Color In the Midst of Protest

Marc Hofer—AFP/Getty Images
Marc Hofer—AFP/Getty Images
Ugandan opposition politician Olara Otunnu is shielded by his supporters during an attack with water cannon by Ugandan police after he refused to stop his protest march through central Kampala, May 10, 2011.

We’re used to protest movements that come in colors—the yellow of people power in the Philippines, Ukraine’s orange, the green of Iran’s brutalized democrats. We’re less accustomed to seeing protests quashed with color. But in Uganda, security forces sprayed opposition leaders and activists with a vivid pink dye—a mark intended both to humiliate dissidents and make it easier for police to nab them.

The pink crackdown comes after weeks of disturbances in the capital Kampala as opposition groups participate in what have been called “walk to work” protests, fueled by rising food prices and growing exasperation with the 25-year-old rule of President Yoweri Museveni. The government banned public demonstrations so even an act as mundane as trudging to one’s office now faces the wrath of the repressive arm of the state — or at least the threat of being drowned in pink murk. More than a dozen people have been killed and scores injured.

The tactic of targeting protesters with colored water was deployed infamously by South Africa’s apartheid state in September 1989 when thousands of anti-apartheid demonstrators in Cape Town were hosed with purple spray. The action backfired, though, as protesters briefly wrested control of the water cannon shooting the dye and aimed it at the headquarters of the ruling National Party. The famous “Purple Rain” protest joined the ranks of other epic moments of resistance to the apartheid state. But it hasn’t stopped other governments from following suit: amid their long-running struggle for control over the restive Kashmir valley, Indian security forces targeted demonstrators in the capital Srinagar, seeking to soak them first and arrest them later. In recent years, dissenters from Israel to Indonesia to Hungary have been met by relentless waves of orange and blue. But, as casualties rise in Uganda and elsewhere, the true color of the protests is always a deep blood-red.

Ishaan Tharoor is a writer-reporter at TIME and editor of the Global Spin blog.

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