Then came Egypt. The spring semester had begun and I had to sneak away from my graduate studies and teaching obligations to check the New York Times every hour for updates on what was happening in Tahrir Square. This revolution took just 18 days, even faster than Tunisia. At Stony Brook, we made comparisons between Egypt 2011 and Tiananmen Square 1989, hoping that the outcome would be different this time, that the army would side with the revolution rather than the state. We were right, but then we were wrong. The Egyptian military did support the revolution, but then they held onto power and crushed dissent afterwards.
That anti-government protestors in Egypt were influenced and inspired by the Tunisian revolution spoke to a larger, transnational movement. We have come to call it the "Arab Spring."The Wikipedia account of the Arab Spring suggests the following rippling domino-effect of anti-government protests around North Africa and the Middle East. In January 2011, between the beginning of the Tunisian Revolution and that of the Egyptian Revolution, protests began in Algeria, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. By February, the Yemeni Revolution had begun; the ongoing struggle for Bahrain began. The conflict in Libya also began in February, as did the conflict in Morocco and Western Sahara. Syria was perhaps the last major protest movement to begin, in March 2011. And of course it still continues as the focal point of the "Arab Spring" in the spring of 2012.
The transnationalism of this protest movement was of course facilitated by the internet. Indeed, the Arab Spring will be considered the first global protest movement that took advantage of social media technologies like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. For example, one important way we in the United States learned about the revolutions was through the videos uploaded to Youtube and other file-sharing sites by activists and citizen journalists on the ground in Cairo and elsewhere. At some point, the editorial board of the New York Times had to decide whether they would use these videos or not; in the end, they decided to do it. The Lede Blog on the New York Times website was one website that I visited frequently to follow amateur video and twitter updates from the revolutions in Egypt and in Syria.
The transnationalism of this movement was also facilitated by widespread literacy and fluency in Arabic. Indeed, U.S. viewers of the Arab Spring only consumed a small fraction of the media output from these events. True, some videos whether in Arabic or English could simply speak for themselves - especially videos of violence. But it was harder to get involved and stay independently informed when one's options were either to poke around online trying to make sense of Arabic-language media, or rely on huge mainstream media outlets with professional correspondents in the Arab World.
Beyond the Arab Spring: the United States, Europe, and Global Revolution
The transnationalism of the Arab Spring was evident in the United States early on, in the public protests in support of collective bargaining rights and labor unions in Wisconsin beginning in February 2011. Those protests began on Valentine's Day, only three days in fact after Hosni Mubarak had fled Egypt, a milestone victory in the Egyptian Revolution. The protests in Madison grew in size until over 100,000 people were occupying the Capitol grounds (and occupying inside the Capitol building, too, with sleeping bags, food stations, etc.) in opposition to the Governor and the Republican-controlled Senate. (Democratic senators, meanwhile, were hiding across state lines in Illinois, believing - ultimately falsely - that they could prevent a vote by preventing a quorum.) On March 9, after approximately four weeks of daily public protest and occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol, the Republican Senators passed the bill without the Democrats. The occupation of the Capitol building, in some form or another, continued into the summer of 2011.
From our view here in New York, the Wisconsin protests appeared as a resurgence of the dormant American left - the same left that had elected Barack Obama only then to discover that he wasn't as "left" as we had imagined him to be. It was during the Wisconsin protests in the spring of 2011 that I became more interested in my own union, the Graduate Student Employees Union. I attended some solidarity rallies in support of the Wisconsin protests, and was proud to raise my hand as a "proud union member!"
The occupation of the Capitol building and grounds in Madison, Wisconsin, in the spring of 2011 was influenced and inspired by the Arab Spring, particularly the occupation of Tahrir Square. But for whatever reason, the transnationalism stopped there, and no other cities in the United States developed Tahrir-style public protests or occupations at that time (despite some midwestern populaces also fighting to preserve collective bargaining rights for labor unions that spring in Ohio and Indiana).
