As democracy protests spread across the Middle East, we as journalists struggle to convey the sights and sounds, the religion and politics. But there’s one central element that we can’t even begin to capture: the raw courage of men and women — some of them just teenagers — who risk torture, beatings and even death because they want freedoms that we take for granted.So begins Watching Protesters Risk It All, Nicholas Kristof's NY Times column, written in Bahrein.
It is powerful. He talks about individuals by name, although it is only first names:
(I’m withholding family names. Many people were willing for their full names to be published, but at a hospital I was shaken after I interviewed one young man who had spoken publicly about seeing the police kill protesters — and then, he said, the police kidnapped him off the street and beat him badly.)
He equates what is happening in the Middle East to the Colonies here in 1776. It is an interesting comparison. It is worthwhile comparison.
But as I read I could not help but think of the United States, in recent times to be sure, but especially in Wisconsin, in 2011.
We have been watching the unfolding of democracy across the Arab nations of Northern Africa, and perhaps of the Arabian peninsula. We have seen people willing to risk it all in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrein and now apparently in Libya. We have seen several repressive regimes toppled, with perhaps more to come. We have seen armies upon whom repressive and dictatorial leaders depend either abandon them as they did in Egypt or at least splinter as has been happening as far as we can tell in Libya.
People have died in these protests.
I was born in 1946. I watched as a school child people demonstrate, get beaten, and sometimes die during the Civil Rights Era - as have events in the Arab world drawn us to electronic media so were we then drawn to television.
I believe the PEACEFUL (addit suggested by DWG) opposition to Vietnam would not have happened absent the earlier example of Civil Rights.
I saw many who demonstrated against Vietnam, starting in 1964 in New York - it was a parade, led by someone I knew, Russ Stetler, Haverford '66. He was Progressive Labor Party, a Maoist group. The veterans organizations pushed the city of Philadelphia to take away his scholarship. I remember all that because I went to that parade, even though I later enlisted in the Marine Corps, not because I supported Vietnam, but because I believed I had an obligation to serve, an obligation I still have but which I fulfill in a different way, by being a public school teacher.
In the 1960s this nation was split. Then labor unions opposed our protests - when students who had been striking Columbia U marched down Broadway after the assassination of King in 1968, they were attacked and beaten by construction workers further downtown. The police were more supportive of the construction workers than they were willing to intervene to protect the marchers.
During the leadup to the invasion of Iraq, we had massive demonstrations across the nation, but the media was unwilling to credit them, barely covering them.
The spirit of protest seemed to have left the heart and soul of America.
But then there is Wisconsin. It is personal for me - my wife's youngest sister is a graduate student and assistant at the University in Madison. She is thus a state employee. The proposed bill would likely force her out of her graduate program. For the first time in her life she went and demonstrated.
I wonder if what we are seeing in Wisconsin would have happened absent Tunisia and Egypt? Certainly, seeing the impact of demonstrations by Tea Party groups may have contributed: if one side of a political debate can get traction for their cause and coverage by the media by large demonstrations - even if those demonstrations are manufactured and coopted by selfish folks who seek to use them to benefit themselves - it will occur to some that perhaps a different point of view might also gain leverage by demonstrations.
In Egypt, when Muslims knelt to pray in Tahrir Square, Christians formed protective rings around them. Groups that the government had sought to pit against one another came together in common cause.
In Wisconsin, the Governor sought to split the unions of public employees by exempting public safety from his attempt to roll back collective bargaining, but police and fire recognized that if teachers and other non-uniformed government workers lost their rights, they would then have little protection when Governor Walker turned on them as well, as he would inevitably do. They supported the protesters, with the State Police union publicly abandoning and criticizing Walker, and the local police complimenting the protesters and coordinating with them.
Walker threatened to use the National Guard. I do not know how many of those protesting remember how the Guard had been used before - against Civil Rights demonstrators in the South until in some cases Presidents federalized the guard to take it away from the likes of George Wallace and Ross Barnett. Perhaps a few remember the Ohio National Guard firing on and killing protesters at Kent State. 4 died there.
We had riots in this country, with people dying in conflicts with police and guard.
Some of the protests were unnecessarily violent. Wisconsin has seen as yet no violence on either side.
