On Silence and Human Limits

Ferguson, Missouri aflame

look at what the lord has made.
above Missouri, sweet smoke.

not an elegy for Mike Brown, Danez Zmith

Oh, the week that was.


On Monday morning, I woke up to the news that a grand jury in Missouri, in the US, had decided not to indict the white policeman who killed an unarmed, black 18-year-old Michael Brown. And then a few days later, a blog post calling out the racism (subtle and not-so-subtle) lurking in plain site on the wall of my local neighbourhood association’s Facebook group went viral, and all hell broke loose on that group (and on other parts of the internet). I devoured all of the drama voraciously, clicking through pictures of the black grief made visible in Ferguson, watching a video of Michael Brown’s mother – a woman who was effectively told by her country, that the black life she grew in her body and raised against all odds presented by this world that is so unkind to black boys meant nothing – give vent to unimaginable pain, reading through the unfolding drama in the comment threads of the Harfield Village Association. I soaked it all in. Until I crawled to Friday night an exhausted, beat-up, angry and sad wreck. I meant to say something eloquent about it in writing, but every time the thoughts formed, all I could keep going back to was the pain, the anger, the frustration.


And then someone posted an episode of the American social justice activist Jay Smooth’s web show, The Illipsis:

In the episode, Jay Smooth brilliantly explains the riots in Ferguson (for those who actually need an explanation or a reason?). It’s not about the destroyed cars, or the fires. It is about a community that has reached its human limit. Smooth says:


Riots are things that human beings do because human beings have limits. We don’t all have the same limits. For some of us, our human limit is when our favorite team loses a game. For some of us, it’s when our favorite team wins a game. The people of Ferguson had a different limit than that. For the people of Ferguson, a lifetime of neglect and defacto segregation and incompetence and mistreatment by every level of government was not their limit. When that malign neglect set the stage for one of their children to be shot down and left in the street like a piece of trash… that was not their limit. For the people of Ferguson, spending one hundred days almost entirely peacefully protesting for some measure of justice for that child and having their desire for justice treated like a joke by every local authority… was not their limit. And then after those 100 days, when the so-called prosecutor waited till the dead of night to twist that knife one last time. When he came out and confirmed once and for all that Michael Brown’s life didn’t matter… Only then did the people of Ferguson reach their limit. So when you look at what happened Monday night, the question you should be asking is how did these human beings last that long before they reached their human limit? How do black people in America retain such a deep well of humanity that they can be pushed so far again and again without reaching their human limit? That is what happens when you treat human beings that way. (Emphasis mine.)

Hearing those words, as obvious as they seem now, made it all make some kind of sense. What we saw happen in Ferguson this week was about how many times you can treat people as if their lives and their struggles are meaningless before they finally tell you in the only language you will hear – indeed the only language in which you have ever spoken to them, the language of destruction and violence – that enough is enough.

What’s happening on the internet of Harfield Village seems to pale in comparison to the horrors of Ferguson. The Facebook page of the Harfield Village Association was a place where neighbours could post about their lost pets, ask for advice on who could fix their appliances, sell a cupboard they no longer needed and deliver scathing reviews of the local restaurants (oh, Yelp, you have nothing on that group). At least that’s what it was when I joined it about a year or so ago after my husband and I moved to the area. Of course, there is a neighbourhood watch, and people occasionally used the page to report crimes solved and unsolved. A seemingly sudden but not unique spate of petty crime hit the area in the last few months, and things on the page starting getting a little and then a lot weird. The post that spurred my decision to leave the group read something like, “Three black males spotted in a car outside my neighbor’s house.” That was it. The three black males did not do any violence or disrupt any relative peace. But there they were, anyway, on blast for their blackness, enough of an offence to warrant a community post. What’s worse is that this was one in a series of such posts, exclusively about black or coloured (overwhelmingly male) people in the area, made suspicious by the colour of their skin. As a black woman who lives in the area, I was offended. Fuck it, I thought, I don’t need this in my Facebook feed; I like my feed filled exclusively with kittens and Beyonce videos. And with a click, I muted the weirdness. This Wednesday, whilst I was still trying to get my head around the fact that you can shoot an unarmed black person dead and get away with it, a blog post popped up on Facebook feed, interrupting the steady stream of Beyonce and kittens. The post’s author lives in Harfield and was a member of the Facebook group. In the post, she tells us that her father lived in Harfield, which was then a coloured area, before the Group Areas Act of 1950 saw him and others forcibly removed and relocated. Now, she is in the area, living amongst white people who post obsessively about suspicious looking brown and black people. She writes:

Pic taken from http://idontspeakmylanguage.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/harfield-im-out/
Pic taken from http://idontspeakmylanguage.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/harfield-im-out/

I’m very concerned about safety, as I’m sure that most people are. But the shit starts with these sorts of posts and this sort of commentary. You see, I’ve been digging into the history of this neighbourhood. And, as I touched on before, and probably will write about again, my dad used to live here. Until he was kicked out under the Group Areas Act. The person’s post above might be well justified because of increasing crime that’s happening in the area. And I’m glad that she engaged with them and tried to talk to them. But she probably wasn’t very nice about it. In this neighbourhood, people openly ask others what they’re doing there. As though they have a right to do so. They don’t quite understand that people have the right to be where they damned please. This post appears to be the least dangerous of many that I’ve seen, because it only highlights that she was worried about these 2 particular men roaming the streets. They probably were “casing” the area. Crime is high all over the place. (Emphasis mine.)

