History Repeating: What Steve Biko's Battle Against Apartheid Can Teach Us About Racialized Police Violence In The US Today

On December 18, 1946, Steve Biko was born into South African apartheid. On September 12th, 1977, police killed him for trying to end it.
Publish date:
September 12, 2014
race, history, police violence

On December 18, 1946, Steve Biko was born into South African apartheid. On September 12th, 1977, police killed him for trying to end it.

There wasn’t a scuffle or an undiagnosed/untreated injury or some other way to explain his death; he was murdered by his own country’s police. Nelson Mandela spent almost as much time as a prisoner on Robben Island (27 years) as Steve Biko got to live (30 years). Biko is widely credited with establishing South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement; he helped found the South African Students’ Organization as well as the Black People’s Convention. He was a medical student.

Apartheid had no such provision as “the first amendment” -- the government banned him from speaking in public, talking to the media, and talking to more than one person at a time (considering he was a husband and a father I don’t know how this last order was possible). They banned him from publishing data on political trends in South Africa. The media were equally forbidden to quote him or write about him. He was also banned from most public buildings, denied a passport, and not allowed to leave his town.

On August 18th, 1977, Steve Biko was stopped and arrested at a roadblock as authorized by the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967; it wasn’t the first time he had been arrested or detained for months, but he would have had no way of realizing that this would be his last arrest. Among other gross injustices, Act No 83 allowed police to detain anyone suspected of terrorism (which could be applied as loosely as “might endanger the maintenance of law and order”) for 60 days.

Scary? Definitely. It only gets more horrifying. The detainment could be renewed indefinitely by any senior police officer. Yes, indefinitely. As in FOREVER. The Act did not require the police or the government to make public the names of anyone they were holding captive under the Act. Apartheid made it quite easy to disappear anyone looking for even the smallest amount of justice. Until Steve Biko. Until some very brave friends refused to let him disappear without explanation.

Picked up on August 18th and held for 25 days. Interrogated. Beaten. Tortured. Chained to a prison window grille. And finally, on September 12th, Steve Biko’s body gave up; he entered into a coma from which he never awoke. Trying to explain his dead body, the police had the nerve to say he had died of a self-imposed hunger strike. If not for a White South African friend and journalist, who was able to snap a few photos in the morgue, surely the police version of history would be the one in the books. His friend, Donald Woods, was able to use the photos (and his White privilege) to encourage investigation into the cover-up of Biko’s death. The other estimated 80 people who died while being held under Terrorism Act No 83 didn’t have a Donald Woods. And even with the help from Woods, the Act wasn’t repealed until 1982, five years after Biko’s death.

Where could the South African police have gotten the idea that government-sanctioned killing should be used to end a civil rights movement? Or, that governments should be allowed to kill citizens who “might endanger law and order?” How about Herbert Lee, 1961. Fred Hampton, 1969. Corporal Roman Ducksworth, Jr., 1962. James Earl Cheney (and Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner), 1964. Jimmie Lee Jackson, 1965. Benjamin Brown, 1967. Samuel Ephesians Hammond Jr, Delano Herman Middleton, and Henry Ezekiel Smith, 1968. These men are just the U.S. civil rights activists and agitators killed by U.S. police or government officials; the list grows significantly when you include, you know, regular people.

My public school education led me to believe that, yeah, there was some bad behavior, civil rights activists suffered some inconveniences for fighting (boycotting the bus, being asked to leave lunch counters) but most of the curriculum focused on Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and non-violence –- a family-friendly story about how truth and justice prevail in the end. The curriculum left out almost all of the gory stuff: the literal life-or-death stands made by regular people facing government-sanctioned, real violence. You might say the complex reality of the American civil rights movement was literally whitewashed over.*

Compare this photo gallery documenting the civil rights movement** (close to what I saw in school) to this one (which doesn’t even cover much of the violence) and take note of your emotional response to each.

Contrast my school-approved picture of the American civil rights movement with what I found when I went looking on my own to find out more about South African apartheid. When I pictured apartheid-era South Africa, it looked just like the Sun City video: rich, White people enjoying the good life at the expense of Black people’s poverty and gross inequality. Thank heavens I didn’t live in a country like that. Good thing I lived in a free democracy fiercely devoted to equality, where citizens can safely demand justice if we feel we are being treated unfairly. My country may not always get it right but at least there aren’t actual policies in place to hold people back based on race; at least my country tries to be fair. But, does it? Does it really?

If you were paying any attention to the United States’ strategy on civil rights (starting as far back as the beginnings of the abolitionist movement), the tactics seemed quite clear: intimidate or coerce a civilian population; influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping. Or, to use another name, terrorism. Yes, you read that correctly. I just used my own government’s definition of terrorism to describe the intermittent-but-ever-present and disproportionate harassment, detainment, and murder of Black Americans.

It’s a fascinating aspect of human psychology that we can see racial injustice as horrifically intolerable in another country but not our own.*** It’s as if we are the proverbial cobbler’s child. Or a willfully ignorant naked emperor. Or aiming a rock at a 3-bedroom ranch made of glass. I can picture myself, quite vividly, watching the aforementioned Artists United Against Apartheid’s Sun City music video on MTV. I had never heard of Sun City. (By the end of high school, I still hadn’t heard about it in school.) I remember watching and feeling profoundly disgusted in a way that I hadn’t when I first saw USA for Africa’s "We Are the World" or Band Aid’s "Do They Know It’s Christmas." Unlike "We Are the World" or "Do They Know It’s Christmas," Sun City showed me something American news had never put on my screen.

