A year that set hearts on fire: From #ArabSpring to #Occupy and beyond

Published in Rabble.ca | December 28, 2011 | Circulation: 140,000 unique monthly readers

If Time magazine is permitted to be generic with “The Protester” as Person of the Year, I would award a Concept of the Year for 2011: “Love and courage.”

This coming week marks one year since the death ofMohamed Bouazizi, a 27-year old Tunisian fruit vendor who lit himself on fire on the local government steps, after trying in vain to stop constant constant harassment by police. He died January 4, just over two weeks after his act of self-immolation.

To call his an act of desperation or despair — as so much of the media have done — would minimize Bouazizi’s agency. This was not an act of desperation, but the ultimate act of dissent against the powers that be, and one which has many, many precedents.

As the year ends, at the front of my mind are the six community organizers going to jail so others could be free, after the widespread police crackdown on G20 protests in June 2010. They are political prisoners.

I think of the resistance of the people of Attawapaskat — and so many Indigenous peoples — to state control, as they struggle to overcome the injustices imposed on them by colonization.

I think of millions fighting for climate justice — embodied in global summit protests, boycotts, as well as by Indigenous peoples in B.C. against tar sands pipelines — even when our governments have so abjectly failed us.

Love and courage are at the heart of these struggles, as was Bouazizi’s martyrdom. With 2011 coming to an end — an arbitrary marker, to be sure — let’s reflect on their sacrifice and efforts.

The spark of a global uprising

Who would have imagined that Bouazizi’s self-immolation would be the spark to ignite a global uprising — eventually toppling his own government, then Libya’s, then Egypt’s, and spreading to uprisings in Yemen, Syria and dozens of other countries? This autumn, a movement inspired by this uprising finally landed in the United States and Canada: Occupy.

I’m not going to cheerlead too much here: my point is about what the movement represents, not its execution. I have had concerns about Occupy from the get-go (particularly Occupy Vancouver, but I sense other cities have faced similar challenges) — the focus on white middle-class interests at the expense of racialized and poor people, who have faced inequality and injustice for so much longer than this recent economic crisis; the resistance among many participants to addressing Indigenous and antiracist concerns; theoutright harassment of organizers for raising concerns or simply for their perceived beliefs.

But Occupy represents much more than its participants and tactics, and more important is the fact that so many people rallied against the economic system and symphathized with a movement against corporate power.

The original call-out from Vancouver’s own Adbusters drew a clear line from Tahrir Square, Egypt to Wall Street — but it should be obvious regardless. And that line shows the lie perpetuated by the media here — who pretend to see only the tactical controversies of tent cities, direct actions, policing costs, safety issues and the ever-maligned so-called “professional protester.”

And while my lack of faith in the media (even as a professional journalist) means I shouldn’t be surprised by the industry’s failings, it is still truly a wonder how the corporate media can so completely dismiss widespread public sentiment and sympathy about the failing economic system — while turning around and celebrating the very protesters they so maligned.

As Skwirl’s Eye View demands in his video from Occupy Wall Street, journalists need to start digging deeper:

“Why has the wealth of the top one per cent nearly tripled in the last 30 years? Come on guys, you love the underdog story — but you’re completely ignoring the obvious villain as he curls his moustache and counts his gold coins in his marble house, but you’re grilling Robin Hood on whether he has the right bow permit… If you’re in the media, I’m calling you out: dig deeper, work harder, and get your ass on the right side of history.”

“The Protester” may — quite deservedly — have been selected as Person of the Year by Timemagazine. But at the same time, such a static title ignores how communities have mobilized to fight this year. It individualizes communal frustrations and action. Dissent is a process, and one that is collective. It’s a verb, not a noun.

But my nomination is more specific: since Time is permitted to be conceptual or generic with its award, I vote for “courageous lovers and fighters” like Bouazizi, and countless others who took to the streets this year. Or why not simply a concept: “love and courage”?

Toronto filmmaker Velcrow Ripper — whose inspiring film Fierce Light explored spiritual activism — has, in his own way, inspired my nomination with his upcoming film, Occupy Love (and is seeking community support for the project).

Without love or courage, why else would millions around the world brave bullets, jail, tear gas, beatings and humiliation — all in the name of making a better world? Certainly, what Occupy has faced is not on a scale compared to the repression seen elsewhere.

Self-sacrifice and self-immolation

Bouazizi was not the first person to use self-immolation as a tool of defiance: think back to the iconic image of Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk protesting the American invasion of Vietnam and illegal war in Cambodia.

Did you know that act of protest inspired at least 100 U.S. citizens to self-immolate in 1960s anti-war protests, according to the New York Times? It began with the martyrdom of 82-year-old Holocaust survivor Alice Herz in 1965. Under a different Evil Empire, Student Jan Palach did likewise against the repressive Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Scanning the list, it’s interesting that the majority of self-immolations during the Cold War were protests against either the U.S. or the Soviet Union.

In 1972, 28-year-old novelist Huguette Gaulin Bergeron burned herself in Montreal while proclaiming: “Vous avez détruit la beauté du monde!” — ‘You have killed the beauty of the world!”

