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!



Freedom and Conformity

South Sudan is now independent.South Sudanese Flag

After two civil wars, broken treaties, and seemingly endless economic and military strife, the vast expanse of Sudan was split in two by a vote. A mere referendum toppled Khartoum‘s hegemony over ten states and ninety-eight percent of its oil reserves. So why did Omar al-Bashir give up without a fight?

Because the South Sudanese elected to secede with a majority of over 99%.

There is a deep cultural, ethnic, and religious divide between the North and South of the Sudan region. But ruling parties and united governments have dealt successfully with much more. But in the government controlled by the North, there was simply no place for a South Sudanese citizen. Even setting aside the killings in Darfur, Abyei, and South Kordofan, Khartoum showed with shari’a law, mandatory use of the Arabic language, and utter neglect of living conditions that millions of people simply had no right to live there.

When a government has no place for its citizens, they have no need for the institution itself. This is a lesson from which the world can learn. #


Lies All The Way Down

Today, let us mourn for Wisconsin.

Today, let us stand in unison and decry the appalling torrent of falsehood condemning so many public workers to financial ruin, an unmatched reduction in their voice in democracy, and an abhorrent status as Wisconsin’s new second-class citizens.

Today, this despicable maelstrom of political and social warfare has barreled through Madison’s statehouse, claiming yet another casualty: collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin’s public workers. In a move founded on extreme cynicism and utter disregard for their own talking points, the Republican-dominated State Senate separated the collective bargaining measure from other sections of Senate Bill 11 and passed it on a reduced non-financial quorum, despite Governor Walker’s past incongruous assertions that the bill is somehow about Wisconsin’s budget. This was on the same day that Walker’s staff sent multiple e-mails pretending to be open for negotiations with the 14 Democratic state senators.

But we must realize that this is not the extent of the dishonesty which has culminated in such an attack on workers’ rights. Almost every premise used to arrive at this conclusion, even those accepted in conventional wisdom, is assuredly incorrect.

  • Public sector workers do not ‘deserve’ any budget cuts and are in fact under-compensated.
  • Wisconsin is not in a ‘financial crisis’. Wisconsin’s budget woes, while substantial, are absolutely no cause for apocalyptic alarm or immediate action for Wisconsin citizens. With a 7.4% unemployment rate and substantial tax revenue, Wisconsin was in solid economic shape, especially compared to other states across America.
  • Neither the budget repair bill or layoffs are necessary to balance the budget. Walker would definitely agree with the statement that “everyone should contribute their fair share” to eking out gains in Wisconsin’s budget. But there is no reason for these new measures — there’s already a time-honored, universally effective way of increasing governmental revenue. It’s called ‘taxes’. Best of all, it even ensures that everyone contributes proportional amounts based on their income. Indeed, Wisconsin’s budget deficit could most likely be erased without even raising individual income taxes — currently, two-thirds of Wisconsin corporations do not pay state taxes.
  • America is in no financial danger. The proposed cuts in Wisconsin are part of a national, sobering mood that America’s “fiscal house” is not “in order” and that we need to fix this by heaping abuse on our most downtrodden citizens. But the United States deficit is less than 10% of GDP. An actual financial crisis, the one seen in Greece, involved a worldwide financial crunch exacerbating a deficit over 100% of GDP for fifteen straight years. To quote Harvard economist Larry Summers, “[a]nyone who takes seriously the idea that the debt limit could not be extended and there could be a default even for a nanosecond on U.S. debt is a child with a mach in a dynamite storeroom.”
  • Even if financial doom was assured for the world, we should not take such measures. The very raison d’être of the modern government is to assure a certain minimum quality of life for its citizens. Disregarding such obligations is at once reckless, irresponsible, and dangerous — absolutely nothing should be as important to the United States and Wisconsin governments as the well-being of all of their citizens. Arbitrarily deeming the United States and Wisconsin deficits, mere projections of abstract financial goals, as more important than the very lives of untold millions is one of the most disturbing and destructive mainstream legislative opinions held in America today.

To Governor Walker: your days in office are numbered. To Representative John Boehner, Senator Mitch McConnell, Michelle Bachmann, Koch Industries, and all those who would favor green on a balance sheet over food in someone else’s stomach: your utter disregard for humanity itself is appalling. You are the problem with America today. #



A sleeping giant has awoken in Libya.

Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, the country’s odious 42-year dictator, has repeatedly crushed peaceful protests, including funeral marches, by firing on and ultimately killing the unarmed protesters.

The people of the country have responded in true revolutionary style by fixing their description as ‘unarmed’. In the eastern area of the country, where Gaddafi’s power was already weak, the former jamahiriya, or “state of the masses,” has turned into an actual rule by the actual masses. Eastern towns like Tobruk, Bayda, and Benghazi, the nation’s second largest city, were the first to revolt, and are the strongest holdings of the rebels.

