Huffpost WorldPost
Mike Smith Headshot

Viva La Revolution: Public Protests Are Working

Posted: Updated:

"They say you want a revolution... well, ya know. We all want to change the world," sang John Lennon. But then again he also sang "Give Peace a Chance." In view of the demonstrations for change in the Mideast, please read my blog and decide if you think these Western World issues are worth the fight!

Public protests are back and the world feels it has found its collective voice.

Protest related violence in Egypt has now killed or injured 300, including the beat downs and a rape of working journalists. The fall of dictatorships or totalitarian governments across Arab nations has seen saturation TV coverage. Rightly so, and yet protests still going on in the US and Europe have gone unnoticed.

Today, at the Wisconsin state capitol building in Madison -- a city where perhaps college anti-war protests sparked our withdrawal from Vietnam, public employees have filled the center. Facing cuts, both salary and pensions, with teachers perhaps getting the brunt of the ax, Wisconsinites are forcing the issue -- is a public school or public services strike far behind?

Four Cities -- four protests
In each of the past four months, I have been an observer of protests in world capitals such as Paris, London and Brussels.

Brussels, Belgium -- January 23, 2011: over 30,000 people marched (or walked) on a Sunday morning adjacent to the EU capital and near the city centre. One young woman who works for a large vehicle (trucks, construction) manufacturer told me: "We took my sister and her baby, my niece and went for a walk along with our cousin and her baby." It was fun pushing the stroller?

At issue -- the Belgians have no government; nor have they for months now. And the beauty is that nobody seems to be missing it. Cultural issues between Flemish and French -- Flanders and Francophones, have been preventing Brussels from seating a government. Kids with blue flags claiming "etudiants pour la francophone" (students in favor of French language) walked along the avenue. Brussels rallied a formidable (En Francais, "formidable") police force. Maybe thousands of riot geared police in vans, patrol cars with wary officers, and cops on the street kept engarde (on guard) for trouble.

An AP story called it "bipolar national rudderless-ness."

London, England -- December 8, 2010: Riots, a paint bomb and rocks showering Prince Charles and Lady Camilla, while they were in transit to theater, characterized a less than civil demonstration in London town. The thousands of student protesters even pissed on the famous statue of Winston Churchill. Small bonfires set to either escalate the tension or more likely to stay warm in the streets on a below freezing afternoon seemed to suggest government overthrow. Meanwhile, in Parliament, the Labor Party and Tories agreed to raise student tuitions.

Crowd estimates were at 52,000 people and that seems right... since I was locked out of my hotel by police and riot officers, I counted.

At issue -- over the next three years, students will see their UK university tuition mount from what is effectively $5000, to $10,000 to $15,000, a tripling (or treble) of annual fees. According to the Times, the new charges are £6,000, or $9,600, to £9,000, or $14,400, in tuition a year, up from a cap of £3,290, or $5,264. The protest was the largest street demonstration against the government's plans, which were announced last month, to cut public spending by $130 billion. The country's austerity program (in fact, Great Britain like the US can no longer afford entitlement programs including advanced education), would put college out of range for many middle class. But the repayment scheme (schedule) does not begin for years, and then only after the student is earning what is effectively over $32,000 USD per year.

In November, Irish students staged similar protests on rate hikes.

Paris, France -- September 7-8, 2010: Labor Union protests across the city. People dressed in various colors march down historic streets -- but only between stations police have set. Varying from the parade route resulted in a fine. Over 1425 people were "detained." I was there for the World Satellite forum where a client was receiving the top award on low earth orbit imagery. We were somewhat insulated at the Westin.

Over 270,000 people participated in this demonstration but police said 80,000 were actually involved in the protest march. Other estimates say 7000 students were involved in campus eruptions (they are 18 and retirement at any age over 60 seems ominous!)

At Issue -- Retirement age to be increased to age 62 over a flighted or step-up timeframe. According to this CBS report: "Many workers feel the change would be a first step in eroding France's social benefits -- which include long vacations, contracts that make it hard for employers to lay off workers and a state-subsidized health care system -- in favor of "American-style capitalism."

Sarkozy ordered all fuel depots forcibly reopened and vowed Wednesday that he would "carry the retirement reform through to the end." And despite France's tolerance for a long tradition of strikes and protest, official patience appeared to be waning after weeks of actions that have snarled traffic, cancelled flights and dwindling gasoline supplies."

In light of true revolution in the Mideast, I am not sure our Western nations have really much about which to bitch. True democracy allows us to peaceably assemble.