Saturday, February 26, 2011

Upsetting the Applecart

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
- Margaret Mead

There aren't a lot of pictures of Tarek el-Tayyib Mohamed Ben Bouazizi. In most of the pictures that do exist, he's not recognizeable. Hell, he's not recognizeable to most Americans even in the picture above. But his short life, and the way he left it, has completely changed the face of global politics.

Different versions of Mohamed's story conflict with each other; some say he had a computer science degree, others that he never made it through high school. What is known is that he was 26 years old and living in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, with his widowed mother and six sisters. Unable to find employment, he worked for most of his life (from age 10 onward) as a street vendor, selling fruits and vegetables from a cart. Despite police harassment, theft, and a tendency to give away free food to those even poorer than himself, Mohamed was able to provide for his family and send his sisters to school; he was even putting one sister through university, and was saving up for a truck to expand his business.

Enter the police, stage left.

Stories conflict here too. We do know that a police officer named Faida Hamdi stopped him on the morning of December 17, 2010. Some say she demanded a bribe, others say she demanded a permit (which authorities in Sidi Bouzid agree that he didn't actually need), many say she overturned his cart and confiscated his property. Mohamed's family claims that she insulted his deceased father, spit at him, and slapped him in the face. For a young man victimized by corrupt officials throughout most of his life, it was the last straw. He appealed to his government officials, who ignored him until he doused himself with either gasoline or paint thinner and set himself on fire. Eighteen days later, he died of his burns.

This is why the Arab world is under revolution now. It began in Tunisia, where thousands of Mohamed's peers took to the streets in his name to fight for change. Corrupt government, high inflation, high unemployment, widespread poverty - it all came to a head when Mohamed couldn't take anymore, and his peers decided they didn't have to, either. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled his office a short time later.

This inspired similar revolt in Egypt, but also in Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain and Kuwait, Jordan, Pakistan, Mauritania, Syria, Morocco, and now Libya. Even Saudi Arabia is getting into the act. Civil unrest appears to be spreading into Europe too, after a Moroccan street vendor with a story remarkably like Mohamed Bouazizi's torched himself in Sicily, sparking protests across Italy as well as Greece and Albania.

Bizarrely, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been getting a lot of credit for his network's part in the revolution; a man in Egypt even named his newborn daughter "Facebook". Though the mayor of Paris plans to name a park after Mohamed Bouazizi, his memory seems to be fading in favor of the rich and powerful, as tends to happen.

Me, I'm sitting here wondering when we're going to follow suit. Corrupt government, high inflation, high unemployment, and widespread poverty all sounds pretty familiar to me. Sure, there's the protests in Wisconsin - but come on, y'all, union benefits? Seriously? We have Morningland Dairy and Estrella Family Creamery playing the part of our own Mohamed Bouazizi, with the FDA in Faida Hamdi's role; Wisconsin even had an Amish farmer, Emanuel Miller, tormented by the USDA in violation of his First Amendment rights exactly two years to the day before Mohamed lost his business. Why weren't we marching then?

And why aren't we marching against our own federal government, who spends almost 700 BILLION of our dollars against our will to maintain unwanted occupation of about 160 foreign nations after our elected president promised - and failed to deliver - "change"? Or our USDA, which once served farmers but now works to subjugate them to oppressive corporations like Monsanto? Or our own Congress, which takes a pimp's approach to demanding an ever-increasing share of the little we have while slapping us with more and more restrictions on our Constitutional rights?

All across North Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, people are fed up and working for change, all because one guy pushing a fruit cart decided enough was enough. I hope an American fruit farmer doesn't have to set himself on fire before we decide we've had enough, too.

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