Waiting for Sharpeville

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Sharpeville.

The Sharpeville massacre of 1960 was a seminal moment in the history of modern South Africa. During a demonstration against the apartheid government, police officers opened fire into the crowd. Over sixty people died. In the aftermath of the incident, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress decided that they could no longer remain a non-violent movement. Blood had been shed. It was clear that more would be required before the matter was finished.

I first learned about Sharpeville in the course of my long and mostly useless liberal arts education. Ever since then, I’ve found myself occasionally thinking back and wondering… what would it take? What would be required for me to take up arms against my own country, the way Mandela did? To turn a normal, reasonable person into a violent killer?

To become – and let’s be completely honest with ourselves here – a terrorist[1]?

The thought has taken up a new urgency in my mind since the election. I’m sure than many will tell me – and indeed many have – that I am overreacting. Still, it seems to me that the President-elect is a uniquely petty and unrestrained personality, of the sort that has never occupied the Oval Office before. He most likely will have the Senate and the House behind him. He and his supporters have actively discussed the end of freedom of religion in this country in a way that’s unprecedented in the last hundred years of history. Only time will tell at this point how seriously they intend to pursue their goals. At the moment, I see little reason for optimism.

So what would it take? What lines would have to be crossed?

First, non-violent protest and resistance must be tried – after, not before, the President-elect assumes office. This is non-negotiable for me. Violence must be the last resort. This is what in my mind separates the ANC from other terrorist organizations and movements, even if Mandela himself did not necessarily see things that way. The war between the Israelis and Palestinians, for instance, has been violent from the beginning – a fact that has cost the PLO and Hamas dearly, whether or not they care to acknowledge it. Speaking personally, I distrust those activists and wannabee revolutionaries who are eager for violence and hungry for glory. They imagine civil war to be something different than it is, which is, simply put, hell on earth – inflicted on one’s friends, family and home, in a way that most Americans, including myself, cannot even begin to conceive of. So before that step is taken, everything else must be tried. Roads must be blocked. Public transit must be disrupted. Elections must be lost. I tend to be of the mind that if you’re going to ask a lot of people to suffer and die for a cause, you at the very least owe it to them to exhaust every possible alternative first.

Second, there must be a clear downward trajectory. For all the Nazi comparisons that have inevitably been made regarding the President-elect’s ascension to power, I don’t see him as likely to be an actively genocidal figure. Too much work. My sense of Trump is that he’s a particular breed of New York racist. He’s used to diversity on every street corner, so long as – ahem – ‘certain people’ remember to stick to their own neighborhoods. So I think we’re more likely to see a scenario similar to apartheid South Africa or the Jim Crow era. A telling sign will be if the President-elect decides to force the registration of all Muslims citizens in the United States, as he appeared to propose in the early days of his campaign. We may also see laws subtly aimed at curbing the freedom of movement of Muslims, blacks, immigrants, and other political undesirables. That being said, historically, the pattern of American racism has been to remove restrictions rather than impose them – in other words, to give the population and/or individual states the ‘freedom’ to abuse outsiders, as opposed to foisting repressive measures from the top-down. Look for the repeal or revision of civil rights legislation, as well as the reversal of judicial decisions intended to protect minorities from hate crimes and other forms of persecution. Keep an eye out as well for the formation of ‘unofficial’ militias and third-party hate groups that might be tasked with the administration’s dirty work. (Mr. Putin has used such tactics to great effect in Russia and Ukraine.)

Third, there must be an inciting incident – a Sharpeville moment. A point where the administration uses a clearly excessive level of brutality and force to enforce its will. Another Kent State massacre, another Ludlow. Do people have to die for something to be a Sharpeville? Yes, I think so. Only death can justify more death. How many? At least five or six would be my guess. I expect that would be the bare minimum required for the public to so much as sit up and take notice. Those who die must be unarmed[2]. They must be specifically protesting the policies of the administration. Ideally, the executioners should be tied to the President somehow – National Guardsmen or government-affiliated militia, rather than state or local police – in order to clearly establish command responsibility. However, this does not necessarily need to be the case.

The aftermath will also be key. The administration must either be defiant and/or callously indifferent as opposed to conciliatory – a situation that’s not exactly hard to imagine. The media response, on the other hand, will be predictable. Expect Fox News and administration-affiliated media to immediately try to cloud the picture from the start, to pin the blame on the victims as best they can, much in the way the apartheid government claimed after Sharpeville that the protestors had been throwing rocks. At that point, however, it won’t matter. A line will have been crossed, whether or not people care to admit it. Blood on the ground. More to follow.

I imagine that would be right about when my patience would run out.

This is not a prediction. This is not the way I necessarily expect things to go. Instead, it’s exactly what I said: the bare minimum requirements it would take to make me honestly consider violent resistance. Even then, I tend to think there’s a right and wrong way to go about doing things – tactics that should or should not be applied. But that’s a topic for another time.

In a situation like this, I think it’s a mistake to allow oneself to be manipulated by your enemy into making the first move. Frustrating as it is, you have to let them fire the first shot. People – good people, maybe even you or me – will have to suffer and die. This is necessary because, again, the kind of war we’re talking about is not something to be taken lightly. It involves the complete breakdown of everything we take for granted in our modern lives – from food to power to medical care. I tend to suspect that any movement with something like that on its hands will be at a severe psychological disadvantage.

For the time being, I suppose my advice is the same as everyone else’s: Keep your head down and your eyes open. Consider everything that you hear but completely trust little of it. Wait, as one Farrokh Mercury[3] once said, for the hammer to fall.

And ask yourself: what would it take?


  1. The word of course has a variety of meanings and associations, from ‘political or religious extremist’ to ‘person who a government dislikes.’ Understand that when I say ‘terrorist,’ I’m using the (perhaps overtly punctilious) dictionary definition of the term: an individual who uses fear and intimidation in order to accomplish political objectives. ↩︎

  2. This part is absolutely key. Note that this is what distinguishes a true Sharpeville from events like the Waco siege of 1993. ↩︎

  3. Well, technically Brian May. But Freddie still sang it. ↩︎


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