March for Science

Columbus, Ohio

April 22nd, 2017



Jeffrey K McKee Home Page


We must march for academic freedom in science. In both South Africa and Ohio I’ve had to stand up for academic freedom; for science, not silence.  It is sad that we need to do this again and again. The short message of this post is that protests and marches can effect change, both big and small. The longer message follows, about a bigger change. I promise that it is worth the long read, especially the poignant ending that can inspire us all. Minds do change.

  During apartheid, the South African Minister of Education proposed draconian measures that limited our academic freedoms at The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. There were many small protests. In order to more effectively protest the restrictions proposed by the Minister of Education, a bigger event was planned for the lawn in the center of campus. A stage was erected, and chairs were arranged so that students and faculty could listen to speeches decrying the Minister’s move. This was to be followed by a march around the university, which the authorities had declared illegal.
  On the day of the event, the speeches were as resolute as they were resounding. The final speech came from my boss in the Department of Anatomy, Professor Phillip Tobias. He had always been renowned as a great orator, and a vocal critic of apartheid, but he surpassed himself that day. But toward the end of the speech, with Tobias saying slowly but resolutely that “we are ANGRY,” helicopters of the apartheid police started flying overhead, in anticipation of the illegal march. It made it difficult to hear the final evocative words, and angered the united assembly of students and faculty. But the sound of the helicopters only magnified the thunderous applause at the end of the speech.
  It took some time to organize the assembly for the march, so my students and I, standing on the steps of the 'Great Hall,' were staring up at the helicopters and down at the lawn where we had listened to the speeches. One of my incensed students suggested that we send a message to the helicopters by lying down and spelling something out. We quickly figured out how many people we would need to write out our message with bodies lying on the ground, and started recruiting students. This being a fairly strict South African police regime we proposing to taunt, only a few were willing to participate, and not enough. So as I gazed to the lawn, I came up with another plan, and shouted to my students “The chairs! We can spell it out with the chairs.”
  We ran down and got to work, being careful to keep our backs to the helicopters, lest we be filmed and identified. I was particularly vulnerable to being identified, being both a foreigner and wearing my academic robe. But my adrenalin kicked in and off I went. As a kid in the USA in the 1960s I had been intrigued by the civil rights and Vietnam war protests, but was too young to participate, let alone understand. Now was finally my moment, and I went for it full force. A picture of the message we sent to the police in the helicopters above is to the left of he screen.
  After writing our quaint message, we still had time to join the illegal march around the university, and ran to join the crowd. Along one side of the university, as we progressed, the road was lined with the South African police. About two dozen police aimed their rifles at the marchers. The students quickly scattered in the face of the threat, as well they should have. But something got into me, probably the adrenalin again. Maybe I was brave, maybe I was stupid, maybe I thought that my academic robe was bullet-proof vest. Certainly I was incensed, so I stood my ground, crossed my arms, and glared back at those police and their rifles.
  Now you must know that the police had rubber bullets in their guns, and I knew that. But those can hurt or put an eye out (as our mothers would have warned us.) Yet to this day I can feel the determination for academic freedom and fair opportunities for education that I felt then. I did not get shot, but the story does not end here.
  The students regrouped en masse, in front of the police brigade, and began singing politically motivated songs. It was a stand off that lasted roughly half an hour while a university administrator who had been hit by a rubber bullet on another occasion, negotiated with the police. It was agreed that we could sing one more song, and the natural choice was Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. It means “God Bless Africa,” and was a rallying call for the apartheid resistance movement; it is now South Africa’s national anthem.
  As soon as we started singing, the police broke their agreement and lobbed tear gas canisters at us. I wasn’t sure whether to be excited or distressed. Maybe the police on the ground got word of our little message to the helicopters on the campus lawn?
  Whatever the case may have been, what caught my attention was that suddenly everybody started lighting up cigarettes. Very few had been smoking up to this point, so it seemed like an odd time to me. But it turns out that, right or not, there is a belief that smoking cigarettes helps you open up your lung passage ways when you’ve inhaled tear gas. So somebody gave me a cigarette, and I once again joined the behavior of the crowd. It didn’t hurt, that’s for sure.
  The lessons I learned that day were these:
  Never be afraid to stand up for your convictions, and always take a pack of cigarettes to a protest that might involve tear gas. As time went by, however, I learned a greater lesson. Yes, one must stand by one’s convictions, but one must always be open to reexamining them. Such was the case with that notorious Minister of Education who tried to impose apartheid restrictions on our university. He later became president of South Africa, and, with an apparent change of heart, went on to set the stage for the end of apartheid. He freed apartheid resistance leader Nelson Mandela from prison, and eventually shared the Nobel Peace prize with Mandela. His name was F.W. de Klerk.