In May 2011, the Arab Spring went transnational, again, as people in many European countries came to recognize that their anti-austerity fight was similar to the economic crises that had originally brought about the Tunisian and other revolutions across North Africa. The two strongest movements appeared in Spain and in Greece. In Spain, the Indignados movement began on May 15, 2011, and continues to this day. The Indignados movement featured an occupation of Madrid's Puerta del Sol, as well as occupations all across the country. The initial occupation began with only about 100 people at Puerta del Sol (not dissimilar from the numbers at the beginning of Occupy Wall Street). The occupation of Puerta del Sol featured a "general assembly," a decision-making body utilizing direct democracy and "consensus." This occupation continued officially through mid-June, but the Indignados movement continues to this day.
Madrid's Puerta del Sol, May 20, 2011
(Source: Wikipedia Commons)
An inspiring video about the Indignados movement and its legacy, "Camino al 12M" (The Road to May 12)
In summer 2011, while the Arab revolutions began to devolve into violence - or at least that was the perception here in the U.S. thanks to NATO's involvement in the Libyan War - anti-austerity protests began to sweep from Europe to the United States. In New York City, tens of thousands demonstrated in May in solidarity with a global call for anti-austerity protests. Hundreds of protestors established an occupation outside City Hall known as "Bloombergville"which lasted for at least two weeks in June 2011. The organizers of "Bloombergville" modeled their occupation on what they had seen in Tahrir Square in Egypt. Citing a court decision that stated that sleeping on the sidewalk was a constitutionally-protected form of free speech, hundreds - but sometimes only tens - slept on the sidewalk along Broadway downtown until the city passed an austerity budget anyway and then the protest fizzled out.
Over the next two months, July and August 2011, the New York City General Assembly formed. The assembly uses direct democracy and makes decisions based on consensus. The NYCGA was inspired by the assemblies that were held by the Indignados in Spain who used a similar model for self-governance. The goals are: transparency and horizontality - removing hierarchy and thus preventing the rise of authoritarian leaders. This is direct democracy, not representative democracy. Everyone has an equal voice and an equal vote. Assemblies were held in the summer to plan for a new occupation (since "Bloombergville" had then ended). The Canadian magazine Adbusters put out its famous "call" for an occupation of Wall Street in July.
The original call for an occupation of Wall Street in Adbusters magazine, July 2011
The American (and Global) Autumn
Therefore, what we saw on September 17, 2011, in New York City, and then across the United States and across the world in October, was a model of public protest based in certain principles and strategies - like the physical occupation and the general assembly - that Americans had witnessed in action already from Tunis to Cairo to Madison to Madrid.
The transnationalism of Occupy Wall Street became especially clear on October 15, 2011 when a "Global Day of Action" occurred. According to Wikipedia's account of the day's events, over 950 cities in 82 countries witnessed globally-coordinated public protests in support of Occupy Wall Street. All told, several million people around the world participated. I was in Times Square that evening, as part of New York City's participation in this global event, where somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 people came out and saw the headline "Occupy Wall Street Movement Goes Worldwide" projected onto the mainstream media billboards surrounding the square! Surreal.
"Occupy Wall Street Movement Goes Worldwide." Times Square, October 15, 2011
The October 15, 2011 Global Day of Action marked one month of Occupy Wall Street and exactly five months since the beginning of the Indignados movement - thus showing the great influence the Spanish protests continued to have for Occupy and for the world's many revolutions. The day was not only about solidarity with Spain and NYC, though, but was also an opportunity for the world's most vibrant movements at the time, like Occupy Wall Street, to show solidarity with other movements around the world. For example, the most violent protests that day were in Italy where people were facing the same depressed economy and austerity measures facing Greece and Spain. We all supported each other's own national movements.
Tens of thousands also came out in Germany, where protests and occupations continue to this day, in opposition to austerity measures across Europe.
In London, protestors occupied the London Stock Exchange, beginning Occupy London, perhaps the strongest "Occupy" movement to emerge in Europe, and one - thanks to language similarities - that has been in frequent communication with Occupy Wall Street in New York.
This was also the day when most small-town "Occupy" movements in the United States began. Some, incredibly, continue to this day.
