Domestic violence in South Africa: Make the police take responsibility!

 

One night in 2010 CN’s* husband hit her so hard that she lost consciousness. CN was taken to the hospital, where she spent the night. The day after she was discharged, she decided to lay criminal charges against her husband. And this is where CN’s story stops making sense. Within 24 hours of approaching the police for assistance, CN was herself arrested, detained and assaulted by the police.

First, CN was given the wrong advice by police officers on duty, and told that she needed a domestic violence protection order from a magistrates court before she could lay a criminal charge. The court simply sent her back. The inspector assigned to the assist CN asked her for her telephone numbers, which he then used to call her husband, to invite him to the charge office. When CN’s husband arrived the inspector first spoke to him alone, and then told CN that she must discuss the matter with her husband to see if they could resolve it. When CN reported to the inspector that their discussion had not resolved the issue, and that she wanted to proceed with a charge, the inspector discouraged her. He told her that her husband would similarly lay a charge against her “for slapping”, and if this were to happen she would also be liable to be arrested. The inspector then asked them to write down their statements, and once they had done so, the inspector arrested both CN and her husband. They were both charged and detained in separate police cells at the police station, where CN then stayed the night.

The following morning, another police officer came to CN’s cell and informed her that he had come to take her to court. As she was being escorted to a police van she asked the officer to allow her a moment in order to speak to a more senior officer. But the officer sternly ordered her to board the police van, and then forcibly flung her into the back of the police van.

CN was subjected to “a dreadful series of traumatic, humiliating, dehumanising and flagrant violations of her rights to dignity, freedom of the person and bodily integrity.” This series of events makes so little sense because it is almost the polar opposite to what the South African legal framework envisages for domestic violence cases.

The Domestic Violence Act of 1998, a well-known piece of legislation that has been on South Africa’s law books for almost 17 years, is very clear about the responsibility of police officers in South Africa. In fact, the legislature regards domestic violence so seriously, that any failure to comply with one’s police duties in terms of the Act constitutes misconduct for the purposes of disciplinary action. The Regulations to the Act go into further detail about the duties of police officers, and a National Instruction issued to all police officers in 1999 leaves nothing open to interpretation. South Africa also has a Victim’s Charter, implementation audit tools, and a host of cooperative structures at local, provincial and national level where domestic violence can be discussed.

And despite all this legal regulation, the South African Police Service has been coughing up a lot lately in civil court for not doing their job. While there are pockets of excellence within the South African Police Service, it is an open and disgraceful secret that our police, particularly in townships and far-flung poor areas, perform badly when it comes to assisting victims of domestic violence. Police officers’ treatment of victims at station level often causes secondary trauma: a refusal or inability to come when called, a failure to explain a victims’ rights and legal options, sending victims home to deal with it “in the family”, and a failure to even understand their own duties under the Domestic Violence Act, or to even have a copy of the Act readily available in their stations. We know this first-hand from women seeking help, we know this scientifically from research, and we even know it from the police themselves. And we have known it for a long time.

What is most concerning is not that our police are doing badly, but that there is no desire to be honest with themselves and the public about shortcomings, and no real commitment to improving the situation. In a briefing to the parliamentary Portfolio Committee of Police, the SAPS would have us believe that they are doing well, and that almost no officers failed to comply with the Domestic Violence Act between 1 October 2014 and 31 March 2015.

 

 

 

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Excerpt from presentation by the South African Police Service to Parliamentary Portfolio Committee for Police, on 18 August 2015.

They also reported that 100% of all 1 140 South African police stations were rendering “victim-friendly” services at the end of the first quarter of the 2015/16 financial year.

Which begs the question, why does the Women’s Legal Centre and other organisations continually deal with complaints, such as a recent case where a client, whose husband brandished and threatened her with a firearm on several occasions, had to approach three different police stations in her area before she could obtain police assistance? Why are there continued civil claims for damages against the police, for failing victims of domestic violence? Why is the Civilian Secretariat for Police reporting that only 1 of the 156 police stations audited in 2014 were fully compliant with the Domestic Violence Act? Why is it that women who are in possession of domestic violence protection orders, are still being abused and even killed by their partners?

