Protests remind us we are far from goal of an ideal society

12 June 2020 - 09:13
By AND Nompumelelo Runji
The protests that are burning like a raging fire across the US, like the protests of 1976 and subsequent protests, are a teachable moment, reminding us that we are far from achieving the ideals that so many suffered and died for, the writer says.
Image: Kerem Yucel/AFP The protests that are burning like a raging fire across the US, like the protests of 1976 and subsequent protests, are a teachable moment, reminding us that we are far from achieving the ideals that so many suffered and died for, the writer says.

As the protests against racism, police brutality and injustice sparked by the killing of George Floyd continue to gain traction in the US and across the globe, we commemorate the 1976 student protests that changed the destiny of our nation.

While it is easy to debate about the tactics used by those who participate in protests and the individuals who opportunistically piggy back on the unrest to break into shops and businesses, we should not lose sight that these protests are education.

Rolling protests that seek to draw attention to systemic abuses of power and the marginalisation of groups of people with continuous media coverage make it impossible for society, and those who run the system, to ignore the problems.

Whether or not we engage or take any kind of action, the protests cause us to think and take a position based on whatever principles and values we hold. Ultimately, protests of the kind that we are seeing awaken our consciousness.

Just as the killing of Floyd has exposed the injustices of US society where the gap between blacks and whites is wider now than it was during the civil rights protests of the 1960s, the student protests of 1976 exposed to the world the brutality and injustice of apartheid.

Unarmed black youth took to the streets to assert their humanity and right to be treated equally, demanding respect for their dignity and they were met with the violence of state machinery.

The call by some, including US politicians, for the use of federal troops against looters, a view that echoes President Donald Trump's law-and-order approach, mirrors the posture of the apartheid regime towards the student protesters.

The trouble with this proposal is its focus on the by-product of the protest activity and on the consequence of rage that is coupled with opportunity. The violence and the looting are an extreme expression of frustration, but are not themselves the crux of the instability.

For most black people the American dream is a nightmare. It is an ideal that has left them hopeless because it's so far out of reach.

Kimberly Latrice Jones, author and screenwriter, in a video that has gone viral argues succinctly that the focus on the action of looting distracts us from asking why people are looting. We should be asking why the looters feel they need to loot to get the items that have come to epitomise a good quality of life and symbolise wealth.

What is it about the system that is creating barriers to their ability and capacity to attain these by hard work, through policies and institutional mechanisms that guarantee equity, as well as by generational accumulation of resources resulting in social mobility?

These considerations are relevant and valid even in the current context in SA where the dignity of the majority of black people continues to be undermined and trampled on, on a daily basis.

In 2015/2016 students at the country's universities brought these issues into stark focus. For their efforts, they moved SA closer to the goal of seeing education more as a public good than a commodity to be bought and sold.

The Black Lives Matter movement is calling for more money to be put into uplifting black communities rather than criminalising black people.

These protests that are burning like a raging fire across the US, like the protests of 1976 and subsequent protests, are a teachable moment, reminding us that we are far from achieving the ideals that so many suffered and died for.

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