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The pursuit of social justice (Part I)

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World on fire: Protests over racism have swept across the globe since George Floyd’s murder PIC: www.wtop.com
There is often an indefatigable spirit of selfless resilience amongst those pushing the narrative of positive social transformation. The most disciplined would, with a profound sense of optimism, wade and waddle their way through what would invariably seem like insurmountable obstacles and unscalable fortified walls of inequality, prejudice and injustice. KEVIN MOKENTO* writes

The pursuit of a well-conceived social justice agenda is a noble cause. It normally manifests itself in the form of organised protests. A common denominator for such protests is the desire to quench the thirst for social justice.

Throughout the world, individuals, huge organised groups and high-octane lobbyists have fully exploited the power of protests to shine the spotlight on what they perceive as important causes. The said causes would either be unknown, ignored or conveniently forgotten by authorities.

In principle, protests should not be used as a vehicle for vainly chasing self-glory, but should be used as a veritable platform for drawing attention to credible causes and effecting positive change. Unfortunately, some protests have been marred by wanton destruction of property as well as rampant looting.

In such cases, protesters often defeat the objective of their cause, as attention would largely be drawn to their injudicious and extraneous acts of notoriety as opposed to the superordinate goal of righting wrongs.

This rogue-like behaviour has resulted in some protests provoking the harshest criticism and ire of the citizenry. Perhaps this is what prompted Donald Trump to mimic the racism-loaded words apparently uttered on at least two occasions by Miami’s former Police Chief Walter Headley, notorious for dealing with black protesters in a rather heavy-handed manner in the late 1960s during the time of civil riots that took place in black communities. In a rather poetic manner imbued with a touch of self-reverential zeal, he said, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Quite a good number of countries have modelled their constitutions around the 1776 US Declaration of Independence (DoI). By the way, the DoI and the US Constitution are two different instruments. While the Constitution is a legally binding instrument, the DoI is not.

Part of that DoI reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

While rights to life and liberty are captured in constitutions of other countries, which probably benchmarked with the US, such constitutions tend to be silent on the issue of pursuit of happiness.

A case in point is the constitution of Botswana that was promulgated in 1966 and went through several amendments between 1994 and 2006. It simply replaced ‘pursuit of happiness’ with “security of the person and the protection of the law”.

Ironically, throughout the globe, protests have often been bred by an entrenched culture of placing stumbling blocks, whether real or perceived, on the route to pursuit of happiness.

Another feature of the DoI that you would hardly ever see captured in constitutions of many countries, ours included, states the following, “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations pursuing invariably the same project evinces a design to reduce them to under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”

Implicit in the DoI’s venerated text is the provision for launching some form of protest against oppressive establishments, although it does not specifically spell out the precise path to be followed.

Perhaps it was in recognition of the capacity of the DoI to empower US citizens that the 16th president of the US, Abraham Lincoln, credited with bringing slavery to its knees in 1863, said, the DoI “is a rebuke and a stumbling block to tyranny and oppression”.

Despite glorified provisions of the DoI, history is replete with numerous acts of oppression committed in the US, some of which were the blatant and subtle state sanctioned racism in some if not all states, and denial of black people the right to suffrage. Consequently, civil rights movements sprung up in the country. There is a story that is often overshadowed by the capacity of men such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr to command control over crowds.

That is the story of a relatively unknown 42-year-old seamstress named Rosa Parks who lived in Montgomery, specifically regarding her solo protest against institutionalised racism.

At that time in the mid 1950s, seats to the front of public buses were reserved for white people. Rosa Parks made history in 1955. Commuting home from work and tired of giving in, she defiantly refused to give away her seat to a white man. Her arrest on the same day resulted in a formal prosecution and a total fine of US$14, which was by all accounts a pyrrhic victory for the city of Montgomery.

Sustained protests by blacks over public buses crippled the city’s cash flow. This subsequently culminated in the nationwide protests over discrimination in all public facilities. A month preceding the first anniversary of Rosa Parks’ solo protest, she had achieved her mission.

All segregation hitherto acceptable on public buses was declared unconstitutional.

Notwithstanding that, to this day, owing to historical inequities, there are still remnants of racism in the US. Normally, at the receiving end of this inhumane treatment are unarmed black men who are often stopped and searched by police officers, in most cases without reasonable cause. Brazen racial profiling!

In fact, description of racial bias meted by predatory police and others against blacks in the US is often followed by the words ‘while black’. For example, a number of phrases have been coined such as; shopping while black, driving while black, walking while black and even breathing while black.

