2011: the year a generation found its voice

It’s been a year since Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in a provincial Tunisian town –  an event that triggered a year of revolt that has flared not just across the Arab world but the entire planet in what has turned into the most potent year of protest since 1968.

This is Sidi Bouzid, the Tunisian town where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, photographed for Time magazine this December. A portrait of Bouazizi hangs outside the Governor’s office that was the site of the young street vendor’s protest.

Each year, Time magazine chooses a Person of the Year to place on the cover of the last issue of the year.  This year they have chosen The Protester, explaining their choice in these words:

History often emerges only in retrospect. Events become significant only when looked back on. No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square in a town barely on a map, he would spark protests that would bring down dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and rattle regimes in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Or that that spirit of dissent would spur Mexicans to rise up against the terror of drug cartels, Greeks to march against unaccountable leaders, Americans to occupy public spaces to protest income inequality, and Russians to marshal themselves against a corrupt autocracy.Protests have now occurred in countries whose populations total at least 3 billion people, and the word protest has appeared in newspapers and online exponentially more this past year than at any other time in history.

Is there a global tipping point for frustration? Everywhere, it seems, people said they’d had enough. They dissented; they demanded; they did not despair, even when the answers came back in a cloud of tear gas or a hail of bullets. They literally embodied the idea that individual action can bring collective, colossal change. And although it was understood differently in different places, the idea of democracy was present in every gathering. The root of the word democracy is demos, “the people,” and the meaning of democracy is “the people rule.” And they did, if not at the ballot box, then in the streets. America is a nation conceived in protest, and protest is in some ways the source code for democracy — and evidence of the lack of it.

The protests have marked the rise of a new generation. In Egypt 60% of the population is under the age of 25. Technology mattered, but this was not a technological revolution. Social networks did not cause these movements, but they kept them alive and connected. Technology allowed us to watch, and it spread the virus of protest, but this was not a wired revolution; it was a human one, of hearts and minds, the oldest technology of all.

Everywhere this year, people have complained about the failure of traditional leadership and the fecklessness of institutions. Politicians cannot look beyond the next election, and they refuse to make hard choices. That’s one reason we did not select an individual this year. But leadership has come from the bottom of the pyramid, not the top. For capturing and highlighting a global sense of restless promise, for upending governments and conventional wisdom, for combining the oldest of techniques with the newest of technologies to shine a light on human dignity and, finally, for steering the planet on a more democratic though sometimes more dangerous path for the 21st century, The Protester is TIME’s 2011 Person of the Year.

Tahrir Square protesters in Egypt: women have been at the forefront of protests

This morning, The Guardian has a thoughtful piece, ‘How a lost generation found its voice‘, which concludes that ‘2011 was the year of a global youth revolt’.  Here are some extracts from the article:

The struggles that gave birth to each demonstration, occupation or revolution were separate and yet connected; part of a collective roar from young people who, for the first time in modern history, faced a future in which they would be worse off than their parents. […]

But it is far more than material privation that underlies this year’s youth revolt, more than just a question of how to integrate into the globalised economy the talents and expectations of 80 million unemployed young people from the most well-educated generation in human history.

At the heart of this most potent insurrection since 1968 is an expression of the deep uncertainty about how the future will pan out.

“It’s the first time in American history that a generation came along and was told: ‘No, things are gonna be worse for you than they were for your parents’,” says Jesse LaGreca, a prominent Occupy Wall Street figure who has travelled to occupations across the US.

“I think that has created the necessity for change, and we can no longer wait for political promises – we have to make that change ourselves.” […]

When you speak to those organising the Occupy movement, it is remarkable how important Tunisia and Tahrir were to their own action. No longer was the west to be a democratic beacon to the Middle East. It was very much the other way around.

“Who would have thought that Mohamed Bouazizi would set in motion such a series of events?” says David Osborn from the Occupy Portland movement. He says that many in the west were “deeply moved and inspired” by seeing protests across the Middle East, but that Egypt in particular had captured Americans’ imagination.

“To see the movement generally, but in particular the youths, mobilise and really demand the impossible … to think Mubarak would not have been president more than a few weeks or even a month or two before he actually fell was almost impossible. And yet they asserted that another world without Mubarak was possible, and I think that kind of re-inspired the radical imagination in many of us.”

