Aspects Of Human Cruelty From Stephen Biko to Karen Silkwood
People are cruel, not just cruel to themselves, but cruel to those who didn't even know them. This Cruelty is shown in a variety of ways. People who are political activists seem to get it the worst. Some cases end with the death of the activist, while others end with the person living long enough to tell there story. In the cases of antinuclear activist Karen Silkwood, and antiapartheid activist Stephen Biko, they show human cruelty at its most basic level. Stephen Biko, was a political prisoner, and Karen Silkwood was a victim of workplace harassment. Both cases ended in the death of the activists. Stephen was tortured, possibly poisoned, and beaten, and Karen was followed, spied on, poisoned, and later killed in a car crash. Karen was tortured mentally, while the case of Stephen Biko focuses on physical cruelty.
"You can blow out a candle, but you can't blow out a fire. Once a flame begins to catch, the wind will blow it higher." Peter Gabriel, Biko, 1980. "The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor, is the mind of the oppressed."
Stephen Bantu Biko, political activist, 1946-1977.
On September 12, 1977, Stephen Biko, a young black politician, died on the filthy floor of a South African Prison. Biko who was the leader of the Black consciousness movement, was detained at a road block after he had plans to meet with a newspaper reporter. He was taken to a Prison in the section of south Africa called Port Elizabeth, where he was stripped naked, chained to his bedpost, and beaten. Port Elizabeth is located on the eastern side of South Africa. His ordeal began on August 18, 1977, when he was charged under section 6 of the antiterrorism act, which states that anyone possessing information related to overthrowing the government will be arrested. With no possibility of ever getting an attorney, or of being released from prison. For the next 26 days, Biko was shackled to a mat, and made to lie in his own urine. On September 7, 1977 Dr. Lang head physician at the prison, was called in to see Biko when the police officer in charge of his care reported that he wasn't making any sense, and that he refused to answer questions. Upon examining Biko, Lang found that he had edema of the hands and feet, a laceration on his upper lip, and a bruise on his sternum near his 5th rib. Edema means fluid filled, this fluid that filled Biko's hands and feet made them swell. He also had a ring around his wrists an ankles. Biko also walked with an ataxic gait, spoke with slurred speech, and found it difficult to coordinate simple muscular movements. Based on this observation, Lang believed that Stephen had a nervous system disorder. Although Lang knew of this, in the medical report given to the head of the security who was in charge of Biko, no mention was made of his critical condition. On September 8, Lang was called back in to see Biko when he still refused to answer questions. Lang examined Biko once more, and found him to have a reflex called the plantar reflex. This reflex which is a further indication of nervous system damage indicated that Stephen had been beaten. In this condition, which usually shows itself after someone has been struck in the head repeatedly with a blunt object, or the person's head was banged against a hard surface such as a wall also multiple times. to test for this reflex, Steves foot was stroked, and instead of his big toe going down, it went up. However, when the security officers were questioned, they claimed that Stephen had bumped his head on a cabinet. On September 9, Dr. Tucker, a neurologist came to consult the Biko case. He performed a lumbar puncture in which he found blood. The presence of blood in the cerebrospinal fluid means that something has been done to the spinal chord or brain. Like Dr. Lang, Dr. Tucker also lied in the medical reports stating that their was nothing wrong with Stephen. On September 11, 1977, a prison officer reported that Biko was unconscious, hyper ventilating, his eyes were glazed, and he was frothing at the mouth. At that time, it was decided that Biko be taken to a hospital. Although there was a hospital nearby, it wasn't part of a prison. Because port Elizabeth didn't have the necessary facilities to treat Biko, it was decided to take him to Pretoria where he could get medical care. Pretoria is the capitol of South Africa, and is located on the southern side. It is 750 miles south of port Elizabeth. Stephen was put in the back of a land-rover, still shackled and naked. The only thing on the journey that was brought for Stephen was a bottle of water. Other than the bottle of water, there was no other medical supplies taken on the 11 hour trip. upon his arrival at Pretoria, Stephen was given IV fluids, and a vitamin drip because he refused to eat. It wasn't that Stephen refused to eat, because he was in a semi comatose state, he couldn't swallow on his own. That was also why he couldn't answer questions. Several hours after being taken to Pretoria, Biko died alone in his prison cell. The date was September 12, 1977, he was 30 years old. An autopsy was conducted shortly after Biko's death in which evidence of brain damage was found. After Biko's death, an investigation was conducted to find out if he died as a result of a hunger strike, or if he died after receiving a blow to the head. Several years after Stephen's death, the truth and reconciliation commission obtained statements from the officers responsible for Biko's mistreatment. "At that point, the 3 of us grabbed Biko and ran with him in to the wall, and his head hit the wall first." By this statement, it was clear that these men had something to do with Biko sustaining the brain damage, that ultimately caused his death. Although the men confessed, their wasn't enough physical evidence to charge them with murder. I think that their participation in the beating of Steve Biko, and their unwillingness to get him medical help when it was clear that he needed it, was the thing that lead to him dying in Pretoria. If Biko had received the medical attention then he would have lived. If doctors Lang and Tucker, didn't lie in their medical reports, Biko would have been able to get treatment and wouldn't have died from his injuries. If medical attention had been given to him when doctors noticed his disorganized speech, and ataxia, his chances of survival could have gone up. Since Stephen was not given the medical attention he so desperately needed, he died from his injuries. The other issue that comes up is if Stephen would have lived to tell his story, would he still have psychological problems as a result of being tortured, or would he be able to tell his story.
