Rebecca Solnit describes how the death of a Tunisian vegetable seller became the catalyst for the fall of so many dictators in what is known as the Arab Spring.
Dear young man who died on the fourth day of this turbulent 2011, dear Mohamed Bouazizi,
I want to write you about an astonishing year — with three months yet to run. I want to tell you about the power of despair and the margins of hope and the bonds of civil society.
I wish you could see the way that your small life and large death became a catalyst for the fall of so many dictators in what is known as the Arab Spring.
We are now in some sort of an American Fall. Civil society here has suddenly hit the ground running, and we are all headed toward a future no one imagined when you, a young Tunisian vegetable seller capable of giving so much, who instead had so much taken from you, burned yourself to death to protest your impoverished and humiliated state.
You lit yourself on fire on 17 December, 2010, exactly nine months before Occupy Wall Street began. Your death two weeks later would be the beginning of so much. You lit yourself on fire because you were voiceless, powerless, and evidently without hope. And yet you must have had one small hope left: that your death would have an impact; that you, who had so few powers, even the power to make a decent living or protect your modest possessions or be treated fairly and decently by the police, had the power to protest. As it turned out, you had that power beyond your wildest dreams, and you had it because your hope, however diminished, was the dream of the many, the dream of what we now have started calling the 99 per cent.
And so Tunisia erupted and overthrew its government, and Egypt caught fire, as did Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, where the non-violent protests elsewhere turned into a civil war the rebels have almost won after several bloody months. Who could have imagined a Middle East without Ben Ali of Tunisia, without Mubarak, without Gaddafi? And yet here we are, in the unimaginable world. Again. And almost everywhere.
Japan was literally shaken loose from its plans and arrangements by the 11 March earthquake and tsunami, and that country has undergone profound soul-searching about values and priorities. China is turbulent, and no one knows how much longer the discontent of the repressed middle class and the hungry poor there will remain containable. India: who knows? The Saudi government is so frightened it even gave women a few new rights. Syrians wouldn’t go home even when their army began to shoot them down. Crowds of up to a million Italians have been protesting austerity measures in recent months. The Greeks, well, if you’ve been following events, you know about the Greeks. Have I forgotten Israel? Huge demonstrations against the economic status quo there lasted all summer and into this fall.
As you knew at the outset, it’s all about economics. This wild year, Greece boiled over again into crisis with colossal protests, demonstrations, blockades, and outright street warfare. Icelanders continued their fight against bailing out the banks that sank their country’s economy in 2008 and continue pelting politicians with eggs. Their former prime minister may become the first head of state to face legal charges in connection with the global financial collapse. Spanish youth began to rise up on 15 May.
Distinctively, in so many of these uprisings the participants were not advocating for one party or a simple position, but for a better world, for dignity, for respect, for real democracy, for belonging, for hope and possibility — and their economic underpinnings. The Spanish young whose future had been sold out to benefit corporations and their 1 per cent were nicknamed the Indignados, and they lived in the plazas of Spain this summer. Occupied Madrid, like Occupied Tahrir Square, preceded Occupy Wall Street.
In Chile, students outraged by the cost of an education and the profound inequities of their society have been demonstrating since May — with everything from kiss-ins to school occupations to marches of 150000 or more. Forty thousand students marched against “education reform” in Colombia last week. And in August in Britain the young went on a rampage that tore up London, Birmingham, and dozens of other communities, an event that began when the police shot Mark Duggan, a dark-skinned 29-year-old Londoner. Young Britons had risen up more peaceably over tuition hikes the winter before. There, too, things are bleak and volatile — something I know you would understand. In Mexico, a beautiful movement involving mass demonstrations against the drug war has arisen, triggered by the death of another young man, and by the grief and vision of his father, leftwing poet Javier Cicilia.
The United States had one great eruption in Wisconsin this winter, when the citizenry occupied their state capitol building in Madison for weeks. Egyptians and others elsewhere on the planet called a local pizza parlour and sent pies to the occupiers. We all know the links. We’re all watching. So the Occupy movement has spilled over from Wall Street. Hundreds of occupations are happening all over the North America: in Oklahoma City and Tijuana, in Victoria and Fort Lauderdale.
The 99 per cent
We are the 99 per cent is the cry of the Occupy movement. This summer one of the flyers that helped launch the Occupy Wall Street protest read: “We, the 99.9 per cent, call for an open general assembly 9 August, 7.30pm at the Potato Famine Memorial, NYC.” It was an assembly to discuss the 17 September occupation-to-come.