There is no scarcity of recommendations for the police on improving their response to domestic violence, and thereby often preventing it. Civil society has, since the operationalisation of the Act, produced a multitude of research papers. Interest groups lobby relentlessly and women’s and men’s organisations clamour to be heard on the issue by various branches of government. We express the same concerns, and make the same arguments and appeals year in, and year out. In fact, even to those of us in the gender-based violence sector, we are starting to sound like broken records. In 2014, the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry heard extensive evidence about the handling of domestic violence cases by police. Community members testified about their experiences, the police released an unprecedented amount of internal data and documentation, and this in turn was analysed by various experts. The police themselves cooperated with the Commission, after initially refusing to take part, and ended up testifying frankly about their own challenges. And yet, the evidence-based recommendations (see Recommendation 14) which have national applicability have been rejected by the national Police Commissioner.

Police officers in South Africa can and must prevent domestic violence, through a quality response to victims. But there is complacency about ongoing police failure in this regard that seems to have set in, and it cannot be fixed by throwing more law or policy at it. Nor do civil claims seem to be driving home the message that the status quo is unacceptable.

The fact is that one station commander who cares about his station responding quickly and effectively to domestic violence, and takes responsibility for making it so, can do more good than ten policy documents and 20 reports to parliament. This is accountability. We should no longer be asking, “what must be done” but rather, “who is doing it”. Accountability means taking responsibility for what must be done, and it means real, personal consequences for failure to do your job.

(Image credit: Heinrich Böll Southern Africa)

Michelle Cusseaux’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave

On August 14, 2014, just days after Michael Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson, a police officer in Phoenix, Arizona fatally shot Michelle Cusseaux, a 50-year-old Black woman living with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression. Michelle Cusseaux had called for a taxi to take her to the hospital. When the taxi didn’t show, she called her case manager. The case manager called the police to take her to an inpatient mental health facility. Four police officers came. Words were exchanged. Police took the door down. A few minutes later, Michelle Cusseaux lay with a single bullet in her chest. She died soon after. A week later, on August 22, activists carried Michelle Cusseaux’s casket to City Hall. The march was led by Frances Garrett, Michelle Cusseaux’s mother. Michelle Cusseaux’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but her soul goes marching on.

The Phoenix police knew why they were going to Michelle Cusseaux’s residence. They called Frances Garrett to determine if she had ever had a gun. She had not. They knew this situation. Their knowledge made no difference; their knowledge executed another Black women, another Black woman living with mental illness. Michelle Cusseaux’s death echoes that of Shereese Francis, in Brooklyn, in 2012.

Each time, the family mourns and calls for independent investigations. Each time, a mother stands up and asks, “Why?” Shereese Francis’s mother, Eleen Francis, faces Michelle Cusseaux’s mother, Frances Garrett. The nation is blanketed with Mothers of Mourning who had nowhere to go, who called the police to help them, and now …

They knew. They knew, because of the orders, the orders to pick her up and take her in to a facility,” Frances Garrett explains. They knew, they knew. On March 18, 2015, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said the killing of Michelle Cusseaux was justified. They knew, they knew, and they continue to know. #SayHerName

 

(Image Credit: Tara Jacoby / http://justice.gawker.com) (Photo Credit: Matthew Hendley / http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com)

Cry the beloved Khayelitsha (Commission)

South Africa is currently awash in commissions of inquiry. There’s the ongoing and perhaps never-ending Marikana Commission. Today we read there’s to be a new commission of inquiry into the Tongaat mall collapse, last November. And there’s the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry into allegations of police inefficiency in Khayelitsha and a breakdown in relations between the community and police in Khayelitsha.

While women are significant participants in the Marikana and the Tongaat events and commissions, women are in many ways the subjects of the Khayelitsha Commission. This is not surprising, given the nature of the inquiry. The Commission’s mandate isn’t to get to the bottom of a tragic event, but rather to investigate and get to the texture of decades long dissolution of everyday life.

In the 1980s, the State built Khayelitsha and has continued to do so ever since. Part of this construction has involved the establishment of a State of sexual tyranny. That State of sexual tyranny has come forth in the testimony of Khayelitsha residents to the Commission.

