2011: The year of protest

2011-12-08 07:22

New York – From Spain’s “indignados” protests to Occupy Wall Street, 2011 was the year when people power, fuelled by frustration at the deepening financial crisis, confronted the Western world’s elites.

Initially it was the drama in North Africa that gripped the world, starting with Tunisians ousting their president-for-life Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sweeping unstoppably through Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

But unrest, albeit bloodless, was also erupting on the rich side of the Mediterranean as Europeans lost patience with soaring unemployment, financial chaos and governments’ inability to find a solution.

Greeks had already begun large-scale demonstrations last year against austerity measures meant to save their collapsing economy.

On May 15, Spaniards sparked a new phase by launching the “indignados” or the outraged movement against youth unemployment and budget cuts, but also political corruption – a theme that struck a chord with voters across the West.

Tent camps sprang up and the Puerta del Sol area in Madrid saw huge demonstrations, peaking in June with a gathering of 200 000 people.

As in subsequent protests around the world, the leaders were university-educated youths inspired by the Arab uprisings and making heavy use of social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook.

Similar “indignant” protests began in Greece on May 25, where demonstrators camped in the centre of Athens to highlight crippling national debt and a crisis of confidence in elected officials.

When a hitherto unknown movement called Occupy Wall Street set up camp in New York in September – again, fronted by young, media-savvy activists – it pronounced itself the latest link in the growing chain.

“Arab Spring, European Summer, American Fall,” the OWS slogan proclaimed.

Unlike the desperate struggles against dictators in the Arab world, protests in Europe and the United States were largely peaceful.

But there was plenty of desperation at the apparently growing divide between ordinary people and their political or financial rulers.

Britain experienced dramatic unrest of a different sort in August – rioting and looting by youths communicating via Twitter in London and other cities. Even now, there is little consensus on whether the mobs were essentially criminal or driven by that same anger at the elite witnessed in other nations.

September saw 400 000 people march through Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities, while Occupy Wall Street in New York inspired copycat camps across the United States, in neighbouring Canada, London and as far away as Sydney.

Although relatively small, the US protests attracted massive attention at a time when the media and politicians were gearing up for next year’s presidential campaign.

Ingenious use of social networking tools and attention-grabbing actions, such as marches around the New York Stock Exchange, helped spread a message encapsulated in the slogan “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out”.

The Occupy movement was widely criticised for an absence of clear demands and it lost some steam after a string of mayors, including in New York, evicted the tent camps.

However, the movement’s overall claim to represent “the 99%” against the super rich “1%” won broad support in polls and has already changed the national debate.

Campaigning in Kansas on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama spoke very much like an Occupy protester himself.

“For most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded,” Obama said.

“Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and investments than ever before,” he said.

According to a new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the gap between the rich and poor is the biggest for 30 years worldwide, led by countries as diverse as Mexico and Britain.

During next year, that refrain about the 99% versus 1% seems unlikely to die away.

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