The World on Fire: Tunisia, Egypt, and the Power of Protest

by Latoya Peterson

What is the tipping point for a revolution?

Normally, there are many different things brewing – a political climate, social unrest, gross inequality that all contribute to turn a nation inside out. Yet many reports want to trace a revolution back to a single, definitive event. Crispus Attucks is considered the first martyr of the American Revolution, Rosa Parks is widely considered the catalyst of the US civil rights movement, her actions sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Mohamed Bouaziz is the name behind the sudden surge in interest in self-immolation.

Bouaziz’s last protest made its way to cameras, which then spread the news that Tunisia was on the cusp of a revolt. Al Jazeera frames the story:

In a country where officials have little concern for the rights of citizens, there was nothing extraordinary about humiliating a young man trying to sell fruit and vegetables to support his family.

Yet when Mohamed Bouazizi poured inflammable liquid over his body and set himself alight outside the local municipal office, his act of protest cemented a revolt that would ultimately end President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year-rule.

Local police officers had been picking on Bouazizi for years, ever since he was a child. For his family, there is some comfort that their personal loss has had such stunning political consequences.

“I don’t want Mohamed’s death to be wasted,” Menobia Bouazizi, his mother, said. “Mohamed was the key to this revolt.”

And yet later, it is revealed that Bouazizi was one of many who had started to sound the alarm – an alarm suppressed by government officials and widely ignored by media under governmental control:

Mohamed Bouazizi was not the first Tunisian to set himself alight in an act of public protest.

Abdesslem Trimech, to name one of many cases occurred without any significant media attention, set himself ablaze in the town of Monastir on March 3 after facing bureaucratic hindrance in his own work as a street vendor.

Neither was it evident that the protests that begin in Sidi Bouzid would spread to other towns. There had been similar clashes between police and protesters in the town of Ben Guerdane, near the border with Libya, in August.

The key difference in Sidi Bouzid was that locals fought to get news of what was happening out, and succeeded.

“We could protest for two years here, but without videos no one would take any notice of us,” Horchani said.

I often wonder what ignites a protest and what does not. I specifically think of Lee Kyoung Hae, who stabbed himself in protest of the World Trade Organization’s policies toward South Korean farmers and their agricultural policy at large. I was in high school when the Battle in Seattle occurred – I’ve been fascinated by the World Trade Organization ever since. But while Lee did not die in vain, his protest did not lead to the type of uprising that could topple the WTO. Why? Why do some protests galvanize into movements, and others fade into time?

There are no clear answers to these questions, and yet the world keeps moving. Egypt, hot on the heels of Tunisia, also underwent a revolution, one that garnered a bit more attention from media outlets here.

Reader Lara tipped us to this amazing piece by Sarah Ghabrial, which delivers some much needed context:

As much as Egyptians may have surprised themselves and their neighbours, no one seems more caught off guard by this recent turn of events than members of western mainstream media and political officials. The western media appear bewildered, their commentary halting and unsure. Perhaps this is because, for so long, news agencies have stacked their rolodexes with analysts on the Middle East whose area of expertise lay primarily in terrorism and religious fundamentalism. They now seem ill prepared to comprehend this past week’s events, which have been so free of religious rhetoric, much less offer any insight on what the world may expect to come next. More than one commentator has remarked on the possibility of an Islamist take-over in Egypt and elsewhere, as though for lack of anything else worthwhile to say. Some appeared at a loss as they reported that protesters were not shouting “Death to America.”

The response to civil unrest in Egypt has been strangely unlike the response to the Iranian would-be “Green Revolution” of 2009. Because Iranians were standing up to a long-hated Islamist regime, their struggle was immediately embraced in the west across the political spectrum.

