After years of police brutality towards African American men in particular, the last straw finally broke the proverbial camel’s back. When an ordinary cop thought he was conducting his work in an ordinary way in the company of like-minded colleagues, he did not realise just how great the avalanche of protests against him would be.
From Minnesota to every state in the US, young people of all hues lobbied against police brutality towards African American people. They had finally heard the cries of a subjugated people and came out onto the streets in defiance of their own safety to do what was morally right. They held placards and in a vociferous show of common purpose, young Americans gave us hope.
The world was watching as it joined virtual forces against a president who was uncaring and complicit in his demeanour. We saw a nation burning. In that pyre of flames, many of us saw the weakness in our own countries.
In SA, we had our equivalent of a George Floyd in the shape of a Collins Khosa, who was beaten to death by the armed forces for violating Covid-19 lockdown rules. Did a man need to die for allegedly forging a $20 bill? Did a man need to pay with his life for allegedly disregarding a lockdown rule?
While one country burned over the death of a black man, the other was silent. Is black on black violence okay? The cry that black lives matter seems, in this case, to be unheeded in SA. And this should not be so.
Dehumanising the enemy is a common characteristic displayed in times of war, and political and social unrest. However, in civil society, when police forces are trained to see the world in black and white, and are programmed to find the villain lurking in every bush, they miss the humane aspect of their vocation.
During the Vietnam War, a certain Sergeant Calley was brought before a tribunal for having killed civilian women and children, and buried their bodies in trenches. In his defence, he said that he hadn’t seen any women and children, nor heard their cries. They were not human beings. They were the Vietcong and that was all that mattered.
In war or territorial conflicts of this nature, the tendency is to dehumanise the enemy, making them mindless, soulless and heartless, and therefore easy to eliminate without feeling remorse. In a strange way, the oppressor becomes his own victim as he dehumanises himself in the process.
So did the policeman who knelt over the neck of George Floyd hear him call for his mother? Did he see him as a father of young children? Did he see him as a husband and a brother? When he said I can’t breathe, did he hear him cry out for his life? Racism is the curse of being a non-human – blind and deaf to the presence of the other.
Teaching a course on racism in the 70s, I exposed my students to an amazing video entitled The Colour of Fear, in which eight American males of diverse racial backgrounds (Chinese, black, white, Spanish and Mexican), with the help of an analyst spend a weekend in search of their identities as true Americans.
Everyone felt marginalised as ethnic Americans, except for the white participants, who could not seem to understand the anger that the ethnic groups felt towards them. The discourse was frightfully candid and rough, and electric, bringing forth tears and anger in grown men who after generations couldn’t find their place in the American dream. The black person’s anger was so visceral that it left one with a hollow feeling of deep shame for man’s inhumanity against man.
As we interrogate our issue with the death of Collins Khosa, many South Africans may be blissfully unaware of the level of police brutality that took place during apartheid. One story which stands out so clearly in my mind is that of a young 15-year-old boy who in 1963 was arrested, detained and sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island for participating in anti-apartheid activities as a member of the youth wing of the PAC.
In his book, My Own Liberator, Justice Dikgang Moseneke says of his arrest, that for him, it was a game-changer. “It set and dyed my world from then to now. It imposed on me an inexorable path. But for the arrest, my teenage fascination with the revolution may have come and gone as do other youthful fantasies.”
However, this was not to be. The judge missed seeing the little boy in him. The police saw him as black and dangerous and the dehumanisation process had set in. He recounts: “They escorted me into a room in the police station. Geyser ordered me to strip down to my underpants. He handcuffed me tightly and tied a belt around the middle section of the cuffs. Each time he pulled the belt, the cuffs cut deeper into my wrist. He pulled the belt several times. One of my wrists started bleeding. Then all 4 of them started punching and kicking me. Blows reigned down mercilessly. My face instantly swelled up under the heavy blows and I screamed and cried loudly. They laughed and screamed back. You little rubbish. Whose government do you think you can overthrow?
Racial oppression is about reducing the other to the lowest denominator. Over centuries, African people have suffered the humiliation of slavery, colonisation and large-scale exploitation. It is time to say enough. It is time to open up opportunities long denied to people of colour in the US and in other parts of the world and in the words of Judge Dikgang Moseneke, to be: My Own Liberator.
James Baldwin wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Talking about racism now is an essential part of living since a little virus warns us that the world is one and we are a global family of nations. DM