The scenes projecting from our TV screens of peaceful protests turning violent across the United States and in parts of our country have taken me back to a time and place I have long struggled to forget.
It was June 1976. I was living in Cape Town, South Africa and the country was in the grip of the deadliest race riots in its history.
I had just walked out of a downtown store when I heard the loud sounds of chanting and, looking around, I saw what appeared to be a huge number of people walking into the downtown area. I immediately turn around to go back into the store but by that time, like all the businesses in the area, the doors had been locked.
There was a huge presence of heavily armed police in the area standing shoulder to shoulder with rifles at the ready.
Other police were in Jeep-style vehicles and they began throwing teargas canisters in the direction of the rapidly approaching ground. These canisters released clouds of tear gas on impact and within seconds uncontrolled mayhem broke out.
As the waves of teargas encircled the doorway I was standing in, my contact lenses instantly washed away and through tears induced by both gas and abject terror, I watched in horror as rifles came up and round after round was fired indiscriminately into the crowd of protesters.
All of us have experienced fear at some point in our lives but I lack the vocabulary to even begin to describe the absolute terror, panic and numbness I felt that day. I was paralyzed by fear.
I remember struggling to catch my breath while inhaling the fumes and with my vision blurred by my tears, I saw Alsatians (German shepherds) set free to attack the crowd and do what they were trained to do.
There were no buildings set on fire, there was no looting but there was out of control violence, life altering injuries and brutal death for which no one would ever be held to account.
I owned a small handgun at that time. It was Colt 32 revolver and like many South Africans during those times, I never left home unarmed.
I remember looking down and seeing the gun in my hand. The terror I was feeling was so absolute that I have no doubt that had anybody come within 6 feet of me I would have used it.
Thank God that did not happen.
As I have watched recent scenes develop my fear is that it would take just a few sparks to fly, a few tempers to flare and a few heat-of-the-moment bad decisions to be made to ignite a similar tragedy.
The actions of the police that day were nothing short of criminal. And as the whole world learned, similar actions took place around the country over a period spanning several weeks.
I am not anti-police; I am just the opposite. My wife proudly served this city as a police officer for 25 years and I am not only proud of her, I am also thankful to her for her service as I am for everyone who everyday puts on a uniform and bravely goes out to form part of the only line we have that separates decency from lawlessness.
But what I am is anti-racism. There seems little doubt that race often plays a role in the way minorities are dealt with in their interactions with police but it is not all police who are the villains, it is the only those who are racist first and police officers second and need to be weeded out and removed from their positions.
And it is not just bad cops. There are many others whose minds have become diseased by the spreading virus of racism.
Unfortunately, it will take more than removing racist cops from their jobs for meaningful and sustainable change to take place. It requires a deep societal change of mindset and every single one of us has an important role to play.
We get to choose whether we are complicit in racism and bias retaining its status quo or whether we are complicit in ending its centuries-old run.
An old Chinese proverb tells us that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and the second-best time is now.
If you believe that “in God’s eyes will are all sisters and brothers” then saying nothing when you witness any form of racial injustice – even a single comment – you, by your silence, have chosen to be complicit in allowing racist practices to continue.
And I am ashamed to tell you that there have been times I have allowed such comments to go unchallenged for fear of not wanting to “rock the boat” or create a conflict but the pain of my conscience has become more than I’m willing to bear and never again will I allow fear or concern for the feelings of others to silence me.
To hate me because I am black or brown or white or Christian or Muslim or Jewish speaks only of the narrow, perverted and limited thought process of the hater. It is irrational and downright stupid. It points to limited cognition and the incapability of rational thought.
Sadly, the world has many people as described above but fortunately the world has many more who are truly colorblind and whose only judgment of others is, to misquote Martin Luther King, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Abraham Lincoln showed us how to bring about change when he said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him.”
Let’s do this: Let’s pledge to never again remain silent in the face of racism and bias and let’s go out of our way to befriend someone who looks different from us. Let’s get to know them for when we do, we will quickly discover that our differences are few and our sameness’s are many.
And, let’s face it, we can all use a good new friend.
If you’re up for this, send an email to Imfirstname.lastname@example.org and together we can change lives one heart at a time.
When next you hear racist comments or witness racist behaviour, they are coming from a person whose perspective differs from yours. Remember the first of the Five Truths we have been discussing: “Everything we believe to be true is true – until it isn’t.” Engage with that person and lead them to the “until it isn’t” part.
That is how real change takes place.
Till we read again.