The issue in the case of Stephen Biko isn't that he was an activist, it was that he was tortured. He was treated no better than a dog, and even a dog deserves better. He died alone, and with no dignity. I understand not liking him for what he was trying to do, but that doesn't mean you have to beat someone senselessly until their injured to the point of which they die. That also doesn't make it okay to lie about your actions. The doctors in the Biko case still haven't gotten their day in court, and perhaps they never will. However, if the Biko doctors ever get there day in court, there pleas for mercy would most likely be heard. But, as the next case shows, human cruelty doesn't just show itself through physical actions, it can also do some serious psychological damage. Like Steve Biko, Karen Silkwood was an activist. Also like Biko Karen did not have the chance to tell her story.
"In the laboratory, we've got 18 and 19 year old boys. You know 20 and 21 I mean, and they didn't have schooling. So they don't understand what radiation is. They don't understand Steve, they don't understand." Karen Silkwood, phone call to union representative Steve Wodka, October 16, 1974. "well then I spilled it. I spilled my urine sample container, somebody must have put plutonium in my urine sample container. And I spilled it on my bathroom floor, and I cleaned it up, and my hands must have gotten hot. And then I touched my sink, my makeup, and the stuff in the refrigerator. Meryl Streep, Silkwood 1983. On November 13, 1974, Karen Silkwood, a worker at the Kerr McGee plutonium processing plant, located near the town of Crescent Oklahoma, died in a one-car accident. The days leading up to Karen's death were full of anguish, and torture. Unlike the Stephen Biko case, the case of Karen Silkwood focused more on her psychological state prior to the car accident that killed her. While there was some physical torture involved in the Silkwood case, it was in no way as severe as the torture Stephen Biko was made to go through.
Karen Silkwood's ordeal began on November 5, 1974. Silkwood had been working the 1 PM shift in the metalography laboratory finishing up paperwork. At 2:45 Silkwood and her supervisor took a short break. The supervisor monitored herself before she left the work area. It is common practice for nuclear workers such as Silkwood to monitor themselves after leaving an area that contains radiation. When Karen's supervisor found plutonium on a plastic shoe cover, she instructed Karen to check her feet. The supervisor then called health physics, and a technician was sent to the lab. The technician checked the 2 women's feet and the floor with a Geiger counter, an instrument used to check radiation levels. The detector found no traces of radiation, the health physics technician changed the covers and told the 2 women that they were free to take there break. Karen went back to work, to finish labeling plutonium samples. She did this until 5 PM, WHEN SHE SLIPPED IN TO A PARE OF COVERALLS TAPED PLASTIC GLOVES TO HER WRISTS AND STARTED TO GRIND PLUTONIUM PELLETS IN ONE OF THE 6 GLOVEBOXES. A glovebox is one of the ways nuclear workers protect themselves from radiation. The box is sealed with negative pressure, so that any contaminated air flows in, but not out. This makes it difficult for any radioactive particles to escape in to the room, and therefor to contaminate anyone who happens to be working with the material. Karen was working in glovebox 3. She handled the pellets with thick rubber gloves that went from her fingertips to her wrists. At 5:45 Karen removed her coveralls, and took another break, checking her lower arms and hands for any sign of contamination. She was clean. 15 minutes later, she was back at the glovebox grinding, cleaning, and polishing. At 6:30, Karen was alone in the lab. She had slipped out of the huge rubber gloves in glovebox 3, and had went to work in glovebox 6. She removed both hands from the box and monitored herself with the monitor mounted to the box. The monitor began to make a quick clicking sound. Karen knew she was contaminated. She sat back and waited for someone to come and help her. `When help did arrive, Karen was taken to the decamination room, where she was told to strip. After removing her contaminated clothes, Karen was tested. It was clear from these first tests that Karen was very contaminated. She was then made to get in to a shower, where she was scrubbed with a mixture of Ajax and bleach. This mixture made her skin very pink and raw, and it even bled in some places. On November 6, Karen was made to endure yet another scrubbing, this time with a very rough potassium and sodium mixture. Karen's car was then checked, but no trace of radiation was found. That night, a frightened Karen called a doctor and told him that she was afraid of dying of cancer. Instead of reassuring Karen, and trying to comfort her, he told her that he did not give medical advice over the phone. Further more, this added to Karen's psychological torture. She now had no one to turn to, and she felt that the contamination was coming directly from her own body. On November 7, Karen reported for work just before 8:Am, carrying a fecal sample, and 4 urine samples. She entered the building, and set off the monitors as soon as she did so. This latest contamination proved that Karen wasn't getting contaminated at the plant. There was only one place left to check. At 1:30 ,PM, Karen and 2 health physics technicians arrive at her apartment. Judy Ward, a female health physics technician woke up Sherri Ellis, Silkwood's roommate and checked her for radiation. Sherri had a slight contamination, and was taken to the plant to be cleaned up. While this was happening, Karen was made to watch as bit by bit all of her personal items were put in to 55 gallon steal drums that were lined with plastic. The stress of watching her life crumble around her proved too much, and she ran out to her car. Once there, she was confronted by a lawyer who was appointed by Kerr McGee. The lawyer believed that Karen contaminated herself to make the company look bad. Later he would support this theory when Karen's family took Kerr McGee to court in 1979. The lawyer gave Karen a peace of paper, on which she had to write her story. With the lawyer still present, Karen wrote the following. "I Karen Gay Silkwood am of legal age, and do swear the following statement to be true. I'm contaminated, and I'm dying." She gave the peace of paper back to the lawyer, and sped off. She told no one where she was going, and she gave no indication as to when she might return. This was a way for her to avoid further harassment by the company.
