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Published May 24, 2021

Following a two-week stretch of terror in which the Israeli government evicted six Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah region and killed 248 Palestinians in response to armed resistance and protest, the Melee community came together to stand against injustice. On Friday, three tournament organizers – Venus, Jayde and Savestate – ran Netplay For Palestine, a special online Melee tournament which raised over $21,000 for the Middle East Children’s Alliance, per Jayde.

Coming on the same day as the Israel-Hamas cease-fire, Netplay For Palestine had 256 entrants. Among the competitors were players like Hungrybox, Mango (in doubles), iBDW, Zain, n0ne, S2J, Magi and its eventual champion Lucky.

It was not the first time the community had come together for charity. In late December, Ludwig ran LACS 3, raising over $261,000 for the Gamers For Love foundation. Before that, the 5 Days of Melee marathon raised about $60,000 for Direct Relief. Within the same year, Ryobeat ran The Minneapolis Charity Netplay Event, which raised over $28,000 for the George Floyd Memorial Fund, Reclaim the Block, Black Visions Collective and the Tony McDade Memorial Fund. At a local level, and in March 2020, New Jersey Melee raised over $5,000 for Direct Relief at Quarantined Rapport.

For more news from over the weekend, follow the Melee Stats Twitter account for daily coverage of all the results you need to know.

Personal Note

I want to make two things clear. First, at the end of the day, there are more important things in the world than video game tournament results. Second, you can’t separate politics from Melee.

Historically, we’ve tied our community efforts to political causes. Whether it’s for COVID-19 relief, people brutalized by American police or even breast cancer research, the Melee scene has made a non-insignificant difference across a variety of political issues. Our existence as a grassroots community – opposed to a mega-billion dollar developer who goes out of its way to stop our growth – is unambiguously political. It shapes the very attitudes we have in our scene. No matter what you might think, separating the Melee community from its politics is against its ethos.

For today’s column, I wanted to talk to a Melee player who has played a massive role in continuing the scene’s push for social justice.  Below is an edited transcript of a Sunday conversation between me and Free Palestine, a 2019 Top 100 player known for his advocacy of Palestinian rights. I hope that my readers find this conversation fruitful.

EDWIN: Hey Free Palestine, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate you talking to me today. I guess to start off our conversation with something light, how have you been? We haven’t really seen much of you at Melee tournaments lately.

FREE PALESTINE: Yeah, no problem, I’m happy to talk to you. Uh, for me, I just haven’t really been that big on Netplay events, and I say this as someone who used to grind Smashladder a lot. Rollback’s fun, and I definitely play a lot with Zain and with a few top players here and there when I’m try-harding. I feel like I’ll have to dedicate myself to tourneys on LAN; it just didn’t really happen during rollback.

EDWIN: How come?

FREE PALESTINE: Uh, I like Netplay, but entering Netplay singles tournaments right now just isn’t for me just cause, like, general stress and waiting at a computer for your matches doesn’t feel as fun for me. I still play a lot, don’t get me wrong, and I really like doubles, that’s been fun.

EDWIN: Yeah, that makes sense. What else are you doing? I’m actually in the middle of re-reading Vijay Prashad’s “The Darker Nations.” I remember liking it but finding it really dense the first time. Having a bit more familiarity with the topic, I actually find it a lot more illuminating now.

FREE PALESTINE: Oh, that’s pretty cool. On that note, I’d definitely suggest a book called “Enclosure” by Gary Fields. Uh, I mean, I still play Melee, I just don’t really compete at the moment. I obviously work, I play other video games, and lately I’ve actually been working on my car a bit more.

EDWIN: Alright, well, I guess we can dive in. To anyone who’s not familiar with what’s going on, could you just kind of give a brief summary as to what the current crisis is within Palestine, how it relates to the Israeli government and its historical context? Please; feel free to take this in whatever direction you want.

FREE PALESTINE: Sure. So, as it pertains to right now and just kind of what’s been going on lately, Palestinians in East Jerusalem have been forcibly evicted so that Israeli settlers and others can take their homes, and the last two weeks have just been a recent development. But this process of ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem for as many Muslims and Palestinians as possible has been going on for about 73 years. It’s been especially abhorrent lately for Palestinians.

EDWIN: Okay, so just to tie this back to Melee, and obviously Netplay For Palestine, what do you think makes the Melee community, for all its problems and issues, seemingly more likely to rally behind causes outside of the mainstream political spectrum of respectability?

FREE PALESTINE: I think it’s two big things. First, we have a history of this kind of thing, like the Evo donation drive to save our game; I mean the Melee community has so much heart and we’re willing to put a lot on the line. But the second thing is really important: we’re not beholden to developer interests. Because Nintendo isn’t running our events, we’re able to put on these kinds of tournaments, while in other games the same kind of willingness might have logistical roadblocks. Compared to other games, we’re in a sweet spot of exposure, but we have our own independence.

EDWIN: I think you bring up something really interesting. Maybe for League of Legends or something else, players and community figures might have incentive or perceived risk to not want to openly confront issues like Palestinian struggle. But in Melee, we really can do what we want.

FREE PALESTINE: Yeah, and I really wanna touch upon this second point. When organizers from the community come to back any cause they believe in; Melee really came out for this current cause. The first part is from an organizational standpoint. Because everyone in Melee is in it together, the TO and resources for big organizational events are right there. The second part is cultural. Since Evo, when you see a stream and good players playing for a cause to get something done – we have a history of supporting that, especially for short events that happen in a couple of days.

EDWIN: Were you surprised to see that sponsored top players like Hungrybox, Mango, at least in doubles, n0ne, S2J, iBDW, Zain and everyone else were willing to, you know, just to put it bluntly, publicly associate themselves with Netplay For Palestine?