By contrast, western observers in the cultural mainstream have been hesitant about the Days of Anger, as they lack a clear and ready-made approach for identifying and understanding Arab discontent. This is probably due in part to the ostensible “secularism” of these regimes, and because instability in the Middle East is seen as a breeding ground for terrorism. Ironically, most terrorists out of Egypt are largely a product of the Mubarak school of stability — imprisonment, repression, and torture. But apparently the alternative is more horrifying: a scenario in which Egyptians may choose their own government. One can picture the Egyptians who populate the imagination of policymakers and journalists: a pious and incorrigible bunch, impelled in the direction of fanaticism as though by gravity. (Read the rest…)

And Larbi Sadiki pinpoints the real catalyst - and why so many news outlets missed the signs:

Regimes in countries like Tunisia and Algeria have been arming and training security apparatuses to fight Osama bin Laden. But they were caught unawares by the ‘bin Laden within’: the terror of marginalisation for the millions of educated youth who make up a large portion of the region’s population.

The winds of uncertainty blowing in the Arab west – the Maghreb – threaten to blow eastwards towards the Levant as the marginalised issue the fatalistic scream of despair to be given freedom and bread or death. [...]

From Tunisia and Algeria in the Maghreb to Jordan and Egypt in the Arab east, the real terror that eats at self-worth, sabotages community and communal rites of passage, including marriage, is the terror of socio-economic marginalisation.

The armies of ‘khobzistes’ (the unemployed of the Maghreb) – now marching for bread in the streets and slums of Algiers and Kasserine and who tomorrow may be in Amman, Rabat, San’aa, Ramallah, Cairo and southern Beirut – are not fighting the terror of unemployment with ideology. They do not need one. Unemployment is their ideology. The periphery is their geography. And for now, spontaneous peaceful protest and self-harm is their weaponry. They are ‘les misérables’ of the modern world.

Already, discussion of a domino effect looms large – and while some pundits are wondering which country is next, the larger question is what will these changes symbolize in the world within the next decade?

Confessions From A Christian [Racialigious]

by Guest Contributor Tomi Obaro

The thought of writing about my faith terrifies me.

This terror is (mostly) irrational.

Convinced that most secular progressives would launch into a tirade about the evils of the church, (or worse respond with a measured, “Really?” maintain conversation but narrow their eyes and draw their wine glasses closer to their bodies, warding against my offensive Jesus vibes) I tend to keep my religion under wraps.

It’s kind of absurd, really, given the fact that my encounters with these militant secular progressives are entirely imaginary.

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links for 2011-01-28

  • "Yesterday, the author of Waiting To Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back Tweeted, 'It feels like the Smith children are being pimped and exploited. Or, they're already hungry for fame. What about 4th grade?' Cue the ruckus."
  • "On January 26, Angela Davis celebrated her 67th birthday. A political activist, scholar and author, Davis was a leader in the fight for social justice starting in the ’60s and continuing on into the present day. She was part of the Communist Party, the Civil Rights movement and allied closely with the Black Panther Party. She’s also founder of Critical Resistance, a national coalition that works toward to end abuse and reliance on prisons. In 1970 Davis captured the nation’s attention when she was put on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitive List on bogus kidnapping and murder charges. She was arrested after two months on the run, and it’s generally accepted that her great political presence grew out supporters in 'Free Angela Davis' rallies."
  • "The jury is still out on whether African Americans are actually more homophobic than anyone else (Could it be that homophobia is tied to wealth or education? Perhaps something like poverty or church attendance is a better predictor of it than is race?). But a tragedy like this –- one that appears to be motivated by homophobia — makes me think that our focus shouldn't be on denying allegations that we’re the most backward group on this issue. Instead, maybe we could aim to lead the charge to make the world a decent and safe place for gay people to live, at home and abroad."
  • "Mandela was admitted to hospital on Wednesday, prompting an outbreak of speculation and fears for the health of anti-apartheid icon who led South Africa as its first black president and is revered at home and abroad as a symbol of reconciliation and hope.

    "On Thursday, a source said Mandela had suffered a collapsed lung."

  • "'I am free now and choose to remain so.' These are the words that haunt the new exhibit, 'The President's House: Freedom and Slavery in Making a New Nation.' Now, directly in front of the famous Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, the President's House is the first and only federal site designed to memorialize enslaved African Americans.

    "That defiant affirmation of freedom was uttered by Oney 'Ona' Judge, a runaway slave formerly owned by George and Martha Washington who successfully evaded the first president's many attempts to capture her. It is her story, told through a video reenactment, that introduces the exhibit. In it, an actress playing an older, bonnet-clad Judge recounts how she stole her freedom from the man who helped this country secure its own independence."

