By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
On Monday, March 21, 1960, at approximately 1:15 p.m., a group of Africans in Sharpeville, Azania (South Africa) were killed by White police in what has become known as the Sharpeville Massacre.
The Africans had gathered that morning in a peaceful demonstration to protest the steady loss of their human rights, as White interlopers/settlers stole their land and pushed them to the margins of society. Not only did these White people from Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal steal African land, they disenfranchised Africans by a system (apartheid) of racial discrimination and denial of human rights. The minority White population seized power with the help of missionaries and machine guns, sanctioned by European churches, governments and nations.
Over the centuries beginning in the late 1600s, the Dutch, followed by British, French, Germans and Portuguese settled on African land and forced Africans off their land. Resistance was met with brutal retaliation. Africans were forced to provide a cheap work force and were “educated” to aspire to serve White people. The African workers were underpaid and overworked. Africans were even forced to speak Afrikaans, the “language” that developed from the various European languages of the colonizers.
To enforce control of the Africans, the minority White regime demanded that Africans carry “pass books” at all times. These “pass books” specified where Africans were allowed to live, work and travel, which controlled and restricted their movement and freedom. The pass laws of the White supremacist settler group who had seized the African country decades before had become an unbearable burden for the Africans. African men and women were forced to carry the passbook, an identifying document that restricted their movement in mostly urban areas where White people had settled and occupied exclusively. Africans were arbitrarily stopped and forced to present these passbooks on demand.
On the morning of March 21, 1960 approximately 300 extra police and five armoured vehicles arrived at the local police station in Sharpeville as the marchers approached the police station. By 1:15 p.m. there were approximately 400 peaceful protesters when police opened fire without warning. The unarmed men, women and children were gunned down as they fled. The shooting finally stopped when there were no moving protestors in sight. When the smoke cleared there were 69 dead including eight women and 10 children and 300 wounded, including 31 women and 19 children.
The Sharpeville Massacre prompted worldwide condemnation of the minority White supremacist, illegitimate government of Azania. This led to international protests and calls for disinvesting in the White supremacist apartheid structure of South Africa. In spite of the brutality of the White supremacist government in South Africa, disinvestment did not happen on a large scale until the 1980s.
In 1966, to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, the United Nations (UN) passed a resolution to recognize March 21 as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Twenty years later on March 21, 1986, Canada’s prime minister proclaimed in the House of Commons the country’s participation in the UN call to all states and organizations to participate in the “Program of Action for the Second Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination”. Two years later in September 1988, ministers attending a federal/provincial/territorial ministerial conference on human rights agreed to commemorate March 21 in all Canadian jurisdictions. In spite of the “official” Canadian stance on anti-racism, the practice leaves much to be desired.
Racism is misunderstood by many who organize events to recognize the “International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination” on March 21 with calls and slogans to “Stop Racism”. Racism is not prejudice or discrimination. Prejudice is prejudging someone or a group of people. Discrimination is action based on prejudice. Confusing the definition of “racism” with prejudice and discrimination is widespread and many people mistakenly use these terms synonymously. Racism, White privilege and White supremacy are synonymous. The “People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond” defines racism as: “Race prejudice plus power” and they define power as: “having legitimate access to systems sanctioned by the authority of the state”. The “Challenging White Supremacy Workshop” group defines White supremacy as: “A historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of colour by White peoples of European origin; for the purpose of establishing and maintaining wealth, power and privilege.”
One of the exercises the workshop uses to illustrate manifestations of racism is asking participants to choose a mainstream institution and “do a little power structure research” by asking: “In a race-constructed system, who owns or controls the institution? Who are the most privileged workers within it? Whom do the policies and practices of that institution primarily benefit?”
As we approach March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we need to “do a little power structure research” of mainstream organizations (including labour unions, socialist organizations and so-called left leaning, liberal organizations) and ask: “Who owns or controls the institution/organization? Who are the most privileged workers within it? Whom do the policies and practices of the institution primarily benefit?”
Unlike the blatant, overt White supremacist culture of the USA, Canadian racism has been, for the most part, covert and subtle. One of the most famous cases of Canadian White supremacist culture at work is Viola Desmond’s trial in 1946.
On November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond, an African Canadian entrepreneur from Halifax, Nova Scotia, was traveling on business when her car broke down in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. While the car was being repaired she went to the Roseland Theatre where she bought a ticket for the main floor of the theatre. She was unaware of the theatre’s policy that the main floor was a “Whites only” seating area because unlike the blatant White supremacist Jim Crow law of the USA, there were no “Whites” and “coloured” signs posted and she did not know that African Canadians were relegated to the balcony. When Desmond was ordered to move she replied that she could not see from the balcony, that she had paid to sit on the main floor and that she would not move. The manager left the theatre and came back with a policeman. Together, the two burly White men dragged the 4’11” Desmond into the street, injuring her in the process.
Desmond spent the night in jail and next morning she was tried and found guilty of tax evasion. She was found guilty of not having paid the entertainment tax (one cent) that was the difference between the “White” section and the “coloured” section of the cinema. She was found guilty because the White woman who sold her the ticket did not sell her a ticket for the first floor which she had requested but instead had sold her a ticket for the balcony. The sentence was 30 days in jail or a fine of $20, plus $6 to the manager of the theatre, one of the two men who had injured her as he dragged her out of the cinema the night before. She paid the fine and then challenged the guilty verdict in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.
The court upheld the guilty verdict and Desmond remained guilty until April 15, 2010, when she was granted a pardon. A press release from the Nova Scotia Premier’s office read in part: “The province has granted an official apology and free pardon to the late Viola Desmond. Mrs. Desmond, of Halifax, was an African Canadian wrongfully jailed and fined in 1946 for sitting in the White peoples’ section of a New Glasgow movie theatre. Mrs. Desmond passed away in 1965. On the advice of the Executive Council, the lieutenant governor has exercised the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to grant a Free Pardon. A free pardon is based on innocence and recognizes that a conviction was in error. A free pardon is an extraordinary remedy and is considered only in the rarest of circumstances. This is the first time a free pardon has been posthumously granted in Canada.”
After 64 years, the government of Nova Scotia acknowledged what had been hinted at by one of the judges who dismissed Desmond’s appeal to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in April 1947. Justice William Hall wrote: “One wonders if the manager of the theatre was so zealous because of a bona fide belief there had been an attempt to defraud the Province of Nova Scotia of the sum of one cent, or was it a surreptitious endeavour to enforce a Jim Crow rule by misuse of a public statute.”
Typical Canadian racism at work: instead of signs indicating segregated seats in the theatre, using the tax laws to disguise bona fide segregation.
In 2016, almost 70 years after Viola Desmond was dragged out of a segregated cinema in Nova Scotia, African Canadians may sit anywhere in a cinema. The racism today is mostly subtle but just as damaging. We still have a long way to go to relegate the “International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination” to the history books.