Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “police brutality”

Timol inquest deja vu

So yesterday there was this SB fuzz bloke giving evidence at the Timol inquest on eNCA Harrowing evidence at Timol inquest:

A former security branch officer has admitted he was part of a strategic unit tasked with spreading apartheid government propaganda.

Paul Francis Erasmus was stationed at the notorious John Vorster Square police station at the time activist Ahmed Timol died in custody.

And I’m like Wow, we knew all that was going on, but they would never admit it, even at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Pau Erusmus, former SB man, giving evidence at the Timol inquest yesterday

One of the things he explained was how the police used equipment for giving electric shocks to people they were interrogating. They would wrap the electrodes in wet cotton wool and stick them in the detainees’ ears, and turn the handle to give them shocks. They referred to this as “listening to Radio Moscow.”

And my mind went back to Windhoek, Namibia, in the winter of 1971.

On 21 June 1971 the World Court gave a ruling that South Africa’s occupation of Namibia was illegal.

On 18th July, about four weeks later, the Lutheran Churches (the biggest denominations in the country) sent an open letter to B.J. Vorster, the South African Prime Minister, saying that they basically agreed with the World Court decision, and included a list of several of the bad things the South African government had done in Namibia. They also sent a pastoral letter to be read in all Lutheran Churches that day, explaining what they had done and why they had done it.

This was even more of a shock to the South African government than the World Court decision itself, because it was totally unexpected. The Lutheran Church was not seen by them as a “political” church, like the Anglicans or Methodists or Roman Catholics. It was a “good” church, which minded its own (spiritual) business and kept its nose out of politics.

So Vorster came to Windhoek to meet the Lutheran leaders and bring them back into line.

After the meeting one of the German missionaries serving with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Pastor Hans-Ludwig Althaus, invited a number of people from other denominations to listen to a tape of the meeting of the Lutheran leaders with Vorster. Vorster did not know it was being recorded, and if the SB (Security Police) had been aware of the existence of the recording they would no doubt have confiscated it.

So we went, like Nicodemus, by night, secretly for fear of the SB, to Pastor Althaus’s house and listened to the tape.

The tape was quite fascinating, and very revealing. Vorster berated them for saying that the police were torturing people in Ovamboland, saying that this was a general accusation, and they should give him specific instances, so that he could deal with the rogue policemen concerned. Bishop Auala then named an
example, and Vorster said, “But that’s an isolated case.” Then Pastor Rieh, another German missionary,  astounded me by saying that they were not talking about isolated cases, but an apparatus, with which police stations were equipped, for giving electric shocks. Vorster rapidly changed the subject. I was surprised at Rieh saying this, and boldly too, because had previously struck me as a government yes man.

That was in October 1971. In December 1971 Pastor Althaus and his family were deported from Namibia, and returned to Germany. I think that was the first time a Lutheran leader had been deported from Namibia.

The Althaus family, deported from Namibia in December 1971

And, back to the present, here is this ex-SB man telling in open court, and broadcast on TV, about this apparatus, and how it was used  And he told us how they dealt with the “rogue policemen” that Vorster spoke of — they had a “sweeper”, someone whose job it was to make sure that these policemen never got into trouble.

And when he described John Vorster Square, the SB Joburg headquarters,  that was more deja vu. Actually his description left out some of the things that struck me most when I was called to see Lieutenant Jordaan in Auguat 1968. I had had an appointment to see a Detective Sergeant van den Heever at the SB headquarters at The Grays in 1966, but got on a plane to England instead, and so did not keep the appointment. The SB had moved, however, to its new purpose-built offices in John Vorster Square, where Ahmed Timol was held.

So I went to this new building in Commissioner Street, next to the new freeway bridge, and just up the road from the JMT bus garage. I went into the building, and looked at the lifts in the foyer, but they did not seem to go to the floor I needed to get to. I asked at the counter, and they told me to go down a little narrow passageway at the side, and there was another lift there, a small one. And it too did not seem to go to the floor I needed to be at, but they had said at the counter that I must go there anyway. So I pressed the button and the lift went up to the 9th floor, and when the door opened there was a bloke at a desk. He asked me who I wanted to see, and if I had an appointment, and he phoned and checked, and then said I must get back in the lift, and he would send me up to the 11th floor. So I got back in the lift,
and got sent up two floors — there was no way of getting there from inside the lift, it was controlled from outside.

