Dennis Brutus passes, a reflection
by Vincent Scotti Eirene' | 01.18.2010
A powerful elder has left us with the passing of visionary poet and
runner Dennis Vincent Brutus. After decades of work in
including leading the effort to expel the country from the Olympic
games in 1970, he won asylum status in the
to shepherd the rise of the anti-apartheid student movement. He went
on to be an international leader in the movement against corporate
Globalization, the Jubilee movement for debt relief, and the call for
swift action to slow climate change. He passed on December 26, 2009.
During the Cold War, people around the world lived with a fear that
simply could not be expressed in words. In response to the inevitable
and the unthinkable, a great many of us relinquished our status as
spectators, sometimes spending years in jail for creative acts of
civil disobedience. At one point, nuclear resistance meant that I
spent a year in jail for crossing the line at Pantex, the country's
only nuclear bomb factory, located in
this facility was producing five nuclear weapons a day. Our nonviolent
in high gear, with a group of us bypassing traditional organizations
to hit the streets with our cries for sanity and peace. One day I
received a call from Denis Brutus, a Professor at the University of
that he was from
cafe he shared with me this story about his early days of activism.
In the early 1960s, Dennis was among a group of athletes campaigning
policies and laws. By 1963 his political activity caught up with him
and he was placed under arrest. When the arresting officer told him to
stay put and went off to summon help, inspiration struck: after all,
Dennis was one of the fastest runners in
on foot that returning soldiers spotted him and shot him in the back.
In front of the Anglo-American Corporation headquarters, Dennis nearly
died while waiting for a "blacks only" ambulance. Subsequently, he
spent eighteen months in jail on
The man in the next cell was Nelson Mandela.
The day that we met, Dennis matter-of-factly told me that he could not
return home. I sat there for a long time, unable to speak. He then
pumped me for information on my anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons
activism, my work against CMU's military contracting, and my work with
the homeless. From then on, he came to our non-violent direct actions
against the school for its military contracting, and many times he was
the only professor in attendance. Dennis was always very encouraging
-- a quality sorely missing from the activist community.
In 1989 the unimaginable happened: the
the years, over 200 people were shot attempting to cross it -- the
Cold War had its symbol and reality. But on that day in 1989, the race
to hell was finally over, with people taking sledge hammers to the
results of our hard hearts, our system of greed, and our willingness
to destroy the world over political and philosophical differences.
Less than a year later another seemingly indestructible barrier fell
-- apartheid in
he still seemed sad, still had the posture of a man without a home.
But I could also sense the relief that over twenty years of exile were
over. On that day, he stood a bit taller.
I would not see Dennis again until I went to
1996. That year, parts of the city with low-income housing, poor
people, and various social services were removed to provide lodgings,
trendy shops, and cafes for those attending the Olympics. With the
arrival of the Olympic flag, five thousand protesters assembled to
draw public attention to the costs of hosting the Games. During the
week long anti-Olympic conference Dennis was a key speaker, talking
about how sports had the power to challenge the powers that be, and
how the Olympics were not to be used as a weapon against the
disfranchised. Dennis was not surprised to see me, and greeted me as
if welcoming home an old friend.
Eventually, Dennis as able to return to
spent his last years traveling as an activist focused on fighting
Globalization and the corporations that would not allow his home to
rise out of shanty poverty. He and others also started the Jubilee
movement. Taking its cue from the biblical year of release that freed
those enslaved for debts, they worked to get World Bank countries to
forgive the debts of the developing world instead of forcing free
market reforms (such as relaxing labor and environmental laws) that as
often as not damage the people they are meant to help. These
activities got Dennis branded an "ultra-leftist" by his comrades in
It was the summer before Dennis died that I ran into him at the
much older. We spoke about the upcoming G20
the call for swift action for the environment.
Last November, on his birthday, he shared an open letter to members of
compromises that will deeply affect the future of
final public words railed against corporate Globalization and the
banks and countries that enable them. These words were spoken from his
hospital bed -- the words of someone who deserved to retire, to rest
and spend his last days writing his memoirs. Instead, this South
African athlete ran until he could run more.
Vincent Scotti Eirene
DUNCAN & PORTER CATHOLIC WORKER
Ph: 414 - 231-2766