2011 is the year of protests — and more will die because of it

by Nov 22, 2011

It is too early to review 2011 but it would be difficult to remember a recent time when there have been so many protests.

We march for democracy, against inequality, against austerity, for anti-corruption legislation.

Some want to believe there is a wave of "people power" sweeping the planet. Mass movements are certainly enjoying popularity. But the people aren't in charge yet. They're just dying.

When protestors die, it's time to take stock. In Egypt and Syria, deaths caused by government forces and the police mean those authority figures and structures are losing or have lost their legitimacy.

Protesters in Tahrir Square attend a funeral carrying the coffin of a protester who died in clashes with riot policemen, alongside an Egyptian national flag in Cairo. Reuters

And when protestors die or are injured from neglect within the Occupy movement camps, then it is high past time those tent cities think about their end game.

When people are oppressed or mistreated, they have a right to complain. And when nothing changes, they should not simply give up.

Those re-occupying Tahrir Square in Cairo fought in their hundreds of thousands for change in February, and got it. But the change was short lived, and they're back to make sure real change finally happens.

Team Anna, however confused about its future direction, is committed to the general cause of ending or at least limiting corruption.

And the Occupy Wall Street mission, now with its many heads around the planet. . . well, they don't like inequality.

But at what point does the marching or the sit-ins need to stop and talking needs to start?

Consider the Occupy movement. Is there corporate greed? Sure. But if you're making money by exploiting the weak and the poor in society, you're only going to stop if there's legislation (which isn't going to happen), or if you can see, directly and personally, that your greed has an effect on other human beings. That can't come through media stories even - it needs to develop from meaningful conversations between individuals.

The Occupy movement is all about discussion, supposedly, with "general assemblies" happening at various sites to develop their positions on a host of issues.

Last week I popped by the camp at St Paul's Cathedral in London where there were calls for veganism, a replacement of all money with "some sort of chit system", an end to individual millionaires. . . and a poster memorialising the death of rapper 2Pac.

If there is an end game in this movement, presumably those gathered in parks, streets and elsewhere want something done with the "greedy". Do we want them shot out of a cannon? They may not act particularly human sometimes, but they are human and we will have to, someday, share the world directly with them. You can have disagreements but protests will not resolve this.

In Egypt and Syria the military regimes must relinquish power in favour of free, open and equal democracy. But those in the military are also human, and they will either need to live amidst the new societies that will hopefully be set up, or they will need to be tried for crimes but with regard to human rights. Just because the military machine as a whole does not recognise those human rights does not mean the members of the military are inhuman, however difficult it might be to believe.

We have to value life. People will always die and suffer, and sometimes that must sadly happen within the pursuit of a better world.

But we should do as much as possible, in any protest, to protect life. The hunger strikes by Anna Hazare has itself been a regular battle over how much protest is acceptable when it endangers life. Passion has to be balanced against compassion in some cases.

These marches and occupations are clashes between individual freedoms and centralised control, either in the form of the military or perceived inhuman capitalism. Just like the internet, dominated by big companies competing for money, individuals try to assert their rights and place in the world by shouting across the digital landscape. Strength in numbers has made a difference this year in campaigns against, for example, the News of the World's phone hacking scandal.

The question, as protests continue and will likely continue well into 2012, is what defines individual demands or grievances, and what defines the genuine needs of whole communities and nations? And at what point is even one death too many in pursuit of those ends.

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