There were more checks and I went down a passage with three hefty strongroom doors, and eventually I met Lieutenant Jordaan. He had my file on his desk, and it was about 8-9 inches thick. He asked me questions about where I lived, and who had access, and all the rest of the questions to be asked of a person for whom a banning order was required.

At one point he left me alone in the room whole he went out, and I wondered if they were watching on CCTV to see if I would try to open the file or do something with it, so I didn’t, but I did read the heading on the form he was filling in with my answers.

And zip back to the present, and from what this Erasmus bloke said in court yesterday, I’m pretty sure Lieutenant Jordaan did deliberately leave me alone in the room to see what I would do when his back was turned. So now, nearly 50 years later, we catch glimpses of what was going on backstage during the apartheid dog and pony show.

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Is Violence the Only Thing Power Understands?

An incident of police brutality in Baltimore, USA, sparked off rioting, leading to a media feeding frenzy, and pundits asking “Why?” And amid all this, the proximate cause of the unrest seems to have been lost, even by Counterpunch The Cry of the Dispossessed in Baltimore — CounterPunch:

The reason the dispossessed turn to violence is because violence is the only thing power understands.

Baltimore is burning, embroiled in riots and protest against the city’s horrifically racist and oppressive police. That it took the death of Freddy Gray, a young man whose spine was severed in police custody, to spark the violence is perhaps less important than the fact that the explosion was inevitable.

A similar incident in Ferguson a few months ago was followed by a decision of the justice system not to prosecute the police officers involved. The message this sends to the general public is that the police can beat up people with impunity.

Not in Baltimore, they can’t.

BaltCopsSo when the police beat up people so that they die in custody, in Baltimore, the police are punished. After what happened in Ferguson (and elsewhere), did police in Baltimore really think that there would not be a resolute reaction?

Of course this leads to all kinds of moralising about how people shouldn’t “take the law into their own hands”, but if the guardians of the law are lawless, what else can people do? In whose hands should the law be?

I recall an incident more than 30 years ago, when I met with a group of Anglican Church leaders in a chapel in a garage in Johannesburg. They met regularly for Anglican Evening Prayer, which usually includes reading from the Psalms, but this time they wanted to omit the reading of the psalm because they wanted to spend more time praying for Phakamile Mabija, an Anglican Church youth worker who had died in police custody, by defenestration, if I recall correctly, which was quite common in those days.

But it was a mistake to omit the psalm, which for that day was Psalm 93/94, and spoke to the situation quite clearly:

You never consent to that unjust tribunal
that imposes disorder as law
that takes the life of the virtuous
and condemns the innocent to death
(Ps 94 20-21)

Steve Biko had just suffered a similar fate to Phakamile Mabija, so it was not “an isolated incident” as the forces that imposed disorder as law tried to maintain.

Things are not much better in South Africa now, as the massacre at Marikana a couple of years ago clearly shows. There is much talk in South Africa about “transformation”, but the incidence of police brutality shows that there has been little transformation where it really matters.

It is surprising then, to see that Counterpunch, which often focues on aspects of issues that have been neglected by the mainsteam media, seems to be following the mainstream media in saying “That it took the death of Freddy Gray, a young man whose spine was severed in police custody, to spark the violence is perhaps less important than the fact that the explosion was inevitable.”

There seems to be a similar tendency in South Africa in relation to recent xenophoic violence, as I have noted here, and my friend John Aitchison put it in a nutshell when he said “We have to distinguish between factors that give xenophobia momentum – poverty, unemployment, inequality – and the actual precipitating mental/emotional constructs that are the tinder that is set alight and then enflames the said poverty, unemployment, inequality, etc. . start it going.”.

The tinder that set alight the rioting in Baltimore was police brutality, yet most of the articles in the media seem to be evading that. The media and Twitterati seem to go on and on about finding the causes of such violence in “black culture”, but don’t seem to see the problem that is right under the noses — they should be looking for the problem in police culture. And we should be looking for the causes of the problem in police culture in South Africa too.

And, in the USA at least, it seems that there is at least as big a problem in “white culture”, which often seems to be ignored by the media, as seen here: 11 Stunning Images Highlight the Double Standard of Reactions to Riots Like Baltimore:

The city of Baltimore has been besieged by riots Monday night — and police are on the scene ready to serve, protect and subdue.

