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The Year in Revolt

After rage, riots and revolution, the top to-do for 2012 is closing the divide.

By Bob Mackin 29 Dec 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin is a regular contributor to The Tyee. Read his previous stories here.

The year 2011 has been brought to you by the letter R.

As in revolt, rage and riot.

Globally, nationally, regionally and locally, the biggest stories of the year had some element or degree of revolt in the foreground or background.

Millions of people supported or joined movements to express vigorous dissent as they grappled with an unstable present and uncertain future. If they weren't marching on the street, they were expressing frustration via social media. Their rage was not centralized, nor was it all peaceful. There were riots and even deaths.

First on the scene were citizens with smartphones and tablets, employing social media networks to witness the rage and spread the message. The commercial media often played catch-up.

The trend was largely fueled by widespread impatience with the lingering bruises of the Great Recession and its twin root causes: greed and corruption. A common theme involved anger at governments not doing enough to solve the problem, doing too much to prolong suffering or doing the wrong thing entirely.

"No region or country in the world is immune to the damages of corruption," according to Transparency International, whose 2011 report found most of the 183 countries and territories ranked had failed its corruption perceptions index.

"Protests in many countries quickly spread to unite people from all parts of society. Their backgrounds may be diverse but their message is the same: more transparency and accountability is needed from our leaders," according to TI.

Marigolds of dissent

The seeds for what flowered in 2011 were actually sown in 2010 and the rage moved east to west.

The Delhi Commonwealth Games were the world's biggest, most-expensive sporting event of 2010, believed to have topped $11 billion. It was supposed to position the world's biggest democracy and latent economic power as a potential Olympic host as soon as 2020. Instead, it moved 10,000 people to march to the Parliament Street Police Station on Nov. 14, 2010 and deliver the authorities 18 complaints about widespread graft and corruption that marred the construction and operation of the event.

To make the Games happen, Indian authorities evicted slum dwellers, displaced street vendors, arrested beggars, exploited construction workers and increased surveillance and security. The investment diverted funds from where they were most-needed. One in three Indians lives below the poverty line and 40 per cent of the world's hungry live in the subcontinent.

The anti-corruption campaign was led by a 74-year-old man named Anna -- Anna Hazare -- who drew the obvious comparisons to Mahatma Gandhi.

Several politicians, bureaucrats and business people were arrested in early 2011 for a massive $39 billion mobile phone spectrum licensing scam. Suresh Kalmadi, the chief organizer of the Commonwealth Games, was arrested himself on April 25. Hazare went on three hunger strikes to pressure the government to enact stronger anti-corruption legislation. Delhi was not among the six cities that applied for a 2020 bid before the International Olympic Committee's September deadline.

Some 6,200 kilometres to the west, jobless university graduate Mohamed Bouazizi wouldn't pay a government bribe to keep his fruit and vegetable stand open on Dec. 17, 2010 in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. He was beaten and unsuccessfully appealed to the governor.

Then he lit himself on fire.

Word of the desperate act of self-immolation spread throughout Tunisia, where a WikiLeaks-revealed, June 2008 United States embassy cable about the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali created a national controversy.

"Corruption is a problem that is at once both political and economic," said the diplomatic memo. "The lack of transparency and accountability that characterize Tunisia's political system similarly plague the economy, damaging the investment climate and fueling a culture of corruption. For all the talk of a Tunisian economic miracle and all the positive statistics, the fact that Tunisia's own investors are steering clear speaks volumes. Corruption is the elephant in the room; it is the problem everyone knows about, but no one can publicly acknowledge."

Tunisians took to the streets Dec. 19 and clashed with police. Bouazizi died Jan. 5, but Ali, who had come to visit him in hospital, fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14. Copycat self-immolations in Algeria and Egypt were catalysts for more street protests. The most dramatic was in Cairo, where tens of thousands of people occupied Tahrir Square. Their efforts paid off when President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign on Feb. 11. Nine months later, Egyptians impatient with the pace of change continued to protest at Tahrir, urging the military to let the people rule.

The so-called Arab Spring eventually spread to 17 countries. It climaxed in Libya where Moammar Gaddafi (and his 111 other spellings) was driven from Tripoli on Aug. 24 after intervention from the NATO allies that propped him up for so many years. The self-declared "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya," who seized power in 1969 was caught hiding in a culvert in his hometown Sirte and killed Oct. 20. His body was shown-off at a shopping mall before it was buried in the desert. The National Transitional Council estimated 30,000 people died in the civil war.

