Opinion Column: Widespread protest creates freedom around the globe

The following is an opinion editorial that I submitted to a local paper.

Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again…

– Les Misérables

It started, of all places, in Tunisia – a small North African country mostly ignored by the wider world. Authoritarian crackdowns, high unemployment, and repression of speech were commonplace there, thanks to the corrupt leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in power since 1983. Conventional wisdom held that Tunisia could not change, that it was just one of those countries destined to dictatorship and unfairness for eternity.

But for all the Tunisians had weathered, last December brought the final straw. Mohamed Bouazizi was a street vendor who supported his family of eight with less than five dollars a day. He refused to pay a bribe to a police officer, who then publicly threw him to the ground and confiscated his cart and supplies. Humiliated and in despair, on the same day he set himself aflame and committed suicide.

And so the winds of change began to blow.

First the people of his neighborhood turned out by the thousands to decry this oppression. The protests soon spread to the entire country. Almost all Tunisia’s lawyers and teachers went on strike, while peaceful demonstrators were attacked with tear gas and beaten. On the orders of President Ben Ali, police dispersed demonstrations through force, but they simply could not handle the onslaught of ordinary civilians. Ben Ali fled the country on January 14. The country has now elected an assembly tasked with creating a new constitution.

This alone would be a momentous and uplifting event – but it has turned out to be the first act in a still ongoing drama of liberty, tyranny, and passion on a truly global scale.

Citizens in neighboring Egypt were galvanized by the Tunisian victory and demonstrated for three weeks in central Cairo and Alexandria. Despite being beaten, gassed, and killed by the thousands, despite being completely cut off from the outside world, despite Orwellian throttling of expression and assembly, resident despot Hosni Mubarak resigned. He is now on trial for his crimes at Egyptian courts in Cairo.

In Libya, ruled by bloodthirsty despot Muammar Gaddafi for 41 years, similar protests were met with slaughter on an appalling scale. Ordinary citizens could either join the revolution against Gaddafi’s mercenaries or watch their friends and neighbors get mowed down in a hail of bullets. Against all odds, the Libyan people prevailed with international assistance, finally deposing Gaddafi. Now their only challenge is to create a democratic government from scratch.

But protest didn’t stop there.

Even in our own Madison, Wisconsin, over 100,000 citizens came out against a governor who gave tax breaks to big business and corporations but saw it necessary to rescind state employees’ bargaining rights, even though they had already made financial concessions. The extent of Governor Walker’s perfidy and corruption certainly does not match those of Mubarak or Gaddafi, but the people whose livelihoods were shattered by Walker’s actions protested – in the exact same manner of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests – and made great political strides, showing the true power of peaceful, determined demonstration.

The most recent wave of change this year is the Occupy Wall Street movement, also known as the 99% movement. One percent of Americans own more than a third of America’s wealth; while they pay much lower tax rates than those who make less. Their corporate influence negatively affects politics and law, using shady campaign contributions to create attack ads and shape legislation through intense lobbying. By refusing to accept this situation, Occupy Wall Street has shown Americans that a nation without power in the hands of the rich and corporations can be possible. The 99% movement has irretrievably changed the national political discourse to include the economically disenfranchised, the poor, and the unemployed.

From Egypt to Wall Street, from Greece to Wisconsin, from Yemen to Syria, people are awakening. They are realizing that however imposing, however rigid an injustice may seem, it can always crumble under the weight of an informed, dedicated populace. The sheer magnitude of popular protest is changing the world, right now, one demonstration at a time. It is we, the people, that have the final say over all laws and regulations, all censorship and corruption, all progress and awakening.

Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade, is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight that will give you the right to be free!

kjk