That seems like the right choice to me. “In 2011, protesters didn’t just voice their complaints,” Time’s cover story says, “they changed the world.” And they’re still changing it. That’s what makes this a good choice for the story of the year.
Time is right to say that the protesters themselves are the heroes of these stories. They’re the protagonists driving this story. The antagonists — the villains, frankly — are the powers that be. And in between them in each case, in every country touched by the Arab Spring, has been another faction that has played a key role in determining the outcome of the protests: the military and the militarized police.
These soldiers and police officers and strange hybrids of the two are not, themselves, full members of the privileged class of the powers that be. In most cases, the interests of these humans in uniform were best represented by the protesters. But the autocrats who signed the solders’ paychecks and issued their orders had a different set of interests. So at some level, those humans in uniform had to make a choice — would they choose to defend raw power, or would they side with the people?
In Egypt, the humans in uniform chose the side of hope and freedom, refusing to become nothing more than Mubarak’s hired thugs. These humans in uniform refused to cease being humans just because they had put on that uniform. And so Egypt was changed.
In Libya and in Syria, the humans in uniform tried to strike a bargain with raw power. They agree to act as the hired goons of the powers that be. That didn’t work out so well for those goons in Libya. And the temporary success of raw power in Syria is only delaying the inevitable.
In the summer of 2011, mass demonstrations came to America.
In Madison, Wis., the powers that be explicitly declared themselves opposed to the interests of the humans in uniform.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker set out to disenfranchise workers by taking away their right to bargain, beginning with the right of state employees in public workers unions. Walker hoped to divide the humans in uniform from other workers by assuring the state’s police officers that, if they remained loyal servants of the powers that be, he would reward them by destroying their union last of all.
Wisconsin’s police union didn’t seem to view that as an attractive bargain. And so the demonstrations grew, reminding the world that raw, unchecked power is never a friend of humans, not even of humans in uniform.
In the fall of 2011, mass demonstrations appeared to be everywhere. Protesters “occupied” Wall Street and soon occupations were pitching tents and tabernacles in cities across America and around the world.
That wave of protest has changed our national conversation. After months wasted obsessing over the phantasms and fears of the super-rich — bond vigilantes, phantom inflation, calls for the poor to be sacrificed to appease the confidence fairy — we began, finally, to talk about the real problems of joblessness, underwater households and an economy rigged against 99 percent of us.
And once again the humans in uniform were called on to act as nothing more than the hired goons of the powers that be. The fall of 2011 was a shameful season for the NYPD, as many of New York’s Finest showed themselves to be neither fine nor New Yorkers, but merely power-addled fantasists in role-playing costumes.
In city after city, brutes in blue spent the autumn proving that they hadn’t been paying attention in the spring. They were still clinging to the idea that violent repression might work. They actually seemed to think that “cracking down” on protesters would make them go away instead of making them stronger. These hapless Pinkertons seemed surprised when mass arrests and capricious violence only increased the number of protesters.
“You may take your weapons and go,” the students of UC Davis informed the awkwardly armored police officers who had just assaulted them with pepper spray. “You can go.” That was an expression of authority — a granting of permission that showed power had been turned rightside-up. The humans in uniform of the hyper-militarized police sheepishly packed up their pepper spray and left.
What will the winter bring?
The presence of tents in Zuccotti Park was a symbol of protest, but tents are the homes of people on the move. The occupation is moving on, but it doesn’t seem to be going away.
I’m most encouraged by the direction of Occupy Our Homes, an effort that is directly challenging the powers that be by unmasking the foreclosure crisis as the product of choices made by and on behalf of the super-rich. These protesters are mobilizing “to stop the bailed-out and fraudulent big banks that are stealing our homes.”
As Bruce Judson writes, this effort is “Shining a Light on Our Great Failure“:
What the Occupy protesters recognize, either explicitly or implicitly, is that since the start of the housing crisis, government actions have by and large penalized suffering homeowners while rewarding banks that should have failed because of poor business decisions. The government has not adequately enforced the laws associated with ensuring that foreclosures are valid, and it appears to have no concerns when banks wrongfully take possession of homes (which, I believe, used to be called “criminal trespass” and “breaking and entering”). On the flip side, all of the administration’s plans associated with helping homeowners facing foreclosure have failed miserably.
All of this is bad economics, violates the rules of accountability and equal justice that are essential to a viable capitalist economy, and undermines our democracy.
Here again, on the one side are the protesters representing the interests of people, and on the other side is the raw power of banks wrongfully taking possession of homes. And here again, in the middle, are humans in uniform who will have to choose sides.
This recent story from Atlanta suggests that in this context, in these situations, humans in uniform may be less likely to follow the thuggish example of the servants of power who cracked skulls and “cracked down” in their midnight raids on tent cities. In this story the homeowner (some reports call her Vita Lee and others Elvinia Hall) is 103 years old and has lived in the home with her 83-year-old daughter for the past 53 years. For the past several months, Deutsche Bank has been trying to foreclose on the family.
“This family has been waging a war against Deutsche Bank,” community activist Derrick Boezeman said.
But when Fulton County sheriff’s deputies were sent to the home to evict these elderly women, those humans in uniform decided that they didn’t want to fight in that war as Deutsche Bank’s mercenaries. They took one look at the situation, turned around and left. Following orders from mega-bank overlords to devour the homes of widows was not what those deputies signed up for, not what they swore to uphold, not their job.
Here’s hoping that this winter we’ll see more humans in uniform come to that realization.