In 1983 Chile, Sebastián Acevedo did likewise after his children were “disappeared” under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship — a regime installed by a U.S.-backed coup on September 11, 1973, the soldiers trained at the notorious U.S. School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia — still operating today under a new name.

Then there were the scarcely reported self-immolations against the U.S.’s two invasions of Iraq. The first was Gregory Levey, a 30-year-old opponent of the 1991 Gulf War. He was followed by Malachi Ritscher, a 52-year-old Chicago musician whose death by a freeway at rush hour went largely unreported at the time.

Some commentators have remarked that such suicides are pointless, ineffective and selfish — for instance, after Ritscher’s death, the Chicago Sun-Times wrote: “With all great respect, if he thought setting himself on fire and ending his life in Chicago would change anyone’s mind about the war in Iraq, his last gesture on this planet was his saddest and his most futile.”

Such an argument has always been made by those invested in the status quo after each incident. Come to think of it, the Occupy movement and most other social movements in their time have been dismissed as pointless, ineffective and selfish — despite countless thousands of unpaid hours poured into them and significant public support for the causes.

“They don’t have demands.” “What are they accomplishing?” “They just feel entitled to more free benefits from society.” “They don’t want to work.” “Things aren’t as bad nowadays.”

But thinking globally, the movements represented by the above list of martyrs all led to victories, albeit bittersweet ones — the U.S. was defeated and forced out of Vietnam (after inflicting millions of casualties). The Soviet Union collapsed (paving the way for gangster capitalism). Tunisia’s regime fell. The U.S. has finally left Iraq — broken, bloodied, and still occupied by thousands of private military contractors — but the withdrawal is significant nonetheless.

Demanding the possible?

CNN’s Douglas Rushkoff offered this reflection about Occupy:

“Anyone who says he has no idea what these folks are protesting is not being truthful. Whether we agree with them or not, we all know what they are upset about, and we all know that there are investment bankers working on Wall Street getting richer while things for most of the rest of us are getting tougher. What upsets banking’s defenders and politicians alike is the refusal of this movement to state its terms or set its goals in the traditional language of campaigns.”

Trust me, whatever demands, goals and terms the movement might set would be instantly pounced-upon and ridiculed by the media and political elites.

I have many critiques of the Occupy movement, shared by some its organizers, too. As many have argued, we already live on occupied territories, which seems like a pretty fundamental issue to address. And economic inequality is not confined to the middle class — and the 99 per cent are mostly not white, middle-class families. Certainly not globally, nor here.

I believe that any movement calling for social change without connection to previous movements and contemporary struggles is doomed to failure and isolation. It’s something many learned in the 1960s — coalition-building and alliances are essential to success; separation and isolation of struggles is exploited by the State. Those alliances will have to extend outside the Leftist cliques that sadly still divide and alienate each other today.

But there are also tons of inspiring examples of acts of mutual aid, respect for a diversity of tactics (meant in the phrase’s true sense: recognizing that social change arises from many approaches), and political generosity in social change movements.

I’m awed by the time and energy so many have put into such movements — not only, but especially — this year.

It’s not about Occupy, it’s about movement. From medical volunteers, anti-oppression trainers, cooks, porta-potty donors, labour movement supporters, media teams and assembly facilitators at Occupy camps — to the dedicated organizers behind such campaigns as No One Is Illegal’s The People Versus Jason Kenney, Toronto’s Stop the Cuts, the Rebelles feminist movement, and the struggles of Indigenous communities to defend their lands — including the Tsilhqot’in, Grassy Narrows, Barriere Lake, and those resisting tar sands pipelines.

From protest to self-determination

I believe that, underneath love and courage, lies an innate desire for self-determination. It resides in all people — what theorist Jean Baudrillard described 10 years ago, after 9/11, as “an allergy to all definitive order, to all definitive power.”

Exactly a decade after he penned The Spirit of Terrorism, it is worth revisiting Baudrillard’s observations that, even among the privileged, there is an unconscious desire for chaos in the face of extreme order:

“This goes far beyond the hatred of the underprivileged and the exploited toward the dominant global power, of those who fell on the wrong side of the world order. This malicious desire is at the heart of all those who share the benefits.”

There’s no easy antihistamine for an allergy to order — no simple ideological fix like anti-civilization anarcho-primitive insurrectionism.

As someone with near-continuous allergies to cats, dust and chemicals, I know that constant, violent sneezing is just my body’s way of expelling irritants and disease; the bigger goal is to eliminate allergens in my environment and build up my health, not my stress. I imagine protests to be like sneezing at systemic irritants — but without a larger vision and mobilization, they won’t, on their own, bring transformation.

Taking Baudrillard’s metaphor a little further, protests, rallies and occupations are important immune reactions to a system built on abuse, oppression and inequality. The trick is how best to constrain and transform the targets of protest — the imbalances of power, the injustices, the violence — and build up the health of our communities.

This historic project will take courage. And that courage must be driven by love.

So my New Year’s hope is this: Let’s make the love and courage that marked this year even greater in the next.

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