  • "Newspapers across the nation editorialized and preachers of all creeds condemned the violence. Even Theodore Roosevelt expressed indignation. Jews, however, organized most relief efforts. No one expected aid from the Chinese, who despite living cheek-by-jowl with Jews on the Lower East Side had never taken much notice of them. Many Chinatown residents were barely able to scratch out a living of their own. So it was a surprise when Joseph Singleton, a Chinese businessman, offered to arrange a benefit for Kishinev victims. One of a quartet of Chinese who spearheaded the effort, 49-year-old Singleton had arrived in New York 20 years earlier. A Sunday school teacher, he had taken an Anglo-sounding name, had adopted Western dress and had cut off his queue — the signature pigtail worn by Chinese during this era. He had gone into banking and cultivated many powerful government officials and business leaders."

Fucking Like There’s No Tomorrow [Love, Anonymously]

by Guest Contributor TQ, originally published at Trans Queers: A Transfags Sex Journal

I was recently approached by a friend to write for one of those political-social justicey type blogs. For days I pondered over what to write. I searched the depths of my various identities. Pooled together my recent experiences of life-fucked-up-ness. Many frustrating attempts later I resigned myself to the reality of my writing interests. I have no energy to delve into the many reasons life is much more complicated for us trans folks or us queers or us people of color.

These days my mind is on other things.

Like fucking and the many reasons life is much more complicated for us trans men who like to fuck bio-men. It’s weird how this may in some ways be the focus of my life currently: sex.
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Kelley Williams-Bolar Sentence Ends Early; Appeal forthcoming

By Arturo R. García

Kelley Williams-Bolar was released from jail on Thursday, a day ahead of schedule. But the attention – and outrage – over her case shows no sign of ending anytime soon, even garnering notice from some celebrities.

Williams-Bolar had originally been sentenced to 10 days in jail, out of a possible five years, on Jan. 18 after being convicted of forging documentation allowing her children could attend school in a more affluent, mostly white school district than the one she resides in in Akron. Williams was also required to two years of probation, and ordered to complete 80 hours of community service.

According to Change.org, which has been petitioning Ohio Governor John Kasich to pardon Williams-Bolar, her father said her decision to enroll her children in another district was made because of concerns over their safety – her house had been broken into, he said, and she’d had to file 12 different police reports because of crime in her neighborhood – and not the educational quality of her local schools.  Williams-Bolar told WEWS-TV, “When my home got broken into, I felt it was my duty to do something else.”

Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove, who delivered the sentence, told the Akron Beacon Journal that Williams-Bolar received jail time because local county prosecutors rejected lesser sentences:

Cosgrove said the county prosecutor’s office refused to consider reducing the charges to misdemeanors, and that all closed-door talks to resolve the case — outside of court — met with failure [...]

Cosgrove said numerous pretrial hearings were held since last summer.

”The state would not move, would not budge, and offer Ms. Williams-Bolar to plead to a misdemeanor,” the judge said in an interview Wednesday.

”Of course, I can’t put a gun to anybody’s head and force the state to offer a plea bargain.”

County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh declined requests from the Beacon Journal to respond to the judge’s comments.

Cosgrove also said she was not responsible for Williams-Bolar’s conviction preventing her from earning her teaching license, a process she was 12 credits shy of completing, and that she would write a letter to the Ohio Board of Education asking it not to revoke her license.

‘I did not mandate or order that her teaching license be suspended or revoked,” Cosgrove said Wednesday. ”That is absolutely inaccurate.”

Cosgrove said Williams-Bolar’s nonviolent felony offenses do not necessarily mean that she will lose her teaching certificate. She said Ohio law only states that a felony conviction ”may” be grounds for such action.

The judge said the Ohio Department of Education will hold a hearing and make the final decision ”whether or not they will revoke her license.”

”I have nothing to do with that as a matter of law. Once she was convicted by a jury of any felony, that conviction has to be reported to the state, and then it’s up to the state at that point in time to decide whether or not they’re going to revoke her license,” Cosgrove said. ”This is the Ohio legislature who wrote this law, not [this] court.”

