World

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

A reporter talks to protesters around the world, from the Arab Spring to the New York Fall.

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.”

It was this sense of frustration and lack of options amidst declining economic security and increasing inequality that clearly fueled the anger of young workers, university students and the unemployed during the March 26 protests. Similar sentiments of marginalization also served as a basis for the summer riots that followed.

While organized labor brought out tens of thousands to march and rally, thousands more young people took to the city's shopping district. Rallying outside various corporations that had been targeted for their use of tax loopholes, they chanted “pay your tax” as windows and riot police were pelted with paint balloons.

Cynically referring to the government's call for a "Big Society" where everyone contributes, over 200 protesters broke into and occupied the Fortnum & Mason's high-end food shop, demanding an end to corporate tax breaks for the chain. Downtown London turned into a cat and mouse game as thousands snaked around attempted police "kettles," where riot police attempted to encircle and mass arrest demonstrators who briefly clashed with them before scattering down side streets.

A few months later I found myself in Athens, where riots against the first austerity package had brought together the desperation of Middle East-style clashes and European economic grievances. In June, during the lead-up to Parliament's passing of spending cuts and tax hikes that shrunk the civil service, slashed social security programs and closed schools, activists transformed downtown public squares into occupied tent cities.

Strikes in all social sectors, rolling blackouts (courtesy of the electrical workers) and pitched battles with police on the steps of Parliament shook the city. In front of Parliament hung a banner depicting Greek president George Papandreou with the caption "IMF employee of the month." Across the street, a massive tent city had been erected with media tents, kitchens and large space for public assemblies.

“We like what we see happening in the Arab world, but this movement doesn't just have one inspiration,” said an activist in her mid-20s who declined to give her name. “People are also talking about the occupation movement in Spain and even the principals of Ancient Athenian democracy,” she told me. “But mostly, we're just looking for an alternative to the bastards that gave our future to the IMF.”

Leaving Greece, the bleakness of a financial crisis brought about by the wealthy and paid for by everyone else was clear in the faces of the airport staff. Going through customs, I attempted to avoid the stern gaze of the border guard.

"Canada, eh? What do you like better, there or here?" the young officer asked.

"I like the weather better here," I said.

"Ah yes, the sun," he said. "One of the few things we haven't sold yet."

Returning to North America, I wondered if I'd find a local sense of urgency mixed with the idea of seizing the public square as a platform to redefine social issues. Visiting Occupy Wall Street in its early days, I found a small core of activists, mostly from the anti-globalization era.

Nonetheless, the movement had already generated a sympathetic buzz around the city and was the foremost subject at hip Brooklyn parties. A week later, thousands were storming the Brooklyn Bridge as the movement expanded in response to police violence. Returning to Zuccotti Park at the end of October, I found a broad, diverse and entrenched hub of an international social movement grappling with the meaning of democratic intervention in the economy.

Further north, the situation was different, since Canadians have not been evicted from their homes as so many Americans have as a result of the mortgage collapse. While Canadian Conservative local and federal politicians have sought to use the image of global crises to engage in a new round of painful cuts to social services, much of the present economic pain I saw in the US and Europe doesn't appear on the surface. While looking out onto a bleak economic future, it seems the grievances in Canada are primarily existential concerns about a future of economic hardship.

But meeting 20-year-old Radwa Auda as she carried crates across St. James Park in mid-October seemed to contradict Canada's self-professed image of being the exception in the global economic crisis. Auda said she'd been unable to find a job that would allow her to save up enough to attend nursing school. The daughter of parents who emigrated from Egypt, she had been camping out at the park for some time despite worried phone calls from her aunt. Referencing the blood spilled in Cairo, her family in Egypt had warned her to stay away from the Toronto protest camp.

"These protests are an opportunity. With all these revolutions [in the Arab world], a global movement has emerged," she told me, standing in a sea of tents. "People are now seeing this as an opportunity to speak up and make themselves heard."

Jesse Rosenfeld is a Toronto journalist who was based in Ramallah and Tel Aviv from 2007 to 2011. He has written for the Nation, Al Jazeera English, the Guardian, and Foreign Policy, among other publications.