The Irish Hunger Memorial, so close to Wall Street, commemorates the million Irish peasants who starved in the 1840s, while Ireland remained a food-exporting country and the landed gentry continued to profit. It’s a monument to the exploitation of the many by the few, to the forces that turned some of our ancestors — including my mother’s four Irish grandparents — into immigrants, forces that are still pushing people out of farms, homes, nations, regions.
The Irish famine was one of the great examples of those disasters of the modern era that are not crises of scarcity, but of distribution. The United States is now the wealthiest country the world has ever known, and has an abundance of natural resources, as well as of nurses, doctors, universities, teachers, housing, and food — so ours, too, is a crisis of distribution. Everyone could have everything they need and the rich would still be rich enough, but you know that enough isn’t a concept for them. They’re greedy, and their 30-year grab for yet more has carved away at what’s minimally necessary for the survival and dignity of the rest of us. So the Famine Memorial couldn’t have been a more appropriate place for Occupy Wall Street to begin.
The 99 per cent, those who starve during famines and lose their livelihoods and homes during crashes, were going to respond to the 1 per cent who had been served so well by the Bush administration and by the era of extreme privatisation it ushered in. As my friend Andy Kroll reported at TomDispatch, “The top 1 per cent of earners enjoyed 65 per cent of all income growth in America for much of the decade” just passed. “In 2010,” he added, “20.5 million people, or 6.7 per cent of all Americans, scraped by with less than $11157 for a family of four — that is, less than half of the poverty line.” You can’t get by on less than $1000 a month in this country where a single visit to an emergency room can cost your annual income, a car twice that, and a year at a private college more than four times that.
Later in August came the website started by a 28-year-old New York City activist, we are the 99 per cent, to which hundreds daily now submit photographs of themselves. Each of them also testifies to the bleak conditions they find themselves in, despite their hard work and educations which often left them in debt, despite the promises dangled before them that (if they played the game right) they’d be safe, housed, and living a part of that oversold dream.
It’s a website of unremitting waking nightmares, economic bad dreams that a little wealth redistribution would eliminate (even without eliminating the wealthy). The people contributing aren’t asking for luxuries. They would simply prefer not to be worked to death like so many nineteenth-century mill-workers, nor to have their whole world come crashing down if they get sick. They want to survive with dignity, and their testimony will break your heart.
Mohammed Bouazizi, dead at 26, you to whom I’m writing, here is one of the recent posts at that site:
“I am 26 years old. I am $134000 in debt. I started working at 14 years old, and have worked Full-Time since I turned 20. I work in IT and got laid off in July 2011. I was LUCKY, and found a job RIGHT AWAY: with a Pay Cut and MORE HOURS. Now, I just found out that my Dad got laid off last week – after 18 YEARS with the same employer. I have debilitating (SP! Sorry!) OCD and can’t take time away from work to get treatment because I can’t afford my mortgage payments if I don’t go to work, and I’m afraid I’ll lose my NEW job if I take time off!!! WE ARE THE 99 PER CENT.”
Some of the people at we are the 99 per cent offer at least partial views of their faces, but the young IT worker quoted above holds a handwritten letter so long that it obscures his face. Poverty obscures your face too. It obscures your talents, potential, even your distinctive voice, and if it goes deep enough, it eradicates you by degrees of hunger and degradation. Poverty is a creation of the systems against which people all over the planet are revolting this wild year of 2011. The Arab Spring, after all, was an economic revolt. What were all those dictatorships and autocracies for, if not to squeeze as much profit as possible out of subjugated populations — profit for rulers, profit for multinational corporations, profit for that 1 per cent.
“We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers,” was the slogan of the first student protest called in Spain this year. Your beautiful generation, Mohammed Bouazizi, has arisen and is bringing the rest of us along, even here in the United States.
The people’s microphone
Its earliest critics seemed to think that Occupy Wall Street was a lobbying group whose chosen task on this planet should be to create a package of realistic demands. In other words, they were convinced that the occupiers should become supplicants, asking the powerful for some kind of handout like college debt forgiveness. They were suggesting that a dream as wide as the sky be stuffed into little bottles and put up for sale. Or simply smashed.
In the same way, they wanted this movement to hurry up and appoint leaders, so that there would be someone to single out and investigate, pick off, or corrupt. At heart, however, this is a leaderless movement, an anarchist movement, catalysed by the grace of civil society and the hard work of the collective. The Occupy movement — like so many movements around the world now — is using general assemblies as its form of protest and process. Its members are not facing the authorities, but each other, coming to know themselves, trying to give rise to the democracy they desire on a small scale rather than merely railing against its absence on a large scale.
