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Films and Commentary from Saul Landau » Article / Commentary

Riots, Demonstrations and New Agencies of Change

August 25, 2011 · · Originally published in Progreso Weekly

An angry demonstration virus spreads to country after country in response to negligent and callous political leaders who have ignored the basic needs of their citizens.

Instead, they have bowed or eagerly catered to demands of multinational corporations and banks, thus deepening the already profound world's income gap. In 2011, billions face hunger, or even starvation. A smaller elite has accumulated even more wealth.

In 2011, the sh*t hit the proverbial fan. The "Arab Streets" revolted. In Greece, Spain and England the socialists had already assumed the politics of the capitalists. The banks became the means and ends for policy.
Protesters in Chile and across the world are standing up against negligent and callous political leaders. CC photo by Fernando Mandujano.
Millions of Greeks took to the streets to protest cuts in basic rights their ancestors had won in struggle; not gifts from benevolent governments. Citizens in the streets, where they belong, beget police brutality.

Then "indignados" or angry young unemployed crowds in Spain demanded jobs and respect. Police responded brutally, predictably. Like Greece, Spain has a socialist government. Yet, "the unemployment rate for Spaniards under the age of thirty is around 40 percent – about twice as high as the overall rate. This fact alone explains much of the indignation behind the indignados," says Jordi Pérez Colomé in Commonweal Magazine.

London's Daily Mail labeled rioters in several British cities "feral teenagers," referring to adolescents and post adolescents hurling bottles, stones and bricks, setting fires and looting. The cops, recipients of some of the tossed missiles, could not contain these indignant urban protesters.

Familiar TV scenes ensued. Frustrated police chased citizens to whom the Prime Minister had appealed as worthy voters. Anger over his policies, however, made them worthy of his condemnation: "social misfits," "bandits," and "violent, irrational people." He had already condemned them by cutting off services the Labor Movement had won decades ago.

Prime Minister Cameron's moral righteousness conflicted with revelations of his coziness with corrupt police officials linked to the Murdoch gang. Add large-scale unemployment to a government intent on pursuing austerity for the poor and gluttony for the rich. Britain's upper crust sucks in 100 times more than the bottom classes. Eleven million employed people still live below the poverty line. In Tottenham, where the London riots erupted, "75 percent of children were classified as `struggling'. About 650,000 London children live like this."

To alleviate a century plus of class war between workers and owners, poor and rich, the advertising geniuses found their real opiate: get the masses addicted to shopping, living vicariously through lives of the rich and famous; re-live youth by watching sports on TV.

The fruits of capitalism, spreading poverty and unemployment, plus billions of dollars for the few, routinely get portrayed as the result of personal failings, bad luck or stupid life choices, not as systemic design flaws.

England, Greece, Spain and the United States experience high levels of unemployment. The governments respond by slashing budgets for education and other needed services. Simultaneously, governments arrest the homeless and hungry, what Barbara Ehrenreich called "criminalizing poverty."

Horatio Alger's American Dream and its British equivalent exist only in the oratory of Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry, who continue to assume the possibilities of non-existent social and economic mobility. After 30 years we can say: Reagan's trickle down theory worked – poverty has indeed trickled down (David Harvey).

Urban poor and unemployed in some countries caught the activism virus. They demanded housing in Israel, not settlements in Palestinian territory. In India, a fasting anti-corruption leader got jailed. Even in China citizens had enough crap (pollution and corruption) and staged demonstrations.

In August, Chilean students caught the fever. TV videos showed people pounding on pots and pans (cacerolazo) only this time the atonal music-maker-housewives were not protesting against the Pinochet dictatorship and army officers' wives were not trying to intimidate the Allende government.

The early August demonstrations in Chile resonated with a new musical theme: we are young people and deserve to become the actors on the stage of our history.

TV cameras panned to the rhythms of hands thumping pots. Citizens had re-claimed their streets. They erected barricades and lit fires in front of the heavily armed police who fired tear gas. Then the cops beat those who dared occupy the streets.

For 17 years, Pinochet had imposed military fascism to teach Chileans obedience. In 1990, he submitted to an election and got voted out. A coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists restored democracy, but not socialism. Right wing President Pinera has pushed for the full return of the aggressive "free market" Pinochet had violently enforced after Allende's attempt to create a more equal society. In response to "freedom" for capital to control all aspects of life tens of thousands of young Chileans took over schools and streets demanding free and high quality education.

Like students in Allende's Unidad Popular era, Chilean youth have became actors in their own drama, driven by the need to rid Chile of "privatization mania" that extended to education.

Like their counterparts around the world, the students eschewed traditional political parties who have betrayed poor and working people. See Adrian Wright's "Chile shaken by student revolt".

We have witnessed new agencies of change on the world stage. Where are the script writers? Or will the new actors write their own?

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