October 15, 2011 showed how the internet and social media could be utilized to organize a synchronized global protest involving millions of people in 82 countries. Wow.
In the Wake of Occupy: 2012
Following Occupy Wall Street's eviction from Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011, as well as further high-profile evictions of other occupations throughout the United States in November and December, it was undeniable that the Occupy Wall Street movement shrunk in size and influence as we moved into the winter of 2011-2012.
By December 2011, the revolutions in the Arab World seemed deadlocked: many wondered if the Egyptian Revolution had, in fact, failed; Libya was "free," but only after tens of thousands had died in a bloody civil war aided by NATO bombs; the Syrian Revolution was now becoming a civil war. Meanwhile, Occupy Wall Street was dismantled by local police across this country, thanks, we now know, to local governmental coordination with the U.S. federal government, with federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, that tried their best to put an end to our popular movement.
But there was more...
After widespread electoral fraud in Russian elections on December 4, 2011, the largest anti-government protests in two decades came to Moscow. Tens of thousands rallied in a series of demonstrations throughout the winter against President Vladimir Putin and his ruling party. And when Putin cracked down on the protests this spring, people in Moscow developed new strategies, including an occupation in the style of Occupy Wall Street and leisurely strolls through the city involving tens of thousands of people!
There have also been ongoing student movements around the world. Last fall 2011, we in the U.S. were all in admiration of the student protests in Chile that involved hundreds of thousands of students. The students brought a creativity to their direct actions that have since been widely discussed and sometimes even adopted by Occupy Wall Street, including various forms of street theater. The Chilean protests involved student strikes and the occupation of, and shutting down, of universities.
While the Chilean student movement has appeared to quiet down in the winter of 2012 (which is, of course, summer in Chile), a new student movement has since begun in Quebec. The student strike in Quebec began with only a few departments at just one university declaring a strike in mid-February 2012. By mid-March the strike had included at least 150,000 students on an indefinite "general strike" that has paralyzed Montreal. At its peak in mid-March, the student protests have brought out hundreds of thousands of students and supporters into the streets. On May 18, one week ago, the provincial government of Quebec passed a bill known as "Bill 78" which criminalizes certain forms of public protest. Despite that fact that most academics and lawyers in Quebec believe the law is blatantly unconstitutional, the police of Montreal have already begun to enforce the law, arresting hundreds of students for the crime of engaging in political assembly without giving notice to authorities.
Hundreds of thousands of students march through Montreal, March 22, 2012
On May 22 (exactly two months since the march depicted in the photograph above), hundreds of thousands of Quebecers marched through Montreal in direct violation of Bill 78. In Toronto, Vancouver, Paris, and here in New York City, hundreds of people showed solidarity. That Occupy Wall Street organized solidarity actions and a march to support the striking students of Quebec, and that Occupy Wall Street has at least temporarily adopted the "red square" of the Printemps érable (Quebec's "Maple Spring" movement), shows that the transnational nature of these revolutions continues.
Transnationalism in the Streets
I share this brief interpretation of the history of the global revolutions of 2011-2012 as a historian but also as a participant. In the classroom, we talk about "transnationalism" all the time - as a historical phenomenon, for example, although of course we do not deny that transnationalism is an element of contemporary processes as well. Of course today's revolutions are not the world's first transnational revolutions. There was, of course, the great "Age of Revolution" in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when new nations formed through public protest, civil disobedience, and violence - for example, France, Haiti, almost all of the present nations of Latin America, and, of course, the United States. It took longer for those revolutions to influence each other, but that's because the transnationalism of the 18th and 19th century revolutions depended on the technology of sailing ships circulating letters and most importantly, people, who traveled between Europe, North America, and South America, and spread ideas. Some, like American radical Thomas Paine, even jumped into the fray elsewhere, as he did in revolutionary France.
But what is remarkable about today's "Age of Revolution" is not just the new technologies and the speed of transnational communications, but that people like myself - a teacher, a student, an activist - are aware that we are taking part in something that most of the time we have just talked about in class and studied in dusty history books. As a participant in a global revolution - of a very uncertain outcome, of course - it never ceases to amaze me how my own experiences of these movements either relates, or fails to relate, to the theories about human history that we so often promulgate in the classroom and in our scholarly publications.