These are the famous Occupy general assemblies in which decisions are made by consensus and, in the absence of amplification (by order of the New York City police), the people’s mike is used: those assembled repeat what is said as it’s said, creating a human megaphone effect. This is accompanied by a small vocabulary of hand gestures, which help people participate in the complex process of a huge group having a conversation.
In other words, the process is also the goal: direct democracy. No one can hand that down to you. You live direct democracy in that moment when you find yourself participating in civil society as a citizen with an equal voice. Put another way, the Occupiers are not demanding that something be given to them but formulating something new. That it involves no technology, not even bullhorns, is itself remarkable in this wired era. It’s just passionate people together — and then Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, text messages, emails, and online sites like this one spread the word, along with some print media, notably the Occupied Wall Street Journal.
The beauty and the genius of this movement in this moment is that it has found a way to define its needs and desires without putting limits on them that would automatically exclude so many. In doing so, it has spoken to nearly all of us.
There is the terrible rage at economic injustice that is shared by college students looking at a future of debt and overwork, as well as those who couldn’t afford college in the first place, by working people struggling ever harder for less, by the many who have no jobs and few prospects, by people forced out of their homes by the games banks play with mortgages and profits, and by everyone the catastrophe that is health care in this country has affected. And by the rest of us, furious on their behalf (and on our own).
And then there is the joyous hope that things could actually be different. That hope has been fulfilled a little in the way that an open-ended occupation has survived four weeks and more and turned into hundreds of Occupy actions around the country and marches in almost 1000 cities around the world last Sunday, from Sydney to Tokyo to Santa Rosa. It speaks for so many; it speaks for the 99 per cent; and it speaks clearly, so clearly that an ex-Marine showed up with a hand-lettered sign that said, “2nd time I’ve fought for my country, 1st time I’ve known my enemy.”
The climate change movement showed up at Occupy Wall Street, too. What’s blocking action on climate change is what’s blocking action on all the other issues that matter: it would cut into profits. Never mind the deep future, not when what’s at stake is quarterly earnings.
A dozen years ago, after the wildly successful revolt against neo-liberal economic policy in Seattle, the slogan that stuck around was: “Another World Is Possible.” I was never sure about that one because in crucial places and ways that other world is already here. In a YouTube video of the New York occupation, however, I watched an old woman in a straw hat say, “We’re fighting for a society in which everyone is important.” What a beautiful summation! Could any demand be clearer than that? And could the ways in which people have no value under our current economic regime be more obvious?
What is your Occupation?
Occupy Wall Street. Occupy together. Occupy New Orleans, Portland, Stockton, Boston, Las Cruces, Minneapolis. Occupy. The very word is a manifesto, a position statement, and a position as well. For so many people, particularly men, their occupation is their identity, and when a job is lost, they become not just unemployed, but no one. The Occupy movement offers them a new occupation, work that won’t pay the bills, but a job worth doing. “Lost my job, found an occupation,” said one sign in the crowd of witty signs.
There is, of course, a bleaker meaning for the word occupation, as in “the US is occupying Iraq.” Even National Public Radio gives the Dow Jones report several times a day, as though the rise and fall of the stock market had not long ago been decoupled from the rise and fall of genuine measures of well-being for the 99 per cent. A small part of Wall Street, which has long occupied us as if it were a foreign power, is now occupied as though it were a foreign country.
Wall Street is a foreign country — and maybe an enemy country as well. And now it’s occupied. The way that Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay for 18 months four decades ago and galvanised a national Native American rights movement. You pick some place to stand, and when you stand there, you find your other occupation, as a member of civil society.
This May in Ohio, a group of Robin Hoods literally lowered a drawbridge they made so they could cross a “moat” around Chase Bank’s headquarters and invade its shareholders’ meeting. Forty Robin Hoods also showed up en masse last week in kayaks for a national mortgage bankers’ meeting in Chicago. Houses facing foreclosure are being occupied. Foreclosure is, of course, a way of turning people into non-occupants.
At this moment in history, occupation should be everyone’s occupation.
Baby pictures of a revolt
Young man whose despair gave birth to hope, no one knows what the future holds. When you set yourself afire almost ten months ago, you certainly didn’t know, nor do any of us know now, what the long-term outcome of the Arab Spring will be, let alone this American Fall. Such a movement arrives in the world like a newborn. Who knows its fate, or even whether it will survive to grow up?
It may be suppressed like the Prague Spring of 1968. It may go through a crazy adolescence like the French Revolution of 1789 and yet grow beyond its parents’ dreams. Radiant at birth, wreathed in smiles, it may become a stolid bourgeois citizen as did such movements in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the reunited Germany after civil society freed those countries from totalitarianism.