United they stood

Elsewhere, Wisconsin's Super Bowl jubilation turned to outrage when union members and supporters occupied the state capitol but failed to prevent Republican Gov. Scott Walker from passing a deficit-cutting measure that removed some collective bargaining rights.

Greeks frequently filled the streets of Athens, the epicentre of the European debt crisis, to oppose austerity measures. Spain's Indignants made May 15 a day of national protests and called for a worldwide day of rage on Oct. 15.

Hackers attacked corporate and government websites and networks throughout the world. Media baron Rupert Murdoch's News of the World shut down July 10 with a "Thank-you & Goodbye" front page headline after the phone hacking scandal reached into Prime Minister David Cameron's office and the top ranks of the London Metropolitan Police. Murdoch was pied in the face by a protester when he was grilled by members of parliament in a committee hearing.

British authorities had bigger problems when a peaceful protest against police brutality two days after the Aug. 4 shooting of drug dealer Mark Duggan turned violent. The Tottenham riots exposed a racial divide, youth unemployment and gang crime in a city spending billions of pounds to dress itself up for next summer's Olympics.

By mid-August, hundreds of rioters and looters had been charged, convicted and sentenced.

The same could not be said in the wake of Vancouver's Stanley Cup riot on June 15.

A civic street party promoted by Mayor Gregor Robertson was ruined by a booze-fueled riot as the Canucks limped to a 4-0 loss in Game 7 to the Boston Bruins at Rogers Arena. A $200,000-plus report ordered by Premier Christy Clark was criticized as a whitewash that failed to find public officials at fault for bad planning amid an irrational race to recreate the 2010 Olympic street party aura. It took six months before the first accused rioters and looters had dates in Vancouver Provincial Court.

Clark shelved plans for a fall election when 54.73 per cent of the 1.6 million voters who mailed-in their ballots rejected the Harmonized Sales Tax. The provincial government's $5 million ad campaign starring an animated stickman failed. The historic citizens' initiative driven by the odd alliance of ex-Premier Bill Vander Zalm, Chris Delaney and Bill Tieleman celebrated Aug. 26 beside the Olympic cauldron, where their first protest in the tax revolt happened two years earlier.

Anger simmered online after the father of the HST, ex-Premier Gordon Campbell, was announced as an Order of B.C. recipient a week later. He didn't come home to collect his award in October, because he was settling in to his new gig as Canada's ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Revolutionary hashtag

The July edition of anti-consumerist Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters included a poster with the #OccupyWallStreet Twitter hashtag, a website and headline: "September 17th. Bring tent."

Lo and behold, people did bring their tents and their opinions for a precedent-setting wave of protests that swept the continent. By the end of the so-called North American autumn, 2,700 cities and towns had some sort of protest camp inspired by the leaderless movement, marked by rudimentary town hall-style meetings that used the "human microphone" and sign language to gain consensus.

The Oct. 15 global day of rage included a 5,000-person protest at the north plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery and establishment of the Occupy Vancouver camp that overshadowed and shaped the civic election.

One-by-one, camps were shut down by force or the threat of force, but a new movement was born. The VAG space remained occupied until a court order on Nov. 21 prompted a short-lived move next door to Robson Square's provincial court and the peaceful dissolution in a rainstorm at Grandview Park on Nov. 22 while riot cops stood at the ready.

Revolt spread to Russia on Dec. 10 when more than 50,000 people marched in Moscow to protest widespread reports of fraud in the Dec. 4 legislature elections that saw President Dmitry Medvedev's United Russia retain a slim majority.

Will the opposition reach a critical mass and thwart Vladimir Putin's bid to return to the presidency in the March 4 election? That is one of the questions to be answered in 2012.

Will a leader or leaders rise to the top and guide the movements in 2012 and beyond?

Will the London Olympics, the biggest event of 2012, be a platform for dissent?

And what about China, where the authoritarian government has struggled to keep its tight lid on dissent since violently quashing the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests?

Researchers at Nankai University in Tianjin estimated there were 90,000 riots, protests and petition deliveries against authorities in 2009. Sociology professor Sun Liping of Tsinghua University in Beijing pegged the 2010 number at 180,000.

At least a dozen Tibetan monks have resorted to self-immolation to show their defiance in 2011. In Guangdong, villagers already angry at Communist Party corruption and evictions without consultation took to the streets of Wukan Dec. 11 to protest the death of their leader Xue Jinbo in police custody.

Will the economic slowdown fan the growing impatience of the working class in the world's most populous country? Will more of the nouveau riche cash-out and find new homes in western countries?  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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