I believe Walker's overreach has provided a spark that lit a a fire, a fire fanned by the winds of protest South of the Mediterranean and along the Gulf. Americans see people in truly repressive regimes stand up for, and in some cases die for, rights we take for granted, rights that were won in this country by similar protests - yes, Nick Kristof, against George III and his Parliament and his army, to be sure, but also against corporations and Pinkertons and bought legislators and Congressmen controlled by wealthy industrialists. Does any of that ring a bell?
Rights that are not defended are rights that are lost. Turning to strong men to "protect" us almost inevitably leads to tyranny. We were lucky. Some of Washington's officers were so upset at their Congress that they were prepared to declare him King and themselves the nobles, but he shut them down. By not running for a 3rd term he assuredly would have won, he set an example of limited governance at the top. And because he had no biological children of his own we were spared what we have seen in many tyrannies - fathers handing over power to their children, as was the case in N Korea, as both Egypt and Libya feared might happen to them. We see too much of that in our nation, directly in the case of the Congress, on both sides of the aisle (Democratic Congressmen named Meeks and Carson (grandson)), and in our leadership in states and in the White House. In that we are not alone - think of India, or of Pakistan, or of other nations ostensibly democracies that pass the reins of power within familial structures.
Returning again to Kristof:
For decades, the United States embraced corrupt and repressive autocracies across the Middle East, turning a blind eye to torture and repression in part because of fear that the “democratic rabble” might be hostile to us. Far too often, we were both myopic and just plain on the wrong side.Might one not argue that our government has been just as myopic about the power of the rich, the corporations, Wall Street and the like in this nation? Have not our media stood by while these have demonized some of the only opposition to their further accrual of power and wealth, the unions? Has that not been true even under Democratic presidents named Carter, Clinton and until recently Obama?
Until recently. Just as we have seen the President begin to speak out on events overseas, we have seen SOME comments about Wisconsin.
And maybe, just maybe, the corporate-controlled media is beginning to realize that they are no longer the soul source of information in this nation. We, too, can use social media to organize, to transmit information, to present alternate - and often more accurate - portrayals and interpretations of events, not just overseas, but in our own nation.
Demonstrations and protests have spread across the Middle East and North Africa. Labor protests are spreading across the United States. I find the latter no coincidence.
Democracy is not yet assured in any of the countries that have gone through turmoil. Wisconsin is not yet over, nor are its effects fully determined anywhere else in this nation.
In both places some mass of people have been awakened to what is happening to them. Some mass of people realize that change might be possible, but that requires action, commitment, willingness to risk.
In both places people have begun to take those risks.
Kristof concludes like this:
In the 1700s, a similar kind of grit won independence for the United States from Britain. A democratic Arab world will be a flawed and messy place, just as a democratic America has been — but it’s still time to align ourselves with the democrats of the Arab world and not the George III’s.
And I think again of Civil Rights, of protests against the war in Vietnam. But I also think further back, of Haymarket, of the Triangle Fire and the response to it, of the Homestead and Pullman strikes. I know labor history, I know what so many of generation - mine, earlier and later - owe to those who risked and sometimes died so that we might have 8 hour days, 5 day weeks, overtime, paid vacations, paid holidays, safer working conditions, and so much more.
The spread of wealth and the creation of a broad middle class came during the period of the largest unionized work force in our history, one in three workers, during the period after WWII. It was also the time of the highest incremental tax rates. And our nation and people prospered.
Today I read Kristof. He wrote about Bahrein, about the Middle East, about courage. He connected it with our history. I see it coming back to our nation in Wisconsin.
There is a parallel. Henry David Thoreau began civil disobedience in protest to the Mexican War, a war that strongly influenced the career of perhaps our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln. We saw the impact civil disobedience could have in the Indian subcontinent in the activities of Gandhi. What he did, and how he was successful, came back to influence the non-violent civil disobedience that won Civil Rights in my lifetime.
Aspirations of democracy include political freedom, to be sure. They also include economic freedom and security. Scott Walker attacked those, dishonestly attacked those. Perhaps, just perhaps, Americans are beginning to remember their rights, their history, and are willing to stand up? Perhaps our media is remembering the importance it has, which is not to be cheerleaders for the wealthy and powerful?
Today I read Kristof. Today I thought about Wisconsin, and more.
This diary is the result.
Peace? At least so far.