This past week, I saw a list published of all the names of those who were shot down by Omar Mateen in Orlando and the Orlando list immediately reminded me of South Africa’s own list, although our list is quite distinct and related to Soweto.
The list I was reminded of was prepared for the victims who were gunned down by the apartheid regime in June 1976. Words such as “shot through left side of head”, “shot in chest from the front”, “shot in the back” and “shot dead” were used extensively in those reports describing injuries and mortal wounds that should haunt us all.
This particular column formed after reading the words of Ashraf Booley, a young South African and gifted poet from Cape Town, who put down on paper a powerful poem For Nyanga, for Orlando, for Ceres, for Soho – for the aching heart of humanity. The particular extract, which still haunts me, is:
You are hatred;
a waste product of bigoted beliefs.
The venom of which seeps through the ear of naivety,
preaching and perpetuating a culture of patriarchy –
a deadly disease.
You are the stench of senseless slayings,
maker of melancholia,
the heart black with rot.
You are the (sad)istic system
that delight in a mother’s torment.
The death-dealing hands of conviction
It would be easy to forget the critical value of intersectionality and its importance when considering issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia and classism, for instance (though I don’t quite know how that is possible!).
South Africans following the student-led contestation around #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and #Shackville should be aware of the importance of understanding and using this lens – however, much is still to be desired in this space. What is clear is that we have a distinct challenge confronting our own demons and checking our own privilege.
It is not enough to simply mark or commemorate days. The risk of simply observing a day is that it is often claimed by others, it can be manipulated to fit the particular agenda of those peddling their own interest or it can be forgotten or watered down. Collectively, we need to guard against the risk of commemorating and thereby forgetting and so othering the truth. We should also not attempt to mainstream grief and suffering and pretend that privilege does not matter.
All we know thus far is that Omar entered the gay nightclub Pulse around 02:00 on Sunday, 12 June 2016 and proceeded to kill 49 people and wound at least 53. Omar held people hostage for three hours before law enforcement were able to enter the club and killed him. Omar entered Pulse with an AR-15 assault rifle, a handgun, and a device that police originally thought was a bomb. Omar did not do this because “all lives matter”. Omar was not content with killing anyone but rather his attack was a targeted one against the LGBTI community.
However, we should not be surprised that a great deal of the rhetoric around the attacks in Orlando would focus on Islam and terrorism, forgetting the fact that those targeted by Omar were only in his aim because they belonged to the LGBTI community. The only way to confront this is to rely on intersectionality, which could provide a critical lens so that people can check themselves and their prejudice at the door.
It is not enough to only look at this through a narrow lens but to remember that the majority of those killed by Omar were from the Latin-American community and in particular the Puerto Rican community. As Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca points out in The Advocate that the “attack was fuelled by the same anti-blackness and disregard of black and brown bodies that continues to exist in the fabric of every rainbow flag swinging in every gayborhood in this country”.
We must demand more from each other, and especially from those who have a greater responsibility, to challenge our narrow thinking and to reflect deeply about not just the morbidity and cruelty of what has happened but to ask ourselves why is it that we are so broken.
The attacks in Orlando highlight this so intensely but in the context of South Africa’s Youth Day, we should be reminded that it is not enough to pray for the victims or to commemorate the day. It will never be enough to remember their names alone but instead we must check ourselves and our society.
Simply put, we have to “check our privilege”. DM