Mandela in New York: The Wild Cheers, the Clenched Fists, and the Middle Fingers


In June 1990, four months after his release from Robben Island, the South African prison that was his home for 27 years, Nelson Mandela visited New York. His motorcade swept through the city, through the far reaches of upper Manhattan, where he spoke at Riverside Church, to the streets of Brooklyn, where he visited the Boys and Girls High School on Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Driving through Brooklyn, Mandela passed through throngs of people in predominantly black neighborhoods like East New York, Bed-Stuy, and Fort Greene. The New York Times reported on the “tens of thousands of people…wildly cheering the honored guest’s motorcade and brandishing clenched fists.” The Times further notes that, despite Mandela’s apparent exhaustion (this visit to New York was part of a fourteen-country tour meant to gain global support against the system of apartheid that was still in place in South Africa) he rallied every time he was among the people of the city, telling the crowd of thousands at Boys and Girls, “We in South Africa have always known that we have loyal friends among the people of New York, but we have no idea that we were perceived with such love and warmth.”

New York in 1990 was a different place. This is something that you don’t need to have lived through to know. And if anyone did need a reminder, this past mayoral election was a perfect time to get one, because much of the negative campaign tactics used by candidate Joe Lhota against mayoral-elect Bill de Blasio focused on what New York used to be like in the early 1990s. Lhota’s fear-mongering commercials threatened a return to the times of spiking crime rates, public unrest, and racially motivated riots. The Crown Heights riots were still a year away, but in 1990, there were men on trial in Queens  for the racially motivated attacks on three black men in Howard Beach that resulted in the death of one, and the severe beatings of the other two. (NB: then-governor Mario Cuomo appointed a special prosecutor, Charles J. Hynes, who would then go on to serve as the Brooklyn District Attorney for a long, tumultuous, thankfully just ended career.) The Times reported that when Mandela’s motorcade passed through “the predominantly white communities of Howard Beach and Ozone Park, Queens, there were a few rude gestures, and one man with a video camera held his hand in front of the lens with a finger raised, so that the motorcade became the background for an obscene gesture.”

The welcome that Mandela got in New York—the heady mixture of euphoric embrace and outright contempt—was not so much proof of a divided, racially charged point in this city’s history, as it was evidence of the fact that Mandela was not all that welcome a figure for many American (and world) politicians at the time. Mandela’s primary political goal on his global tour was to keep sanctions in place on the government in South Africa, because he feared that lifting the sanctions would disincentivize the South African president F.W. de Klerk from making major legislative changes. However, then-president George H.W. Bush, was one of the many American politicians who had opposed the 1986 implementation of sanctions against South Africa (as did former-president Ronald Reagan, former-senators Strom Thurmond and Robert Dole, and current-senators Chuck Grassley and Thad Cochran and Orrin Hatch), and said, during Mandela’s visit, that he continued to oppose the sanctions and would lift them if he could. Another notable Republican politician who opposed sanctions on South Africa was a plucky young congressman from Wyoming, Dick Cheney, who—even twenty years after the 1986 vote—maintained that he didn’t regret supporting the apartheid government, because Mandela (and the organization he was a part of, the African National Congress) was part of a “terrorist organization.”

“A terrorist organization.” The fact that Dick Cheney—a man who bears responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children around the world without ever once facing real consequences and instead getting to live on powered by the beat of his robot, drone-like heart—gets to pass judgment on a group of disenfranchised, systematically brutalized people who resisted and fought back against their oppressors is one of the most bile-inducing things that has entered my mind today. And I have already read Ted Cruz’s Facebook timeline! And I read the Wall Street Journal remembrance of Mandela, which made sure to point out that while “the continent and world were fortunate to have him,” Mandela was a “would-be Lenin,” who once “kept portraits of Lenin and Stalin above his desk at home.” And I read this awful thing “Why Mandela Surprised Us,” which not only demonstrates shock that any revolutionary not named George Washington could successfully assume leadership of a country, but also manages to excuse Reagan for all the atrocities America perpetrated in the name of defeating communism. So, really…I’ve been swallowing a lot of rage-vomit this morning. 

I remember Mandela’s motorcade through the city. I remember it because it was my birthday and so the day felt extra-special, as if I had some minor ownership over the celebration at hand (kids! ugh), and I held my mother’s hand on the crowded street corner outside our building and tried to see the great man and all I could see were the backs of the people standing in front of me and all I could hear were the sirens and the cheering and it seemed that everyone was standing together and that big, beautiful things could happen in the world. It was the whole arc-of-the-moral-universe-being-long-but-bending-toward-justice-thing that I had learned about in school, but here it was happening in real life. I was nine. I had just turned nine. I lived pretty far from Howard Beach in just about every possible way. I didn’t know about the middle fingers being raised to a man who was still working to fight for the rights of millions of oppressed people. I didn’t know that more than 20 years later, conservative politicians would grossly fetishize words like “freedom” and “liberty,” while still denying that everyone has a right to fight for it. Here in New York, many things have changed, but the specter of race-based violence still carries weight and the issue of whether it’s ok to stop young men of color at random and frisk them—simply because they are young men of color—is still debated.

On the streets of New York, more than 20 years ago, hundreds of thousands of people appeared to gather together in celebration. The reality was much more nuanced. It always is. Today, hundreds (of thousands? it seems like it) of eulogies are being written, appearing to celebrate the life of a great man. But among those remembrances are attempts to cover up the shameful behaviors of the past—the conservative American support of an apartheid regime, the raised middle fingers. A few days ago, the official twitter account for the Republican National Convention commemorated the brave stand of Rosa Parks that led to the Montgomery bus boycott. In the tweet, the RNC thanked Parks for bringing about “an end to racism.” Although the tweet was quickly retracted, it portended what would happen today, on the topic of Mandela’s death. Politicians like Ted Cruz, like former-president George W. Bush (who famously snubbed Mandela on a trip to South Africa, because Mandela was strongly opposed to the war in Iraq), are now offering positive remembrances about a man who they were utterly ideologically opposed to when it came to what mattered. It’s the very definition of smarm and disingenuous political prattle. It is essential, when remembering Mandela, to acknowledge that there were many, many Americans who cheered for him, who whole-heartedly supported what he was fighting for, but it is just as essential to acknowledge that there were many Americans who dismissed and feared him, condemning his practices as being violent, despite the destructive nature of American foreign policy at the time. And, you know, the destructive nature of American foreign policy always.

A quick scan of conservative demagogue Ted Cruz’s Facebook timeline reveals that while the senator might be paying lip service to the idea of Mandela as a freedom fighter, most of the Cruz’s Facebook followers continue to view Mandela as nothing more than a “communist terrorist.” We can’t ignore those comments, simply because it is not Cruz himself who is making them, just like it is important not to ignore the fact that there are still people in power (Grassley, Hatch, Cochran, et al) who voted to preserve the white supremacist status quo in South Africa. And who, frankly, have voted to preserve the status quo in America—which is at times racist, classist, and ethnocentric—anytime they can. The only civil rights leaders that most conservatives like, it seems, are dead civil rights leaders. It’s important to remember that today, because Mandela might not be with us anymore, Rosa Parks might not be with us anymore, segregation and apartheid might be technically unlawful, but the fight for equality is not over, the end of racism did not come. And the people who lifted their middle fingers to Mandela—both literally and politically—are still out there. That fight is not yet over.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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