The Commission began in response to a complaint lodged by the Women’s Legal Centre, representing the Social Justice Coalition, Treatment Action Campaign, Equal Education, Free Gender, Triangle Project, and Ndifuna Ukwazi. That complaint was lodged in 2012. The Social Justice Coalition had been organizing hard for two years prior for an investigation into the situation of justice administration in Khayelitsha. As the complaint noted, “Since 2003 the civil society organisations have held more than one hundred demonstrations, pickets, marches and other forms of protest against the continued failures of the Khayelitsha police and greater criminal justice system. The organisations have also submitted numerous petitions and memorandums to various levels of government in this regard. There have been sustained and coordinated efforts from various sectors of the Khayelitsha community for action to be taken by government agencies, including the police, to improve the situation.”

For over a decade, intensifying police incompetence, corruption, violence, and disregard for the local population went hand in hand with `vigilante justice’. In 2012 alone, 20 `vigilante’ collective killings were reported in the area. The struggle for space and for citizenship was running with blood and smoke. In the struggle for safe space and full citizenship, women, again, have been key. As the Women’s Legal Centre complaint noted, “Girls and women are frequently beaten and raped whilst walking to and from communal toilets or fetching water from communal taps close to their homes, while domestic abuse poses a threat to the safety of many women within their own homes. Between March 2003 and March 2011 there has been a 9.36% increase in the number of reported sexual crimes reported in Khayelitsha.”

Throughout the decades, women have kept their eyes on the prize. Khayelitsha is home. They should be able to live, and love, at home without fear of violence. Their children, partners, parents, friends, neighbors should as well. Through the use of public funds and private security forces, Cape Town has established `improvement districts’ … in the central city, inner southern suburbs, Sea Point and Green Point. Not in Khayelitsha. The women know that, and they don’t accept it.

Funeka Soldaat, founder of Free Gender, recounted her story of being raped, because she is lesbian, in 1995. She went to one police station, where nothing happened. Finally, without here statement being taken, she was taken to a hospital and dumped outside. The hospital said she needed a statement, and so she walked to Khayelitsha Site B police station, all of this right after having been raped. There she was treated disrespectfully, she felt because of her sexual orientation, and no statement was taken. Finally, literally barefoot, she walked home and went to sleep. The rest of the story is pain, healing, organizing. As to the police: “Khayelitsha police appear to lack the energy, will and intent to provide a service to LGBT [people].”

Malwande Msongelwa described what happened when she found her brother, stabbed to death at a bus stop. She called the police, and they didn’t come. She called again, and they finally came, but did nothing. Worse, they refused to get out of their cars: “The police do not care about people… [they] will only come out if there are drugs. Then they will come out with 10 cars …They do not even care if you are injured… If the ambulance hasn’t arrived they won’t touch you. They wait in their car… I don’t trust the police.” Her brother lay on the ground for six hours. The crime scene was never investigated.

The stories continue. Ms. Nduna describes how a police van hit and dragged one of her children. This was the fifth child in the area to suffer harm, and worse, at the hands of a police vehicle. What happened? “We buried and there was nothing still.”

The harrowing stories of violence, of police inaction and worse, of vigilante action and worse, occur in a framework of radical hope. Phumeza Mlungwana, Secretary General of the Social Justice Coalition, put it simply and directly: “Most of Khayelitsha is policeable.”

Witness and after witness explained that lights, presence, a diversity of site appropriate techniques, a committed and engaged and respectful police force are what are called for. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not impossible. The women of Khayelitsha know that. They know, from experience, that when the work of struggle accompanies the work of mourning, they can make things happen. The Commission itself is a step along that path. The struggle continues.

 

(Photo Credit: Kate Stegeman / Daily Maverick)

So we were sitting around

So we were sitting around, chatting about stuff, and the conversation turned to crime, as it does, and my colleague mentioned a rape involving a number of policemen which had apparently taken place recently. She couldn’t recall how many policemen had been involved so I googled for more information, as one does, using “policeman rape za” as my search terms.

