In the past week we’ve witnessed enormous uprisings across Southern Europe, with six-figure turnouts in nations like Spain, Italy and Greece against the crippling austerity measures now being imposed on them in the hopes of resolving the European debt crisis. In Italy over the weekend, and over the past two days in Greece, violence flared at these protests, leaving one dead (heart failure), around a hundred injured. There are reports of fighting between rioters and other protesters from both. Given the explosion in similar North American protests over the last month, many are drawing parallels to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many are asking: could it happen here?

That’s not a question I or anyone can answer – it will depend on everyone’s actions in the months ahead – police, parliament and protesters like. So far, things here have been overwhelmingly nonviolent. What I can do is put all of this in some perspective:

First of all, protests over austerity in this region are hardly new – Europe has been raging since the latter half of last year, and Greece for few years longer than that. Protests in general tend to involve 10-100 times more people in Europe (or Asia, Latin America etc…) than North America, and there’s a much stronger tradition of militancy, especially in the south. While North American protester “violence” usually involves broken windows and flying rocks, Europeans are far more likely to resort to barricades, molotov cocktails and large-scale street-fighting. Nor is this limited to “protests”, as recent riots in London and Paris have shown. In many ways European society is coming apart at the seams.

This isn’t to say the situation here is “good”, or that our history of protests has always been friendly. It is, however, a far cry from the post-war horrors of dictatorships in Spain or Greece or the chronic instability of Italian governments. Then there’s the history of radical guerillas fighting the fascists in the region during WWII (or in the case of Spain, just before it). Canadian and American and British radical guerillas, of course, also fought – though mostly in Spain.

It’s worth noting, however, that Spain’s ETA, the militant group which has been fighting for an independent, socialist Basque region for decades has just announced an end to armed part of struggle. So, of course, there are always avenues for peace, and for peaceful resistance.

Second, things are clearly worse in Europe. Economies like Spain and Greece have been characterized by 40%+ unemployment among the young, and banking sectors threatening to implode and take the world with them. In Italy, a major catalyst for the unrest was Silvio Berlusconi’s recent survival of another confidence vote. You might know Berlusconi as the legendarily corrupt Italian leader who’s run their economy into the ground while getting caught up in numerous sex scandals and attempting to pass a law granting himself and his cabinet immunity from prosecution because his many criminal prosecutions were “taking up too much of his time”. In Spain, the recent two-day general strike was a response to their latest austerity bill, which barely managed to pass inside the besieged parliament. In Greece, the cuts, privatizations and tax increases being put forward are now so bad that small businesspeople have joined workers and unemployed in the streets.

Spain, Italy and Greece are threatening to default on their loans, and that would threaten much of the world’s banking sector. This could destroy the European Union as a financial entity and Euro as a currency, as well as set off a(nother) worldwide economic collapse. Their leaders are being leaned on hard to pass nightmarish cuts, despite clear scepticism by real economists that it’ll help them meet their targets (Greece is continuing to fail). Their governments are between a rock and a hard place, and so far have opted to do the best to ignore their indignant populations. This is a clear prescription for civil unrest, and one our governments would do well to learn from.

Riots happen, for better or for worse. It’s easy to sit idly by and critique them (or revel in online riot-porn) from the relative comfort of countries like Canada, but the ugly truth is that in situations like these, they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath them lie buried worlds of suffering and hardship, as well as countless examples of systemic and institutional violence. The fact that some people feel rioting is the only way to bring light to this is sad, but sadder is the fact that it’s too often true. In the absence of meaningful, peaceful means of addressing them, a more emotional and visceral reaction is bound to fill that vacuum. Constructive nonviolent protests on a large scale take extraordinary levels of discipline, organization and coordination. Riots don’t.

So far, North America’s protests have been very peaceful, even by our standards. That fact has done wonders for the ‘image’ of the movement, as well as bringing no end of shame upon police for their heavy-handed responses. This only goes to show the value of these kinds of tactics. Peaceful strategies can work, but passive strategies cannot. As Gandhi stated, “poverty is the worst form of violence”, and it doesn’t stop taking its toll for lack of attention. Every time a peaceful protest gets ignored, violence wins in one way or another.

On a slightly related subject, here’s what one member of America’s military thinks about the police response to Occupy Wall Street, as he told about thirty of them during a recent demonstration. Youtube