With all that’s going on in the world, and in our country right now, my mind can rarely get away from the idea and reality of dehumanization―its ugliness, what it allows us to do, what it allows us to accept, what it allows us to become.
Dehumanization is a nasty cycle.
The homeless youth I worked with for ten years in Cape Town, South Africa, are some of the most amazing people I have ever met in my entire life. They lived at the intersection of several forms of systemic oppression―race and class (through government-created poverty) being the two most prevalent ones. This, however, did not stop them from shining. Most unfortunately, not everyone had the privilege to know them in the way I did. For the most part, the homeless youth of Cape Town were demonized, stigmatized, and dehumanized by society at large.
The Cape Town police were some of the worst perpetrators of this dehumanization against the kids. On a daily basis, the children were brutalized by the cops, and in some of the most inhumane ways possible. This led to me having daily run-ins with the police, which very often would lead to physical confrontations―through the years, I butted heads with them, I took their batons and their guns from them, I pushed and punched them, I even punched a police horse once, which is another story for another day.
Dehumanization was the driving force of most, if not all, of those interactions.
One day, I was in the back of a dark tunnel where a group of the kids lived. I was talking to the older leader of the group. Out of the blue, two police officers entered the front of the tunnel, but didn’t know I was in the back. On entry, completely unprovoked, they immediately began swearing at the kids and brutalizing them. One officer approached a small-framed child―around 11 years old―and kicked the legs out from under him, impelling his tiny body to the ground with great force. The child’s head cracked loudly on the concrete ground, sending a chilling echo throughout the tunnel.
I was enraged―fight or flight mode kicked in.
I emerged from the darkness of the back of the tunnel and barked at them to stop. They were startled, to say the least, and were quickly on the defensive, “Who are you to tell us what to do?!” I told them I was a normal member of the public, and I had every right to speak out against injustice. They told me to freeze, which I refused to do, and continued to approach them. I told them I would not allow them to brutalize children in that way. They told me to “shut up” and “mind my own business” and “stay back.” Still approaching them, I firmly refused. Right as I came upon them, one officer started to reach for his gun. Without thinking, I moved in and quickly grabbed his gun before he could.
What had I done?!
The officers were stunned. I stood there, holding his gun, in shock myself but knowing I couldn’t show it. I was standing their pointing the officer’s gun at him. I had to go with it, I decided to rise in pomposity. I arrogantly and firmly told the officer, “You will lose your job if your boss knows a civilian got your gun so easily. So, I will give you two options: One, I will give you your gun and you will leave immediately, and leave these kids alone. Or two, I will take your gun to your boss, tell him how easily I got it from you and why I took it, and you will lose your job.”
For some mysterious reason, he took the first option, surprisingly didn’t shoot or arrest me, and they went on their way without anymore trouble. I’m sure some of the “mystery” was in the fact that I was a white, heterosexual, young American male. It was in these types of moments that I was able to use my intersectional privilege as an advantage to fight the injustices I saw around me and was confronted with on a daily basis.
They told me to freeze, which I refused to do, and continued to approach them. I told them I would not allow them to brutalize children in that way.
Fast-forward to a couple of months later:
A kid I was very close to died in a freak accident. It was tragic and we were all traumatized. He was only 14 years old and had lived on the streets since he was six. His family had not seen him in many years. For this reason, they asked me to speak about him at his funeral, to tell about how wonderful he was, who he was in all those years they had missed. I gladly agreed.
It was an incredibly moving ceremony.
After the funeral, in Xhosa tradition, the women stood back and watched from afar as the men shoveled dirt into the grave. When we shoveled the last bit of dirt on the fresh mound, most of the men dispersed, and only one other man and I remained at the grave, paying our last respects to the earthly body of the child. With tears in his eyes, the man said, “You don’t recognize me do you?” I told him he looked familiar but I couldn’t place where I knew him from. He said, “I’m a police officer in town. You took my partner’s gun one day.”
I was dumbfounded, to say the very least.
Before I could say anything, he said, “I’m sorry. We were wrong.”
That sent me further into my shock. He continued, “You know, we didn’t know you, we didn’t understand what you were about. We just thought you were full of shit. But now I get it.” He pointed down at the fresh mound of dirt, “That is my little brother. My family and I hadn’t seen him in many years. We didn’t know him like you did.” I stood there in utter disbelief as he continued.
“Thank you for loving him. Thank you for fighting for them. Thank you for speaking today. I get it now.”
The unfortunate loss of a child’s life led to that man’s humanization of a group of people he easily brutalized and discriminated against on a daily basis, based on his dehumanization of them. They were no longer “street kids”―that child was his brother. I was no longer the “annoying, white American asshole”―I was his brother’s friend, his brother’s family. He was no longer a brutal police officer―he became a friend, a comrade who warmly greeted me every time we saw each other in town from that day forward for the rest of my years in Cape Town.
That remains one of the most powerful “coming full circle” experiences of my life.
Dehumanization is a powerfully toxic thing that allows the maintaining and upholding of institutionalized systems of domination and related oppression that plague our society. We see it in our systems. We see it in situations like the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, and the list unfortunately goes on and on. We see it all around us. Now, more than ever, I am convinced that in order to fight these oppressive institutions, in order to fight dehumanization, we need to use meaningful relationships―the humanization of others―as a form of activism.