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Randall Robinson: man behind anti-apartheid protests

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 4, 1985


THE 100 people who will be arrested are late. ``They'll be here,'' says a young man who seems to be in charge. ``They just left.'' All else is ready for the ritual. A picket line shuffles along the avenue, chanting like a Greek chorus. The police and the orange traffic cones are in their usual spots. It's 3:30 p.m. -- showtime at the South African Embassy.

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``C'mon,'' mutters an officer, clapping his hands against the cold. `Let's get this thing on the road.''

In the ten weeks since they began, the demonstrations in front of the South African Embassy in Washington have proved successful beyond their founders' dreams. They are now more ceremonial than spontaneous, an outdoor Kabuki theater with people clamoring for parts.

Theme days are popular -- Lawyer's Day drew 800 picketers. On Health Professional Day doctors, nurses, and dentists were the arrestees of honor. There have been church days, union days, school days. Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.(R) of Connecticut had a day almost to himself.

Celebrity demonstrators have included actor Tony Randall, tennis star Arthur Ashe, Yolanda King (daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.), and two young Kennedys, who had written permission from their mother to be arrested.

``We're in this for the long term. There is no `when.' It's been ten weeks, and we're not tired,'' says Randall Robinson, director of Transafrica, a group that lobbies on third-world issues.

Mr. Robinson is the man behind the protests. Brother of ABC newsman Max Robinson, he is a Harvard Law School graduate who prefers the picket line to persuasion through litigation. His career has stretched from 1960 sit-ins in Norfolk, Va., to a six-day occupation of the office of Harvard president Derek Bok, but he had never been booked -- until Nov. 21, 1984.

On that day Mr. Robinson and Walter Fauntroy, Washington, D.C., delegate to Congress, entered the neoclassical South African Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, just down from George Bush's house, for what they intended to be a spectacular appointment with Ambassador Bernardus Fourie.

They informed Fourie that they would not leave until his government released a number of black political prisoners, among other things. Then the ambassador made a mistake: Rather than have burly attach'es throw Robinson and Fauntroy out, he called police and had them taken away in handcuffs.

Next day, the headlines were not ``Pair Land Face Down in Slush Pile,'' as the protesters had feared. They were ``Pair Against Apartheid Arrested,'' and the rest is recent history.

``We felt we had to make the most dramatic statement possible, to restore our dignity [as blacks],'' says Robinson. Asked if he had planned on rebuilding the protest coalition of the 1960s -- blacks, unions, church groups -- he laughs. ``I'm not that clever,'' he says.

The protests began on Monday, Nov. 26, and have continued on every weekday afternoon since. It is Robinson and TransAfrica that schedule protesters willing to be arrested. The Southern Africa Support Project, a veteran Washington protest group, produces the picket line, watching and singing from a distance.

Robinson refuses to discuss how he finds arrestees, whose number has now passed 1,000, in demonstrations across the United States. ``You know I don't want to talk about that,'' he says, again laughing. ``It's all spontaneous.'' Other sources say most are volunteers, not recruits; organization members who come to be arrested with their colleagues.