Rodney King is a name associated with riots. The ‘Rodney King incident’ was not a random case of ill-tempered and racist police officers unleashing brutality on a black man. It was an articulation of systemic racism in Los Angeles, which of course is not a phenomenon limited to that city. Racism is not random in the USA. It is the USA. A bystander by the name of George Holliday happened to videotape much of the incident. Racism doesn’t usually get videotaped, especially if it is very subtle.
US racism is a topic so vast in terms of incidents, ideology, nuance etc that it would take an entire library to hold all narrative and arguments. I thought of Rodney King because I remembered my friend Kanishka Goonerwardena relating a story about a protest following the acquittal of 4 officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) tried for the beating. The announcement sparked the now well known Los Angeles Riots in 1992. Kanishka was referring to something else.
He said he had come out of a class at Cornell University and found a fellow doctoral student seated somewhere on the ‘Arts Quad’ of that campus holding a sign saying ‘THIS IS WRONG’. Just one person. He did not have the strength of numbers. Didn’t belong to a political organization. Just a single human being objecting. Powerful. Took a lot of courage.
A few years later officers of the New York Police Department (NYPD) shot dead a West African immigrant by the name of Amadou Diallo in a case of ‘mistaken identity’. The officers concerned were not rookies, they were veterans who had been decorated for performance excellence. They drilled some 44 bullets into that innocent man’s body because they thought he was reaching for a gun when in fact he was pulling out his wallet to show them an identity card. The court acquitted them all of wrongdoing.
There was a massive protest that day at Cornell University. The crowd was asked to take out their wallets and raise them high. Then the speaker said ‘repeat after me’. He began counting. ‘One,’ he said. The crowd responded, ‘one’. ‘Two’ was followed by ‘two’ and so on. By the time the count reached 20, it was a tremendous roar. Everyone was weeping. A powerful moment. The speaker had the strength of numbers. He was a great communicator and had great sense of ‘moment’. Courage too. One can’t really assess these things, but if I had to pick one of these two cases, I would say I admire the man holding the placard all by himself.
An employee once had a fight with the top management. He was advised by a friend to drop it: ‘to win such fights you need to have people with stature on your side and there are no such individuals here’. His response: ‘and there will not be any if we continue to wait until one arrives’.
A few months later, he was pushed into resigning. Another friend tried to dissuade him: ‘you should stay in the national interest’. His response: ‘the nation should realize sooner or later that my dignity is an integral part of the national interest’. The friend did not give up: ‘you are this place. You can own it. Stay.’ He responded: ‘There are times when one has to go in order to remain; and sometimes when one stays it is as though one has gone.’
Towards the end of the year 1988 a 15 year old schoolboy from Nugawela Central was shot dead by the Police. He was participating in a demonstration. Why a 15 year old should be in a demonstration is another matter. Those who dragged him out are also accessories after the fact of murder. Doesn’t absolve the murderer. There was a demonstration in Kandy to protest the killing. The main street was lined with protesting undergraduates. One side of the road was lined with pavement shops, mostly selling clothes. On the other side there were eateries and other permanent structures. The police arrived within 10 minutes and baton-charged. Those on the side where there were buildings, scrambled inside and up the respective stairways. From there they saw their friends being assaulted.
Among those watching was one boy who was a musician, very gentle in his way and with absolutely no interest in things political. Everyone watched in horror. Some found the brutality too hard to suffer. Turned away. That boy watched. He did not turn away. He said softly, ‘this is wrong’. Twenty two years have passed. He has never failed to object to ‘wrong’. Not with guns or placards. He raised his hand. He did not keep his silence.
There is solitude in being a minority of one. Takes courage. The world is not necessarily changed but someday when it is changed it is because someone whose name the world has long forgotten stood up and said the uncomfortable and discomforting truth, because someone said ‘this is wrong’. Such people stitch flags. It doesn’t matter that others end up carrying them.
So here’s a salute to those who are not remembered but who in their little acts of objection and courage nurture hope. They help birth beautiful tomorrows. Let us remember them and honour them by being the best we can be which means in the end being courageous to say ‘no’ and ‘yes’ as appropriate, regardless of consequence.
This was first published in the 'Daily News' on January 1, 2011.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at email@example.com