Tag Archives: police brutality

Suspension has Ended: Revolution is Returning

wits protest

The fierce urgency of now. This was the phrase, coined by Martin Luther King Jr., that I scribbled onto a piece of paper on Friday afternoon, while camped in solidarity inside an occupied Senate House. Surrounding me were scores of students – sisters, brothers, comrades, the dispossessed and their allies – sitting in the nucleus of a movement that was in its third day of a successful shut down of Wits University. A few meters before me was the student leadership, donning the shirts of parties accustomed to rivalry between themselves, negotiating with Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib. Habib had suggested he leave Senate House to convene with council and was met with thunderous objection from the crowd gathered. Eventually, the people decreed that they would not wait – council would meet that day, in Senate House, in full view of the students whose lives were impacted by their decisions. No closed doors. No secrets. Direct accountability. Habib agreed. At that moment, Dr King’s declaration echoed in my mind: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today”. We were indeed confronted with the fierce urgency of now – and it was glorious.

This departure from the lethargic politics of bureaucracy and delay was invigorating. Inside the dimly lit, vast chamber of Senate House, we were a revolutionary collective. Although student leaders (crucially, female leaders who were pushed out of the spotlight too often) spearheaded the movement, they were aware of their role as a proxy for the people. They stood on the shoulders of the students, and weren’t allowed to forget that without popular support, they could not stand up to the powers that be. Every decision, down to the organisation of food, was ratified by popular consensus. The spirit of democracy danced among us. A healthy suspicion of authority sat in our ranks. Hierarchy slowly dissolved in the acid of persistent mockery, directed towards power structures and their petty manifestations. Inside our contingent collective, the vice-chancellor wasn’t afforded his title. Civility remained, but decorum was discarded. We refused to engage in the fruitless spectacle of ceremonial flattery and political theatre. In contrast to the town hall meetings hosted by political representatives, where citizens queue for the opportunity to ask a question of an aggrandised figurehead, the engagement with Habib did not give him much leeway to engage in tactics of diversion and duplicity. Although he was not being held against his will, he was under pressure to engage with students possessed by an uncompromising political will. The ordinary, impotent mode of discourse had been turned on its head.

The Senate House I sat in was radically different from the one I’ve walked into countless times before. Of course, it was materially indiscernible – the same brown and blue university banners hanging from beams spanning the high ceilings, the same concrete pillars climbing to the skies, the same set of converging stairs rising like a peculiar altar from the polished floor and descending into a crypt below. However, the first time I walked into that foyer of the executive, the fumes that clung to the walls of my nostrils were those of polish from the gleaming floors. On Friday evening, it was the choking stench of pepper spray. The space had changed.

It was not just the halls of Senate House that had transformed. During the three day peaceful occupation of the university, it was all too apparent that business as usual had ceased. Some areas of campus were left almost eerily deserted; others were filled with the vibrant energy of rhythmic protest. Seeing the university in this radically different light is, if I may be so bold, a variation of Camus’s Absurd, spawning a peculiarly pleasant kind of Sartrean Nausea. The buildings on campus ordinarily wear the garment of the Institution. The occupation disrobed it. It divorced the space from the veneer of authority and the presumptions of power which usually pervade it. It illuminated our agency to radically redefine it. The realisation of radical freedom may be existentially unsettling, but it is politically liberating. Looking upon an institution that has departed starkly from its usual character, an aura of anarchism meets the eye: the university is not inherently imbued with any indomitable hierarchy, nor is the society which surrounds it structured in a manner that is unchangeable. Its people have no concrete, pre-ordained telos. We are the agents who define the essence that existence precedes. This movement is the product of a generation’s realisation of its own power. And, when we stand together, worker and student hand-in-hand, powerful we are indeed.

Later on Friday evening, while the pepper spray dissipated in the packed halls of Senate House, key members of the council convened. Feverish negotiation followed, stretching deep into the night.  As the sun was only just beginning to peer out from beyond the horizon the next morning, an interim agreement was signed: the decision to raise fees will be suspended, no students or workers who participated in the protests will face punitive measures and crucially, the university will not be at liberty to revert to its original position if negotiations break down. In a vindication of protest tactics, the students had emerged with a clear path towards victory. Those perched atop their privilege, who spent much of last week trying to justify their inaction or opposition by cynically criticising the occupation, were forced to face the concrete results those tactics had produced. In our hands, we held a declaration of our own power – a testament to the strength of our political will.

