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Why silence is sometimes louder than words

Jomiro Eming

“We want to form two lines – one facing the street, and one facing Rhodes’ admin building – because we are a bit confused as to who we should be sending the message to.”

Said Philip Machanik, a member of the Concerned Staff at Rhodes University, addressing around 300 students that gathered at Drostdy Lawns this afternoon. The silent protest, which took place in between Grahamstown’s High Street and the university’s main admin building, marked the spot where students were shot at by police only a few days before. With a sombre atmosphere the silent protesters aimed to speak out against police brutality, commemorate the students arrested during the clash, and stand in solidarity with the national #FeesMustFall protests.

In the absence of singing, dancing, and marching, the silent protest struck a different cord than previous mobilisations. Students and protesters used this afternoon as a way to make a very clear point that their cause condemns all forms of violence. As leaders of the #FeesMustFall movements said in statements following Wednesday’s clash, the events that unfolded between students and police were incorrectly portrayed a national level. Today’s gathering thus reiterated the peacefulness of the movement, and served to show the police force their actions were unnecesasary and uncalled for.

The crowd gathered included members of NEHAWU, concerned staff, students, as well as members of the broader community. “Take ownership of this space,” Machanik said. “We want to agree on a way to protest that all excluded voices can join and be a part of the movement.”

This follows comments throughout the week on social media, where some students expressed fear and concern in being public like some of their peers. For international students, it’s the risk of deportation and visa negation, should they be criminally accused; for those suffering from anxiety, there are simply too many triggers in being part of a march that might end as Wednesday’s did. However, the silent protest gives those students a safe, risk-free space to be part of the movement they’ve supported from a distance up until now.

After a week such this one on Rhodes University’s campus, emotions have been exhausted to the point of speechlessness. A silent protest is not only apt, but it hits a spot that one would be heartless to ignore. Such a form of passive resistance speaks to an aching, damaged, tired student body. Although welcoming the arrested students back after their free-bail release was a moment of joy, much is yet to be done in order to justify why police acted out with such force on Wednesday afternoon.

Students have since denounced active disruptions, and have always resisted damaging property, and only protest on campus property, yet are still met with arrests, rubber-bullets, and pepper-spray. The fear of being shot is a reality which many are dealing with, but silent protests – just like the one today – provide a confident reassurance for the unified collective.

Stand as one, fall as one, win as one. There is no other way.

Photo taken by Jomiro Eming

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