Occupy! Portland in early November 2011

The way I see it, Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi shaped the U.S. 2012 election in a positive way. Bear with me here, I’ll make the links.

In the 2012 U.S. elections, one of the key topics that candidates are being forced to address is wealth distribution (and income accountability, taxes, etc. etc.). This happened because of the Occupy! movement, which was encouraged by the protests in Wisconsin, which may not have been so powerful and remarkable had the good people of Wisconsin not already been fired up by protests in the burgeoning Arab Spring. And of course, the Arab Spring can owe much of its inception to the death of one young, frustrated man: Mohamed Bouazizi.

On the day the Times named our 2011 Person of the Year, I was disappointed to hear the winner was the vague “protestor.” I had a particular protestor in mind, and had been hoping they would choose Mohamed Bouazizi, the unfortunate fruit stand keeper who had endured one hardship too many and burned himself to death in protest. Not that he was the first person to self-immolate in protest in Tunisia, but December 17, 2010 his was the first story to grab news headlines. The Times talked about the runners up, who included Kate Middleton, Admiral William McCraven, and Gabriel Giffords, among others. Considering all  candidates’ contributions to the planet in 2011, I felt (and still feel) as though there is simply no comparison to the contribution of Bouazizi.

Occupy! Portland at the base of the Wells Fargo tower

Bouazizi’s flames pulled the trigger for much of Tunisia in December of 2010 and launched what probably no one was able to predict: an upheaval of north Africa and the Middle East, and shockwaves that spread across the globe. With the death of Bouazizi made public, Tunisians could no longer keep quiet. They were an entire nation of people who could identify with the last straw breaking the camel’s back. They could no longer endure the system they had been forced to negotiate within. They exploded.

As the news of the resistance of Bouazizi and his countrymen spread next door, the Egyptian trigger was pulled too. On January 25, 2011 Egyptians resisted their own oppression in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. I was riveted by the news of revolt in Egypt, since my daughter and I had been there – right there on that square – only a year previous. January 27, a huge demonstration rocked Yemen’s capital city Sana’a. News of similar revolts continued to roll in. Jordan. Bahrain. Palestine.

And with the thoughts of Arab Spring in my mind, the protests in Wisconsin hit the news February 14. I could not help but immediately make the connection and I suspect they were making it too. Revolution was on the news every day back then. Citizens in the Middle East and Africa were getting shot in the streets but willing to continue to make a stand for the will of the people. So when a wretched attack on collective bargaining rights for public servants was perceived in Wisconsin, it was only natural that they would respond with an aggressive spirit. If others are willing to die to change their government, why wouldn’t Wisconsonians be willing to misbehave and elicit some public scorn in order to block the passing of Governor Walker’s “budget repair bill?”

February 15, Libyans protested, and by the end of February their country was roused into a fury. The world was fired up! In England, unexplained riots of vandalism and theft swept through the streets. It made immediate sense to me, when everyone else was wailing “why? why?” This chaos stems from the despair borne of helplessness. An article in the Guardian suggests that we view those riots in the context of the “division between the entitled and the dispossessed.” Mexicans rose up against the devastating drug cartels. Greeks demanded accountability in the wake of their leaders’ ineptitude.

Americans again got fired up and Occupied! the country. And all the idiots in Washington said “It’ll never last,” and “Those stupid college brats are wasting their time,” and attempted to ignore it. But we remained Occupied! And the unrest that had begun in Tunisia and spread over here, rippled and went back. Hong Kong, Berlin, and Sydneygot Occupied! Politicians in the U.S. never did (and still mostly do not) have any clue how revealing the Occupy! movement is, and they continue to fuss about illegal immigration and same sex marriage, when we are UNEMPLOYED out here, and our homes have been FORECLOSED, and most of us could really give a flying fluck whether men marry other men because right now we have REAL issues to worry about.

KBOO live on the air in the midst of Occupy! Portland. Note the "people's republic of portland" bumper sticker and the image of Che Guevara

U.S. officials tried to wait out the protestors, and wait for winter to discourage them, but they wouldn’t go. So in a nationwide coordinated effort, police were sent in to break up the camps, arrest any resisters, pepper spray the rest, and bulldoze the tents. Our own Portland Mayor Sam Adams joined the melee. But it was too late.

unoccupied Portland, with metal fences and locked gates

Too late, because guess what? The whole country has begun using a vernacular that includes phrases like “class warfare” and “income inequality.” We stand around our respective water coolers and mutter to each other that politicians care only about reelection. There is a “deep distrust of government” and “capitalism in crisis.” We’ve had Warren Buffet publicly announce that he thinks it is unfair that his millions are taxed at a lower rate than his secretary’s salary. Mitt Romney succumbed to pressure and produced his tax returns. Polls since Occupy! have included a new segment of the population that demands a focus on reducing the income gap. Just enter keywords “poll wealth inequality” and see the lists of what pops up. A recent poll reveals that Americans across party lines believe that the federal government should prioritize increasing the equality of opportunities. I do not recall Americans demanding this level of transparency in our last election and I certainly do not recall an opaque response.

I learned later that the Times United Kingdom nominated Bouazizi as person of the year. I am puzzled that the discussion of person of the year in the U.S. didn’t even mention the man (though curiously he is immediately identified on their person of the year home page), and then he was the person actually selected in the UK.

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