On November 8, Karen was grilled for 2 hours by inspectors from the AEC, in which she was made to explain her Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday contaminations. Inspectors who were present, noted that Karen didn't appear to be too upset, or for that matter very emotional. She told them that it was because it hurt to cry, because the salt from her tears would burn the skin on her face if she did cry. Later that day, Karen was supposed to meet with a Kerr McGee doctor who was to give her an IV drip of DPTA. This is a chemical that binds with toxic chemicals in the body such as lead and certain types of plutonium. The substance only works if the person is contaminated with what is called soluble plutonium. This is because soluble plutonium passes through the body, and is excreted in urine and feces. It wasn't known however if Karen had both soluble and insoluble plutonium in her body. So it wasn't known if the treatment would work. The doctor reported that Karen did not show up for her appointment on time, and was over 2 hours late. She gave no exclamation as to why she was late. She also told the doctor that she didn't trust him because he was a representative of Kerr McGee. It was now clear that Karen didn't trust anyone who worked for Kerr McGee, whether this was due to what was currently happening to her, or if it was because of something in her past is not clear. Whatever the case may be, Karen did not receive the DPTA treatments. The next few days were full of more doctors visits, and more questioning. During these sessions, Karen appeared more emotional then she had during the first session. On one occasion, Drew her on and off again boy-friend had asked her if she had eaten a plutonium pellet. He had remembered that she had asked a physician if it would be dangerous to swallow a plutonium pellet back in October. Was this just a question out of pure curiosity, or did he suspect that Karen may have purposely contaminated herself? when Karen started to cry, Drew felt bad about asking her about eating the pellet. He would later say that he asked her this question because it had been on his mind for quite sometime.
on Sunday November 9, Karen, Drew and Sherri made the long trip to Los Alamos New Mexico, to have tests done to check for internal contamination. Drew and Sherri checked out fine, but Karen wasn't so lucky. The tests showed that she had plutonium in her lungs, stomach, intestines, bones and liver. Karen had requested that her menstrual pads also be tested. She was concerned that the contamination had gotten in to her reproductive organs, and that she would never be able to have normal children. Instead of reassuring her that everything was fine, the doctor dismissed her concern saying that plutonium does have some effect on genes, she would have nothing to worry about since her womb and ovaries weren't contaminated.
On the following day, the Oklahoma trio left the laboratory, and returned to Oklahoma. By this time, everyone at the plant, including management knew about Karen's contamination. On November 13, Karen attended a union meeting, and told a friend, wanda Jung, that she had documents to support her claim that all was not right at KM. she also told Jung not to tell anyone that she was going to an interview with a newspaper reporter from the new York Times. After speaking with Jung, Karen got into her car and prepared to drive into Oklahoma City where the meeting was to take place. as Karen crossed over the intersection of highway 33, and highway 74, she saw what appeared to be another car directly behind her. Karen sped up, in the hope that she would be able to outrun the other car. However, she swerved, flew about 50 feet, and landed in a ditch. she sustained massive head injuries, and her carotid artyry was also severely damaged. Just 30 minutes later, at 8:05, karen died from her injuries at logan County Hospital, she was 28 years old. Till this day, it's still not clear just what or who killed karen silkwood. Like the Biko case, there are still many unanswered questions. These questions will most likely go unanswered, and we'll probably never know the hole truth.
A lot can and has been learned since the deaths of stephen Biko, and Karen silkwood. after Karens death, health and safety conditions were monitored closely in the united states. Steve Biko's death signaled the beginning of the end of white rule in South Africa. They were activists for there own cause, one was black, the other white. Both are now martyrs. whatever your skin color, black or white, just know that Steve Biko didn't die just for the blacks, he died for all the oppressed living not just in South Africa, but in other parts of the world. Karen Silkwood didn't die just for the nuclear workers, but for all who have a job today. when you walk into your office today, think of Karen. If it weren't for her, and many others like her, you wouldn't be working in that nice clean office that your working in today.