This has become an evergreen narrative in the aftermath of reactions to state-sanctioned violence against black people. But that it persists sends a troubling message about how officials and, by extension, many of the people they serve regard rioting: specifically, when there’s white people involved versus mostly black people.

 

 

 

Not in vain — book review

Not in VainNot in Vain by Gerald Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Several students are shot by police in a campus demonstration at a small US college, and three are killed. Six policemen were put on trial for the shootings, and were acquitted. Five years later some of those affected by the shooting plan a memorial gathering, bringing together the survivors, the parents of the dead students, members of staff and stuents of the college, and, the organisers hope, members of the police and the local community.

The story is told through the eyes of different participants — the parents of the dead students, some of the survivors, the judge at the trial of the policemen, the defence layer, and one of the main witnesses.

The parents of the dead students have mixed motives. Some want revenge and vindication, some just want to forget and “move on”.

I can’t remember when we bought this book, but, realising that I had not read it before, I took it down and began reading, and found it rather good. The narratives show the different outlooks of different characters, some certain, with clear goals, others filled with doubts, wondering what they are doing, and yet others tring rather desperately not to allow anything to shake the wall of their own self-perception that they have built around themselves.

So I’m glad I found it; iot was definitely worth a read.

View all my reviews

The failure of transformation

In the 1990s, in the lead up to, and immediately following our first democratic elections in 1994, there was a lot of talk of the need for transformation. We needed to transform the institutions of the old apartheid society so that they became more appropriate for our new ideals of democracy and freedom. One of the institutions that was most in need of transformation was the police.

There were some attempts at transformation, symbolic, but significant. Instead of being called a police “force”, it became a police “service”. The old military ranks were abolished — generals, brigadiers, colonels, majors, captains and the like, and replaced by ones more appropriate for civil police — inspectors and such.

But now it seems that these changes were merely cosmetic. Underneath the new terminology, the police were not really transformed, but were simply the old monster dressed up in more politically correct terminology. And in the last few months there have been several scandals that have been broadcast around the world that seem to demonstrate the truth of this. These scandals include:

  • The lead detective in the murder case against Olympic and Paralympic star Oscar Pistorius was removed from the investigation last week when it emerged he was facing seven attempted murder charges for allegedly opening fire on a minibus full of passengers.
  • Police shot dead 34 striking workers at a platinum mine in August last year – the deadliest security incident since apartheid ended in 1994.
  • The video footage and the man’s death raised fresh concerns about police brutality in a country where more than 1,200 people a year die while in custody.

via Man dragged by South Africa police dies in custody – Yahoo! News.

An old friend, now a retired Anglican bishop in the UK, who used to live in South Africa but was forced out by the apartheid regime, recently wrote:

S Africa has been much in our news recently.  The Pistorius business has been extraordinarily prominent in our media,  including the BBC,  day after day main headline.  It has, among other things,  provoked the attached piece of gloom,  in one of our most respected papers.  I don’€™t like it much,  as it seems to depend too much on innuendo.  But today’€™s news about the police & a taxidriver does seem to confirm that things are bad in that department.

What can I say?

When one reads the news, especially reports involving the police, it seems, well, so pre-1994.

I’m not surprised at the prominence of the Pistorius business. In Oscar Pistorius we in South Africa have our very own O.J. Simpson, whose trial for the murder of his wife became an international cause célèbre in the media a few years ago. even though the sport he played meant that until his trial, he was little known outside the USA. Every nation in the world takes part in the Olympic Games, however, so Oscar Pistorius’s trial will garner even more public attention. Sporting celebrities charged with murder do seem to attract media attention, and when attention is focused on such cases, the police need to be very careful with evidence, which they seem to have been careless about in both cases. Sporting celebrities charged with murder tend to undergo trial by media. O.J. Simpson at least escaped trial by Twitter.

Daveyton taxi driber arrested for parking offence and dragged behind a police van to the police station, where he died

Daveyton taxi driver arrested for parking offence and dragged behind a police van to the police station, where he died

The Oscar Pistorius case is sub judice, and so I don’t want to say anything about the merits of the case, but the police handling of it raises several questions, one of which is the police’s handling of taxi drivers, which also came up in the other instance mentioned by Yahoo! News.

