INSIGHT: Change in hearts, minds will bring us Biko’s prize

10 April 2012

ON THE evening of February 26 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year- old black boy in Florida, US, was walking from a corner shop back to the home of his father’s girlfriend where his father and younger brother awaited him.

On the way, Trayvon was spotted by George Zimmerman, a member of the local neighbourhood watch. Zimmerman deemed Trayvon “suspicious” because of his attire (a hooded sweatshirt) and the fact that he was walking in the rain.

He phoned the local police, making various criminal accusations against Trayvon. The police dispatcher told Zimmerman to stop following Trayvon and to wait for the officers they would send over.Zimmerman ignored this and proceeded to follow Trayvon. He eventually shot him in the chest.

Shortly thereafter, Trayvon – armed with nothing but a cold drink and a bag of candy for his younger brother – was pronounced dead by paramedics.

To date Zimmerman, in what is America’s latest high-profile case of racial profiling, has not been charged with Trayvon’s murder, arrested or held at all accountable by the legal system.

For many, the weeks since Trayvon’s death have brought to the fore numerous issues, memories and emotions; in particular the insecurity of being a black man in America, and the fear often felt by those of us who love black men.

The reaction (or lack of action) by law enforcement in the aftermath of this death is also a stark reminder of how much needs to change before black people in the US really do have equal status before the law.

Trayvon’s untimely passing also reminds us of the many black men who have lost their lives too early, without justice for their families.

For me, it is in some ways reminiscent of the death of Steve Biko. On December 2 1977, at the conclusion of the inquest into Biko’s death, the magistrate Marthinus Prins declared there was “no one to blame”.

This despite the fact that Biko’s cause of death was brain haemorrhage due to a head injury suffered while in the custody of the South African Police.

The officers were exonerated despite Biko being denied adequate medical care after sustaining the injury and being driven 1000km, naked and shackled, without a medical escort from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria Central Maximum Security Prison. There, he died alone on the floor of a prison cell.

What was Biko’s crime? In addition to being the leader of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement, and one of the most audible voices proclaiming the dignity and equality of black people, Biko’s “crime” was most likely his refusal to be manhandled while interrogated.

From the evidence obtained during the inquest, and later the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it is clear that Biko suffered a severe head injury. Medical evidence indicates Biko was beaten with a blunt object that left no external injury, or that he was used as a battering ram, driven into a wall head first.

Unfortunately, deaths in detention were a common occurrence in apartheid South Africa, with Biko being the 49th of more than 100 people who died under questionable circumstances in custody. Originally, the official cause of Biko’s death was a hunger strike. Other “official” causes of detainee deaths included slipping on pieces of soap and “suicide” by hanging or jumping from buildings. By 1977 many of these excuses had become standard; yet the verdict of “no one to blame” was an outrageous fabrication even for the apartheid regime.

This ruling precipitated an international outcry that led to the UN’s mandatory arms embargo against South Africa and highlighted the brutality of the apartheid regime.

Now 35 years later, in the murder of Trayvon Martin, the verdict “no one to blame” continues to echo – this time across the ocean – as his assailant has to date not been charged or arrested.

In Trayvon’s case, it seems his crime was simply being a black male, walking down the street in an affluent community.

While Trayvon was not the leader of a national movement as Biko was – with the attendant risks – the cause of Trayvon’s death was ultimately the same: being a black man who dared to step “out of his place”.

Dissatisfied by the responses of both of these black men when questioned, white individuals who perceived themselves to be legitimate authority figures retaliated with fatal violence.

In America, brutality against black men is a reality. This reality is reflected in the murder of James Byrd Jr, who in 1998 died after being dragged behind a bakkie for five kilometres, conscious and aware of his ordeal for much of the time. It is evident in the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant who was shot 19 times by the New York Police Department in 1999. Violence against black men was again on display last year, when James Anderson was beaten by a group of white teenagers and eventually killed when they ran him over.

However, in each of these instances some measure of justice was obtained in that the killers were charged and tried – even though many of us take issue with certain verdicts.

For Trayvon’s killer to be tried is the very least that Trayvon and his family deserve – both for Trayvon as well as the countless unknown black men who have been murdered because they were deemed suspects first and people last.

In the wake of Trayvon’s murder it is heartening to see so many people from all walks of life taking a stand and calling for justice. Alongside the need to bring Trayvon’s killer to trial, there are a number of other issues that should concern citizens, such as access to firearms.

The reality, however, is that bringing about changes to legislation and enforcing those changes is the relatively easy part; the far more challenging and protracted work is in changing people’s hearts and minds. It is only through honestly acknowledging stereotypes, dialogue and taking the time to learn where the “other” comes from – literally and figuratively – that black people will move from being viewed as suspects to simply being human.

In the words of Steve Biko, “We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth with courage and determination drawing strength from our common brotherhood. In time we shall be in a position to bestow … the greatest gift possible: a more human face.”

Obenewa Amponsah is the director of fundraising and international partnerships at the Steve Biko Foundation. She grew up in the US. She writes in her personal capacity.

This article was first published on the Dispatch Online website on April 10, 2012.

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