The Student Awakening is spreading. As sparks from the fire raging at Wits find kindling at UCT, Rhodes University, and the others that will most certainly follow, it’s clear that our generation is shedding its image as the one born outside of Apartheid and inside of Apathy. As we move forward today to hear from council, we are mindful of the fact that our struggle will not end here. The decision to raise fees was not taken in a vacuum, but rather in a climate of marginalisation, commercialisation and dispossession that has excluded the poor for too long. It was the flashpoint, the prelude to a paradigm shift that must occur. Reasons to resist have not evaporated: from the exploitation of outsourced workers, to wealth inequality that is staggeringly high; from dwindling government subsidies, to the fact that even without increases, fees remain too high for too many. Struggle, therefore, should not cease. No longer can we allow our universities to perpetuate a status quo they ought to challenge. If we conserve this momentum, we can become the custodians of a force Victor Hugo deemed indomitable: an idea whose time has come. South Africa’s students have awoken, and we’re ending the suspension of its revolution.

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Shot by the Sheriff: a Poem on the Destructive Symbiosis between Racism and Police Brutality

Microcosm: an unarmed protester in Ferguson, Missouri confronts a heavily armed police force in the wake of Michael Brown's shooting. "Hands up. Don't shoot." (Scott Olson: Getty)

Microcosm: an unarmed protester in Ferguson, Missouri confronts a heavily armed police force in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting. “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” (Scott Olson: Getty)

Shot by the Sheriff 

“Racism is dead”

they confidently declare

as their bullets batter Mike Brown’s head.

Sow discord

Sow despair.

 

“But Jim Crow is gone”

they continue to ramble on,

as they handcuff hands behind a beaten back

for the crime of possession: skin that is black.

 

“These deaths are in isolation-

surely we have moved on”

continues their denial incantation.

Have they forgotten Trayvon?

 

So they descend like a deafening chorus

in the mindless melody of war

to inflict upon innocence horrors,

stoke crucibles to riotous roar.

 

Sworn, solemn, to serve and protect,

but rather the image our minds infect

as their strangling hands cull the herds.

Eric Garner’s gasping last words:

 

“I can’t breathe”

 

Raees Noorbhai

 

In 1954, a case was brought before the Supreme Court of the United States in what would become a momentous victory for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. The unanimous verdict in ‘Brown vs the Topeka Board of Education’ ruled that segregation in schools violated the equality before the law enshrined within the 14th Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional. The ruling was a declaration that America had yet to fulfill its founding principle-the self-evident truth that all are created equal. 

In the six decades since that landmark case, progress has been made in eroding the blatantly vulgar manifestations of racism. The era of ‘whites only’ signposts looming above drinking fountains is now a chapter of history. However, the fact that an African American now sits in the Oval Office does not mean that racism has vanished. It has morphed to become more subtle. It is the paling knuckles of the woman clutching her purse because she believes that the man with whom she shares the sidewalk may mug her, simply because of the colour of his skin. It is the seemingly never-ending tear stream that flows down the faces of mourning families who were robbed of a loved one by police brutality against unarmed minorities. It is the college application that Trayvon Martin was never able to send, because he was profiled as “suspicious” on account of his race and subsequently murdered for it. It is the void left in the lives of Eric Garner’s six children because their father was strangled by those who were sworn to serve and protect them.

The recent killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, has brought this interplay between marginalisation and police militarisation into the spotlight once again. However, the scope of this trend is highlighted by more than the tragic accounts that have humanized them. Statistics from the US Justice Department show that black Americans are four times as likely to be killed by law enforcement than their white counterparts. Black Americans are also far more likely to be arrested (often under the premise of counter-productive drug laws) and subsequently incarcerated-manifesting itself in the fact that approximately 1 million black men are imprisoned within the United States today-40% of the total prison population. 

The reality illustrated by this is disconcerting and is evidence that 60 years after that landmark Supreme Court ruling, the Dream that resonated from the vocal cords of a King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is yet to be fulfilled. This dream is not served by denialism and failure to acknowledge racism where it truly exists only allows it to fester. If the hopes for a truly post-racial society are to materialise, then it is necessary to recognize and remedy the destructive symbiosis between lingering racial prejudice and a militarised police force that all too often serves to perpetuate it.