Recently, central and western cities of strategic importance like Brega, Ras Lanuf, Misrata, and Zawiyah (only 33 miles away from the Gaddafi-held capital of Tripoli) have been claimed by opposition forces despite multiple attacks by pro-Gaddafi mercenaries. The colonel’s strongholds now consist of Tripoli and his birth town of Surt, with almost every other area still under Gaddafi’s control seeing fierce liberation attempts.

That the peace of Egypt’s revolution could not be sustained across the border is deplorable. But with his hard-line tactics and callous disregard for the lives of his own people, that is the fault of none but Gaddafi himself. This struggle in Libya, besides determining the fate of the country’s own 6.5 million, will show hard-line governments around the world whether a response of violence to peaceful protests is a viable strategy.

It seems only natural that the news media would report on the revolution for Libyan freedom, especially in America, since freedom was won here in the same manner. But inspection of articles in the media shows a rather… different approach to reporting.

Libya turmoil drives up oil prices

CRUDE oil prices raced higher at the weekend, with the New York contract closing at a fresh two-year peak as traders watched heavy fighting in Libya, particularly in the oil-important east.

New York’s light sweet crude for April delivery closed at $US104.42 a barrel, a hefty $US2.51 gain.

Libya produces about 2 per cent of the world’s crude oil.

It typically pumps about 1.6 million barrels a day, but the head of Libya’s National Oil Corporation, Shukri Ghanem, said last week that oil production had been halved.

– Sydney Morning Herald

Japanese Shares Fall as Oil Surges, Libyan Conflict Escalates

March 7 (Bloomberg) — Japanese stocks fell as oil prices surged amid escalating conflict in Libya, deepening concern that higher fuel costs will weigh on an economic recovery.

– San Francisco Chronicle

And everyone’s favorite reporting source, FOX News, had this to say:

Oil Rises on Libya Clashes, Mideast Unrest

Brent oil prices pushed back above $116 a barrel and U.S. oil hit its highest since September 2008 on Friday, as fighting in Libya intensified and threatened the country’s oil sector.

Investors feared extended supply disruptions as rebels fought Libyan security forces in Ras Lanuf, a major oil terminal, and as fighting broke out in Bahrain and Yemen and top-exporter Saudi Arabia, where Saudi Shi’ites staged protests on Thursday.

Even in news reports about Libya refreshingly unrelated to oil, at least a mention is slipped in – “Remember, this is a country that exports 2% of the world’s oil, so this could affect us! somehow.” But more deplorable than just this focus itself on a chemical commodity rather than on the actual rights of actual human beings is the pervasiveness of this entire ideology.

If the Year 2011 Revolutions were taking place in, say, Latin America, where a refugee influx could possibly have negative consequences for the United States, would we see such broad political support for freedom? Would the American public know about the entire issue? Would the major news corporations even report on it? Or would resources trump rights, the true indifference to people who are Not Like Us supersede our common human bond?

For if there were truly massive protests in Chicago or New York or Houston tomorrow, demonstrations surpassing the size of those in Madison and actually reaching the levels of Cairo or Alexandria, there would be nothing else in the news. And Americans would be outraged if Chinese headlines read “US Protests, Corn Prices Skyrocket”. But this is exactly how some conservative politicians, foreign policy analysts, and especially media institutions are seeing the Libyan fight for freedom.

I cannot speak for the people of Libya. I know what I do partly from the same news media that I have just decried. But I can assure you that the Libyan people are fighting for freedom, not oil. #


The Struggle

Wisconsinites are fed up with Governor Scott Walker.

His irresponsible and ineffective policies have been called into question before, both as executive of Milwaukee County, and as governor, when he canceled the Madison-to-Milwaukee high speed rail.

Walker rose to power decrying the “financial irresponsibility” that preceded him under Democrat Jim Doyle, and promising a “return to frugality,” considering that a more important ideal than quality of life for the 68,000 he would cut from BadgerCare. However, this promise was immediately broken on both personal and governmental levels: upon assuming office, he unabashedly rented a state-funded SUV costing $1,596.50 per month. Matching extravagance with extravagance, he signed three corporate tax cut bills into law that together cost Wisconsin $117 million. This blatant hypocrisy was called out by Democratic legislators in the state and numerous news sources, but it was largely ignored by the general public.

Now, less than two months into his four-year term of office, Walker has gone too far.

