I didn’t meet him, nor did we speak on the phone, nor correspond, so how could I have the audacity to title this blog “Nelson Mandela Was My Personal friend”, you ask? Because sometimes a person can so motivate us, carry us forward, be there in times of trouble, and be such an inspiration that to say “hero” is too impersonal and too removed. Nelson Mandela was my friend, though he would never know it.
In 1983, I was a junior pre-law student at Michigan State University, troubled by so many of the injustices of the world, full of radical energy waiting to be let loose. Yet these were the Reagan years, and I had missed the previous generations of sit ins and protest movements. The ’60s and ’70s were long gone, the hippies cut their hair and Jane Fonda was selling exercise videos. The only on campus “protest” discussion was whether to allow vending machines in the Union building.
Many in fact felt that the Civil Rights Movement was over with the passing of the 1967 Civil Rights Act and the ending of “separate but equal.” But many of us knew this was far from the truth, and that racial bigotry and injustice was alive and well in the United States and around the world. I recall standing in a line at a McDonalds with my friend Jim when a white couple moved into a different line, fearful that somehow the black guy would be contaminating their fast food line. I saw kids move off the sidewalk when some of my friends would be with me walking to class. And though I followed the apartheid movement in the papers with raw outrage at the jailing and killing of so many black South Africans who simply were seeking a seat at the table of democracy, when I brought up apartheid with my classmates or white friends, they would largely ignore me or say “That’s far away,” or “Where is South Africa?” or “Yeah whatever, stop spouting off with your liberal views, Jay Paul.”
“Liberal.” That always threw me. Why is it a liberal view to believe that the majority of any society should have the right to vote, should not be treated as second class citizens and forced into a system of inequality and slave like labor? I think it is democratic,humane, and actually common sense to believe all people are created equal and all should have a fair shot in life. Yet, few in my class paid much attention to any of the simmering political issues of the day.
Then I decided to go to London for a term abroad. One of my professors in my political science classes at MSU, perhaps noticing my longer hair and flinty moustache, approached me and told me that I might enjoy classes on “International Political Systems” in London. I jumped at the chance, gathered my few bits of savings from being a waiter at the Big Boy Diner and flew off to London. Once there the classes were exciting, and I found a whole new group of friends, black and white students who were as equally outraged at the apartheid system of government in South Africa. I had the honor to befriend an African student named Okana who studied Mandela. He even gave me a biography written about him. I stayed up late one night reading all about this student, this boxer, this “radical” who was classified as a terrorist by the United States and Great Britain, simply because he believed that the black people of South Africa deserved the right to vote and the equal rights of the white people. I was outraged at the fact that the CIA played some role in identifying Mandela so that he could be arrested.
At the London school that we were housed in I attended class during the mornings, then walked through Regents Park to go to the Library and study some more. One night Okana and some other guys from the Brixton area of London asked me to join them and protest outside the South African Embassy. I agreed and our group of about 8 ragtag misfits took to the streets of London in our ripped jeans, and rasti hair (well obviously I didn’t have rasti hair but I would have if my white boy hair would have taken to the treatment, but it didn’t) and we went outside the South African embassy with our cardboard signs and began to protest for racial equality
. It was during this time I learned the power of “voice”. I’m not saying our protests made a difference on the government, because obviously it didn’t. But it did seem to make a difference to other students. The next night we were joined by another group of students and the next another. Pretty soon there were police lines and dozens if not hundreds of students. Every night for a week we joined increasing numbers of students who chanted in a singing voice “Free Mandela, Nelson Mandela” and “We are going to bring down this embassy.” Each night the chants and screams got a little lounder. Finally after about a week, people began throwing tomatoes (and other fruit) at the walls of the very white pristine embassy. The police had had enough. After I threw one of the tomatoes the police blew whistles, billy clubs came out, and the chase was on. One bobby, who looked no more than my
young age of 20, saw me ordered me to stop and approached me with his cuffs. I stood there frozen for a moment, thinking my future career as a lawyer would be destroyed because I threw a tomato. As the young bobby was ordering me to turn around to be cuffed, Okana grabbed my arm and yelled “Run Jay Paul, Run!” And so I did. I ran as fast as I could with Okana and a couple other rasti’s down the street, through the park, down the subway (called the tube), and eventually found myself in a tiny flat with rastafarian brothers in the black Brixton neighborhood, safe and sound.
Yes, we caused a bit of ruckus, and perhaps we didn’t change a thing, but in my mind we did it for our friend Nelson Mandela. He served 27 years behind bars, and decades in oppressive conditions fighting against racial injustice. The least I could do was throw a tomato or two and sing for the man who changed the world. Now, I can softly sing “Free Mandela, Free Free Mr. Mandela” and know that he truly is free. Rest in peace my friend.