The term "transnational" comes up all the time in my own work and in my seminars and teaching, but I had never really thought much about how it applied to my own life until I became involved in Occupy Wall Street.
It has taken me quite some time to recognize our movement's indebtedness to the Indignados of Spain. Our general assembly process - our commitment to direct democracy and consensus - this we learned in part from their experiments in Barcelona and Madrid. Our use of media - especially Youtube and Twitter - to overcome corporate media suppression and ignorance, is based on what we learned from Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Spain.
I remember on November 17, 2011, at a rally of thousands of students on strike at Union Square in New York City, hearing Egyptian students make use of the "human microphone" - where we amplify each other's voices through repetition - to tell us about the connections between their struggles in Egypt and ours here in New York. That fall, scores of Occupy Wall Street participants had planned to travel to Cairo to meet with some Egyptian revolutionaries and begin a conversation, but they eventually had to cancel that trip due to the sporadic violence in Cairo. Nevertheless, this conversation between Tahrir Square and Liberty Square (Zuccotti Park) was essential, and for me it was particularly inspiring.
From the Indignados (I assume), we adopted a Spanish-language chant: "A-anti-anti-capitalista," which has since become a favorite dance-chant of Occupy Wall Street participants. At a March 2012 action against Bank of America, I remember watching a group of Occupy Wall Street members dancing and chanting "A-anti-anti-capitalista" in front of a line of police. I overheard an NYPD officer say to the officer next to her, "I bet they don't even know what they are saying!" And to be honest, I, too, at first did not understand the chant. But now that I have learned that the chant is in Spanish, and not garbled English(!), I teach it to others at rallies and on marches.
"Anti-capitalista," among other chants, all mashed up with musical accompaniment by the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, May Day picket of Chase Bank, May 1, 2012, New York City
Using the Spanish language is not only important for continuing a dialogue with the Indignados in Spain, but also for reaching out to Hispanics in the United States. I am proud that Occupy Wall Street has now begun its own newsmagazine and website in Spanish for Spanish-language readers: Indig-Nación.
Two nights ago, as we showed our solidarity with the striking students of Quebec, we learned a French-language chant, "So-so-so-solidarité."
These are the little things - the multi-lingual chants and cardboard signs - that speak of the larger transnational and perhaps even dialectical relationships between Occupy Wall Street and other protest movements around the globe. We have all learned from each other and also teach one another. Critics will say that "the revolution is dead," or that it never even was, but it is clear to me that the crest of the revolution continues. If Tahrir Square was the focal point in Spring 2011, and Wall Street in Autumn 2011, then it is perhaps in Moscow or Montreal today where we should look for the continuation of this transnational struggle, even as so many struggles continue in many places where the foreign media has packed up and left while the revolution is still mid-stream.
My role in this transnational movement has of course been in attending assemblies and marching in the streets. But I am most proud of my work as a "citizen journalist." Inspired by the use of social media in the Arab Spring, I started a Youtube account last fall to post videos about Occupy Wall Street. I actually posted my first Youtube videos in a different account last summer (2011) while protesting at the New York State Capitol in the days preceding the Senate's vote on the Marriage Equality Act. (Interestingly, some of the activists I met advocating marriage equality have since appeared at Occupy Wall Street events in the city!) I thought, as in the Arab Spring, that it would be important to document our protests in Albany in support of marriage equality. So I made a Flickr page and a Youtube account and leapt into what were new realms of social media for me.
At Occupy Wall Street events, I always carry my camera. I take photos and videos. I have learned to videotape every arrest because my video can later be used in court to potentially vindicate falsely-accused protestors. I am constantly videotaping the police - not because I am paranoid, nor do I believe they regularly engage in "brutality"; they do not. I videotape the police because the NYPD frequently break the very laws they have sworn to protect, and I feel it is important to document that.
