At our editorial meeting last week, the Wits Justice Project (WJP) watched a video that has been circulating over social media that depicts a white police officer using excessive force against a group of black teenagers at a pool party in McKinney, Texas. The most shocking frame of the video shows the officer violently manhandling a young black teenage girl of slight build and waving a gun at two black teenage boys who try to intervene on her behalf. We reflected on race and spatial exclusion, racist policing in the United States, the role of gender, the policing of juveniles, and South Africa’s own history of segregated pools and beaches. Since the video was first released, Police Corporal Eric Casebolt was suspended and then he subsequently resigned from the department. Whether criminal charges will be filed against him remains to be seen. The Black Lives Matter movement has come to McKinney. The protests have started. A spotlight shines on McKinney and offers insights into the way that race plays out in America. The conversations will continue.
This blog has been written by Beena Ahmad, WJP visiting researcher from the United States.
The video is hard to watch. A white police officer wildly chases young black teenagers wearing swimming trunks and bikinis around a lawn wielding a flashlight as a baton. In the video he appears to be only targeting teenagers who are minorities; there are white teenagers in the group who are left alone, including the videographer. The officers shouts obscenities, while ordering the black teenagers to sit on the lawn. One black teenage girl, of about 14 years of age, Dejerria Becton, is clearly outraged at what is happening, and starts to yell back at the officer. The officer grabs at her. He pulls her by her braids; he twists her by the arm; he slams her thin frame to the ground; he places his knee on her back; and holds her face to the grass. Clearly frightened, she yells for someone to call her mother. She is handcuffed. When two boys, who are also minorities, try to intervene, he lunges for them with his gun out.
Shortly after the video was released, the police department’s spokesperson said that police were responding to reports that “multiple juveniles at the location, who do not live in the area or have permission to be there, refusing to leave.” Thus, it is clear that the impetus of this police raid is the sense that some bodies did not belong at the community pool. How it was that Officer Casebolt knew who belonged and who did not belong in the community, one can pretty much guess.
The pool is located in a planned community in McKinney, Texas called Craig Ranch. A young black woman named Tatyana Rhodes, has stepped forward and explained that she lives in the private subdivision. She said that she hosted the pool party as an end of the year affair, and that a good number of the partygoers also lived in the private community. According to Rhodes, the altercation began when a white woman told her “to go back to Section 8 housing,” and slapped her. Section 8 is a federal housing subsidy given to low-income families. In the context of McKinney, Texas, this comment is also imbued in racism and took on special meaning as a lawsuit charged the municipality with only building affordable Section 8 housing on the east side of the city rather than the west side which is predominantly white. Thus, the lawsuit claimed the city was promoting segregation. Craig Ranch is located on the west side.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Jeff Wiltse, a University of Montana history professor, discussed the racialized history of swimming pools in America. Community pools first proliferated on the eve of segregation, and they were built in working class neighbourhoods as well as more affluent ones. They were noticeably less available in areas that were predominantly African American. During Jim Crow, segregation was enforced by laws, as well as through violence perpetrated by whites against blacks with police acquiescence, even in the absence of an official policy of segregation. “Wade-ins” were held in a number of communities to protest segregated beaches and swimming pools. In one famous account captured on photograph, a Florida motel owner poured acid into a pool to force black bathers out of a pool. Some credit this story with playing a role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. According to Wiltse, by the time of desegregation, pool construction had become cheaper. Whites stopped using municipal pools and started building pools in private communities or in their backyards. Many municipalities have since closed public pools, and there is a racial disparity as to who has access to swimming pools in America today.
In South Africa, the Separate Amenities Act allowed white authorities to ban blacks from public accommodations in South Africa for nearly four decades. The law finally terminated on October 15, 1990. Still, an article in the Sunday Times this January claimed that South African beaches today are more segregated than they were during apartheid. The article highlights a notoriously crowded Durban city beach that largely draws an all-black crowd. It also references beaches in Cape Town that are largely white – either because white residents occupy the expensive properties in the vicinity or because they are frequented by white tourists.
