South Africa

Déjà Vu

Oppression and injustice, not unlike revolutions, always begin small. A cadre of like-minded individuals gain influence among a modest group of people, then they establish policies and doctrines that cement their authority over others, frequently minorities.

In South Africa, for example, the National Party started out as a disgruntled band of Afrikaners who wanted to assert power over the native blacks who had inhabited the land for hundreds of years. To be fair, the National Party also considered themselves natives (without the barbaric and uncivilized connotations), since their Dutch ancestors had arrived at the Cape in the sixteen hundreds. Without being too simplistic, their history was the same as every other colonial power: a conquering country arrives and steals the land of the native people, claiming it for their own.

From the vantage point of the Afrikaners, they built the country, bringing modern technology and western civilization to the natives. Of course, their concept of civilization did not include any measure of equality such as sharing the land or the resources or the wealth. Their building of the land depended on enslaving the natives, eventually corralling them into townships and so-called homelands.

It is tempting to forgive people who claim that that kind of slavery and injustice are over. It is part of our past, they say. Not our present. Even in the United States the Supreme Court, i.e. the Republican appointees, have begun defanging and stripping significant power from the civil rights legislation claiming that it is no longer needed. Even where voting rights have been historically denied or curtailed in the offending southern states the Court now says there is no longer a need for protections. Equality has come to the land they say. It is not so tempting, however, to forgive those five justices—they should know better. In case there is any doubt regarding the blatant blindness of the Court, we have Ferguson, Missouri.

Not unlike the Afrikaners, a cadre of white individuals has staked a claim over the city, controlling its power structure and policing. As happens all-too-frequently in the U.S. an unarmed black man was killed by a white cop. Missouri, by the way, is a southern state.

You’ve got to hand it to Ferguson, though. At least in South Africa the government hired and bribed black policemen to kill black citizens. That’s too subtle for Ferguson. Just let a white man do it. In the open. In broad daylight. In fact, shoot him six times with one of the bullets entering the head execution style. If this sounds as though I am playing a race card or fanning the flames of discontent, consider:

Michael Brown, as we all know, was unarmed. Initially the city officials gave little information about the shooting and when they did, the statements were inconsistent and incoherent, sometimes even flat out contradictory. We were told the officer knew Michael Brown was a suspect in a convenience store altercation. Then we were told the officer knew nothing of the kind. We were told that Brown was stopped for walking in the street, apparently a very serious crime in Ferguson,k one that can lead to death.

For one week the name of the officer, Darren Wilson, was withheld. As is typical in these cases we were told how wonderful and highly regarded the officer is. Apparently Wilson is a good guy who just shoots unarmed people. In the Old West it was called “circling the wagons.” Today it is just called protecting your own. Hmm. And I thought the police were supposed to protect the civilians.

This satirical tone is rooted in the fact that this kind of incident is not unusual, and achieving justice has become nearly impossible. Juries are reluctant to convict a police officer for shooting a suspect—even when the citizen is not suspected of do anything wrong. The officer simply claims he was in fear of his life. Apparently, too many white cops are afraid of unarmed black civilians. This is unfortunate, for there are more than enough examples of officers shooting in true self-defense. And no one wants to see police killed in the line of duty. Hence the jury tendency to give the officer the benefit of the doubt. But…

One has to wonder how the police department and city officials would react if a black officer killed an unarmed white citizen? It was not that long ago that black men were routinely and unjustly lynched after being falsely accused of raping a white woman. Maybe the Supreme Court is wrong and racial prejudice and injustice are not just memories. Wait a minute. No. Not maybe. The Supreme Court
is wrong.

My earlier reference to the Old West is underscored by the fact that Wilson shot Brown at high noon. At least in the movie of the same name, Gary Cooper shot people who were really trying to kill him! At the very least, police officers need to know that unlike Marshall Kane, or Wyatt Earp; unlike James Bond even; being given a badge and a gun is not a license to kill.

Note to the Supreme Court, to Congress and to the authorities in Ferguson. We can no longer tolerate this kind of déjà vu.

Full Circle: Apartheid Returns to America

The word apartheid was never used in America to describe the era of segregation, nor was it used to describe race relations in general. It is a word sprung from the heart of the Afrikaans language to express a deep-seated prejudice against non-white South Africans, primarily blacks. What many do not know is that the South African system of Apartheid was directly modeled on the American system of segregation.

During its 40-year history, Apartheid came to be vilified as one of the most despicable institutional government policies of the modern world. Even before formally establishing this horrendous system, South Africa created legislation known as “pass laws” to regulate the movement of non-whites. These laws required non-whites to carry passbooks that proved they had a right to travel within certain areas of the country.

Not only an implement to control the movement of non-whites within an area, these pass laws were also used to keep them completely out from others. For example, Indians were not allowed in the Orange Free State (one of the four provinces that comprised South Africa before the new constitution was established in 1996).

The United States of America became the recipient of a dubious gift from the U.S. Supreme Court in late June. Apartheid has returned to the nest. There is no other conclusion to be drawn from the Court’s decision on the Arizona anti-immigration law (SB 1070).

Given that Apartheid was such a disaster in South Africa, the chick was clever enough to return masquerading under a new name: Arizona v. United States, No. 11-182. Admittedly, it is not as simple or catchy as Apartheid, but it is just as effective.

It is true that the Supreme Court does not incorporate the word Apartheid into its decision. But that is just an insidious affront to the intelligence of U.S. citizens—or an acknowledgement of the lack thereof. It is almost as if they know, or inherently suspect, that their decision is a violation of human rights, dignity and justice.

It has almost become trite and tiring to reference Emma Lazarus’ poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty whenever immigration comes up for debate. And yet, that poem should be as foundational in American life as the Constitution, itself. For, not unlike the Declaration of Independence, the poem enlists words of profound beauty to enshrine the values that define the new America. Values that underpin the Constitution and make it possible. Indeed, the poem appeals to and calls forth our better selves.

Most people find familiar the lines beginning with, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” They are the great rallying cry, proclaiming to all the world: Here lies a land of freedom and equality. We have always struggled to live up to the challenge. Sometimes we simply refuse to heed the call. Three sentences earlier in the poem, we read about the statue herself: “From her beacon-hand glows worldwide welcome.” That simply is no longer true.

Some might suggest that poetry is not law. Fair enough. But we are not just a nation of law. The constitution was not created in, nor does it exist in, a vacuum. If poetry espouses the values upon which the law is founded, then the law should reflect back those same values. On this point the Supreme Court failed.

The issue at hand is not whether someone entered the United States legally or illegally. If officers can demand papers when they stop someone, then people who are here legally will not be afforded the rights that are legitimately theirs. Let us at least be honest about two things. First, just as in the South Africa of old, the only people who will be questioned will be people of color. Secondly, the United States is no longer a land where everyone is welcome.

As the right wing xenophobes in more and more states seek to turn this national disgrace into law, the courts become the only recourse for a society seeking to regain its moral balance and sanity.

The justices on the Supreme Court swore to uphold the Constitution. Perhaps they should look not just to the letter of the law, but the principles that breathe spirit into the law.