FREE PALESTINE: I was pleasantly surprised. I’d obviously played some of them publicly and even in private for quite some time under my tag, but never really beyond, you know, just having them know who I was. I didn’t know they at least took the time to learn about what’s going on in the scene or that they knew it was so important. It’s important to understand that we, from a scene standpoint, really benefit from top players using their platforms to highlight important causes. Leffen’s tweet in support, Ginger donating money, Mango and Zain playing at the event – for the longest time, I was at it alone, and I just sort of used my platform as a player, under obviously my tag, and it means a lot. It shows that these players stand with something and believe in it.

EDWIN: Outside of moral necessity and humanitarianism, why is it important that smashers stand with Palestinians – or I guess, just putting it straightforwardly, why should smashers care about what’s going on in Palestine?

FREE PALESTINE: In terms of the US political aspect, I mean, we have a long standing presence in Israel to fund the atrocities that are going on. I think the best way to put it is that everyone has some kind of idea of where their taxes go to, and if their taxes go to something they don’t agree with, they should change it. I think so much would be different if there were just more places that gave Palestinians an actual story. Going back to moral appeals, Melee players are receptive to listening a lot. People just listen and listening to personal experiences do go a long way to showing what kind of situation this is – you know, my taxpayer dollars going to commit atrocities, learning about them and then feeling weird about it. I think smashers in America at the very least are actually pretty willing to learn a lot.

EDWIN: You’ve gone into this with other journalists, so you don’t have to go into too much detail, but for the audience again, can you go into that a little bit? What was it like for you – your personal connection with what’s going on in Palestine, how it’s shaped your gaming career and anything else related to it?

FREE PALESTINE: So, as a Palestinian-American with dual citizenship to both the United States and Palestine, I’ve spent many months earlier in my life actually spending my summers in Palestine. The way I describe it – and it’s not strictly Palestinian – is that existence is resistance. It emboldens us to understand and protect our identity and to preserve it as much as possible. I’ve been politically active for a while, but when it really clicked with me to use something I love doing in playing Melee to get people to understand the plight I’m going through, I realized that was what I had to do. Earlier in my life, I had dealt with going through checkpoints, and all things considered, so many people still had it worse than me, with large portions of my mother’s family being displaced. My life’s definitely been affected by this, so personally it’s important to me. At times, it’s alienating, like, when I first entered tournaments under the tag, like obviously people enter with joke or ridiculous tags all the time, but for me it was different to walk into a venue and hear someone say my tag, give me a weird look and then play a set.

EDWIN: I’m sure you’ve gone into this before, and I remember reading previous interviews with you – but was there anything else specific that you can remember causing tension or awkwardness for you at tournaments because of your tag?

FREE PALESTINE: I’m not gonna name individual smashers, but I can say that just in general, there was once a tourney where a prize for placing well was a flight to other events. When I entered under my tag, I was told I wasn’t eligible if I didn’t change my tag, and obviously I didn’t.

EDWIN: Oh, was this the Army Esports one? I think I remember hearing about this.

FREE PALESTINE: No, no – that was another example. This other one was not from the Melee TOs heading the event, mind you, but the sponsors playing for the flight. No one’s been really horrible to me at events though, like there’s obviously shitters in Twitch chat or a few mean comments online, but in terms of what Palestinians have to deal with, it’s really not a big deal.

EDWIN: Let’s get back to Netplay For Palestine. Who ran it and what was it like being involved in leading the tournament?

FREE PALESTINE: I have to give credit to Venus, someone who, you know, they reached out to me on May 12 for an event that ran nine days later. They also messaged two TOs, Jayde and Savestate, came together and everyone did a well produced and well executed tournament. Pretty much within a week, everything was fully fleshed out from seeding, bracket, media production; it was a community effort. Great TOs; they stepped it up for a week and a half.

EDWIN: How were you involved in the process of planning the event or general structure of it?

FREE PALESTINE: I did a lot of the initial feedback in terms of how to properly structure the event’s ways of speaking into these things, like making sure the issue was represented accurately and clearly on commentary. I’d like to think I made this something that Melee players cared about even before this event happened, but honestly the TOs were great. I wish I did even more in official capacities.

EDWIN: Anything you want to say about the impacts of Netplay For Palestine, the money you raised and where it’s specifically going to?

FREE PALESTINE: So, I think we raised somewhere around or close to $21,000 in one day, and the charity we raised funds for was the Middle East Children’s Alliance, which is a children’s fund for displaced Palestinians beyond just Israel and in Jordan, Kuwait and Lebanon, although obvious it goes back to their initial displacement in Israel.

EDWIN: Okay. Someone’s reading this interview with you, they learn more about what’s happening in Palestine, they realize it’s so clearly important to stand against apartheid and settler-colonialism, and yet they don’t know what they can do. What can they do to help out?

FREE PALESTINE: Of course, if you’re motivated, there’s protests in every US city around the world. You can call your congressperson and tell them that these are tax dollars and you can tell them what you think of your money going here to hurt innocent people. I want to also make clear that you should remember that the cease-fire doesn’t mean the end of mass violence. It’s just the main part of the story – that these clashes happen every 3 to 4 years, but the “quiet” or “peace” doesn’t get rid of mass displacement or state sanctioned violence. Palestine is not freed yet and the struggle is continuing.

EDWIN: Is there anything else you want to add or would want included, whether it’s related to Netplay For Palestine, the Smash community or anything else?

FREE PALESTINE: I think it’s important to note how big of an event it was for Melee. I think across doubles and singles it had 400 attendants, so it might very well be one of the bigger events in the rollback era for tournaments. The support from the scene is so important and I’m very happy we are able to do it. We just need a chance to speak about these things and I’m grateful that the community has given us the chance to do it.

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