In one of the non-serious seasons of my life – I’m referring, of course, to the grad student years – I too was arrested in a protest aimed at getting the University of Texas to divest from investments in what was then apartheid dominated South Africa - which, in retrospect, was rather like protesting a leech to give up blood. But it was worth the old college try.
In New Orleans, in my pre graduate student days, I’d been a member of an organization dedicated to keeping Reagan out of Nicaragua, which meant in effect making a sign and waving it bravely as we marched down Canal street, while on the other end of Canal street, anti-Castro Cuban emigrants waved their own sign and hankered for our blood. A good time was had by all, and if we weren’t entirely successful, we did provide gainful employment to the not so undercover cops who’d hang in the demonstration and try to secretly photograph us – an art in which they’d been imperfectly instructed. I fear these guys, otherwise, would have had to make their living the honest way, by selling their blood to the blood bank – we aren’t talking a high level of competence here.
But when I went to UT I became pretty politically indifferent. Of course, I was a grad student, so I considered myself terribly political and radical, deconstructing the whole Western order of things, which, all things considered, did not make them quake in their boots at the highest levels of the FBI.
Still, I did go to some demos. As I remember the sequence, probably wrongly, it all started when my friend, Janet, along with some other friends of hers, was arrested by the UT security cops for speaking up to loudly to a small crowd in the shadow of UT’s Phallic symbol. I remember a photograph splashed in the UT student newspaper, and it seemed from the photo that the cop was getting an earful. Perhaps, one can hope, a lifechanging experience! This, then, was the inspiration for making the world historical leap from savaging John Stuart Mill’s little known Essay on Liberty and the Bubble Gum Trade (an obscure work that was obviously the key to the whole oeuvre) to practice, which I spelled praxis at that time.
The divestment issue got mixed up, quickly, with the free speech issue. When my friend was arrested, the rule was that you couldn’t have any demonstration in the shadow of the Phallic Symbol because it would disturb the post-prandial slumber of UT’s president, whose inspirations came out of these afternoon naps – new advances in East Austin for the University, destroying poor folks’ rentals right and left – cutting down on extra costs by eliminating insurance for TAs – just wonderful stuff. At the time, the administration had the right to ban anything or anyone at anytime on the campus. The rules for UT had been written, apparently, by the same committee Enver Hoxha used in Albania, with outstanding results vis a vis law and order and all.
Well, critical mass was soon achieved, as everybody who hung out in the student union café got arrested protesting South African investments and free speech. It was a glorious moment. Myself, I was particularly proud of the fact that we – that I – was actually handcuffed. Admittedly, they used these plastic handcuffs that underestimated my dangerous nature – hadn’t I just shown that John Stuart was being racist phallocentric and centrophallic about the bubble gum trade? To quote Nietzsche, I was obviously dynamite. However, I consoled myself that they underestimated Clark Kent, too. The upshot was that the Enver Hoxha advisory board came up with new rules of engagement on the UT campus for free speech – an area was actually designated! A victory that was heard round the world.
Meanwhile, of course, as we now know, a crewe of hoodlums and halfwits, also known as Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy team, were banding together with the racist South African army to throw back “soviet aggression” in Southern Africa. The endgame, however, was exactly the reverse of what Reagan’s hoods were expecting – as soon as the “soviet threat” as well as the soviet union ceased, the thousand year reich of whiteness in South africa crumbled. In the post cold war era, there has been a distinct lack of moral leaders – in fact, as I was writing this, I was trying to think of one besides Mandela. Vaclev Havel was the only other person who sprang to mind, and Havel, notoriously, became a true blue supporter of the occupation of Iraq, which sorta puts him out of running in the moral sweepstakes, unless you excuse the mere 450 thou dead Iraqis and the two million refugees. I don’t.
But we all know that we’ve been living in a piss wilderness since 1990 or so: the turn inward, to private liberations, and the great advance of public squalor, are the hallmarks of our not so great times. This, I think, is why Mandela’s death is being felt so much.