Exactly 12 months ago, on 25th January 2011, the revolution in Egypt began. Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google and political activist, used the social media site Facebook (have you heard of it?) to organise a campaign of non-violent civil resistance to demand the immediate departure of President Hosni Mubarak and his oppressive regime. Ghonim was instantly detained for 12 days and – as a result – became a symbol of protest in an unrestful Egypt.
It was the moment the dam burst. Demonstration after demonstration followed. The security forces responded with violence and drew the attention of the world’s media.
On his release he said, “I’m not a hero. I was writing on a keyboard on the Internet and I wasn’t exposing my life to danger. The heroes are the one who are in the street.” Though modest, this savvy marketing manager knows that his words released the people onto the streets. “I’ve always said that if you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet,” Ghonim said. He’s right.
What followed was a year in which both the West and the Middle East saw massive social upheaval. In the Middle East, the Arab Spring shook Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. In the West, the Occupy Movement knocked loudly on Wall Street’s door, calling for financial reform. The Occupy Movement spread around the US before spilling over into London and other European cities. The News Media in the US insisted on misrepresenting the people of the Occupy Movement as confused, dirty, lazy scroungers, anti-capitalists and anarchists. Very few news outlets reported their demands accurately, which were complex, nuanced and – well – an appropriate response to Wall Street’s tangled mess of corporate greed, political corruption and self-serving interest. They didn’t make easy soundbytes for knee-jerk news editors.
Reduction of such issues to fit column inches inevitably damages nuance. The crux of the demands were 1) break up the banks so they’re not too big to fail 2) regulate the banks so the commercial banks could not gamble with savers’ money 3) close the tax loop holes that allow millionaires and billionaires to avoid paying anything like the tax level they should 4) prosecute the out-and-out financial fraudsters guilty of insider trading on toxic assets.
How do you make a catchy rallying cry from that?
The establishment media (Rupert Murdock’s Fox News etc.) refused to represent the movement fairly and – with the power of words – characterised the peaceful protests as liberal, antisemitic, violent thuggery. Nevertheless, when the movement spread across the US and the world, the heavy handed police moved in to break up the protests and were quick to resort to violence, even pepper-spraying 84-year-old Dorli Rainey, because, they said, she posed a physical threat to the lines of armed police in riot gear. The response from conservative News Media was equivalent to ‘well they started it’. It was only when police tear-gassed first aiders going to help critically injured Iraq Veteran Scott Olsen that the tone changed. How was Olsen, who had survived multiple tours in Iraq, injured? By being shot in the face with a Police Tear Gas canister at point-blank range.
Olsen suffered a fractured skull. During his recovery, he wrote, “After my freedom of speech was quite literally taken from me, my speech is coming back but I’ve got a lot of work to do with rehab.”
If you can write that on a large piece of cardboard and hold it above your head, you have yourself a message.
It seems that in a world where every phone can record audio and video, and social media can send it around the world in a heartbeat, violence defeats itself by handing the peacemakers the power they need.
It was also a year of peril for Wikileaks: under pressure from the Obama Administration, financial institutions including Bank of America, Paypal, Mastercard and Swiss bank PostFinance moved to prevent their customers from donating money to the Wikileaks cause, effectively creating a strangle-hold on the whistle-blowing organisation. Julian Assange also fought extradition to Sweden on somewhat suspiciously-timed charges and alleged informer US Infantryman Bradley Manning was brought in front of a closed Military Tribunal after months without trial in solitary confinement. (It is alleged that Private Manning released the infamous ‘Collateral Murder’ video of the gung-ho crew of a US Apache attack helicopter gunning down a group of journalists.)
Why did Manning and Assange experience all of this? Because – allegedly – these men blew the lid off state-sponsored slaughter of civilians, ruthless corporate greed and unconscionable corruption. How? By violence and acts of terror? No – by sharing information.
Contrast this with the “Shoot First; ask questions later” message of US Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich. His leadership, summarised in his words, resulted in the deaths of 14 men, three women and seven children in Iraq. These unarmed civilians died from grenade blasts and gunshots from American soldiers in retaliatory house raids near the site of an IED which killed a US soldier. Wuterich escaped a maximum sentence of 3 months’ jail and instead was demoted to Private.
As Mazahir Hussain tweeted, “Bradley Manning should’ve really considered committing some war crimes instead of exposing them, worked well for Frank Wuterich.”
2011 was an astonishing year. Core human rights and freedoms were contested around the world; violence was pitched against non-violence; corporate propaganda battled with free speech. For me the message of 2011 was clear: freedom of expression is both the weapon and the prize. It is to be treasured.
But 2011 was also the year Prince William married Kate Middleton so who cares about freedom of speech and freedom to protest? Right? Pippa Middleton’s bottom is – apparently – far more newsworthy…