I have recently come to realize that I enjoy the role of "journalist" primary because I am a historian. I believe documentation is so important because if people in the past had not documented their own lives then we today could not attempt to understand history. Historians of Occupy Wall Street will not be lacking in data to interpret - indeed, I don't know how they will begin to make sense of the vast amount of data that has been produced since last September - but I do think I can add something to that. And I am not naive about the propaganda effect of my documentations. Yes, I am documenting history as it unfolds, but I also rush to upload my videos to Youtube because I recognize that this media is not just history, but also news! Often the professional news media mischaracterizes or just fails to mention an Occupy Wall Street event, and therefore my photos and videos can help inform potential audiences as to what in fact occurred.
"Citizen journalists" can tell stories that the corporate media ignores. For example, this photograph of mine captures a scene from New York City's May Day parade. The taxi cab reads: "No Disability Insurance. 15 Years on the Job. Garage Greed Shames Even Wall Street." Major news media outlets reported almost exclusively on May Day's arrests and violence, all the while neglecting the fact that a 10,000+ person march down Broadway occurred, and that the march was led not by hooded white male anarchists, but by immigrant taxi drivers, just one of the myriad constituencies participating in Occupy Wall Street as part of the "the 99%."
This gets to the crux of the matter of "citizen journalism," which is that, for all of us who use Facebook or Twitter or similar social networking platforms, we increasingly get our news from each other rather than through corporate media outlets like television or newspapers. I don't have time to read multiple newspapers, listen to podcasts, and watch videos all day, so I rely - as many young people do - on the gleanings of online friends to tell me what topics I should learn more about. When lots of friends "like" a particular article, photograph, or video, I am more likely to pay attention to it. This is partly why I take so many photos and videos at Occupy Wall Street events. My photos are not released publicly, but they still reach about three hundred friends on Facebook. My videos have, as of today, reached nearly 80,000 people! And, by the way, this very blog, "Pacific Dreams, New York Life," has in its two-year lifetime already reached over 20,000 people.
This "reach" - on the blog and on Youtube, for example - is incredibly transnational. This blog's readership is predominantly in the United States, but of the 20,000 who have viewed it, a few thousand reside elsewhere. Readership is especially noteworthy in Australia and New Zealand, thanks, I am sure, to the Pacific theme of much of my scholarship and teaching.
My reach on Youtube is also predominantly in the United States, but certain videos have taken off in foreign countries thanks to transnational social networking. My video of a musical ensemble from Brittany, France, performing on the outskirts of Zuccotti Park on the six-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street (until the NYPD stopped them and threatened them with arrest), for example, has been viewed more times in France than in the United States. Based on comments posted on Youtube, it is apparent than many in Brittany were proud that musicians from their region had gone up against the NYPD in order to show their musical solidarité with Occupy Wall Street.
A musical ensemble from Brittany, France, performs on the outskirts of Zuccotti Park on Occupy Wall Street's six-month anniversary, March 17, 2012, New York City
My latest video, of our New York solidarity march with the students of Quebec, has now been viewed over 40,000 times in just the past 36 hours! This is thanks to viewership in Canada, predominantly in Quebec, as noted by the hundreds of messages of merci and solidarité from viewers across the province. Certainly our solidarity action was meaningful with or without the transnational dialogue facilitated by Youtube. But the video helps us express our solidarité in a powerful way. Hundreds of students and supporters in Quebec have written to me saying that the video gives them renewed hope to continue marching and to continue fighting the Charest government. We were only two hundred New Yorkers in the streets, but we have mattered to 40,000 Quebec viewers and counting. Now that's solidarité.
"Solidarity with Striking Students of Québec," May 22, 2012, New York City
I end here, with great hope for the future. Wherever people are fighting against repression, against authoritarianism, against police brutality, against austerity, we should recognize our role - indeed, our responsibility - to support them. There are numerous ways to support these ongoing revolutions. Wherever you are, get involved with a local movement for social justice and democracy. Locate media sources that you trust, and remain informed about what is going on all over the world. Go online and read about the Arab Spring, about the Indignados, about the European debt crisis, about Occupy Wall Street. Look at photographs and watch videos. It is never too late to make a change, whether it is personal, collective, local, national, transnational, global, or even interplanetary! ;)