On this day in 1977, Stephen Biko, a thirty-year-old student activist leader against the apartheid system in South Africa was beaten to death by the police who were holding him in custody for his commitment to justice for all. 15,000 people attended his funeral and thousands more were turned away, but we remember him today particularly for his ideas related to the ways oppressed people internalize their oppression. His founding of the Black Consciousness movement, calling for the psychological and cultural liberation of his people so that they could then set themselves free politically, may, in fact, be the touchstone all revolutions must visit in order to be effective.
It's no wonder the Afrikaner power structure put a ban on his public speaking. Nevertheless, we can still read his last public statement, made very publicly in spite of the ban and then subsequently captured in the book Black Consciousness in South Africa, edited by Millard Arnold.
It is telling -- and chilling -- that Biko was arrested under the Terrorism Act in his nation, which gave rather broad scoped powers to those that feared him so. It is equally telling -- and chilling -- that the officers who brutally beat and starved Biko for the last twenty-four days of his life were absolved of any wrong-doing in the matter of his death, despite the medical report that he died due to a brain lesion caused by the “application of force to the head”. Increasingly, under current policy and practice, we see routine news reports of people being brutalized and even murdered by law enforcement officers in full view of witnesses without their being held legally responsible.
Time has moved on. There is a different government in South Africa, although it sometimes seems that not much has changed after all. I can't help but think that Biko would not be surprised. Worse, though, is the fact that run-amuck Terrorism Acts have now popped up as de rigeur in most nations and most certainly in ours.
I would suggest that we all need to consider what Biko was trying to tell us about internalized oppression. Before more of us have been caused to join him as heroes. Dead heroes.