Eight years after the Occupy Wall Street movement and others like it swept the world in the wake of the global financial crisis, another wave of protests is underway. In Lebanon, Chile, Ecuador, Spain, Britain and Haiti, just to name a few, demonstrations are sometimes drawing up to a million people.
They are often punctuated by violence, either from security forces or the protesters themselves. Yet if the protests sometimes lead to the loss of life, they protesters themselves are fighting for life.
There are big difference is what the demonstrations are about. In Lebanon, Chile and Ecuador they’re against economic distress and government policies. In the streets of Europe, it’s young people protesting the failure of those in power to address climate change. In Hong Kong, it’s against the heavy hand of Beijing. In Barcelona it’s in favor of Catalan separatism while in Britain it’s in favor of staying in Europe.
There are a lot of smaller protests that don’t get wide media coverage, like the pro-democracy rallies in Australia and the anti-corruption demonstrations in Haiti. There are protests by people whose livelihoods are in danger and by middle-class people in the rich world who worry that their children won’t have it so well. There are veteran protesters, like the Yellow Vests in France, and fresh ones like in Chile.
The establishment likes to affix the “radical” label on anti-establishment protesters, and extremists often exploit them. The Yellow Vest movement, which began as demonstrations by people in the French periphery after new gasoline taxes raised the cost of driving, has been stained by extremists and anti-Semites joining their ranks.
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In Spain, stiff prison sentences for Catalan separatists, who organized and led the independence referendum, served as a warning light to those who dare challenge the status quo. Hong Kong protesters have met head-on with China’s leaders, who have unleashed a sophisticated, inflammatory propaganda campaign against them.
Nevertheless, the protests can’t be dismissed. Since the 2008 financial crisis, political and economic institutions are being exposed as the source of many ills, not always the solution. Corruption, nepotism and greed take their toll on democracy, equality and social mobility, science and the environment, indeed on our hope for the future. In all the protests enveloping the world now, this is the link that unites them.
In Ecuador the people of the periphery, the majority of them children, are coping with the cancellation of fuel subsidies and other austerity measures imposed on the country by the International Monetary Fund as a condition for aid.
In Lebanon, the government’s plan to levy a tax on online calls, such as on WhatsApp, brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets. But it wasn’t the WhatsApp tax alone that sparked the protests, rather a history of failed policies that have done nothing to improve people’s lives. Indeed, Lebanese have been literally living amid garbage, thanks to the state’s failure to collect and dispose of it.
In Chile -- one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America, but one suffering from high levels of inequality and ruled by a billionaire president – mass protests were spurred by a hike in public transportation fares.
The results of these protests vary from place to place. Despite its high profile, the Yellow Vest movement hasn’t won major concessions from the French government on the gas tax (which was meant to address climate change issues), and the protests have waned.
By contrast in Ecuador, where per capita incomes is just $11,000, about a quarter of Israel’s, the government gave in almost immediately and the protests ended. In Chile and Lebanon, on the other hand, the authorities made concessions but the protests continue.
Even in Britain you can trace the roots of the anti-Brexit protests to economic trauma. The political establishment appears bankrupt after failing to implement the result of the Brexit referendum three years ago. Exiting the European Union – even the failure to prepare for the day – has hurt the economy of what was once the world’s No. 2 financial power.
The Hong Kong protests are about democracy, but the subtext is the inability of the young to afford homes in an otherwise wealthy enclave because of high prices and a real estate sector and government seeking to maximize profits.
All these protests don’t show us Israelis in a good light. Even in places that are wealthier and live more comfortably than we do, people have taken to the streets to shake up the system and demand those in power take responsibility. Even in places where the authorities respond brutally to demonstrations people have risked their lives to protest injustice.
And us? Israelis love to complain about how much they love to complain. The attacks on our democracy have brought out middle-class protesters, but the protests have been mild and well-mannered. The theft from our pockets by the monopolies, the neglect of our schools and infrastructure, the high costs of living and price of housing – none of these have sparked a fire of civil action.
When Israelis went into the streets and erected tent camps in the cottage-cheese protests eight years ago, they were among the first in what quickly evolved into protests around the world. It proved that it could happen here, too.