Well, I had to read quite a bit to get to the one my colleague meant, as the search threw up several news media links, hours or days old. There was one article on timeslive.co.za by journalist Philani Nombembe, which usefully summarized the most current cases – a 28-year-old constable based at Touwsriver police station was charged with rape 3 days ago. Last week a 41-year-old policeman appeared in the Paarl Magistrate’s Court charged with raping a 14-year-old girl on a number of occasions in April. The warrant officer is said to be a priest.In Gauteng, a 30-year-old constable was arrested in Vereeniging for allegedly kidnapping and raping a 13-year-old girl on July 2.A 46-year-old police captain appeared in the Worcester Magistrate’s Court charged with raping a woman in a police vehicle in June.Another policeman appeared yesterday in the Randburg Regional Court, in Johannesburg, to be charge for a string of crimes, including 14 of rape.In addition to the reports in the timeslive article, a former Melkbos police station commander was found guilty a month ago of raping a woman and sexually assaulting another while both were in custody.

Did I miss something? Was there some kind of order that was misconstrued? Has the police force lost its collective mind? Did some important politician say something about rape being ok? (OK, never mind that one.) Do their communications people not realize that after Marikana the SAPS have what might be termed ‘reputational issues’? Which can only be exacerbated by the apparent silence of the cops on this phenomenon?

The SAPS Twitter feed is silent on the issue for the last three days, and doesn’t mention these cases either in that time. An oversight? In terms of media releases, the Minister did commend the police for catching a rape suspect in KZN two days ago, who is described as someone ‘who has been committing various murder and rape crimes around the Tongaat area.’ I assume the suspect isn’t a cop, as nothing is mentioned about this plague of biblical proportions which has hit our police services. Can someone comment on these startling events? Or is my worst suspicion true – there’s no comment because it isn’t news, just business as usual?

 

(Photo Credit: Gallo Images / Thinkstock / http://www.timeslive.co.za)

Ann Roberts challenges stop-and-search as racist

Good news. Racist stop and frisk isn’t only a New York phenomenon. It happens in London too. In what may become a landmark case, Ann Roberts is hoping to change that.

Ann Roberts is a 38-year old Black woman. She is mother to an 18-year-old son. Until two years ago, she worked as a college special needs assistant. She had never had a run-in with the law … until September 9, 2010.

On September 9, 2010, Ann Roberts was on her way home from work. She was on a bus, when the conductor realized she didn’t have enough money on her fare card. The conductor then demanded to see the contents of her bag, claiming they were in a gang and knife crime hotspot. She asked to be taken to the police station, rather than have the search on the bus, so as to avoid any embarrassment in front of her colleagues and students.

Instead, the police came, and six police officers wrestled her to the floor and pinned her face down, and handcuffed. They searched her purse and found no weapons. Instead, the officers found credit cards with two names, and so charged her with fraud. Roberts explained that she was recently married and hence was in the process of changing over her cards. Despite the truth of her statement, Ann Roberts was taken to the police station, where she was first tested for drugs and charged with fraud, threatened with a crack cocaine charge, and issued a caution for having obstructed an arrest. Her drug test came back negative, and the charge was dropped. The caution was dropped. The fraud charge was dropped. Meanwhile, Ann Roberts spent eight hours behind bars.

Afterwards, Roberts reflected, “One of the officers pulled the chain from around my neck and broke it. It wasn’t valuable but it was the force they used, the action. I ended up with a bleeding right hand and injuries to my arm and shoulder. I had to go to hospital next day.”

Despite being cleared of all charges, Ann Roberts was suspended from her job working with vulnerable young people. She had become a security risk.

Ann Roberts is a Black woman in an urban stop-and-search regime. It’s a story of prime real estate, urban hyper-development, metropolitan growth, and `disposable’ populations. Stop-and-search is not universal. In many parts of the United Kingdom, it almost never occurs. In London, it’s the order of the day. According to one report, a Metropolitan police officer is about 30 times more likely to stop-and-search to stop a black person than a colleague outside London.

Stop-and-search as a means of virtually unregulated control came into force in 1994, under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Originally it was meant to combat football hooliganism and late-night raves. In what some call “mission creep”, the number of section 60 stops went from 7,970 in 1997/98 to 118,112 in 2009/2010. That is no creep. That is a breathtaking leap, especially if one considers these numbers are concentrated in London. Neither creep nor leap, it’s an occupation.

Who’s the target? Black and Asian communities. During 2011, a Black person was 29.7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white. Asian people were 7.6 times more likely to be stopped and searched. Every year, the gap has increased. Section 60 is the mapping of Black and Asian communities in London’s metropolitan renewal.

