New York Times protest a culture shock for an African

In New York for a public reading, I became James Baldwin. I was called to be a witness. And if one must become a witness in the footsteps of Mr Baldwin, it seemed right to do that in his hometown.

Here is how it happened.
A childhood friend I was staying with in Brooklyn works for the New York Times. The company decided to downsize and some of the employees will lose their jobs.

The union decided it would fight the retrenchment. To this end, they decided on a show of solidarity with the photo and copy editors whose jobs were threatened. All union members would take part in a protest march that would begin at three in the afternoon.

I have never been a union member but I have witnessed a few protests in my time in three countries. Perhaps the fact that they are all African countries may have been the reason I underwent a culture shock when witnessing a protest march that would begin when employees took their afternoon tea break.

What happened to protests starting in the morning and showing the powers that be that “we will render this space ungovernable”? But a writer learns not to jump to conclusions and so an hour and a half before the protest was due to begin, I got on the R train in Brooklyn, getting off at Times and 42nd Ave. I turned left on to Seventh, then right on to 41st and walked towards the New York Times offices. I arrived at ground zero and met my friend, who gave me her high-tech phone to record it all from the veranda of the neighbouring restaurant while I sipped a milkshake.

“Restaurant? Kante, how is this protest happening that I would record from a restaurant?” I asked.

“Well,” she sighed, knowing that a fellow African was about to raise her eyebrows, “we will come down at 3pm, walk around the block with our banners and then go back in.”

Go back in, did she say?

Go back in after coming to protest?

But maybe there was something radical that would happen during the march.

Sure enough, like clockwork, employees started streaming out of the offices at three in the afternoon. They held posters reading “Copy Editors save our Buts”, “This Sign wsa not Edited” and other such messages that may have gone over a few heads. As I recorded the protest, I saw many of these protestors avert their heads and hold their signs up instead. Some seemed to have been shamed into taking part in this protest.

The writer in me started creating a monologue one of these journalists was probably having with themself as they marched. “This goes against everything I was taught in Journalism 101 at Columbia. Professor Campbell-Smith always told us, ‘A key tenet of journalism is don’t be the news. Cover the news.’ Now look at me with this unedited poster. I know it’s important because I could be next but … I hope my photo with this poster does not come out on Twitter.”

There was an attempt at chanting: “They say cutbacks” and a response, “We say fight back”, but it petered out fast as no one seemed too keen.

I got in the way of one of the protestors when I tried to capture some of the embarrassed, middle class expressions. ‘‘I am ever so sorry. Excuse me,’’ he said, shamefaced. I used to live close to The Glen mall in Johannesburg. Children in creches in the south of Jozi would sometimes come on a tour in the mall. They would walk in pairs, holding hands. I promise you, these kids walking with their bibs and the teachers keeping them in line were more unruly than these New York Times protestors.

As proof that there was nothing to worry about, there was not even a single policeman in sight to keep the protesters in check.

Forty minutes later, the extended afternoon tea break that was a protest at the New York Times offices ended and the employees went back into the building. There were stories to write and edit.

I couldn’t help but juxtapose this with protest action in South Africa, Zimbabwe or Kenya. There would have been notices to the public not to travel through so-and-so a place because the traffic would be disrupted. Everyone would have expected the march to be unruly and not have the politeness of the one I observed at the New York Times. The riot police would have been on standby just in case and, if the protest turned out to be peaceful, it would make headlines.

Second, my friend informed me that she left some of her colleagues on the desk because they needed to beat deadlines. In my part of the world these employees would have been dragged out, possibly beaten for crossing the picket line and continuing to serve the bosses who exploit the wananchi (masses).

Then there was that factor of a protest in the afternoon. Ours would have begun in the morning. It may have ended at lunch at the earliest but the day would have been a loss. And we have one-day protests against President Jacob Zuma in South Africa, the election body in Kenya or the bond notes in Zimbabwe. And protests against job losses or for salary increases do not last for one day only, let alone 40 minutes.

Those placards? No one in the New York Times management and their mother was insulted for impending job losses. No effigy was burnt, nothing.

Perhaps our protests are too militant and get those in charge on the defensive. Perhaps the reason less than two hours after the protest, the managing editor of the New York Times sent an email responding to the union’s petition. In the email, I hear he suggested that the cutbacks hurt them as much as it hurt the protestors. But perhaps too, it said something about the protest that he went on to inform the staff that some reporters will also lose their jobs. In essence: “Look, copy editors, it’s not just you. These other guys will be joining you, so take it on the chin.”

I reckon I would have done the same as the managing editor. What’s the worst these employees can do? Take their whole lunch break to protest on Twitter before marching prior to the next afternoon tea break?

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