“We live in turbulent times,” my uncle observed last Saturday. He’s right: the world is roiling.
This past week alone: 100,000 students marched in Santiago, Chile to protest education cuts. (The protest turned violent on Friday when police used excessive force and tear-gassed the crowd.) On Saturday, 300,000 people from across the political spectrum marched in Israel, mainly to protest rising housing costs. (A million-person march is planned for next week.)
Syria saw probably its bloodiest weekend of protests yet, as the government sent in more forces to crush anti-authoritarian uprisings. In Spain, a resurgent M-15 — the huge yet ambiguous protest organization that occupied Madrid’s main square this summer — was blocked by anti-riot police from re-occupying Puerto del Sol. And, in Tottenham, London, a peaceful vigil for a man slain by police was stoked into a weekend of riots that is spreading throughout the city as of this writing.
The swelling protests are all unique in their ways, but we certainly seem to be in the midst of a global “protest movement movement.” Many of the demonstrations — at least the nonviolent ones — have been presented in the media as a continuation of the Arab Spring, due to the important role of online social media and the peaceful, game-changing aspirations of participants. And in most of the recent protests, there is evidence of a frightened and over-reactive government (the Chinese government, quaking over growing unrest due to its cover-up of a train crash last month, is flailing at online censorship) or a woefully unprepared police force (the Tottenham police were severely late in addressing public questions about the shooting, and failed to heed community leader warnings about potential violence).
But all have to do with economic inequality, an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness in the face of ineffectual governance, and an onslaught of austerity cuts imposed from above. Last week’s odious debt ceiling charade by American “leaders” has just ensured massive national austerity cuts, and made the economy a lot more anxious (and unequal). Hands up if you feel powerless.
I think of two recent large examples of Bay Area economic unrest: the 2009 student demonstrations against University of California tuition hikes and the reaction to the Mehserle verdict last year. Are we prepared to channel the coming frustration into an expansive, nonviolent popular movement that builds on positive momentum, includes everyone, and brings a whiff of the Arab Spring to our shores?