When Ann Roberts was taken down, she said, “Enough is enough.” She spoke the unspeakable truth: she charged section 60 with racism, arguing it is a violation of the European Convention on Human Right. This week, the High Court gave Ann Roberts permission to challenge the legality of powers granted to police under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. The struggle continues.

 

(Photo Credit: blackexperienceofpolicing.org)

Instead of Women’s Day, What About Women’s Enjoyment of Freedom Day?

In South Africa, August 9 is National Women’s Day, and August is Women’s Month. This August, the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, a South African women’s rights and well-being organization has a simple and direct question for everyone, “So just how real are women’s rights?”

They began, publically, to answer that question yesterday, August 11, with a new report, “The Right & The Real: A Shadow Report Analysing Selected Government Departments’ Implementation of the 1998 Domestic Violence Act and 2007 Sexual Offences Act”. On one hand, the answer paints a dismal picture. Only 8% of police stations meet their obligations under the Domestic Violence Act. Compliance would include helping a victim to find shelter and obtain medical assistance, serving notice on an abuser to appear in court, arresting an abuser who breaks a protection order, and, critically, keeping records of domestic violence. Failure to comply means misconduct, and should result in various forms of sanction and punishment. It hasn’t. Police stations ignore their responsibilities with impunity.

In 2007, 57% of police stations were compliant. Now … less than 8%. That’s not a drop, not even a steep drop. That’s a nose dive.

The report focuses on the failure of the South African Police Services and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (which includes National Prosecuting Authority), as well as the Departments of Health, Social Development and Correctional Services. The press has covered this failure as a failure to protect women and women’s rights, which it certainly is.

But Tshwaranang’s analysis goes far beyond the failure to protect.

The real of women’s rights is more than, bigger than, and more profound than “protection”. The real of women’s rights is freedom, and specifically the enjoyment of freedom:

“South Africa’s Constitutional Court makes it clear that, `few things can be more important to women than freedom from the threat of sexual violence.’ So important is this right to be free from all forms of violence that, along with the rights to life and dignity, it imposes two sorts of duties on the state: the first obliging the state to refrain from acting in ways that infringe on these rights, and the second compelling it to develop legislation and structures guaranteeing those rights….It is not only sexual violence that constitutes a rights violation of the sort requiring state intervention: `Indeed, the state is under a series of constitutional mandates which include the obligation to deal with domestic violence: to protect both the rights of everyone to enjoy freedom and security of the person and to bodily and psychological integrity, and the right to have their dignity respected and protected, as well as the defensive rights of everyone not to be subjected to torture in any way and not to be treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way.”

Imagine a South Africa in which all women are free to move around as they please, dressed as they please. Imagine a world in which all women are free to move around as they please, dressed as they please. Imagine a world in which democracy means the enjoyment of freedom. Instead of celebrating Women’s Day, what about Women’s Enjoyment of Freedom Day?

 

(Photo credit: Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre http://tlac.org.za)

Zimbabwe, Haiti, just go …

What are these lies?
They mean that the country wants to die.”

Haitians, Zimbabweans, everything at home is just fine. So say the United States and the United Kingdom. Everything is just fine and you must just go.

Except that everything is not just fine.

In Harare yesterday, Saturday, April 9, 2011, thousands met at a church service at St Peters Kubatana in Highfield. They engaged in a peaceful demonstration to pray for peace. They came together to pray to end the escalating violence in Zimbabwe. Police threw tear-gas canisters into the church, and when the parishioners and congregants ran out or leapt through the windows, the police attacked them, beating them with batons.

This is peace and unity in Zimbabwe today.

But, according to the UK, Zimbabwe is a-ok, so much so that it’s time to start deporting all those pesky `failed’ and `undocumented’ asylum seekers, people like Nyasha Musvingo. Musvingo fled Zimbabwe after her husband was beaten, tortured, and then died as a result. She knows she can’t return, because of `the situation’.

The UK would disagree. Last month, on March 14, the most senior immigration judge in the country, Mr. Justice Blake of the Upper Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber), ruled that Zimbabwe is fine. The violence is over. People need not live in fear in Zimbabwe nor need they fear returning. So what if disappearances, indefinite detention, torture and violence have returned and are on the rise? Zimbabwe is `safe’ enough.

