I think Martin Luther King was on to something when he observed that protest is, at bottom, the language of the unheard. Given this assessment, it appears we live in an age unprecedented for its hard-of-hearing political functionaries.
The Arab Spring’s first wave of peaceful protests toppled dictators in Egypt and Tunisia before mounting violence dragged Gaddafi’s Libya into civil war, displaced Yemen’s strongman with rocket-fire, shattered Bahrain’s superficial tranquility and triggered a bloody crack-down in the Syrian police state. Despite the crescendo achieved at the end of Mubarak’s abridged presidency-for-life, a rapidly escalating revolutionary process was at hand.
In Albania, 20,000 people rallied outside parliamentary buildings in the capital of Tirana to call on the conservative government to resign. Hikes in food prices and unemployment drove Algerians to the streets. Leftist activists in Argentina’s Jujuy province organized the jobless and landless to protest land seizures, which police confronted with rubber bullets, tear gas and gunshots. Violent riots rocked Bangladesh as evictions forced by government construction prompted a running battle between security forces and ejected villagers. Months of constitutional deadlock in Belgium nearly fractured the country in half…
But allow me to cut to the chase. Beyond those countries already mentioned — and literally off the top of my head — Canada, Chile, Cuba, Cypress, Greece, Honduras, India, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Tunisia, the UK and Venezuela all experienced sustained expressions of public discontent that rattled their respective societies. I’m positively certain there are more that I’m forgetting. Frankly, one could probably list most of Western Europe as thousands rallied to declare war on austerity cuts…
Initial manifestations of this year’s demonstration contagion appeared contrived in U.S., as union bosses manufactured an artificial sit-in at Wisconsin’s state house, but it’s nearly impossible to watch as London burns and not wonder “Who’s next?”
Consider the circumstances that prompted the riots in Great Britain. Sure, Mark Duggan, a man of questionable integrity, was shot by police under similarly questionable circumstances in a racially sensitive neighborhood that has experienced similar public unrest in the past. But the underlying factors — high unemployment in the inner cities (especially among minorities), government cut-backs on benefits and public services, mounting racial tensions — were instantly metastasized by the simplicity of text messages and social media to organize opportunistic people in “spontaneous” mobs.
What’s alarming is these circumstances aren’t unique to the UK. How many American cities are packed with the same tinder? How fragile is our political culture when the most patriotic thing one can do at the moment is sell short?
2011 was originally billed as the year of the peaceful protest. At present, it seems to be trending toward the year of the riot. Clearly we’re a long way from the Arab Spring when thugs armed with cricket bats can force entry into high end restaurants in the business district of an international financial capital before demanding diners hand over their wallets and wedding rings.
Regardless, this tremulous sense of over-arching, transnational unrest and political dissidence seems to be nearing an all-time high. Here’s hoping it stays across the pond.