Francio Guadeloupe explores the meaning of activism by reflecting upon personal encounters of human rights abuses in Brazil, South Africa, and the Netherlands. Narratives of discrimination and brutality lead Guadeloupe to believe that a clear split exists between activists in the West and the non-West, a split which we must work towards eliminating. Guadeloupe suggests that an activist recognises the equality of humanity; whether one demands the right to be perceived as human for oneself or for others, an activist, in so doing, demands human rights for all.
Between her cries for mercy she was asking them why? Why? Why were these police officers using their boots to kick her as though she was a street dog? Did she not deserve some dignity? Was she not human too? Was she not somebody’s mother like they were somebody’s child? Was it simply because she was a woman, an Amerindian, and poor? Was it because she was a favelada (slum dweller)? Was this what being a Brazilian meant?
With her young daughter no more than eight years old watching, the woman whined while beaten; I was instructed by my friends from the favela not to stare. If the police caught me staring, they would begin doing the same to me and proceed to assault my friends as well. Cowardly, I took their advice and continued on. Part of me wanted to stay, but the part that was too scared won.
That night I cried like a child. Despite proclaiming to be a leftist activist, I had chickened out. Though I did not receive a blow, I still feel those blows. They are the mental blows that remind me that far too many of us live wretched lives and that it does not have to be this way. They are the blows that remind me that an activist from the West is positioned differently from an activist from the non-West, for this is what that woman was, from the non-West.
The offence which that woman purportedly committed was illegal street vending. In order to feed herself and her child, she sold sodas and self-made pastries to the wealthy minority of Brazil. She was not stealing from anyone, she was simply trying to be responsible, showing her daughter the virtue of work. For daring to be human, for daring to have dignity, for daring to enter the domain of the wealthy few and say with her dirty body ‘I exist’, she was abused by police officers who should have been searching for real criminals – the criminals in three-piece suits robbing the country dry.
What would have happened if I had intervened, if I had demanded that the police stop abusing this woman? Undoubtedly, they would have tried to manhandle me as well. However, I am aware that as soon as I opened my mouth and showed them my identification card, they would have realised that I was different. I carried a Western passport, and a Western passport implies ‘do not touch’. The passport made me a different kind of human despite the fact that my skin was as black as hers. The police would have had to apologise and they would have had to face the brunt of my friends in high places. Though I did fieldwork in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, I could always ring up befriended government officials and visit the homes of university professors. No matter my politics, I was forced to recognise that my leftist inclinations were not congruent with my socio-economic location. An activist from the West is positioned differently from an activist, for this is what that woman was, from the non-West.
I was further confronted with the difference between Western and non-Western activists in Johannesburg, South Africa. While in the township of Soweto, I visited a church that had been instrumental in the struggle against apartheid. Apartheid was a cruelty I had become familiarised with through Hollywood movies and critical newspaper articles. I was, however, about to feel the difference between the real as mediated through Western media, and the real as mediated through a firsthand victim of this racist order.
At the Soweto church, I met a gentleman in his late forties who worked as a guide. His soul lived in that church, and like a zombie, he was forced to retell the story of its capture over and over again in hope that one day it would rejoin his body. After the Sharpeville massacres of 1960, he accompanied his brother to protest against the new laws that made it illegal for more than two black people to congregate in a public space.
He was only five years old. All he knew was that his older brother, age 13, had told him that the white man was bad and he had to pray to father God to chase the white man from South Africa. Since their parents were being watched by the police, and informants were everywhere, it was up to the children to speak to God. After all, the lord said ‘do not suffer the little children to come unto me’. With other children of Soweto, the boys were in the church singing and praying to father God, asking him to hear their mother’s and father’s cries.
God was not listening, but the Afrikaner police officers were. They surrounded the church and ordered the children to come out. Terrified, the children remained inside. My guide felt a cramp in his stomach as he remembered that his mother had explicitly told him and his brother to stay home and not to meddle in big people’s business. Why did he not listen to his mother’s demand? Why didn’t he squeal on his older brother? Why?
The answer he received came in the form of bullets and teargas that pierced through the windows of the church. The children scattered as the Afrikaner police officers had a field day shooting black children. The two siblings somehow managed to escape. In a nearby grocery store my guide’s brother placed him in a freezer to hide, while he continued to brave bullets and search for some younger nieces and nephews that he had also encouraged to attend the protest aiming to defy the white man.
That was the last time my guide saw his older brother. It was rumoured that the children whom the police officers did not gun down were taken away to a secret prison and tortured to death. My guide was aware of this rumour, but refused to believe it. He continued to visit this church in the hope that he would hear the voice of his brother singing and that one day he would be redeemed. Until he was sure that he had done enough to let the world know that his brother was a hero, a man, and a person who fought for dignity, he would continue to share this story with Western visitors, who in return, pass a few coins his way. He reminded me that an activist from the West is positioned differently from an activist, for this is what this man was, from the non-West.
It may seem that I am drawing a stark line between the West and the non-West. Also, my usage of the term activist is unclear. Let me explain by starting with the last of these possible objections. In my opinion, an activist – a human activist I must clarify – is someone who demands the right to be human. Activists can demand it for themselves or they can demand it for others. In the end, the distinction is superfluous for every demand includes others. If I demand the right to be human, I am demanding it for other people who are in a similar position. Thus, I am establishing a universal. Similarly, if I demand the right that others be treated humane, I am demanding it for myself and others as well, recognising that they are equal to me. I am establishing a universal. The opposite of an activist is not a non-activist, but a partial activist. To qualify as a partial activist, one must be considered as human as they are, and will be deemed less human or non-human.
As for my usage of the terms the West and the non-West, I am referring to both locations and positions. There are non-Western peoples, discriminated peoples in the West, and there are Western people, those who are well-off in the non-West. One of these non-Western people is a Turkish man I met a couple of days ago, who had recently been in the Netherlands for two weeks. He spends his days walking, thinking, crying, and looking over his shoulders, worrying that the IND [Immigratie en Naturalisatie Dienst – the immigration and naturalisation service] will arrest him. He came to the Netherlands to live with a sweetheart his sister had arranged for him. He had worked hard, saved up every penny he could spare, and remained faithful. Despite having fallen in love with this woman, the day he arrived in the Netherlands she told him she did not want him anymore. She had stolen his money and his heart. His dreams of a better life were in shambles. His sister was devastated. However, he was holding on. He was hoping for hope, aware that he would shortly have to leave the Netherlands and go back to Turkey in shame. His sister translated his Turkish words for me; he only hoped that Westerners would recognise that he is a human being too.
Perhaps true solidarity means that in our politics and our scholarship we need to close the gap between the West and the non-West, between the activists who eat three square meals a day and the activists who survive on dry rice. We are obliged to include in our map of the world, Utopia, the country Oscar Wilde considered fundamental.
* Francio Guadeloupe is a lecturer at the Centre for International Development Issues Nijmegen, Radboud University, Nijmegen.
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