It may grow up into turbulence as has the Philippines since its 1986 revolution ousted the kleptocracy of the Marcos family. Revolution may be assassinated young, the way the democratic government of Mohammed Mossadegh was in Iran in 1953, that of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, and President Salvador Allende’s Chilean experiment on September 11, 1973, all three in CIA-backed military coups. On behalf of the 1 per cent.
Whether a human child or a child of history, we can’t know who or what it will become, but it’s still possible to grasp something about it by asking who or what it resembles. What does Occupy Wall Street look like? Well, its siblings born around the world this year, of course, and perhaps in some way the American civil rights movement that began in the 1950s.
There was a national uprising in the United States no less spontaneous in its formation during the great depression of the 1870s, but the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was violent, while the Occupy movement is deeply imbued with the spirit and tactics of non-violence. The last Great Depression, the one that began in 1929, created a host of radical movements, as well as the Hoovervilles of homeless people. There are family resemblances. The marches and actions against the coming invasion of Iraq on 15 February 2003, on all seven continents (yes, including Antarctica) are clearly kin. And the anti-corporate globalisation movement is a godmother. And then there’s a sibling just a decade older.
Zuccotti Park is just two blocks from Wall Street, and also just a block from Ground Zero, the site of the 9/11 attack. On that day, it was badly damaged. This 21 September, my dear friend Marina Sitrin wrote me from Occupy Wall Street: “There are people from more diverse backgrounds racially, more diverse age groups, including not just a few children here with their parents, and a number of working people from the area. In particular, some of the security guards from the 9/11 memorial, a block away have been coming by for lunch and chatting with people, as has a local group of construction workers.”
If the Arab Spring was the decade-later antithesis of 9/11, a largely non-violent, publicly inclusive revolt that forced the Western world to get over its fearful fantasy that all young Muslims are terrorists, jihadis, and suicide bombers, then Occupy Wall Street, which began six days after the 10th anniversary of that nightmarish day in September, is the other half of 9/11 in New York. What was remarkable about that day 10 years ago is how calmly and beautifully everyone behaved. New Yorkers helped each other down those dozens of floors of stairs in the Twin Towers and away from the catastrophe, while others lined up to give blood, desperate to do something, anything, to participate, to be part of a new-found sense of community that arose in the city that day.
There was, for example, a huge commissary organised on Chelsea Piers that provided free food, medical supplies, and work equipment for the people at Ground Zero and also helped find housing for the displaced. It was not an official effort, but one that arose even more spontaneously than Occupy Wall Street, without leaders or institutions — and it was forcibly disbanded when the official organi-sations got their act together a few days later. Those who participated experienced a sense of democracy amid all the distress and sorrow, a tremendous joy in finding meaningful work and deep social connections, and a little temporary joy, as they often do in disaster.
When I began to study the history of urban disaster years ago, I found such unexpected exhibitions of that kind of joy again and again, uniting the generative moments of protests, demonstrations, revolts, and revolutions with the aftermath of some disasters. Even when the losses were terrible, the ways that people came together to meet the occasion were almost always inspiring.
Since I wrote A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, I have been asked again and again whether economic crisis begets the same kind of community as sudden disasters. It did in Argentina in 2001, when the economy crashed there. And it has now, in the streets of New York and many other cities, in 2011. A sign at Occupy San Francisco said, “IT’S TIME.” It is. It’s been time for a long time.
No hope but in ourselves
The birth of this moment was delayed three years. Argentinians reacted immediately to the 2001 crisis and to long-simmering grievances with an economy that had ground so many of them down even before the government froze all bank accounts and the economy crashed. On the other hand, our economy collapsed three years ago this month to headlines like “Capitalism is dead” in the business press. There was certainly some fury and outrage at the time, but the real reaction was delayed, or decoyed.
The outrage of the moment did, in fact, result in a powerful grassroots movement that focused on a single political candidate to fix it all for us, as he promised he would. It was a beautiful movement, a hopeful movement, much more so than its candidate. The movement got its lone candidate into the highest office in the land, where he remains today, and then walked away as though the job was done. It had just begun.
That movement could have fought the corporations, given us a real climate-change policy, and more, but it allowed itself to be disbanded as though one elected politician were the equivalent of ten million citizens, of civil society itself. It was a broad-based movement, of all ages and races, and I think it’s back, disillusioned with politicians and electoral politics, determined this time to do it for itself, beyond and outside the corroded arenas of institutional power.
I don’t know exactly who this baby looks like, but I know that who you look like is not who you will become. This unanticipated baby has a month behind it and a future ahead of it that none of us can see, but its birth should give you hope.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of 13 books, including A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster and Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.