Cosgrove said her reading of the statute leaves open the possibility Williams-Bolar can be a teacher ”because she was not convicted of an offense of violence [or] offenses of moral turpitude.”

In the week-plus after Williams-Bolar’s initial sentencing, her case became the latest cause célèbre out of Ohio, following the Ted Williams story late last year. Actor Donald Glover discussed his own empathy for her on both Twitter and tumblr:

This really hit me close to home because my mom did the exact same thing to make sure I got into a school where I could experience something as small as going to a county fair or just studying around people and places I felt safe.

One day the school found out and kicked me out. My mom argued with the principal for an hour, but I ended up going to a very shitty school for a couple years.  It sucked.

This sucks FAR more.  It really makes no sense.

Questlove, the twitter-active drummer for The Roots, also drew attention to the Change.org petition:

In the wake of her release, Williams-Bolar will reportedly seek to appeal her conviction, while the Akron chapter of the National Action Network has started a donation drive to pay for her legal fees. In another indication of how much attention the case has gotten, the Rev. Al Sharpton has agreed to help the Akron NAN in its’ efforts.

links for 2011-01-27

  • "The actors felt degraded when they were told to 'make noise' by rambling words in their language. The Hmong actors were also left out by their fellow cast members who were white. The cast members excluded them from cast events because they immediately assumed that Hmong actors were exactly like their character counterparts—unable to speak English clearly or to understand anything 'American.'"
  • "Fasthorse was furious over what she heard. 'Immediately my senses went up and I thought this is wrong. This is wrong for them to be making fun of native names.' She says 'It made me mad … It hurt.'

    "A slew of angry listeners took to Magic FM's Facebook account to protest the radio show. Those posts have since been taken off the station's page. Fasthorse says Natives go through sacred ceremonies to receive their spiritual names and those names are very dear to them. 'It's very sacred to us,' she says. 'We don't go and make it public. We don't make fun of that.'"

  • "The head of France’s national railway company, known as the S.N.C.F., on Tuesday made the company’s first formal public apology directly to Holocaust victims. The regrets came just a few months after American lawmakers, survivors and their descendants moved to block the company from winning contracts in the United States if it did not acknowledge its role in the shipping of thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps and make amends."
  • "Soap operas often pull in close to 50 million viewers. Some have attempted to raise awareness of other taboos such as mental illness, drug abuse and alcoholism. 'This is a step forwards,' Julio Moreira, president of the gay rights group Arco-Iris, told the Extra newspaper. 'Gay people have always been portrayed as marginal [characters] or in some negative way. It is important to show diversity and to raise political questions.'"
  • "She says American culture has been fractured for a while. In fact, Burrell Communications was founded on 'the principle that black people are not dark-skinned white people.' She says the agency knew that African-Americans were a separate, viable market. She says there have always been many American cultures. 'But technology has been an enabler,' Ferguson says. 'So now there's a way to get to these smaller groups efficiently.'"

Fox News Can’t Decide Whether to Love or Hate Latinos

By Guest Contributor Jorge Rivas, cross-posted from Colorlines

Fox News Latino has only been around for a few months, but it’s already become a hotbed of controversy. It’s less than a year old, and was created to target Latino audiences with news from both the U.S. and Central and South America. Yet while the it does the uncomfortable dance of trying to court more Latino viewers, that effort likely gets swallowed by the larger network’s venomous approach to important issues like the DREAM Act and border violence. Now, Media Matters is pushing for the network to make up its mind.

Fox News is the most-watched cable news channel in the country. In 2009-2010 the network surpassed CNN and MSNBC’s weekly viewership. A study released this week by Public Policy Polling found that PBS is the most trusted news outlet the U.S., followed by Fox News. (Fox News is the second-most trusted network, but also the most distrusted one, with 42 percent trusting it and 46 percent not trusting it.)

Last month they ran a story saying Spanish Actress Penélope Cruz was going to give birth to an “anchor baby,” but after some uproar from a group of Latino conservatives Fox News retracted the entire story, and today there is no sign of the story on their site.

Back when the network launched its Latino website, its leadership seemed optimistic.

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