David Hoppe

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:: Standing up

How long til it happens here

by David Hoppe

People by the thousands have taken to the streets in Turkey and Brazil in recent weeks. In both cases, their protests were sparked by localized grievances that quickly blossomed into expressions of a much larger, deep-seated anger.

On the surface, these protests may look familiar to American current events consumers. The images of people, usually young adults, crowding the streets, occasionally bobbing and weaving through scrims of tear gas smoke, constitute the latest links in a chain dating back to the first stirrings of the so-called Arab Spring in Egypt, December 2010.

The difference, though, is that where the Arab protests defied dictatorial rulers, the actions in Turkey and Brazil have taken place in countries with democratic forms of government. Seemingly stable countries, that is, countries Americans would like to think have something in common with us.

This begs a question: When, if ever, will we see large-scale, mass protests like those in Turkey and Brazil on the streets of the good ol’ USA?

We Americans take a certain pride in being obstreperous. This nation was born of revolution, as Tea Partiers, the self-styled descendents of the original founders, never tire of reminding us.

During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, desperate farmers needing markets for their crops, and factory workers needing jobs, engaged in a variety of actions. Their combined efforts so rattled the people in charge that Franklin Roosevelt was able to pass government programs like the Works Progress Administration, putting people back to work, and Social Security. In so doing, FDR effectively saved capitalism from itself.

Then there was the Civil Rights movement, exemplified by the March on Washington in 1963. Over 200,000 people flooded the National Mall in Washington, DC to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Passage of the Civil Rights Act soon followed.

But that was 50 years ago. Today it’s become common to hear people wondering aloud where that spirit of protest has gone.

Since the year 2000, a president who failed to win the popular vote was elected by the Supreme Court. This country fought two undeclared wars, not to mention a “war on terror,” trampling over the Constitution and international laws. We’ve lived through the greatest economic meltdown since the Great Depression and continue to witness an ever-growing disparity between the richest Americans and rest of us. Meanwhile, the economy, rather than recovering, has been restructured, eliminating many job categories and downgrading others, leaving workers with both white and blue collars in the lurch.

Yet, apart from a rustle here and there — at the outbreak of war in Iraq, the Occupy Movement — Americans have mostly stuck to the sidelines and swallowed what the powers that be have dished.

Which isn’t to say we’ve been happy. From bullying to road rage, an obsession with guns to our outsized dependence on prescription drugs, Americans appear stitched with anger. Our tendency, though, is to internalize it. This seems particularly true of adults in their 20’s who, as Jennifer Silva noted in a column, “Young and Isolated,” in the New York Times, “are people bouncing from one temporary job to the next; dropping out of college because they can’t figure out financial forms or fulfill their major requirements; relying on credit cards for medical emergencies; and avoiding romantic commitments because they can take care of only themselves.”

Our individualism — rightly championed in songs and stories — makes it hard to protest. If something’s wrong, we blame ourselves first. The responsibility must be our own.

But what if the deck is stacked? What if becoming the individual you imagine yourself to be is thwarted because you can’t afford college without going into debt, or your health insurance is insufficient, or there’s no public transit, or affordable housing, or childcare, or a job?

In Turkey, the protests started because the government wanted to turn a public park into a private business development. In Brazil, it began with a sudden hike to public transit fares. Then people started pouring into the streets, giving vent to a much larger feeling of being stuck, exploited by those in charge.

Their frustrations are easily translated. Like us, Turks and Brazilians voted for their leaders. And like us, they are finding that those leaders appear to be more concerned about serving those with power, connections and the ability to pay for access. Leaders they thought would work to make their lives better are working instead to make trans-national corporations more profitable.

It is impossible to predict what will come of these protests. By the same token, there is no telling what it might take to get Americans off the couch for demonstrations of our own. President Obama has promised much and delivered little; Republicans offer even less. Both act as if we the people can solve our problems — from an overheating climate, to a manufacturing revival — for them.

The thing is, this might be possible. We could do it. But not without help — and that’s where protest comes in. Contrary to the old saying, good things do not come to those who wait, they come to those who make demands.