Likewise, in Haiti, everything is not just fine.

In Haiti, high levels of violence continue. Rape is epidemic. Over a million people remain homeless. Everyday, the so-called temporary camps seem to become more and more permanent. Cholera is on the rise. A recent study suggests that by November the number of cholera cases in Haiti will be close to 800,000, and the number of deaths will reach a little over 11,000. The crisis is worsening in Haiti.

The United States would disagree. This week, the United States government announced it has formally resumed deportations to Haiti. Haiti is `safe’ enough.

Cholera is on the rise in Zimbabwe as well.

In 2008 – 2009, in large part due to the intensification of political violence, Zimbabwe suffered a cholera epidemic that killed over 4000 people. Close to 100,000 cases were reported, and, according to a recent report, a rapid response, once the 400 cases were reported, would have reduced the number of cases by 34,900, or 40%, and the number of deaths by 1,695 deaths, also 40%. Why was nothing done, why were so many allowed to die? `The political situation.’

But that was then. This past Friday it was reported that over the last month, 36 people died of cholera in Manicaland and Masvingo provinces, in Zimbabwe. In the past week alone, 13 died, and the Ministry of Health notes that the death toll could be higher, as records are not up to date.

Sending people back to Zimbabwe is a death sentence. The United Kingdom would disagree … or would it? The Foreign and Commonwealth Office describes Zimbabwe:  violence on the farms, in the streets, random and targeted; abominable prison conditions; torture; and a culture of impunity. The most recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office Human Rights report, from 2009, paints an equally grim picture.

The Department for International Development describes the state as `unstable’. 25% of Zimbabwean children are described as `vulnerable’. Most live in households, and neighborhoods, built of poverty, HIV/AIDS and State violence. Well over half live in households headed by single women or girls. Of special concern are children living alongside incarcerated mothers and pregnant and breastfeeding women.

All of these statements come from United Kingdom government websites. And yet, somehow, Zimbabwe is now `safe enough’ for asylum seekers to return to.

Sending people back to Haiti is a death sentence. The United States would disagree … or would it? This past week the US State Department released its 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Haiti? “Alarming increases of sexual violence” against women and girls. Alarming increases of domestic violence. No effective agency to deal with sexual or domestic violence, and not much of a plan to do so. “Corrupt judges often release suspects for domestic violence and rape.” Often. LGBT persons face constant violence. The prisons are a hotspot for violence, torture, cholera, and worse.

All of this comes from the US State Department.

If the government of the United Kingdom finds Zimbabwe perilous and the government of the United States finds Haiti perilous, how is it possible in the same breath to determine that Zimbabwe and Haiti are `safe’? In both Haiti and Zimbabwe, the prisons are a nightmare. Deportees to both countries typically `return’ through an extended stay in prison. In both Haiti and Zimbabwe, cholera is on the rise, violence is epidemic, violence against women and girls is more than epidemic, and not only sexual violence.

Sending asylum seekers and prisoners to Zimbabwe and to Haiti is a death sentence. Whether the individual persons live or die matters … terribly. At the same time, the political economy of this moment is that the lives of Zimbabweans and of Haitians to the so-called democracies of the world are of no value. If you are Haitian, if you are Zimbabwean, you must just go. If you die, you die. If you live, perhaps you were fortunate, perhaps not. Either way, you are no longer `our problem’. Your country is `safe enough’. Just go.

 

(Photo Credit: http://www.marieclaire.co.uk)

Scatterlings: “Shoot to kill”

At this time four years ago, New Orleans residents of color were being hunted like animals by white citizens and National Guardsmen alike as the waters of Katrina receded…

…and now ZA has its own “shoot to kill” policy. On the anniversary of 9/11, it really makes me wonder about how “we” define terrorism. Brutality by the state = law and order, mean to protect “football fans [that] could become easy targets during next year’s World Cup“. The low income (or no income) citizens of South Africa, of course, are always easy targets in the state’s shooting range. Oh wait, did I say citizens? Turns out “those who use illegal weapons would lose their normal rights as citizens“. Is this not terrorism?

