Around the World In Five Revolutions: One Reporter's Journey Through the Year's Protests In the Middle East, London, Athens, New York and Toronto
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When 3,000 people marched through Toronto's financial district on October 15, expanding the Occupy Wall Street protests north of the border, I scanned the crowd wondering if my home city could actually forge a connection with the social movements erupting around the globe. In the weeks that followed, I got my answer as hundreds of tents expanded across St. James Park, blocks from the heart of Canada's financial district.
Canada has been relatively sheltered from the global financial crisis and detached from global issues -- especially those in the Arab world -- by its insular political culture. But the determination by these Canadian protesters to chart a new course seemed to radiate the same mix of desperation, necessity and optimism I witnessed firsthand in the recent protests in the Middle East, Europe and the US.
While the gulf between conditions affecting the protesters in the Middle East and those in the West is stark, it is clear that young people in both contexts are being driven by rage, marginalization and the demand for democratic representation. In a role reversal unthinkable just a few short years ago, the young dispossessed in London, Athens, New York and Toronto are being inspired by Arab youth to take up the struggle for democratic liberation.
Several months prior to the launch of the Occupy Movement, I stood next to young Palestinians in the West Bank as they fought tooth and nail with Palestinian Authority security forces to hold the center of Ramallah and transform the city’s central square into a platform for discussion and social action.
I watched this pattern of protest beginning to emerge on the foggy afternoon of January 28, 2011 from my unofficial “office” of three previous years. Glued to Al Jazeera in the crowded Ramallah shisha café, where locals gather to smoke and argue politics over coffee, I found myself in an atmosphere that more resembled a live sports match than an unfolding political crisis.
The cafe hosts an eclectic mix of people, ranging from a core of grumpy old men to university students, local journalists and artists. With everyone glued to the TV on the main floor, cheers erupted as Mubarak's police were pushed back by youth advancing on Cairo's Tahrir square. Curses in Arabic rang out responding to police attacks in a tone I had previously heard used only against advancing Israeli soldiers.
As young Palestinians cheered on Egyptian youth pelting security vehicles with Molotov cocktails as they fought to take "Liberation square," it was clear that the crowd saw their aspirations and desire for change in the Egyptian protesters’ life and death fight for freedom. Turning to a friend sitting next to me, I asked why Ramallahns seemed more enthralled with events in Egypt than at home, especially considering Al Jazeera's then recent release of the Palestine Papers – leaked documents exposing the structure of collaboration between the Palestinian leadership and Israeli occupation.
“We are tired of dealing with the same old thing,” he told me. “This [uprising] is something new.”
As revolutions in Tunisa and then Egypt raged, young Palestinians began organizing solidarity protests that were quickly dispersed or violently repressed by Palestinian Authority security forces, in turn laying the ground for Palestinian youth to start their own spring.
On March 15, using the Arab Spring tactic of seizing public squares to transform them into symbols of democratic transition, thousands of youth in Ramallah and Gaza (ruled by the Islamic nationalist movement, Hamas), fiercely battled security forces in a bid to hold their city centers. They united behind a call for full democratic election of the Palestine Liberation Organization's national council (the official body representing all Palestinian people) and an immediate end to national political division.
Rocking the political establishment with what amounted to a demand for transformation of power, the youth's actions threatened to produce popular unity from below and forge a new struggle against continued Israeli oppression with or without their leaders.
“Today is the opening shot of a generational power clash. Things won’t be the same after,” leading March 15 organizer Fadi Quran told me in Ramallah's Al Manara Square not long before PA loyalists and police attacked and tried to disperse the crowd. As dark approached, news arrived of youth shot by Hamas forces in Gaza while the crackdown in downtown Ramallah intensified with a steady stream of ambulances taking away the bloodied and beaten.
Immediate (and empty) overtures at political reconciliation among the divided leadership followed, while the protest movement expanded to mobilize the long neglected Palestinian refugees. The March 15 protests were followed by large and deadly clashes, in which Israeli soldiers gunned down unarmed diaspora Palestinians attempting to return to the land of their families displaced from decades earlier, on Israel's border with Lebanon and Syria in May and June.
Not long after Palestinians took to the streets, I arrived in London just before the massive March 26 anti-austerity demonstrations. Under the slogan “Turn Trafalgar into Tahrir,” the protests were conceptually inspired by demands on the Arab Street for inclusion and equality. It was the first clear example in the West that I saw of attempts to channel the inspiration of resistance against political oppression in the Middle East and North Africa to respond to economic exclusion.
I stayed with Eran Cohen, a skinny anarchist activist and hospital lab assistant with a mild British punk aesthetic, where I had a unique look into the impact of the austerity on London's young workers.
Cohen grew up middle class to activist parents and started squatting after high school, moving in with groups of radicals, artists and students who either couldn't afford London rents or were enthralled with collective living and transforming empty spaces into homes. I regularly stayed with him at various East London squats on trips between Canada and the Middle East. In more recent years, however, Cohen had grown tired of the squatting culture, got an apartment and had concentrated most of his efforts into mobilizing his union to resist job losses and privatization.
“Since the elections there was a feeling that there is no fight back, that we are just getting totally shafted with austerity cuts. I could especially see this in the hospitals, where pay freezes and privatization is already in process,” he told me.
Following a breakup with his partner over the summer, and unable to pay London rent on his own, despite a job in a London hospital, Cohen began squatting again. “I don't think I'm gonna rent in London again, not on my wages. I'll move to another town in Scotland where I can get council [state-subsidized] housing,” he said. “I'm squatting right now out of need, before I did it for fun.”