In 2012, it was observed by some members of the media that the swim team representing South Africa at the London Olympics was largely white. In an interview, then ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema attributed this to the lack of access that poorer communities have to swimming pools. Meanwhile, the participation of three black Olympians representing the United States in the same Olympics was cited by Professor David J. Leonard as “helping close the book on a sad chapter in American history.” As he notes, the lack of access to swimming pools is not merely a disparity in recreational resources but it means that black children are three times as likely as white children to drown.
Clearly, in both the U.S. and in South Africa, venues for public bathing are fraught spaces. Below are some of our own personal experiences or reflections on race and policing in the context of swimming pools and beaches, in South Africa and the U.S.
In 1989, Jo-Anne Petersen, the Events & Marketing Co-ordinator for the Wits Journalism Department was enrolled at The German School of Johannesburg on a full scholarship that was offered to kids from the townships who performed well on the entrance exams. She recalls:
At the school, we had a swimming class where a lot of our differences came out, and because of the differences, the prejudices also came out. The white children didn’t understand us, and we didn’t understand them. The white children didn’t understand why 90 percent of the coloured and black children didn’t know how to swim. They would see us floundering in the pool, and they didn’t understand it. We didn’t all have access to swimming pools and while there were communal swimming pools in most of our townships, we did not have access to swimming lessons, so most of us did not know how to swim. The majority of the white children did know how to swim.
Many of the white children thought that the colour from our skin would come off in the water in the pool. If they touched us when they walked past us, they would brush off their skin because they thought our color would come off on them. We knew that some of them knew otherwise, as many of them had black nannies or maids who lived with them, so we didn’t understand why they didn’t tell the others the truth.
Our WJP intern Unathi Mahlati, who has previously lived in the United States, reflected on the following:
I read the headlines on my Facebook feed and immediately thought: ‘Oh boy, here we go again – another incident dehumanizing of the black body in the United States.’ It’s debilitating – mentally and spiritually. In previous incidents of police brutality in the U.S., we’ve seen a trend of “rationalising” the behaviour of the police. We saw it with Trayvon Martin – his history was excavated and he was portrayed as a troubled, law-breaking teenager. And we saw it with Eric Garner – oh, he was selling illicit cigarettes. What was the victim doing? Did the victim look “suspicious”? These are familiar questions that follow the death of a black person at the hands of police and they are suffocating. #Wecannotbreathe
The video got me thinking about “white privilege”. A white teenager took the video and I am glad he did. At the same time, it got me thinking about what would have happened had a black person attempted to take a video? There probably wouldn’t be a video. The officer is so preoccupied with apprehending Dejerria Becton to an extent he is oblivious to the white teenager documenting his incriminating conduct. Ironic.
I’ve been thinking about the use of code words to cover up racism lately, said WJP Program Coordinator Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi.
I used to see more of it when I was a teenager and again when I was a student at Rhodes. Not used about me, I don’t think… people never knew exactly what race I was, just knew I’m not one of the normal categories: not white or black or coloured or Indian. Anyway, I remember the parents of someone I knew at Rhodes calling black people “non-swimmers”. I don’t think I grasped exactly how awful this was at the time. Like a frog in boiling water, you don’t realize the extent of everyday racism and prejudice without a distance of time or space. And when I saw the video of the attack on the black teenager in the US, at a pool party in Texas, it reminded me of how contested the idea of a shared swimming pool is, even now. And how prejudice and racial hatred is a poison that infects a whole society if it is not stopped.