It certainly is terrifying, and there are so many more layers yet: the resources being allotted to “security” and construction for this event instead of towards economic justice, the high rates of crime seen as unacceptable for Western tourists but the price of admission for South Africans…and where is the speech at an ANC dinner, the huge push of resources, regarding violence against women and rape?

(Photo Credit: The Telegraph / AFP)

Security of Sex: Legally Bound (and Gagged)

In the good ‘ol US of A, we’ve been seeing some odd juggling around not just civil but human rights under the new administration. President Obama has been under fire for reneging on his campaign promise to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and for offering support of DOMA, though Obama recently issued a statement negating his previous statement. And the good news has been that there has been vigorous debate and even some voting regarding the Matthew Shepard Act.  These three issues are supposed to represent the pinnacle of LGBTQ rights in America: the right to shoot people for my country, the ability to legally enter into a heteronormative institution and the ability to put more people in jail for longer. OK.  These are considered basic civil rights that affect the entire ‘community’.   The problem is that none of these topics actually relate to the needs of the larger LGBTQ community, because is there is no community, no consensus.  The only thing uniform about this community is that there are individuals across every major racial group, ethnicity, gender, sex, religion and class that consider the ability to discriminate and even harm LGBTQ persons a necessary right.  Such universal disempowerment only exists for one other group: women.  Despite this, the larger issues affecting the LGBTQ community of domestic and sexual violence and abuse, unusually high suicide rates, under-education, harassment both generally and by police, discrimination, heteronormativity, etc. are overwhelmed by marriage, military and prison. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, the struggle for ‘equality’ looks a little different in South Africa, but only a little. Africa’s largest economy has had full legal equality for LGB persons since the ratification of the post-Apartheid constitution, gender identity and expression or transgender rights are not listed.  Despite having one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, South African LGBTQ persons are commonly subject to brutal acts of violence.  And they aren’t the only ones.  In particular, African lesbians in South Africa have been explicitly targeted for gang-rapes.  I’ve talked about this particular situation before, that women and specifically queer women are targeted is no accident.  That these acts are not causing mass outcry or even being consistently investigated is no accident.

The United States of course is no better we just have a legal term for these types of acts. Individuals who commit these ‘hate crimes’ are often portrayed as either marginal and extreme or victims themselves of an awkward circumstance, in South Africa they are generally faceless groups of males, assumedly black.  Such portrayals justify larger apathy and inaction by removing these acts from the larger debate. When violence against LGBTQ persons is mentioned as being part of larger systemic prejudices, it is usually to say that violence is caused by laws against LGBTQ persons, that it will wane once there is full legal equality.   It is the same argument that has been used for women for more than a century.  Yet, the elephant in the room is the fact that South Africa has those legal rights that the mainstream American LGBTQ organizations are hung up on and not only are LGBTQ persons in South Africa not equal, they are the subjects of intense discrimination and violence.  Full legal equality, whatever that means, will not magically create a society of equals because the issue is only in part about laws.  It’s like giving someone painkillers and saying it will cure cancer.  No amount of legal progressivism will undo the damage of a country’s President making a mockery of rape and being elected despite it.  It is primarily about power and how disempowered groups are balkanized and ranked creating a system in which low class African males in Johannesburg and minority males in California gain power through the gang-rape of lesbians.

Reliance on law, regardless of whether or not the laws are good, has not accounted for a lack of willingness to enforce.  The U.S. is established as the imprisonment capital of the world and South Africa is playing catch up.  If a state emphasizes that criminalization and long sentences equal justice but refuses to actually prosecute or even investigate acts of violence against LGBT persons, of color and women especially, then that government not only seems to condone these actions but sends the message these are just actions.  They are public services.  It’s the same message that both the Apartheid and Jim Crowe governments sent in their heydays.  Yet, now the messages are masked by so called legal progresses. The moral of the story remains the same as it has always been, ‘no one’ cares if you are poor, black, queer and/or female, no matter where you are.

