Entertainer Harry Belafonte joined apartheid protesters outside the South African Embassy yesterday and issued a rebuke to press accounts suggesting that getting arrested there is becoming a "radical chic" gesture requiring little sacrifice by the demonstrators.
"I have an awful lot I can be doing with my life besides flying out from L.A., taking the shuttle from New York, fighting the bad weather and rushing up there to get arrested," said Belafonte, 57, a longtime civil rights activist who was one of five persons arrested yesterday.
Belafonte, 11-year-old Pilar Lynch from Sidwell Friends School and three others were arrested in front of the embassy and charged with demonstrating less than 500 feet from it, a misdemeanor. Former Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota joined the pickets but was not arrested.
Singer and actor Belafonte -- persona non grata with the South African government since the early 1960s when he began helping the careers of exiled South African performers -- called the radical chic characterization "divisive and unfair."
The Free South Africa Movement, which has been holding demonstrations at the embassy since Nov. 21, is trying to focus attention on racial oppression of the black majority in South Africa and to pressure the United States to put economic and diplomatic sanctions on the government for its apartheid policies.
"To those journalists who suggest it's radical chic and all those other journalistic couplets, I say had they been doing their jobs in the first place, perhaps these demonstrations wouldn't be necessary," Belafonte said.
The ongoing protest has resulted in 607 arrests outside the embassy and more than 1,200 in 20 cities. Demonstrators have included students, prominent members of the clergy, members of Congress, labor leaders, women's groups and others opposed to apartheid.
Although the U.S. Attorney's office has declined to prosecute any of the antiapartheid demonstrators arrested here, protest organizers and participants say the weekday afternoon embassy gatherings and arrests are anything but fun, particularly in cold and wet weather.
"What is so chic about being handcuffed and carted off to jail, being fingerprinted and having your possessions taken away from you?" asked Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica and coordinator of the protests.
"For a lot of people, getting arrested is a traumatic thing," said Robinson. "Many are held past midnight; they don't all get out at 6:30 p.m."
Robinson said he believes the demonstrators have a real interest in ending racial oppression in South Africa and that protestors would be out there even if they faced prosecution.
"It's a worthy cause, people are not free," said Conwell Jones, 64, a retired federal worker who said he has missed only two days on the protest line in 11 weeks.
Mark Sharp, 34, a biochemist at the National Institutes of Health, said he tries to make it to the demonstration "three days a week at least." He joins the protest march in his wheelchair.
"I want to support the movement and present a presence," said Sharp