Sometimes we know right then and there and sometimes we recognize the point where decisive turns were taken only later. It happens to individuals, communities, cities, nations and even the world, but there are point where all these entities ‘turn’ at the same time. Typically, the individual, the village and even a nation ‘turns’ when there are proverbial continental shifts. Less rare it is for an individual or a small group to ‘turn’ and thereby precipitate national or global ‘turning.’
Periods of heightened political agitation tend to create ample conditions for these turning points. Right now, as I write, I am sure somewhere in the United States of America (USA) someone or perhaps even many are encountering such a moment. In fact what persuaded me to dwell on this is a short comment about something that happened recently in Philadelphia where the police essentially herded protestors into a dead end of sorts and then teat-gassed them. The visuals (photos and videos) are all over the internet. Just use the following search words: Philadelphia + tear gas + George Floyd Protests.
Even the website of the New York Times offers a full coverage of what happened. Check it out. Here’s the turning-point comment (which came with the link to the video footage):
‘Just watch. This was the moment when everything changed, certainly for the kids who were with me. Just two days ago one of their friends was threatened at gunpoint by a white supremacist in South Philly for whom the statue of a raggedy misguided fool who claimed to have “discovered” India was more important than the life of a young boy. As the son of one of the MOVE group’s leaders said at a march recently, “America is so f’d up we have to risk our lives on the streets in the middle of a global pandemic to protest.” Look at these cowardly shites armed like they’re in some video game so they can assault citizens. When I shout those words, “Who’s Streets? Our Streets!” And “No Justice, No Peace!” and “If We Don’t Get It, SHUT IT DOWN!” I mean every. single. syllable.’
It’s shocking. One cannot just ‘scroll away’ after watching it, so I can understand why ‘everything changed’ for those who were right there, either being teargassed or seeing it happening.
Those words took me back to a terrible time or rather a lead-up of sorts to what is clearly the bloodiest two years in the post-Independence history of Sri Lanka, 1988-89.
Yes, it was during a protest. It happened in Kandy. Dalada Veediya. The year was 1988. On the previous day a 15 year old student of Nugawela Central had been shot dead by the police while taking part in a demonstration. Those who orchestrated the demonstration, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, were dead wrong to get children involved, but obviously that does not justify the violence unleashed on them.
So, the next day, university students organized a demonstration condemning police brutality and of course the killing of that little boy. Students were lined up on either side of the road. They held posters. They shouted slogan. All of a sudden, hordes of policemen, ready with batons and shields, charged towards them. They were approaching from the vicinity of the clock tower.
On their left was a row of buildings and the students on that side of the road managed to get inside those shops and eateries. Those on the other side had nowhere to go. On that side there were just people selling clothes from temporary huts. Those who had fled into the building on the other side of the road watched from the balconies. They saw their fellow students being mercilessly beaten with batons.
It wasn’t anything like what happened in Philadelphia and is probably happening right now in other parts of the USA. There was no tear gas that afternoon. The police tactics were relatively less planned. It was just ‘wade in, beat the whatever out of them and leave.’ A few months later the entire country would learn about abduction, torture, proxy arrests, vigilante groups, extrajudicial killings including burning people alive. On that day, just batons. Just police assaulting unarmed people protesting peacefully. They weren’t blocking the road. Even the inconvenience to pedestrians was negligible.
A young undergraduate who wasn’t exactly a ‘political animal’ but had felt that the Nugawela killing needed to be protested, saw it all, along with his friends.
‘Meka veradiy (this is wrong),’ is all he said.
It was a moment when everything changed. It was a moment when police and police state suddenly became visible. It was a moment when powerlessness was felt. It was a moment when right had to be separated from wrong, justice from injustice. It was a moment when apathy ceased to be an option. It was a moment when slogan ceased to be combination of words but a statement believed in and articulated with absolute conviction.
Turning points don’t always end in reordering the world, but if things are to change for the better, then such moments are critical. They change individuals, collectives, nations and the world.