Like many South African drivers, I sometimes with the police would take more action against some taxi drivers, who are often a law unto themselves, turning right from the left-hand lane, and vice versa, or driving straight from a turning lane, forcing their way into the traffic. But what I have in mind by “police action” is a ticket and a fine (not a bribe), not a death penalty without a trial.

The behaviour of the Daveyton police looks too much like the defenestrations in the bad old says of apartheid. It looks like the same police culture, untransformed.

What has changed? What has been transformed?

Are we any better off than we were in the bad old days of apartheid?

Yes, I think we are better off.

Things may be bad, but they are not as bad as they were back then.

Consider this, for example Acting police minister welcomes Daveyton cop suspension – Times LIVE:

Acting Police Minister Siyabonga Cwele welcomed on Friday the suspension of police officers allegedly involved in the death of a taxi driver.

“All police officers have a duty to fight crime and those who are not worthy of wearing our badge and uniform, must know that they have no place within SAPS [SA Police Service],” he said in a statement.

Can you imagine B.J. Vorster saying anything like that when he was Minister of Justice, Police and Prisons back in the 1960s?

Back then, if anyone dared to criticise the police for such actions, Vorster would publicly denouce them as unpatriotic communists and liberalists trying to besmirch the good name of our noble and upright police force.

In 1960 Philp Kgosana led a protest march of 30000 people into the middle of Cape Town, a few days after 69 people had been killed at Sharpeville. Philip Kgosana met and discussed the matter with a senior policeman, and after their speeches the people all marched peacefully home again. And that was the end of that policeman’s career. He got no more promotions, because the members of the cabinet wanted another bloodbath like Sharpeville and he didn’t give it to them.

Ok, a Facebook friend of mine takes a somewhat more cynical view. He wrote this morning:

So the police drag a taxi driver after hand cuffing him to the back of a police van. This is what happens when police are deployed by the ruling class to enforce and defend the most unequal society on the planet, to defend a cheap labour economy that dehumanises and criminalises the working class and the poor. This is the fruits of neo-liberalism!

I think he has a point, but, again, Vorster never said anything like this Zuma Calls Daveyton Cop Footage ‘Horrific’ – MSN ZA News:

“The visuals of the incident are horrific, disturbing and unacceptable,” Zuma said in a statement.

“No human being should be treated in that manner.”

He was referring to a video, taken by an eyewitness, showing police officers dragging Mozambican national Mido Macia, 27, behind a police van on Tuesday.

Macia was later found dead in the holding cells of the Daveyton police station.

Zuma condemned the death. He said the police were required to operate within the confines of the law in executing their duties. He extended condolences to Macia’s family and directed Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa to investigate.

There may not be much transformation in what the police do, but there is a transformation in what people in government feel they ought to say publicly about it. That must count for something, mustn’t it?

Canada’s shame

Canadian police, who were “powerless” to stop a bunch of vandals from smashing shop windows and torching police cars, showed how “powerful” they are by beating up a 57-year-old amputee.

Simple Massing Priest: Cowardly police leave “anarchists” alone and assault amputee:

As Sarah began pleading with them to give her father a little time and space to get up because he is an amputee, they began kicking and hitting him. One of the police officers used his knee to press Pruyn’s head down so hard on the ground, said Pruyn in an interview this July 4 with Niagara At Large, that his head was still hurting a week later.

Accusing him of resisting arrest, they pulled his walking sticks away from him, tied his hands behind his back and ripped off his prosthetic leg. Then they told him to get up and hop, and when he said he couldn’t, they dragged him across the pavement, tearing skin off his elbows, with his hands still tied behind his back. His glasses were knocked off as they continued to accuse him of resisting arrest and of being a “spitter,” something he said he did not do. They took him to a warehouse and locked him in a steel-mesh cage where his nightmare continued for another 27 hours.

They would have done SS Einsatzgruppe proud.

Murderers in uniform

South Africa now has its own Jean Charles de Menezes. Seventeen-year-old Sedi Khoza was shot dead by police who were looking for someone else.

Sowetan – News:

No excuse can possibly justify how a phalanx of South African Police Service officers stormed a classroom in Mpumalanga and shot dead an innocent pupil in front of his classmates.

