From David Maughan Brown in York: Black Lives Matter

July 28th

One of the items on this morning’s BBC Today programme was a Mishal Husain  interview with Mina Agyepong who told her about a police raid on her house late on the evening of 17th July, after a passer-by had told the police that a ‘non-white man’ with a hand-gun had been seen in the house.   The ‘hand-gun’ was an entirely legal BB pistol that belonged to her 12 year-old son, Kai, and was visible in the living-room from outside the house.  Ms Agyepong, who was asleep on the couch, was woken by a commotion outside, Kai went to open the door, half a dozen (reports vary) police burst in carrying rifles which they trained on the heads of Ms Agyepong, her two daughters and Kai, who had their hands up.  The police refused to lower their rifles in spite of the fact that Ms Agyepong explained that the clearly visible ‘hand-gun’ was a toy (which any trained firearms officer would have recognized instantly).  The police proceeded to arrest Kai, handcuff him and lead him away, after which Ms Agyepong and her two daughters were led singly out of the house at gun-point and held outside while the police searched their house for over an hour.   When the police couldn’t find anything other than the toy gun, Kai was ‘unarrested’ and the police left.   His mother said that Kai had been traumatised and was now afraid to answer the front door bell, and it was obviously a traumatic experience for the rest of the family as well.  Ms Agyepong said she was terrified they were going to be shot.   A police spokesman said that the police had merely followed ‘normal protocol in the circumstances.’

This can, surely, only have been a racially motivated raid.   Mishal Husain rightly picked up on the fact that the report had been of a ‘non-white man’, and it seems inconceivable that my 12 year-old grandson would have been treated in the same way.   But, at the risk of seeming to trivialize what was a very serious and obviously terrifying incident by seeming to echo the Monty Python ‘4 Yorkshiremen’ sketch, the Agyepong family can consider themselves lucky.   Nobody was shot, it was only half a dozen or so policemen armed with rifles who burst into the house, and the police only spent an hour or so trying to save face by searching for non-existent weapons after the ‘hand-gun’ had been identified as a toy.

This contrasts markedly with the police raid on 48 Lansdown Road in Forest Gate in east London on June 2nd 2006.   That raid saw around 250 policemen dispatched to look for a chemical bomb at a small terrace house on the strength of sole intelligence provided to them by a man in prison on terror charges who had an IQ of 69 and had been described by his own defence lawyer as an ‘utter incompetent.’  Fifteen specialist firearms officers burst into the house wearing chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) protection suits.   Abdul Kahar, whose house it was, headed down the stairs to see what that commotion was, encountered the leading ‘firearms specialist’ on the stairs and received a bullet from a Heckler and Koch MP5 for his pains.  The bullet hit him in the chest and exited through his shoulder, fortunately without hitting any vital organs.   So Mina Agyepong had reason to be frightened.  Kahar and his brother Abdul Koyai were incarcerated for a week at a police station, their house and that of their equally innocent neighbours, who were also carted off to a police station, were so badly damaged in the search that followed that they couldn’t return home for many weeks.  Needless to say no bomb was found.   It won’t have been coincidence that their family names, like Agyepong, are not Smith, Brown or Jones.  Subsequent inquiries found that the police had ‘followed proper procedures’ here too, and apparently there wasn’t even a health and safety issue involved, in spite of the fact that the officer who shot Abdul Kahar was wearing two pairs of gloves, couldn’t feel the trigger, and purported not even to know that he had fired a shot. 

I spent much of my time under apartheid in South Africa being made to feel thankful that, purely by the accident of birth, I was not born black.  The likelihood is that I wouldn’t be alive now if I had been. One of the first things that happened when I arrived in York was that I was wrongfully arrested in my bank, led out of the bank and carted off in a police van.   I drove around for the next ten years in the car I bought with the five figure compensation payout.  When was a black victim ever paid out a substantial sum for wrongful arrest?  The arresting officer kindly refrained from handcuffing me because, he said, I didn’t look to him like a flight risk.  And a small, bewildered, half-dressed 12 year-old boy arrested for doing precisely nothing late at night in his own home was a flight risk?  But he was black and I happen to be white.   In a supposedly civilized country nobody should ever be made to feel thankful that they were born with a different pigmentation from that of anybody else.  If Mina Agyepong was right to be fearful about being shot, she was also right to be worried about what the long-term effect of his experience would be on her traumatised son.   Black lives matter; the experience of black children matters very much.   But don’t expect a government led by a prime minister like Boris Johnson, who is capable of talking about ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’, ever to understand that.

South African School kids protesting during Apartheid

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Our Escape to the cinema to see – Escape from Pretoria.

Mail & Guardian, South African newspaper during apartheid years

July 12. Last night we went to the cinema. It felt like a special treat; I cannot recall the last time. And it was an occasion, more than we had realised. Newly introduced rules in our state allow a larger audience. Our tickets had to be bought online, with specific seats allocated such that there were empty seats either side of us. Sanitizer bottles had been placed at the entrance. The Palace Nova cinemas made an event of last night: they premiered two locally produced films and invited our Premier, Steven Marshall, and our Adelaide Mayor. We listened to speeches, an interview with one of the actors and a videoed message from Francis Annan, the director.

The film was Escape from Pretoria, filmed in our historic Adelaide Gaol, in local streets (converted to ‘Cape Town’) and briefly in the countryside of South Australia. It is based on real events that took place in 1978-9 in apartheid South Africa. The star actor is the bespectacled Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. Daniel portrayed Tim Jenkins and most of the film takes place in the gaol.

Tim is the cousin of a good friend of mine and we met him during the filming of Escape from Pretoria and he showed us a copy of the wooden keys that he made in the prison workshop and, with two other prisoners, used to escape the high security prison in Pretoria. It is a fascinating story; unfortunately, Tim’s eponymous book is unavailable but the film is out there.

You can watch Tim Jenkins talking about his work for the ANC in this YouTube program: The Vula Connection. One of the speakers is Ronnie Kasrils, whom South Africans will recognise. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29vrvKsKXPI

Back to the film. The events portrayed took place 42 years ago when it seemed apartheid would be impossible to dislodge. After meeting with the ANC in London, Tim and his friend, Stephen Lee, set about making small contraptions, called parcel bombs, (they never hurt anyone) that distributed leaflets in various Cape Town and Johannesburg streets. The leaflets promoted the ideas of the then-banned ANC. The two men continued this activism for two years before their arrest. They were found guilty of terrorism and sentenced to 12 and 8 years respectively.

Although you know from the title that they suceeded in escaping, the film is an impressive display of determination and ingenuity. To make the wooden keys from observation of the keyholes and the guard’s keyrings, from trial and error while under surveillance, is beyond impressive. Eventually, over 18 months, they made keys for every gate, storage cupboard and locker they could find. There were 10 doors between them and freedom and they had to negotiate past the night-time guard.

I found it interesting to see how they portrayed Tim Jenkin’s cell. Totally bare at first, but as time went on it became a personalised space: drawings, books, family photos.

There were two little jarring aspects to the movie. Firstly, the South African accent is hard to copy unless you are a Trevor Noah, and some attempts were curiously odd. Secondly, Pretoria is famous for its jacaranda trees, so is Adelaide. There was a lack of sense of place in the film, but maybe that is only seen by an ex-South African.

It was a treat to see a movie on the big screen. A treat to forget about Covid-19 threatening the world outside. Escape from Pretoria is a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking film about a time when we lived in South Africa: about a society dominated by a racist regime, about fortitude in the face of oppression. How easy it is for a society to travel down that same racist path and how few are brave enough to stand up against it. That we should never forget.