On 12 September 1977, Stephen Bantu Biko died in a prison cell in Pretoria. The announcement of Biko's death by the South African government the next day sparked international and national protest. Steve Biko was not the only person to die in detention at the hands of the South African security police; yet, because of Biko's prominence as a charismatic leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, his case captured the attention of many South Africans and people throughout the world.
Biko's death in detention illustrates the brutality of the security police during apartheid and the state's hand in covering up torture and abuse of political detainees. Biko's case also demonstrates the collaboration of non-governmental institutions with apartheid and, furthermore, that not all South Africans accepted or were satisfied with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process.
Reports are just now coming in what appears to be the death of an African-American male while in police custody. This evidently occurred some time ago. The name of the deceased has not yet been released, with reports simply referring to him as "B" (presumably standing for the first letter of the accused's surname). It should be noted from the outset that the death is not being treated as "suspicious" nor is there any suggestion of police misconduct involved. The facts are these:
"B", 30, was travelling with a friend, Pete Jones (also African-American), when they were detained for questioning by police in what is described as a "routine" traffic stop. A comprehensive description of the incident is being reported here and at News24 here.
At the roadblock the police asked [B.] and Jones to step out and open the [trunk]. Jones, who was driving, followed their orders but struggled to open the [trunk].
According to reports, the police's suspicions were raised by Jones' unusual behavior:
Jones tried to make light of his struggle with the [trunk] and invited one of the policemen to have a try.
It was also reported that "B" and Jones were not from the immediate area and would not provide a satisfactory account of what they were doing in this locality. Nor, when asked, would Jones identify "B" to the officer, further raising suspicions that "B" might have a criminal record. This prompted police to arrest "B" and Jones. Police reported "B" resisted arrest and became violent shortly after being taken into custody.
On the morning of September 6, what would be described by the policeman as a "scuffle" erupted between the policeman and [B.]
After being initially subdued and remanded to police custody, police reported that "B" intentionally tried to injure himself
, apparently by means of a hunger strike
. The Police have only noted that "B" was transported for further medical attention:
... for medical attention following a seven-day hunger strike.
According to the authorities, "B"'s condition rapidly deteriorated during this transport. Medical professionals apparently were called in to save his life, to no avail:
Several hours later he was given an intravenous drip by a newly qualified doctor who had no information about him other than that he was refusing to eat.
Thus far there have been no further statements from the authorities about his death:
An inquest into his death is not to be held for several months, according to the authorities.
It should be emphasized that to the extent the circumstances are known at this time both the the public and government officials seem to support the police's version of events and there appears to be no suggestion of racism or bias on the part of the police. Political observers familiar with the jurisdiction
describe the racial tensions in the area as essentially non-existent:
“They have eliminated the segregation that we once had...the type of thing where hotels and restaurants and places of entertainment and so forth were segregated — that has all been eliminated.”
There is also significant community support
for police action to combat civil unrest and the threat of violence. For example:
Sixty-nine percent were in favour to deploy military to end a strike and 72% held the opinion that the police should fire on demonstrators who threw stones at them.
UPDATE: 12:20 PM.
Local News outlets are now reporting on certain discrepancies between the official police record and the condition of the deceased as reported by the Medical Examiner:
District surgeons employed by the government, Doctors Benjamin Tucker and Ivor Lang, examined ["B"] on September 7. ["B'] was weak, spoke unclearly, and had external injuries on his face and head...
It also appears that "B" was transported a considerable distance in the back of a police vehicle and may have been injured during the trip.
Update: 12:50 pm (EST):
The ME report on "B"s death was released this morning:
The cause of his death was not disputed: complications resulting from a brain injury. ["B" ] suffered at least three brain lesions occasioned by the application of force to his head; the injury was suffered between the night of 6 September and 07:30 on 7 September.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN explained the definition of "brain hemorrhage" and the various ways this could occur.
Update: 12:55 pm (EST)
The Washington Post has now published a story which corroborates the police assertion that "B" may have been intentionally trying to injure himself. Other media outlets have picked up the story as well.
A prisoner sharing a police transport van with "B" told investigators that he could hear "B" “banging against the walls” of the vehicle and believed that he “was intentionally trying to injure himself,” according to a police document obtained by The Washington Post.
Additionally, Fox News commentator Bo Diehl has suggested
that "B" may have injured himself while high on drugs. Other media outlets are attempting to verify this assertion, which has been picked up and spread through social media. The New York Times implicitly criticizes the Post's "sensationalistic" coverage in an Op-Ed by its Public Editor. Wolf Blitzer profiles the "drug controversy" on an extended version of "The Situation Room."
