Notes on a Crushed Protestby Ben Fogel / Images by Zachary Levenson and Elena Echevarria / 02.02.2012
The media dubbed it the “Battle of Rondebosch Common” but only the police used force. What you really need to know is the opportunistic mayor of Cape Town, Patricia De Lille, fucked up big time. She could have ignored the planned People’s Summit and let it collapse through internal contradictions and organizational failure (as so many protests unfortunately do). Nobody would have noticed except the Neighbourhood Watches and the Ratepayers Associations bent on keeping the poor out of the area. Instead she sent in the storm troopers.
My brief and largely disheartening run-ins with the Occupy SA movement convinced me it was going nowhere. While many involved have admirable intentions it was being held back by the internet “lumpen proletariat”, the old Marxist term for marginalised riff raff, the unwashed loiterers in every city. Internet lumpens are conspiracy theorists, cranks and folks who only exist on message boards and forums, Illuminati dudes, Zeitgeist fanboys and creepy David Icke devotees. Fans of ancient US paleo-conservative politician Ron Paul. This tin-foil hat brigade was killing the local movement far more than any influx of “Cape Town hipsters”. But Occupy Rondebosch Common was a fresh attempt to divorce the movement from the internet lumpens and draw from grassroots community energy, like the old UDF. No middle class hipsters in sight just various community organizations from across the Cape Flats. It wasn’t really even an occupation according to their press statement:
“Tired of waiting for the government to remedy the inequalities and injustices that still impact so many lives negatively, our communities will be gathering to share our stories and our ideas about what can be done to resolve some of the most pressing challenges we face; including rent arrears and evictions, the right to the city, segregation and the poor, and the corrupt delivery of housing and basic services.”
But De Lille deemed it an invasion (of public land) and even appointed a leader (of a leaderless movement) in activist Mario Wanza, who briefly became public enemy number one in the city. Wanza was dubbed the primary organizer of the movement and the media uncritically repeated De Lille’s fabrication. Only Wanza, of the 42 arrested on the day, still faces charges. Thanks to the mayor’s authoritarian paranoia and the influence of the Ratepayers Associations, the police went into complete overkill. Protestors were effectively arrested the moment they left their houses. Hundreds of police were mobilized to prevent people from even getting out of their neighborhoods. Wanza himself was picked up at around 10am.
I arrived at the Common at about 3pm with 6 other people. It looked like it was under siege. The police had rolled out their biggest toys. In open defiance of the Regulation of Gatherings Act, the moment we set foot on the common they sent a Casspir to chase us down. Bugger the precious fynbos the Rondebosch community was so desperate to protect. When the police caught up to us, they were unable to answer what law we were breaking, since an assembly of over 15 people counts as a gathering, but there were only 7 of us. One police officer took particular exception to my basic working knowledge of the Gatherings Act and said something about the cops on the other side of the common having a court order but they were unable or unwilling to produce it.
During the brief time we were actually “occupying the common”, a geriatric member of “Protect the Rondebosch Common” (clearly an Illuminati front) admonished us for daring to take over “our common”. So I asked how you can have an exclusive common? He mumbled something and ambled off, in khaki, unmolested by the police.
I suspect Mayor Patricia De Lille initiated the crackdown for two reasons. Firstly, to get one over her long time rival Tony Ehrenreich who she linked to the protest via ex-ANC member Mario Wanza. Secondly, to send a clear message to all the uppity people on the flats who have given both her and her plastic surgery-enhanced predecessor so many problems over the years. Such intense focus on a relatively minor threat to her reign is the mark of paranoia and naked political ambition, showing she is hard on dissent ensures a career as inequality deepens and protests spread.
The mainstream media was happy to go along with the “illegal” nature of the protest without engaging their critical faculties. Constitutional scholar and blogger, Pierre De Vos, in a conclusive post on the legality of the protest wrote:
“The police refused to give permission for the gathering and declared the gathering “illegal”… on what appears to be spurious grounds, arguing that organisers arrived “between 15 and 30 minutes late” for their meeting with police officials and that organisers insisted on having all nine elected representatives present in the meeting as opposed to four.”
De Vos further establishes that the city failed to meet with the organizers despite the legal onus placed on the responsible officer to identify and meet with the organizers of the protest, to discuss any potential problems such as traffic disruption which might result from the protest. According to Jared Sacks, a member of Occupy Cape Town, since its inception last year, “Nine representatives arrived after a press conference on Rondebosch Common. They arrived a few minutes late. The City then said they would only let 4 people in. They refused. The City then refused to meet with them and banned the march.” The city failed to reply to numerous emails regarding the protest. This sort of evasive behavior is standard across the country when attempting to organize protests.
Christopher McMichael, who has written about the police militarization and the DA’s “War on the Poor” in Cape Town said, “The City’s actions were indicative of the police response to the Occupy phenomenon throughout the world. They have certainly shown how they can keep up with the ‘world class’ standard set in Oakland or New York. The response was based upon a miltarised outlook of pre-emption. Firstly, they attempted to fear monger through the media and intimidate protesters. Than they used siege tactics at the commons, responding with a massive show of force without provocation. Crowd control throughout the country is getting more aggressive and warlike but its especially interesting in the case of Cape Town because the DA is the first to criticize draconian police actions in ANC-run parts of the country. It also expresses a wider problem in which the SAPS is used to enforce the privatization of urban space.”
The fact remains that you can get arrested in Cape Town for making use of public space for any political cause the mayor does not approve of. Especially when it’s poor people in a rich white suburb. Most of those arrested were working-class women from the Cape Flats. Regardless of the fact that the bullshit charges of “public violence” were dropped on Monday, the police overkill and P.W. Botha style language employed by De Lille is a sign of the increasingly authoritarian criminalization of dissent in the city.