The Time Person of the Year – The Protester

Time Person of the Year - 2011 - The Protester

The Time Person the Year for 2011 was recently announced to be The Protester. The linked article outlines some facts on the various protests around the world that certainly paint 2011 as the year of protests.

I appreciate the symbolism of their choice and find it especially relevant for 2011. It is good to acknowledge the power of people and revolutionaries. However, I find their decision somewhat generic and needlessly all-encompassing.

Falling under the definition of The Protester are people who deserve admiration and acknowledgement: Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian man who self-immolated, and Khaled Mohamed Saeed from Egypt who’s death became a catalyst for the Egyptian revolution, though not necessarily a protester himself.

However, what about lobbyists, Tea Partiers, and the Westboro Baptist Church? What about the participants of riots?

I’ve heard some word that Time chose The Protester as a public relations stunt to promote their new book, What is Occupy? Perhaps this is partly the case, but I think it is a cop-out approach that needlessly demerits further investigation into their decision, especially in a year which was rife with protests in several forms.

On the surface, Time’s choice of The Protester seems to casually suggest that all protesters are equal, which is glaringly not the case.

Some protests are ill-formed, unshaped, and seem purposelessly violent or disparate, such as, arguably, the Occupy protests, or at least elements of it. This could include some aspects of the national revolutions witnessed around the world this year. A recent Gallup poll shows that the majority of Egyptians believe that continued protests could be bad for the country.  What about riots, such as the needless Vancouver riots resulting from the Vancouver Canucks hockey team’s loss at the  Stanley Cup Finals? What about the labour union protests in South Africa where protesters tend to go out of their way to vandalise property, spill garbage onto the streets and cause general havoc?

Ideological protests are always difficult to categorise. Some might classify all environmental protests in 2011 as good things, such as the Chinese protesters who rallied together against a potential power plant expansion. Anti-fracking campaigners boycotted Shell’s hydraulic fracturing in the Karroo in South Africa, resulting in a temporary moratorium on fracking. Cop17 in Durban, South Africa, saw hundreds of marching protesters calling for climate justice.

Thousands of protesters marched in Moscow against Russians’ fraud-tainted parliamentary votes, an example of a decent, necessary protest. The subjectivity in this discussion is glaring. Protests I would classify as good protests would be protests such as the Right2Know protest in South Africa, where protesters protested specific clauses in the Protection of Information Bill and knew exactly what they were protesting, had read the bill and knew what changes should be made in order for them to be satisfied with it. This is of course still too much of a generalisation, since there were still plenty protesters participating who did not understand the purpose or events of Black Tuesday, thinking that once the parliamentary vote was complete that meant the bill was immediately passed with no understanding of the other avenues it still has to go through. Their lack of understanding of the bill and half-hearted protesting negatively effects the overall protest because the majority will not know that their protests can continue and that there are other channels through which to attack the implementation of the bill. This is a prime example of a protest perhaps being a good thing, but it being unfair to lump all of the protesters together as worth acknowledging on the same level. This could, one can assume, be applicable to most protests worldwide.

One thing can certainly be said for protesters, regardless of their classification, and that is that their actions can generally be said to either be taken seriously by government or cause important revolutions and social upheavals, resulting in concrete, measurable change. Some protests cause governmental upheaval and large-scale change, such as Egypt’s overthrowing of Mubarak. New social movements, however, can lean towards being relatively disorganised, making them more ineffectual.

Protests can highlight social inequalities to the rest of the world which might not have been brought to the forefront of the world’s attention otherwise. This image of an unknown, Burqa-clad Egyptian woman being beaten by police in Tahrir Square echoed around the world.

Unknown Egyptian woman beaten by police in Tahrir Square

Several images have become iconic revolutionary images, crucially emphasising the role of people in social change. To keep using Egypt as a key example:

Egyptians protect Cairo Museum from looters

Egyptians form human fence around Cairo museum to protect it from looters

Coptic Christians forming a human shield around praying Muslims in Tahrir Square

A friend pointed out during discussions about this that there is the problem of the confluence of “social revolution” and “political revolution.” From a political nomenclature perspective, it is important to take into account that they are different things, but journalists tend to merge them. It is also important to know the ideological difference between a protest and a riot, although they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Perhaps picking a single person as the Time Person of the Year for 2011 to symbolise the collective protesters worth tipping your hat to would have been more appropriate, though in general I have no objection to the magazine’s focus. If anything, the influence of protesting masses is one thing that is certainly worth acknowledging.

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