February 24, 2011

Is Madison the Next Cairo? ~ Kirsten Westby

From Cairo to Madison to Beijing: The Jasmine Revolution is Here

One activist’s doubletake on the question everyone’s asking.


When I first heard people say “Madison is the next Cairo” I threw up a little in my mouth.

Really? Are we comparing 30 years of severe human rights violations to the loss of union bargaining power? Egyptians have not even seen a bargaining table for decades. And those marching in Wisconsin can be pretty sure that no one is going to send in thugs on horseback to whip them or open fire on them from helicopters…and no one is asking them to lay down their lives for the sake of their desired change.

In fact, President Obama has been condemning leaders in the Middle East for the use of violence against protesters, so he will be walking a fine line when it comes to publicly legitimizing the rights of dissenters in his own backyard. This effectively gives those in Wisconsin more bargaining power than they would have had, if not for Cairo.

No, I thought, Madison should not try to stand on the shoulders of Cairo.

The comparison left a bad aftertaste, and it seemed most of the more radical magazines agreed with me.

So imagine my surprise when, in reading that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine called Madison the next Cairo, I found myself looking for flights to Wisconsin, getting in touch with colleagues I knew in the labor movement, avidly following the indy media for updates. I felt called to action, something I usually have a hard time ignoring. I felt the passion and the adrenaline from the blood and sweat of the Egyptian youth well up inside of me and I felt like a fool for so easily writing off the real gift from the protests in Northern Africa; an antidote to apathy, the will to unite and an unceasing drive to enact change.

People in Middle America are getting off their couches and marching in the streets! And not just your hoody-wearing, Macbook toting young organizers or students. Teachers, nurses and service professionals (the folks who make our world safe and clean) are taking their collective bargaining power to the street and they have the support of their elected representatives. The Wisconsin Democrats who fled the State are effectively employing the non-violent strategy of non-compliance by refusing to be present for a bill that’s understood goal is to bust up the unions. Just as in Egypt and Tunisia, and now in Libya, elected politicians in Wisconsin are taking bold stands against the majority leadership. In that way it feels more like Cairo everyday. I began to think that the unrest in Wisconsin could be something more than meets the eye.

While Madison and Cairo are unlikely bedfellows, they both represent a community coming together to demand change by raising a collective voice against the misuse of political power. Those protesting in Wisconsin are going out on a limb and they are putting their futures on the line, even if its not live ammunition and tear gas they face, their act is brave and that makes them kin to the people’s struggle in Egypt and beyond.

Madison, it appears, is becoming the birthplace of a new worker’s movement spreading State-to-State, garnering momentum and demanding real change to government policies that do not represent their best interest. This makes Madison a bit more like Tunis than Cairo, but for most people in the US the difference is moot. The point is that Madison is the beginning of something big.

And the most obvious comparison is the use of relatively new social networking tools to build a movement, incite change and spread information quickly. I wonder if Zuckerberg is out there smiling knowingly and rubbing his hands together (evil villain-like) or suddenly shaking in his boots to see the effect that Facebook is having on the world…two authoritarian regimes toppled in two months, with more seemingly on the way, all using Facebook groups. And I can’t help but compare Wael Ghonim’s viral video of fatal police brutality, some say the starting point of the Egyptian revolt, with the use of video on the ground in Madison and the now viral video of Rep. Gordon Hintz exposing the backdoor shenanigans of Republicans trying to push through the contentious Budget-Repair Bill.

Yes, Madison and Cairo are also unique and in many ways, and at first it seemed disrespectful to force a comparison. Both have a legitimate right to their claims and to own their own revolt. But seeing the photos of people in the US coming together over a communal wrong, the way they are in Madison, makes me feel revolutionary and I’m not even there (yet?).

Revolution has many faces and requires different types of sacrifice, but if there is truly a Jasmine scent to the wave of change happening here in the US, I feel humbly grateful to the ultimate sacrifices made by the victims in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Iran and Libya. Not to mention China, one of the world’s most repressive regimes against rights activists, where attempted “Jasmine Revolution” gatherings by Chinese dissenters were squashed today by scores of police …but at least there were attempts to squash, which is in and of itself impressively courageous. Having spent time in Chinese detention in 2007, I felt a bond with those who were arrested, abducted and abused for showing up at a McDonalds in Beijing today only to try and gather with others who heeded an online call for change.

The best part is that activists working under repressive regimes everywhere are currently learning from the Egyptians and from the Bahraini, trying to stay one step ahead of their governments in the hopes of planting similarly rapid seeds of change into their struggle. This could be the moment many of them have been waiting for, working towards, for decades.

Students for a Free Tibet Executive Director Tenzin Dorjee just wrote “This week, as organizers of a “Jasmine Revolution” issued calls for protest rallies every Sunday in thirteen cities in China, I started to feel that the stars are aligned against dictatorships everywhere. If the Chinese people seize this opportunity by combining nonviolent tools with strategic planning, they stand to liberate a quarter of the world’s population. It is about time.”

From Madison to Beijing, in our collective cry to hold our governments accountable for their deceptions and manipulation of power, it turns out, we do stand united. The whispers of change that began in a room somewhere in Tunisia are now crying out from protesters in Wisconsin and they are making their way around the world at lightening speed. In this way, I’ll go ahead and say it too, Madison Is The Next Cairo! Beijing is the Next Cairo!

At least I sure as hell hope it is.

Toward Change,

Kiri Westby

Kiri Westby is an activist and a writer who has been working professionally in the human rights field since 2000, specializing in the human rights of women and girls in war zones. Kiri was raised in the Buddhist Shambhala Sangha of Boulder, Colorado and truly believes that one day Tibet will be free.

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