UPDATE: 2:45 pm (EST)
The Police have just released a report indicating there was "no evidence" that "B" received any injuries during his arrest.
The medical examiner found "B"'s catastrophic injury was caused when he was slammed into back of the police transport van and apparently broke his neck. Law enforcement sources also said [he] sustained a head injury that matches a bolt in the back of the police van, the affiliate reported.
Various media outlets are saying this corroborates earlier reports by the WAPO suggesting that "B" purposely injured himself while in transport. This new report will be released on the AP wire to hundreds of local affiliates and disseminated widely on the Internet.With the aid of state-of-the-art graphics, Erin Burnett explains the interior of a police van while carrying a tape measure.
Jones has also issued a statement:
During the height of my interrogation there wasn’t a spot on my body that wasn’t either swollen, bruised or sensitive. At times, I struggled to find a comfortable sleeping position, resorting to sleeping in a kneeling position with my forehead resting on the floor.
Minutes after the release of Jones' statement, Fox News
aired an interview with one of the police officers involved in the arrest, in which he claimed to have been "badly beaten"
by both "B" and Jones. The officer declined to be named for the record, citing personal safety concerns, which we will, of course, honor:
According to the well-placed source, [The Officer] was coming off another case in the neighborhood ... when he ordered "B" and his friend (Jones)to stop walking in the middle of the road because they were obstructing traffic. However, the confrontation quickly escalated into physical violence, the source said.
“They ignored him and the officer started to get out of the car to tell them to move," the source said. "They shoved him right back in, that’s when "B" leans in and starts beating Officer [Name Deleted]in the head and the face."
The Officer claims to have sustained serious residual injuries, a claim he reiterated on Sean Hannity's televison broadcast later that evening.
Since making the statement, Jones has also come under attack, with many media outlets pointing out his past criminal record. A video, purportedly of Jones has gone viral which suggests he is anything but the "Gentle Giant" described in earlier news reports. It should be noted that confirmation of the authenticity of that video has yet to be verified.
Update: 5 pm, EST:
Diane Sawyer will conduct an exclusive interview with the police officer allegedly involved in the arrest of "B" and Jones, during which the officer will purportedly reveal scars from injuries he sustained in the attack. The video will be aired on ABC news and will be available on YouTube later in the evening.
Update: 5:15 PM:
Right-wing websites have tentatively identified "B" as one Steven Biko, and this has been confirmed by the authorities. Fox News' Geraldo Rivera will air a report tonight detailing Mr. Biko's many prior arrests. Fox also begins wall-to-wall coverage of Bike's "left-wing political views."
Since identifying Biko, the Police have issued another statement clarifying the timeline of events:
Since 5 September Mr. Biko refused his meals and threatened to go on a hunger strike. He had been regularly supplied with meals and water, but refused to partake thereof.
On 7 September a district surgeon was called in because Mr. Biko appeared unwell. The district surgeon certified that he could find nothing wrong with Mr. Biko.
The following morning he was again examined by a doctor and kept at the hospital for observation. On Sunday morning, 11 September, Mr. Biko was removed from the prison hospital to Walmer police station on the recommendation of the district surgeon. He still had not eaten on Sunday afternoon and again appeared unwell. After consultation with the district surgeon it was decided to transfer him....
On 12 September Mr. Biko was again examined by a district surgeon in Pretoria and received medical treatment. He died on Sunday night.
This statement is carried with minimal comment by every major media news outlet and newspaper with an AP feed.
Update: Two weeks later.
A Grand Jury has unanimously declined to indict anyone for the death of Steven Biko.
Updated: Six Months Later( Interview with Police Chief Kruger on Fox News):
Sean Hannity: Now that a Grand Jury has voted not to indict any members of your department for the death of Steven Biko, you must feel vindicated. You've been through a terrible ordeal, hounded by liberal columnists and pundits, vilified by left-wingers on social media. Some liberals in Congress have even suggested the jury's decision was improper. What would you like to say to them?
Kruger: Sir, I just want to tell the congress and I want to tell the Press. I expect nothing from them [the press].
I know. Sir, I know because I have it in documents, that they are going for us.
They will search for nooks and crannies. Whether they will find them, I don't know. We are also only people.
But from my point of view, on the facts that I have, it looks to me as if what had to be done was done.
... I say to you as Minister, that I cannot see how we could have acted differently.
(Cheers and applause.)