Her post also revealed that there was a new, menacing layer to all this: members of the group were resorting to taking pictures of ‘suspicious-looking’ characters and posting them in the group for all to see and hate on. A particularly egregious example of such a post reproduced in the author’s blog post shows two presumably homeless, presumably non-white people lying on the pavement. One commenter writes about how she wishes she could take a fire hose to them. Another would like the city to “tar over them”. Again, these are two human beings who seem, from all appearances, like they are not in a good place. They are, for fuck’s sake, lying on a pavement in the sun, in the middle of the day. They are not tanning; it is clear they do not have work and may very well not have secure homes to retreat to.   Furthermore, they are not doing anything. They are not “casing” the neighbourhood, or looking through car windows. So, it seemed, that the racism, once thinly veiled in actual crime reports, was becoming more blatant. What’s worse is that it seemed to be more acceptable. Let’s be clear: you only post shit like that if you know you will have agreement and buy-in by group members and administrators.

Her post indicated, however, that there was hope. In these comment threads lay the words of a brave few who pointed out the complete cruelty and lack of empathy and an even braver few who called out the naked racism. After her post went viral, these brave few, buoyed by members who had read the post and re-joined or joined the group, grew in numbers, and the real fun began. By Friday, the group was being effectively and entertainingly trolled (I had a front row seat via my husband’s account – he was braver and stayed long after I’d left). A breakaway group formed. Then, suddenly, things got ugly (or uglier). People were banned, posts were deleted within seconds of them going up, and those who had been valiantly fighting in the comments were accused of not really being from the neighbourhood (I believe the term “up country” was thrown at some). So, it was. The group could return to the comfort of its dangerous race-baiting. The valiant were left with the breakaway group. A few posts in the breakaway group attempt to recreate the initial neighbourly innocence of the early Harfield group: people post about food festivals and the local pub, ask advice on service providers. More of the posts are dedicated to the banned or the deleted trying to process their outrage, and the events of the last few days.

And then yesterday, a few comments and a post or two cropped up criticizing those of us who, a mere 48 hours after the mass bannings, are ‘dwelling’ on what happened in the other group. We are being accused of negativity and, because many of us are still in that anger stage, are still calling out the members of that other group, of doing exactly what we ourselves criticized that other group for. What does one make of this? People were kicked out of one group for voicing their opinions, and when they try to process that, and maybe come up with ways in which we can wrest our neighbourhood from the clutches of obviously racist people, they are told, once again, to simmer down?

As a Zimbabwean, living in South Africa, I am often asked why ‘my people’ have not rebelled. Where is your spring, I am constantly asked, why aren’t people angry? Well, South Africans, I have often wondered the same of you. You have your Ferguson a few times over in Marikana, and where are your riots? You have white people beating up, sjamboking and peeing on black bodies in open streets. What are your human limits? What happened this week in the Harfield Facebook wars, and what is now happening in the new Harfield group gives us some way to answer that. It’s the silence that keeps this country’s limits and boundaries expanded beyond all human understanding. When you cannot even get past the fellow commenters (never mind the administrators) on a Facebook page, when even your small outrage about being removed from a Facebook group is not allowed to surface, how can you ever know what the limits are and what your capacity to tolerate inhumanity is?

The anger I saw this week in that group was refreshing. More of this, I thought. More South Africans who can take on the insidious racism that masquerades as a concern for safety on its own turf. And now, I am seeing the beginnings of another fight: that anger being pushed back and quietened within the very space it created. And this is how it seems to work in this country. In the words of Kanye West, “racism still alive, they just be concealin’ it”. And when it is seen and known, and called out effectively, the very act of calling out is labeled negative, divisive and those who are doing the calling out are asked to please be positive (or, sit down and shut up). So, we don’t ever get to the place that the residents of Ferguson did. Instead we hang around in this place, arguing about our arguments and our right to even speak the name racism, before we can begin to fight it.

But listen. I’m not saying that we want to end up in the place the residents of Ferguson find themselves. But when you look at the pain and the devastation of that place, and you look at the way in which silence and censorship operates on South African conversations about race, you have to wonder how we can avoid an even more desolate place? And what will that place have in store for us all (racists and non-racists alike)?

We have to do better than this, folks. I know I am going to follow the example set by my very brave neighbours and push past those who would attempt to silence. I hope that those brave neighbours know that what they’ve done and what they’re doing is much bigger than Facebook posts and comments. Our soul as a community and our survival as a country depends on acts like these. The act of breaking the silence starts by recognizing people’s humanity and pain within our own neighbourhoods and when some of our neighbours fail to do the same, and bring racism right to our doorsteps, we need to be brave enough to reject that, and take back our hoods.

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