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South Africa could erupt in rioting too – if we don’t learn the lessons from 1967

South Africa could erupt in rioting too – if we don’t learn the lessons from 1967

As London burns, and service-delivery protests escalate in South Africa, a not-so-obscure US report from 1967 on reasons for nationwide riots there still has huge implications for all of us. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

In 1967 then US president Lyndon Johnson asked 11 people to form the Kerner Commission. At the time it seemed America’s cities were in flames. There had been violent protests, looting, gun fights with police. Almost all of it black people fighting other people in uniforms. All of it was to do with race, class and inequality. The three questions the commission had to answer were “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?” When the commission’s report was released more than 2 million copies were sold. And those who read it were told, in the opening paragraph, that:    

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal”.

There is no winner-takes-all answer to the question of what causes riots, how do they develop, what makes ordinary people go from working nine-to-five and taking their kids to school to trashing cities. Why it happens in Tottenham and why it happens in Ficksburg, and why it happened in Watts are complicated questions. But there are some interrelated answers.

The first deals with that hard-to-understand bit between an event and the riot that might follow. What happens between the death of Mark Duggan and the first protests in London? How did anger about a lack of services in Ficksburg end with those televised pictures of Andries Tatane’s violent death? In pub fight parlance, what happens immediately after the drink is spilt and before the pushing and shoving? If we are able to understand that, perhaps an intervention in our own backyard is possible.

In the Kerner Commission Report big fingers are pointed towards the policing of incidents. In case after case, what really led to the pushing, shoving and looting was a mistake made by a nervous cop with a gun. Some of the examples are heartbreaking. Such as the case of a security guard in Detroit.

“Employed as a private guard, 55-year-old Julius L Dorsey, a Negro, was standing in front of a market when accosted by two Negro men and a woman. They demanded he permit them to loot the market. He ignored their demands. They began to berate him. He asked a neighbour to call the police. As the argument grew more heated, Dorsey fired three shots from his pistol into the air. The police radio reported: ‘Looters, they have rifles.’ A patrol car driven by a police officer and carrying three National Guardsmen arrived. As the looters fled, the law enforcement personnel opened fire. When the firing ceased, one person lay dead. He was Julius L Dorsey …”

There’s more. In one case in Newark, the report relates how the situation dissolved into violence through a series of simple mistakes.

On Saturday, 15 July  [director of police Dominick] Spina received a report of snipers in a housing project. When he arrived he saw approximately 100 National Guardsmen and police officers crouching behind vehicles, hiding in corners and lying on the ground around the edge of the courtyard.

Since everything appeared quiet and it was broad daylight, Spina walked directly down the middle of the street. Nothing happened. As he came to the last building of the complex, he heard a shot. All around him the troopers jumped, believing themselves to be under sniper fire. A moment later a young Guardsman ran from behind a building.

The director of police went over and asked him if he had fired the shot. The soldier said yes, he had fired to scare a man away from a window and that his orders were to keep everyone away from windows.

Spina said he told the soldier: “Do you know what you just did? You have now created a state of hysteria. Every Guardsman up and down this street and every state policeman and every city policeman that is present thinks that somebody just fired a shot and that it is probably a sniper.”

A short time later more “gunshots” were heard. Investigating, Spina came upon a Puerto Rican sitting on a wall. In reply to a question as to whether he knew “where the firing is coming from?” the man said:

“That’s no firing. That’s fireworks. If you look up to the fourth floor, you will see the people who are throwing down these cherry bombs.”

By this time four truckloads of National Guardsmen had arrived and troopers and policemen were again crouched everywhere looking for a sniper. The director of police remained at the scene for three hours, and the only shot fired was the one by the Guardsman.

Nevertheless, at six o’clock that evening two columns of National Guardsmen and state troopers were directing mass fire at the Hayes Housing Project in response to what they believed were snipers…

These were incidents that happened more than 40 years ago in a place very different to present day South Africa. But we have to ask are incidents of violence that happen during protests sparked by similar types of mistakes. Or even the protests themselves, could they only be because someone somewhere stuffed up. As the report relates, the triggering incident often related to policing.

In the 24 disorders in 23 cities surveyed, the final incident before the outbreak of disorder, and the initial violence itself, generally took place in the evening or at night at a place in which it was normal for many people to be on the streets.

“Prior” incidents, which increased tensions and ultimately led to violence, were police actions in almost half the cases. Police actions were “final” incidents before the outbreak of violence in 12 of the 24 surveyed disorders.

The report makes much of the social problems that besieged these areas. It said the black experience of being an American was totally defined by the actions of whites, of racism, of everything that had gone before. You would think that while this obviously relates to us, things are changing. This is not about black versus white anymore.  But it wasn’t in 1960’s America either,

“At the same time, most whites and some Negroes outside the ghetto have prospered to degrees unparalleled in the history of civilisation. Through television and other media, this affluence has been flaunted before the eyes of the Negro poor and the jobless ghetto youth.”

Yip, there we are again. That word jobless. It really does ram home the message doesn’t it?

The main point of the report was that for most people stuck in ghettoes, there was no way out. There was no way to get a job, to move on up, and thus people simply lost hope. At the same time authorities themselves in some parts of the US were ignoring the law and the constitution. These were the police chiefs in the deep south that actively tried to prevent desegregation. We don’t have quite that here, but we certainly have contempt for the law by some of our authorities. We all know about how some of our police officers appear to be a law unto themselves. If in the US police were a symbol of white power against “the negro” it’s not hard to imagine their 21st century South African counterparts being perceived as a force of oppression as well.

It was a volatile mixture of despair, anger and frustration that led to the violence and, yes, looting, in 24 American cities that hot summer. The looting that accompanies protests like these makes it easy to scoff at the protesters. And while we’re not going to say that looting is a political act, it cannot be seen as purely criminal in the same sense as it would be under normal circumstances. Some of the Kerner Commission’s recommendations were hard to swallow for many. But it is incredible to see how much of it is still relevant to us today.

Because it’s easy to see how we are moving towards two societies, one rich, one poor – separate and unequal. DM



Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Read more:

  • Extracts from the report itself.

Photo: A township resident burns tyres and other materials to erect a barricade during protests over the delivery of basic housing and education near Ermelo, 200 km (120 miles) east of Johannesburg, February 15, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings


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