Avi said that he grew up in the Ethiopian neighborhood in Ashkelon, which he described as “basically an Ethiopian ghetto. You have these ghettos in many cities throughout Israel.”
When he was a child it was not uncommon to walk down the street be stopped by police who would ask you to empty your pockets and search you.
“It could even happen that a cop would hit you and then accuse you of hitting them. Not all police are bad but there are some bad ones.”
Avi said he believes police shoot Ethiopians out of an unconscious feeling of superiority.
“They wouldn’t dare take out their guns in (upscale) North Tel Aviv,” he said.
Avi said that the older generation accepted police mistreatment as normal. “But we grew up here and we explained to them it’s not okay.”