This culture of prejudice is rooted in the stereotype that blacks and crime are inseparable, and despite going head on against the grain of conventional wisdom, it has unfortunately gained currency on some people who have gone to the extent of forcibly

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bending this sad stereotype into a credible architype. 

In May 2020, news networks across the world were abuzz with an incident that happened in Minneapolis where a white officer used his knee to brutally press the neck of an unarmed and defenseless black man to the ground until he was unresponsive. All this happened in the presence of the officer’s three colleagues who never bothered to restrain their errant colleague who for part of the time beamed with a smile. The victim, named George Floyd, suffocated and bled through his nose during this harrowing ordeal and eventually died in police custody. In this case, some would argue that a loud and clear call demanding appropriate punitive measures was in order. And of course a rainbow of people took to the streets, walking cheek by jowl with each other, spurred on by a common thirst for justice.

The irresponsible officers have now been fired. However, this PR palliative won’t return George to his grieving loved ones. Interviewed on CNN, the distraught victim’s brother Philonise Floyd said, “They could have tased him. They could have maced him. Instead, they put a knee on his neck and just sat on him.” What is even more bizarre is what happened four days later during the protests.

A CNN crew covering the protests was arrested during a live broadcast. Leading the crew was a 27-year old CNN’s correspondent Omar Jimenez, and yes you guessed right, a black man, who was humiliated by an officer who handcuffed not only him but also two of his colleagues. All this happened while millions around the world were watching.     

Meanwhile, for four days the murderers freely roamed the streets. Under intense community pressure, the system eventually bowed and charged some of the officers with murder for this gross violation of human rights. Now, imagine if the victim was your brother or your son! And that would not be preposterous considering that some Batswana reside in the US.

What is the message here? That the mere existence of charters or ordinances against acts of brutality and oppression does not guarantee a desirable level of social justice. That the centres of power should lead in the development of a sustainable socio-political landscape that engenders elevated principles of egalitarianism and justice for all. That it is imperative to have active watchdogs taking the lead in exposing the brutality of those endowed with the duty to protect and serve. And holding them to account for all abuses. Could effective protesting be just one way of accomplishing this?

Let me take you a dozen years back. George Bush Jr had just arrived in Baghdad in 2008. This was five years after American invasion of Iraq and the deposition of Saddam Hussein under the pretext that he was leading the country’s drive for accumulating weapons of mass destruction. A press conference had been arranged for Bush.

Everything seemed to be running smoothly until Bush passionately uttered the following words. “Peace, that’s what we want, freedom and peace...” Out of the blue, before he could finish that sentence, he suffered what was probably the greatest humiliation ever meted out to a US president in a foreign land. And that was at the hands of an incensed Iraqi journalist named Muntadhar Al-Zaidi. He threw one of his shoes at the President while shouting the words, “This is a farewell kiss from all the Iraqi people, you dog!”

Al-Zaidi hurled the second shoe, at the same time yelling, “This is for the widows and the orphans and all those killed in Iraq.” Both shoes missed their target by a fraction of a decimeter.

Yes, as he launched his rather soft missiles, I heard him shouting the aforementioned words in Arabic and these are the words that are now remembered by the world. Subsequent to the incident, Al-Zaidi described himself as a ‘humble man’ who hated occupation of Iraq by the US.

Al-Zaidi launched a one-man protest. His actions caught members of the secret services ‘napping’ and was a huge embarrassment to the President and the government of the US.

This is what he said about the incident, “When I heard about the press conference, I felt blood rushing to my head. Those shoes were a symbol of denunciation.”

Apparently he was riled up by one phrase uttered by the president at the time he declared USA’s intention to invade Iraq; “Iraqis will welcome us with flowers.” Al-Zaidi did not take kindly to this phrase. He said, “It became iconic for American and Arab media that supported the invasion of Iraq. So I was looking for a symbol that would be equally symbolic so that the world could wake up.”

Did Al-Zaidi achieve the mission for his protest? To some extent, he managed to open the eyes of some naïve people who thought that all Iraqis welcomed the US invasion. Following that he rose to fame on the back of the incident and is to this day glorified locally as a symbol of resistance against American invasion and imperialism.

Al-Zaidi ended up serving a nine-month jail term for his misdemeanour, saved from a three-year sentence by the support he received from Iraqis who protested against his imprisonment. Subsequent to that he ran for political office and was elected a Member of Parliament. 

Muntadhar Al-Zaidi’s and Rosa Park’s actions are examples of effective solo protests.

This begs the question, how small or how big should protests be in order for them to achieve their mission? What are the key considerations for launching effective protests. These questions will be discussed in the next article.

KEVIN MOKENTO*

*Kevin Mokento is the pseudonym of a Mmegi contributor who has asked for anonymity



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