“The lesson of Tahrir Square was that once again, democracy has become a revolutionary force,” says Shimri Zameret, who spent four months organising the global day of occupation on 15 October that saw people in more than 900 cities turn the square’s tent city into a worldwide phenomenon. […]

It is easy to dismiss the interconnectedness of 2011’s youth-driven resistance movements; and it is possible even to deny they amount to any kind of identifiable social phenomenon at all.

Certainly, comparisons between the pepper spray of Oakland and the tank shells of Homs can be facetious, and the triumphs of the protester – named this week as Time’s “person of the year” – appear scant if limited purely to the arena of formal political change.

But connections there are, not just in mutual recognition and frustration, but in method. The movements that made the headlines in 2011 were largely non-hierarchical, creative and locally autonomous. And consciously so. […]

The generation that grew up being told they were the heirs to Francis Fukuyama’s end of history and victory of a liberal capitalist society, is now working its damnedest to prove how untrue this is, not for the sake of utopian reimagination but to resolve the very serious problems that very system has created.

Where the movement goes next remains to be seen. But as the Jordanian human rights activist Laila Sharaf recently told a group of young people in Beirut, in a statement that could apply universally: “Today the rules of the game have changed, and the ball is in your court.”

Or, to put it in the words that are so often held aloft at any street protest today, part in hope, part as threat: “This is just the beginning.”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman.

Remarkably, too, the Nobel Peace Prize was shared this year by three women who have campaigned for peace and democracy in Liberia and Yemen.  The Nobel committee said the three had been chosen “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.

Awarding the prize to Tawakkul Karman, the Nobel committee said :

In the most trying circumstances, both before and during the Arab spring, Tawakkul Karman has played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.

Karman has been a key figure among youth activists in Yemen since they began occupying a square in central Sana’a in February demanding the end of the Saleh regime, and has often been the voice of activists on Arabic television, giving on-the-ground reports of the situation in the square outside Sana’a University, where dozens of activists have been shot dead by government forces.  She called her award ‘a victory for the Yemeni people, for the Yemeni revolution and all the Arab revolutions’.

This is a message that the era of Arab dictatorships is over. This is a message to this regime and all the despotic regimes that no voice can drown out the voice of freedom and dignity. This is a victory for the Arab spring in Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Our peaceful revolution will continue until we topple Saleh and establish a civilian state.

Jesse Jackson speaks at St Paul’s

Yesterday, Jesse Jackson spoke at the Occupy St Paul’s camp with a speech in which he hailed the protest as not just a force for good but as a direct descendent of the civil rights movement.  The Occupy movement, which began in Spain before gaining prominence in the US and then moving to other countries, was, Jackson said,  ‘a global spirit, which is now sweeping the nation and the world, fighting for justice for all of God’s children. His Christmas message on the steps of the cathedral was this:

Jesus was an occupier: born in poverty, born under Roman occupation.  Under threat of his life his parents took him to Egypt as an immigrant, as a refugee. He served the poor, he challenged the prevailing ethos of power in Rome. … Gandhi was an occupier … Martin Luther King was an occupier …They are all exalted now but they were rejected as occupiers, as protesters, as radicals, called terrorists by governments. The occupiers’ cause is a just cause, a moral cause. They should not be dismissed but heard – listen to their message. Occupiers are the canaries in the mine, warning us of the dangers – few have too much, too many have too little, too much poverty, too many costly wars. Banks got bailed out, people got left out. Protesters are criminalised but not a single banker has gone to jail for their crimes, the corruption and greed which drove the global economy to the brink of collapse.

Jackson said: ‘The church should be the headquarters for the Occupy movement. … The occupiers represent the conscience of the church’.

A requiem of sorts: at the end of a year of global economic meltdown, the euro crisis and Occupy protests, The Guardian  invited writers and artists to invent new currencies and banknotes for a changed world.  This came from Naomi Klein:

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4 thoughts on “2011: the year a generation found its voice

  1. Very thoughtful post Gerry.
    The Time cover reminds me of an interview with Gore Vidal on US TV in 1980. He was asked to predict the 80s as he had described the 60s as the We decade and the 70s as the Me decade. What, the interviewer asked, would the 80s decade be?
    “The You! decade” answered the Palimpsester himself, because; in the sixties we tried to change the world and it didnt work, in the 70s I tried to change the world and it didnt work (pause for comic effect) Because YOU! stopped me. It’s all YOUR fault (and soon “Greed was Good”)…

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