On February 11, he proposed a piece of legislation he called a “budget fix.” Even in his official description, the cracks in his then-popular legislative persona began to show. The bill, a travesty of gargantuan proportions, outlines a series of draconian measures designed to reduce the deficit on the backs of public employees, like teachers, nurses and EMTs:

  • All public employees would be required to pay half of their pension payments, resulting in an effective average pay cut of 5.8%
  • All public employees would be required to pay at least 12.6% of annual health care premiums out-of-pocket
  • Wages would be frozen, and raises would be capped at inflation (*)
  • Collective bargaining, the right of unions to negotiate with the government, would be eliminated — except for salary bargaining, which could not possibly have any effect anyway because of the raise cap (*)

The starred measures would not apply to police, firefighters, or state troopers. Why is this? Surely, if Walker believes his measures are beneficial to the state, he would not add any exclusions — which shows how transparent a political ploy this really is. The official reason given was that Wisconsin “could not afford” strikes from the above groups, but at least for police and firefighters, docking their pay would be seen as unpatriotic or ungrateful. But then why state troopers? A possible explanation will be given later.

Wisconsin has been rocked with a powerful wave of protests this week. National Budget Committee Chairman, Wisconsinite Paul Ryan compared Madison (where 30,000 are currently protesting) to Cairo. Public workers and students are opposing the bill both in Madison and around the state, where students held school walk-outs in protest. Even the Democratic state senators have joined in, suddenly disappearing from the legislature and boycotting the vote on the bill scheduled for today. In fact, every single one boarded a bus and left the state. Most are currently believed to be in Rockford, Illinois.

Without the Democratic senators, the State Senate was one senator short of quorum, forcing it to adjourn without a vote. Walker talked to Wisconsin State Patrol Chief Stephen Fitzgerald, and threatened to send the Patrol out to look for the elusive Democratic caucus. Incidentally, Stephen Fitzgerald has two sons. One of them is named Scott Fitzgerald, and is the State Senate Majority Leader. The other one is Jeff Fitzgerald, the State Assembly Speaker. To reiterate, the State Patrol is one of three organizations exempt from the Republicans’ harshest measures.

The protesters have been criticized by some fiscal conservatives, spouting drivel that “everyone must do their part” to fix the deficit, safe in their affluent neighborhoods and secured corporate positions. But this is about more than just the fact that Governor Walker is forcing unprecedented pay cuts on state workers in already shaky financial situations. This is more significant than his refusal to give them any raises at all, and that pledge’s enshrinement into state law. This is even about more than the fact that the rights of employees to collectively organize and bargain, a hard-earned liberty fought for by generations of previous workers, is being callously denied by an administration that cares more about the financial security of its corporate backers and tax cuts than about the futures of our teachers and nurses.

This is about the idea that the falsified talking points and irresponsible ideals of Governor Walker and his ilk can be used to run roughshod over the thousands of workers that serve the state itself, and drown out their cries with hollow invocations of sacrifice. This is about the Republican majorities in the Senate and Assembly caring more for the opinions of their corporate backers than for those of the teachers who serve selflessly, day in and day out. This is about the specter haunting Wisconsin that artificial deficits and fabricated concerns are more important than the rights and freedoms of very real people. #


Free at Last

Millions of Egyptians around the globe are celebrating their new-found democratic hopes today, after a brief announcement by Egypt’s Vice President Omar Suleiman that the 29-year ruler Hosni Mubarak was stepping down, and that governmental control is to be temporarily transferred to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (which has pledged to “sponsor the legitimate demands of the people” and complete a “peaceful transfer of authority… towards a free democratic community.”)

The toppling of Mubarak’s dictatorial régime was lauded by governments and other organizations around the world. Speaking for the United States, President Obama announced “The people of Egypt have spoken; their voices have been heard and Egypt will never be the same… but this is not the end of Egypt’s transition. It’s a beginning.” Jordan’s state news agency expressed “confidence in the ability of the Egyptian armed forces to shoulder its huge responsibilities” and “deep respect for the Egyptian army.” China simply stated “that the affairs of Egypt should be decided by itself independently without intervention from the outside.” President Nicolas Sarkozy of France praised the Egyptian “non-violent march to freedom,” while Iran’s Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili compared the revolution to that of his own country (the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which resulted in an unbroken period of fundamentalist, totalitarian rule.) Militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah “congratulate[d] the Egyptian people” and applauded their “steadfastness and unity.”

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, a country widely seen as a successful Muslim democracy and a potential model for Egypt, expressed “hope that a system meeting the expectations of the Egyptian people will emerge,” stating that “the continuity of the Egyptian institutions is of crucial importance.”

It seems only Israel is uneasy about Egypt’s transition, fearing its only ally in the region could “go the direction of Iran” and “threaten all those surrounding it.”

What brings the most hope for the future is that the Egyptian people seem to have accomplished in eighteen charged days that which took France, America, and India years. #