Well, folks, it’s 2012. The world is set to end on schedule in the coming year, be it by polar alignment shift, Mayan prophecy or the bumbling of Europe’s financial leaders, so I hope everyone partied like it was 1999, again.

In the spirit of these celebrations, I’ve been meaning to follow up on one of my top-viewed posts ever, 10 Riots that Changed the World. Posted in the wake of the G20 protests, when everyone seemed dead-set against the idea, I felt compelled to remind folks that riots do, often, have a fairly shattering impact on world history. At the time, the notion felt a little…controversial.

Since then, the image of the revolutionary has had something of a facelift, behind all the masks. People, worldwide, have taken to the streets in numbers and ways not seen in generations, and quickly began to dispatch with tyrants at a rate George W. couldn’t dream of. By the end of the year, “The Protester” had earned the honour of being named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year”. By mid summer, it was clear that 2011 would probably have enough of these riots for its own list. And throughout the fall, 2011 failed to disappoint. It’s been a hell of a year, and I shudder to think what 2012 will bring, but first, let’s take a look back. I’ve generally omitted specific dates here, since most of these disturbances went well beyond a single day or location, and in many of these cases the disturbance went well beyond any one month or city. As for the definition of “riot”, I’ve also left that correspondingly vague – some of these cases were rather passive, and didn’t involve most of the “crowd”, others were entrenched and deadly battles involving large parts of the population. A working definition would be incidents where people fought back against police or other security forces in ways which weren’t passive or “nonviolent” (chaining themselves to things, etc). If I had to draw a line, it would probably be the throwing of rocks. In all of these cases, police or other security forces were injured, and demonstrators (and bystanders) hurt or killed in far greater numbers. All of these injuries and deaths, of course, are tragedies, and the point of this post is not to impose a simple moral judgement one way or the other, but instead to remind everyone that each of these events takes place in the context of a far larger story.

10. Wukan – China – December
After an escalating series of protests and repression regarding land deals and corruption among civic administrators, including the death of a teenaged boy at the hands of authorities, protests got very serious. Communist Party officials were chased out of town, which then declared self-governance. The Communist government then sent 1000 cops to retake the village, who were fought off by rioting townspeople. Their blockades held for two weeks, and after threats that villagers would march on government headquarters in nearby Lufeng, the central government agreed to many key concessions, such as returning land to local farmers, and Wukan triumphantly took down the barricades.
China sees hundreds of thousands of protests every year, and that number has been rising (mostly labour unrest), as well as murmurs of a wider resistance, which the authorities have so far attempted to stamp out at every turn. While a tiny example in an enormous nation, Wukan is one of the smallest communities here, and China the largest and autocratic government, yet their impressive successes only go to show how far this kind of collective determination can go.

9. Syria – April (Ongoing)
Like many Middle Eastern nations, Syria took part in the “Arab Spring” protests. By early April protests across the country, especially in Douma and Daraa, had begun to clash with security forces in a very serious way, leaving a growing number dead. The response came in the form of snipers, tanks, mortars and even shelling from gunships, provoking worldwide shock, rage and disgust.
Of all these examples, Syria is one of the most grim. While many of these protests quickly snowballed into all-out uprisings and even revolutions, Syria’s President Assad was determined not to let it happen to him. Over the past year he’s shocked the world with brutal crackdowns and used the full force of his military on Syrian cities. In the face of this, the people of Syria have not backed down, but continue their fight (right up through the last few weeks), amidst an estimated five thousand casualties so far. Throughout much of the year, Syria has been a terrifying reminder to the world of the brutality possible when opposing a tyrannical government, but also of the inspiring capacity of humans to refuse to back down.

8. Baghdad – Iraq – March
One of the major sites of “Arab Spring” unrest during the last year has been Iraq. While we’re used to hearing of “insurgent” groups placing bombs and battling American troops, a growing protest movement has also been taking centre stage. In Bagdad and other cities huge numbers have turned out to protest the occupation and it’s puppet government. In response, occupation troops fired on crowds, killing many, presenting an even uglier spectacle for the world. These protests showed the world how unhappy the Iraqi people are with this sad state of affairs, and only helped to encourage the recent “official” end of the war and withdrawal of American troops.

