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How Many Will It Take?

By       Message David Ruhlen       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink

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The recent images of 100,000 Greeks demonstrating in the streets of Athens raises an intriguing question about the utility of protest. And, as it relates to the ever-widening Occupy movement, its worth asking: "how many people will it finally take"?

Protests in Thessaloniki flicker image  By 0neiros

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How many people must take to the streets before a government will respond to the will of its citizens? There's no ready answer. There's no absolute number. And just posing so fundamental a question itself unleashes a torrent of new ones .

In the case of the Greek protests, what is clear is that 100,000 was not nearly enough, because the country's parliamentarians enacted tough new austerity measures despite the vigorous opposition of those who elected them. The government clearly understood the pain it was inflicting on its own people, even as it refused to consider their wishes, and it chose instead to meet the demands of the international banking class. In a democracy, then, how many people must take their dissent to the streets?

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The Greek example demonstrates yet again that the almost universal disapproval of a people, and massive displays of public protest, are generally insufficient to sway the course of government. In Greece, a higher authority was at work. Economists tell us that the world-wide catastrophe arising from a Greek default is too terrible to contemplate. They tell us that crushing the lives of ordinary Greeks is a necessary price for the greater good. A fact central to this unfolding drama that receives almost no commentary is that working- and middle-class Greeks played no part in creating the explosion of debt that now puts us all in such jeopardy. Adding insult to injury, those actually culpable for this mess have quietly and safely moved on with their lives, even as the austerity measures,

"are being imposed by the very people whom most Greeks blame for misgoverning the country and benefiting from pervasive corruption. Nobody has been arrested. Ex-ministers live lavishly in Athens' most luxurious properties. Everybody speaks furiously of the immunity of the political elite."

Still, there must be a number. At some point, a critical mass of citizen participation and dissent would have swung the balance in the Greek protests. So what exactly was that number? Let's look to other recent examples for a possible answer. 

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Like OWS, the J14 movement in Israel was borne of a tent city and a growing dissent over the issues of social justice. A mood of palpable disaffection spread across the country this past summer, culminating in street protests that attracted 300,000 people, the largest such demonstrations ever seen in Israel to that point. What began as a protest by young Israelis against the high cost of housing soon turned to broader societal issues, ultimately giving voice to calls for Prime Minister Netanyahu's resignation and the fall of his government.

The J14 movement continued to grow in intensity, and was ultimately capped by the September 3rd Million Person March. While the actual numbers were closer to 500,000, it was nonetheless a truly inspiring example of mass participation and public dissent. However, like the recent events in Greece, it too has amounted to nothing -- Netanyahu expressed the appropriate concern; he formed a suitably august and benign commission to investigate the problem; and then he promptly ordered the tent cities forceably dismantled.

We can be certain that the J14 protesters anxiously await the solemn pronouncements of the Trajtenberg Committee on housing reform. But the larger issues of social justice that truly animated the average Israeli's active participation remain unresolved -- it was, and is, an extraordinary opportunity lost. Perhaps the average Israeli citizen is left wondering today just how many more thousands it would have taken to affect a real change.

We continue our search for evidence that a critical mass -- a tipping point of participation -- can bend the actions of the state to the will of its people. And so we turn our attention to the mother of all protests, an event so inspirational that it continues still to inform the Occupy movement in the US and around the world -- Tahrir Square in Egypt.

The popular revolt in Egypt brought millions to the streets of Cairo and other cities around the country. It riveted the world's attention, and it ultimately brought down the government of the dictator Hosni Mubarak. It was not polite, and it was not without bloodshed. But the sheer mass of people in the streets seemed to still the worst of the military's basest reactionary instincts -- this in a country dominated by the military.

The demands of the revolution's organizers and leaders were initially embraced by the ruling military council. In a country so rife with daily corruption and police brutality, there was much to correct. The success in social and political reform made for inspiring reading; the arrest and subsequent trial of Mubarak and his two sons; the dismantling of the hated State Security Investigations Service; the dissolution of parliament and the announcement of new elections; the removal of the SSI-controlled university police; and the dissolution of the singular and authoritarian National Democratic Party.

So, at last (!), a popular will that bent the state to its own service!

Well, no, not quite.

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David Ruhlen is a writer and musician living in Canada. He notes with great alarm the profoundly negative trends that will increasingly affect us all. And the trends that have come to so completely reflect the human condition are these: (more...)

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