It was not news to pre-teen me that people in Africa died from hunger and diseases easily treated or cured in my own country. Countless awareness campaigns, national nightly news reports, and late-night TV commercials filled me in regularly with regard to how many children were dying from hunger and disease each minute and the ease and low cost of “fixing the problem.”**** It *was* news that people were being beaten and killed by their own government, that there was a country with separate rules for Whites and Blacks. In 1985!

It’s a testament to how effective unwritten systemic racism can be at hiding itself from White people. Hunger and disease in Africa were a matter of public discourse, but racism? Not so much. If you had asked any kid at my school what we knew of Ethiopia, you would have heard, “They don’t have enough food.” If you had asked us what we knew of South Africa? Probably something like, “Uh … it’s the one at the way bottom of Africa.” Every year, many of us skipped lunch (and ideally donated our lunch money) to participate in a fast of solidarity to show our support for starving people worldwide. What did we do to show our solidarity with people being beaten, killed, and jailed by their own government for defying racist, unjust laws? Nothing.

Reflecting as an adult, it makes perfect sense why we couldn’t stop talking about poverty and hunger but why we couldn’t get started talking about racism and government-sanctioned violence. Extreme poverty and hunger are an “over there” problem. We can talk about it in a distanced sort of way. Racist, government-sanctioned violence? It hit a little too close to home. It’s now 2014, and it still does.

It’s 2014 and there are still too many people who don’t want to talk about racism or, worse, argue that there is no systemic racism, that the game is not rigged, that there is no more government-sanctioned violence.

About a month ago, The Pew Research Center released several polls (after a police officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO) showing how racially divided we are on the subject of even talking about race. In another poll, White Americans, as a group, also believe that the police are more likely to be fair, to be held accountable for misbehavior, to use the right amount of force, and to treat people equally at much higher rates than Black Americans. And why shouldn’t we? Collected data repeatedly shows that White Americans are more likely to be treated that way.

Data pulled from a 2013 Ferguson, MO Police Department shows us this picture:

The Rate column compares the number of stops, searches, and arrests of people in your racial group against the total number stops, searches, and arrests for everyone. The probability column compares the number of stops, searches, and arrests of people in your racial group against the total number of people in your racial group. Close to half of Ferguson’s Black residents (4,632 out of 10,526) have been stopped by police as compared to fewer than a quarter of White residents (686 out of 5,339). Of course we have different opinions on how police behave; we have very different lived experiences.

White and Black Americans are informed by different experiences with police, experiences that then shape our perception of police officers. In one way, we are all correct: IF we are speaking about our own experience. Once we extrapolate our experience to characterize all peoples’ experiences, because our psychology routinely tells us that our experience is close to the norm/average (and thus a good measuring stick), our perception erases other truthful experiences.

How do we overcome that? How can we come together to solve a problem as big as racism if we can’t even admit there is a problem?

In reality, there is an alarming level of government-sanctioned violence in the U.S. but a dearth of documentation. No one really knows how many people are killed by police each year. We can’t be alarmed by what we don’t know. And with all the data our government does track, you have to ask why we don’t do a better job tracking this data. Racially, who makes policy about what data to track? To report? I find it terrifying that we have no idea how many people police kill each year. I can also see how the majority of White people (having primarily no contact or mostly positive contact with police) wouldn’t necessarily see a need to track murders by police. Why would it seem necessary to track data on problems that had been made invisible to you by systemic racism?

All of this brings me back to Steve Biko. His murder was a turning point in the anti-apartheid movement; he came to symbolize the just citizen unjustifiably killed by a grossly unjust government. But what of his ~80 countrymen, also killed, disappeared? Did they matter less? Why did it take his death for the international community to take apartheid-as-wrong seriously? He didn’t give his life to end apartheid; it was taken from him. It was taken from him by police officers who have never been brought to justice (and who actually asked for amnesty from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission), and by the government that enacted apartheid, and specifically, by Terrorism Act No 83.

Here in the U.S., Michael Brown’s murder has become symbolic, though four other Black American men were also killed in August. More than a month later, the officer who killed Michael Brown has not been even arrested or charged yet.

On the anniversary of Steve Biko’s death at the hands of brutal police, we are called to not ignore the terroristic racism meted out in our own country, today, in 2014. Racism is not something that is happening somewhere else. The final lesson of one of history’s darkest chapters was “never forget.” When will we stop forgetting?


* I could actually say the same thing about my public school education about American Indians. We learned about “explorers,” “conquerors,” and “pioneers.” But never about murderers, thieves, rapists, or liars. We learned that American Indians were pushed off their land but we never discussed or read about the details of the brutality.

** Ironically titled, “Telling America’s Story.” Whose story?

*** Another good example of this phenomenon: straight, White, male lawmakers who wanted to wage war on the Taliban because of their mistreatment of women. For one, international feminist activists had been trying to raise awareness about the Taliban’s violence toward women for years leading up to the war. For another, these same politicians were signing sexist policies into law without a moment’s pause.

**** I put “fixing the problem” in quotes because feeding people addresses one symptom of the larger devastation caused by colonialism and post-colonialism. Feeding people has the benefit of feeling like we've “done something.” Given funds and in-country political cooperation, it’s also much easier to execute than taking full responsibility for colonialism’s aftermath (still waiting).