The cops say they were seeking two classmates who were reported to possess a gun. But they found nothing.

And nothing can excuse the activities of the heavily-armed squad that raided the school, burst in on the class and then shot at pupils fleeing in terror.

Clearly at no time did the petrified kids pose the slightest danger to the officers, who fired at the school-children’s backs as they fled.

London’s Metropolitan Police tried to cover up and evade responsibility for the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on an underground train. Let’s hope the South African police do not engage in a similar cover-up about the shooting of Sedi Khoza, and that there is a full and impartial investigation.

Murderers in uniform

South Africa now has its own Jean Charles de Menezes. Seventeen-year-old Sedi Khoza was shot dead by police who were looking for someone else.

Sowetan – News:

No excuse can possibly justify how a phalanx of South African Police Service officers stormed a classroom in Mpumalanga and shot dead an innocent pupil in front of his classmates.

The cops say they were seeking two classmates who were reported to possess a gun. But they found nothing.

And nothing can excuse the activities of the heavily-armed squad that raided the school, burst in on the class and then shot at pupils fleeing in terror.

Clearly at no time did the petrified kids pose the slightest danger to the officers, who fired at the school-children’s backs as they fled.

London’s Metropolitan Police tried to cover up and evade responsibility for the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on an underground train. Let’s hope the South African police do not engage in a similar cover-up about the shooting of Sedi Khoza, and that there is a full and impartial investigation.

Zimbabwe’s descent into chaos

One of the things that held up a power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe was Mugabe’s insistence that he alone control the police and the army — he wasn’t sharing that power with anyone.

But as the situation deteriorates, one wonders just how much control he has. When there is no longer any money to pay the police and the army, will they resort to using their weapons to earn their living as marauding bands, stealing from the civilian population at gunpoint?

The Times – Zimbabwe military has become a brigand army for hire:

According to the Guardian newspaper: “Zimbabwean air force helicopters swept over the hundreds of fleeing illegal diamond miners and mowed down dozens with machine-gun fire.

“After that the police arrived and unleashed the dogs that tore into the diggers, killing some and mutilating others.

“The police fired tear gas to drive the miners out of their shallow tunnels and shot them down as they emerged.”

This is a description of one incident and there have been several similar shootings over the past month.

And one wonders what kind of democracy it is when the loser of an election gets to share power with the winner, with the loser determining what share the winner gets. As Chairman Mao is reputed to have said, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. That may be true, especially in places like Zimbabwe, but it is not democracy.

Zimbabwe’s descent into chaos

One of the things that held up a power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe was Mugabe’s insistence that he alone control the police and the army — he wasn’t sharing that power with anyone.

But as the situation deteriorates, one wonders just how much control he has. When there is no longer any money to pay the police and the army, will they resort to using their weapons to earn their living as marauding bands, stealing from the civilian population at gunpoint?

The Times – Zimbabwe military has become a brigand army for hire:

According to the Guardian newspaper: “Zimbabwean air force helicopters swept over the hundreds of fleeing illegal diamond miners and mowed down dozens with machine-gun fire.

“After that the police arrived and unleashed the dogs that tore into the diggers, killing some and mutilating others.

“The police fired tear gas to drive the miners out of their shallow tunnels and shot them down as they emerged.”

This is a description of one incident and there have been several similar shootings over the past month.

And one wonders what kind of democracy it is when the loser of an election gets to share power with the winner, with the loser determining what share the winner gets. As Chairman Mao is reputed to have said, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. That may be true, especially in places like Zimbabwe, but it is not democracy.

De Menezes inquest verdict criticises police

Jean Charles de Menezes jury condemns police – Times Online:

The Scotland Yard anti-terrorist operation that led to the death of Jean Charles de Menezes was subjected to withering condemnation yesterday by an inquest jury.

In one of the most important public examinations of police conduct, the jurors found the testimony of the officers who shot the young Brazilian to be unreliable and concluded that Metropolitan Police commanders failed their frontline colleagues.

Mr de Menezes, 27, an electrician, was shot seven times in the head by specialist firearms officers who mistook him for a suicide bomber about to blow up a London Tube train.

It sort of restores one’s faith in British justice – but I still wonder why the coroner told the jury that they could not say the killing was unlawful.

What will happen in Athens?

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