(Photo Credit: DavidMixner.com)

Democracy beyond asylum

On July 14, during the second day of hearings for Judge Sonia Sotamayor, Senator Charles Schumer noted, smiling: “in the nearly 850 cases you have decided in the 2nd Circuit, you ruled in favor of the government — that is, against the petitioners seeking asylum, the immigrants seeking asylum — 83 percent of the time. That happens to be the exact statistical median rate for your court. It’s not one way or the other.” These numbers are meant to assure us that, when it comes to foreigners and asylum seekers, the Judge is ok. She has a balanced record.

Asylum is a legal court procedure with rules and codes and whatever else. But it’s also about sanctuary, an inviolable place of refuge, of safety from seizure. The people who seek that asylum, the asylum of refuge, are not all immigrants, nor are they all `foreigners’. Where in this country can the seekers go to find asylum?

Not Santa Monica. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city of Santa Monica this week for violating homeless peoples’ rights by harassing and arresting them, all while the city cuts back on beds for the homeless. They call it “a deportation program for the homeless”. It sounds like the poorhouses of England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the State fenced off the common land and forced peasants to move to find work, and then passed anti-vagabond laws, which criminalized unregulated popular movement. And so a cheap, reserve labor force came into being. What profit does Santa Monica wrest from the bodies of the twenty first century imprisoned poors?

Nadine Chlubna is a 56 year old schizophrenic paranoid woman who fears spaceships and the Santa Monica police force. Only the police have actually ever done her any harm, having arrested her three times and mocked her delusional fears of interplanetary aliens. Where is asylum for Nadine Chlubna? Not in Santa Monica.

Santa Monica was the mother of Saint Augustine of Hippo. You can read all about her in The Confessions. It’s good stuff. And you know where Monica and her son Augustine were born and lived much of their lives? North Africa. They were Berbers from what is today called Algeria. Augustine moved to Italy, and, after her husband died, Monica followed. As immigrants, they found asylum. Would the same happen in Santa Monica or in Italy? I doubt it.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless just released a report, Homes Not Handcuffs, which lists the ten meanest cities in the United States, those that most viciously and thoroughly criminalize the homeless and militarize the streets and all public spaces. Number one? Los Angeles, just down the road from Santa Monica: “A study by UCLA released in September 2007 found that Los Angeles was spending $6 million a year to pay for fifty extra police officers to crack down on crime in the Skid Row area at a time when the city budgeted only $5.7 million for homeless services.” Six million for 50 cops, 5.7 for all the homeless. It’s a delicate balance. You know what the crimes were? Jaywalking. Loitering. Serious stuff.

Here’s what six million dollars buys: “Police brutality against homeless people intensified during the crackdown on crime in Skid Row.  In June 2007, the Los Angeles County Community Action Network reported one example: two L.A. Police officers attacked a petite homeless woman, who may have been mentally disabled, with clubs and pepper spray.  Police reportedly beat her and tied her down.” Six million dollars doesn’t buy asylum, doesn’t buy security. It buys beat-downs, tie-downs, lock downs, and fear. At six million, it’s a bargain.

In Bradenton, Florida, the ninth meanest city in the U.S., a police officer arrested a homeless woman, and tried to help her maintain her possessions. Everything she owned was in a shopping cart. The officer, Nicholas Evans, pulled the cart alongside his car for the 12-mile drive to the county jail. Imagine that. He was punished. Imagine that. I hope he learned his lesson.

In Denver, “two women were confronted by police at the 16th Street Mall when trying to help out homeless individuals.  One of the women gave a homeless man a hamburger and a dollar in front of two undercover police officers.  One of the police officers proceeded to chase her down and forced her back to where she gave the homeless man the burger.  One undercover officer said that he could arrest her for giving money and food to a panhandler after dark.  When she questioned that such a law exists and asked to see his badge, the police refused to do so and told her to leave.” Another woman bought a fleece blanket for a man in wheelchair, outside the same mall. Denver winters, high in the Rocky Mountains, are cold, in more ways than one: “when she tried to give the man the blanket, an officer told her to stop and asked her for identification.  While the police confronted her, the man in the wheelchair left.  She was subsequently arrested for interfering with law enforcement.”

From sea to shining sea, undercover and uniformed police are harassing the homeless and anyone who tries to offer assistance. Where is asylum in this world? What is the word for the system in which women and men who need help and women and men who want to help are made to feel the full heat and weight of the security State? In the United States, it’s called democracy, democracy beyond asylum.

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