Randall Robinson: man behind anti-apartheid protests
Washington — 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.
``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.
On this particular day, for instance, most of the 98 people who will be arrested are church members. Many are from the famous Riverside Church in New York City, down for the day with their activist pastor, Willaim Sloane Coffin. Others are from Washington's People's Congregation; there is even an Armenian bishop with a purple tunic and a tartan cloth wrapped around his neck.
They arrive at 3:50 p.m. in two buses, and the dance begins 500 feet from the embassy with a press conference in front of police lines. Robinson steps up to a portable podium. ``Let's wait for the cameras to cross the street,'' he says. Media coverage is, of course, a major reason for the protest's existence and success. TransAfrica aides have a list of 30 media outlets they call when there may be a celebrity arrest.
At 4:15 p.m. the press conference ends, and those who are about to break the law head for the buses. About half are white. Many seem novice demonstrators.
``I've never been arrested,'' says Fred Lowry, director of a northern Virginia ministry. ``It's important to witness what we believe.''
At 4:30 p.m. the loaded buses lumber up the avenue to the embassy, stop, and discharge passengers. The two dozen police begin to look more alert. Protesters form loose ranks and dispatch a delegation to the embassy door. The delegation rings; as always, there is no answer.
Then the ranks begin to sing. It is this act that actually breaks the law, as it is illegal to demonstrate within 500 feet of an embassy. A policeman with a bullhorn asks them three times to stop, as is obligatory. They sing louder. The arrests begin.
``We all agree with these people,'' says one policeman, watching the protesters being led away one by one. ``We could arrest them all at once, but each individual has a right to be arrested, and we're honoring that right.''
In fact it is only technically an arrest. Protesters are rubber-stamped through booking back at the station and are released on their own recognizance. The US Attorney will refuse to press charges. For each protester, there will be no police record of the affair, says a law-enforcement source.
The protesters' demands, he says, remain the same: in South Africa, a release of political prisoners and progress towards a constitution that is equitable to blacks; in the United States, abandonment of the Reagan administration's policy of ``constructive engagement'' with the South African government.
``A good deal of our message is for our own government, yes,'' says Robinson.
A good deal of the message is also for the American public. Robinson complains that the country at large knows little of African problems, due mainly to disinterest on the part of mass media.
``How many US citizens know who [South African black leader] Nelson Mandela is?,'' asks Robinson, rhetorically. ``But they will all know who Andrei Sakharov is.''
Will the protests bring about change? In recent weeks the Reagan administration's rhetoric has become somewhat harsher toward South Africa. For their part, South African officials say placards and chants will not affect Pretoria.
``It's become a routine,'' says Ambassador Fourie. ``People come on buses, get off and protest for ten minutes, and get arrested. That's their democratic right. We are blissfully ignorant.''