WJP Senior Journalist Carolyn Raphaely recalls visiting Shareworld, a giant Disney-inspired theme-park bordering Soweto, which opened in the late eighties during the last dying gasps of apartheid: “At the time, Soweto had very few decent recreational facilities and Shareworld was envisaged as a shared entertainment facility bridging two worlds with the motto of ‘living and learning together.’ Though conceived primarily as a recreational facility for Sowetans, it was hoped that a de-segregated Shareworld would be patronized by all racial groups. In addition to cinemas, restaurants, shops, a driving-range and sports stadium, the park also featured an artificial “ocean” with artificial waves, as well as a 550-metre beach with real white beach sand.
As a recent Cape Town émigré, Shareworld became my week-end haunt and Joburg beach in the summer after it opened. I enjoyed swimming there and sprawling on the sand with the sound of the surf in my ears. By the following summer, I also enjoyed the privilege of solitude which was clearly not the developers’ intent. Sadly, I think the company was liquidated after about two years, I can’t remember exactly. It was a brave and visionary venture on the part of the developers Reuel Khoza, Jonty Sandler and Standard Bank. Unfortunately, it was probably ahead of its time and proved to be an epic failure. Given the absence of swimming pools in Soweto, few black children could swim and I think the entrance fees were too expensive for locals. In addition, few whites seemed willing to bridge the Sandton-Soweto divide perhaps because of distance but possibly because of prejudice?
Another WJP intern, Marvin Adams revisited an anecdote from the Bram Fischer Colloquium held at Wits this past March in honour of the revolutionary Afrikaaner hero:
At the event, Ahmed Kathrada reminisced about the parties that Fischer and his wife Molly Krige would host at their home. Bram Fischer was an Afrikaaner lawyer and advocate who joined the struggle against apartheid. He was the defence advocate for the accused during the Rivonia Trial and imprisoned for his political activities.
As Kathrada recounted, the Fischers opened their home and their swimming pool to black South Africans at a time when mixed-race bathing was forbidden by the apartheid regime. Kathrada described how everyone was excited to be able to take a dip in the pool because there was only one public pool in Soweto (known as Huddleston Baths). As curfews confined black communities to the townships, the Fischers would then driving the partygoers home to Soweto, after one of their famous gatherings, risking their own freedom.
The Fischers’ house on Beaumont Street in Johannesburg was home to multiracial, social and political gatherings, and typified the extraordinary character of this couple. Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu were frequent visitors.
Beena Ahmad, WJP’s visiting researcher from New York, couldn’t help but reflect on her childhood summer outings to the beaches in Long Island, the suburban piece of land attached to the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn in New York City.
A few years ago, I returned to a beach on Long Island called Robert Moses State Park with a friend. We noted with pleasure the diversity of the crowd. Bodies of all shades of white, beige, brown, bronze, black, lay out on the sand, soaking in the sun. But, my friend Amna reminded me that it had not always been like this.
As chronicled in Robert Caro’s extensive biography, “The Power Broker”, about Robert Moses the powerful city planner whose vision for New York City is largely responsible for the way it exists today, racist considerations guided some of his designs. For example, Caro alleges that the city planner purposely constructed the bridges to Long Island beaches with low clearings to keep out buses from the city, as buses were likely to transport poorer residents, largely minorities. In another account, one of Moses’s aides told Caro that the temperature of the water in swimming pools located in neighbourhoods such as East Harlem where black residents also lived was purposely kept low based on a myth that blacks disliked cold water.
We the People
In a series of blogposts, entitled “We the People”, the Wits Justice Project will be focusing on a comparison of policing, criminal justice, and incarceration in South Africa and the United States. This body of work grows out of contributions by journalists, lawyers, and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic, and seeks to understand these issues in light of the similar histories of racial oppression and the current high rates of incarceration in both countries.
Given that South African courts regularly turn to international jurisprudence, including American law, for guidance, we believe that this study will provide a useful basis to examine the development of criminal law and procedure here in South Africa with a critical lens. While American courts give less weight to jurisprudence from other countries, we hope that these posts will provide insight into the way that the role of human dignity, recognized by the South African Constitution, should be a consideration in any search for justice.