7. Oakland – USA – November
Overall, it must be said that it’s very remarkable that after months of nation-wide resistance, Oakland is really the only “riot” which stands out here. For all the talk of how “violent” America is, it’s also a nation thoroughly captivated by non-violence, a fact which has meant a largely peaceful set of demonstrations throughout throughout thousands of arrest. Like all of these flare-ups of popular rage, this helps remind us that all of these “riots” exist in a far larger context of struggle, which all too often gets forgotten once rocks start flying.
Long before any of this went down, I’d already heard that Oakland was one of the most radical Occupy sites. The city has an incredible history of resistance, shown by their recent General Strike, the first one in 80 years, the last one also having been in Oakland. After the particularly brutal eviction of Occupy Oakland, as well as a recent history of rioting over police shootings, the community was enraged. During nonviolent protests, police had nearly killed a young Iraq veteran on camera then attacked those who came to his aid as he lay bleeding at their feet. In the demonstrations that followed, protesters, particularly the “black bloc” vandalized a Whole Foods, seized and squatted an abandoned building and built barricades in the streets, battling police for control. Since then, West Coast resistance has continued amidst a long set of evictions of “occupied” parks, culminating in a series of major west-coast port shutdowns last month, in solidarity with an ongoing (and also, at times, somewhat riotous) labour dispute involving the longshoremen’s unions.

6. London – August – England
Over the past two years, London has had a number of protests which got “out of hand”, with mild black-block rioting, a few occupations and even a group of rascals who managed to get close to a royal limo. None of this, though, could compare to what are now simply known as “the London Riots”. This wasn’t an outburst at a violent demo, but rather a spate of rioting that gripped cities across Britian, with looting, assaults and even deaths. Though there have been many debates about how much political character (if any) existed in these rampages, they didn’t have a lot in common with the insurrections of the Arab Spring or others. Rather, these orgies of destruction were far more emotional and visceral – exposing to the world the rage of a growing British underclass in one of the world’s richest (and most expensive) cities. In the wake of the riots the government combed social media looking for evidence, handing out multi-year sentences for remarks made on Facbook and elsewhere, as well as using photos and videos to identify rioters.
What London reminded the world, like so many before it, is that brutal, crushing social conditions don’t need political movements to riot. Political repression is useless, or even counterproductive against this kind of rioting, since it only closes off the last chances for any kind of controlled venting of this rage. When entire communities feel totally rejected by the establishment, the entire urban environment around them becomes a battleground in which many would rather see buildings burn than cede that space back to the establishment. Any spark can set off these wildfires, and they often see horrific amounts of damage to everyone involved or nearby. The London Riots are a frightening example of what could be waiting for all of us if we don’t address these issues in our own cities.

5. Rome – Italy – October
2011 was the year in which pretty much everybody, from the financial leaders of Europe to the black bloc rioters in the street finally came to consensus: Italy’s legendarily rich, corrupt, philandering despot; Silvio Berlusconi had to go. As the year wore on the nation’s economic situation deteriorated quickly, like Greece threatening to default on its loans, require more bailouts or possibly bring about European financial Armageddon. Unpopular “austerity” programs were pushed, leading to massive cuts and further economic nightmares and to widespread revolt. By September and October, general strikes and mass protests began to rock the capitol and other cities, and by October 15th, in conjunction with a wave of global protests, huge crowds took to the street of Rome. Though most were peaceful, a few masked vandals smashed banks, set fires and did battle with cops amidst a huge and overpowering police presence. Though the austerity measures did pass, it meant the end of Berlusconi’s reign as Prime Minister by early November.

4. Puno – Peru – July
In Puno, Peru, Bear Creek Mining, a Canadian firm, had been planning to open a new silver mine amongst mostly poor, indigenous peoples which threatened to contaminate Lake Titicaca. As often happens in thee cases, local residents launched a campaign of resistance which culminated in an attempted occupation of a local airport, met with tear gas and live rounds from police in which several people were killed. In the wake of this violence, Peru’s government revoked Bear Creek’s claim in the area and has promised reforms in the wake of continuing, similar protests.
I’ll admit this choice left me a little perplexed, and with more than a few options to choose from. Recent riots in Indonesia told a very similar story, as have many others accross the globe. We haven’t heard a lot about these movements in our Eurocentric press over the last year. Perhaps it isn’t as fun to hear about rioters when they aren’t in our own cities, or those of our official “enemies”. When similar protests break out in otherwise “quiet” client states like Peru or Indonesia, we ignore them. Unless “Islamic Terrorists” are involved, we frankly don’t want to know. Even when the companies responsible for the projects in question are headquarters are located down the street from us, or perhaps, especially in those cases. “Development” policies and programs like these probably affect a larger population and landmass worldwide than the First World and Arab states combined, and the associated debt crisis is measured not by high youth unemployments, but in tens of thousands of preventable child deaths daily. I could just as easily have compiled a list of the top ten or twenty Third World mining riots over the last year, and that should give some sense, not only of the scale of the problem but also the growing global resistance to it.

3. Athens – Greece – Ongoing
Athens has witnessed incredible amounts of civil unrest over the past few years, but it was in 2011 that the issues of the Greek people suddenly took centre stage. For much of the year, the European Union stared at the brink of financial oblivion as heavily indebted poorer member states, saddled with bailout costs, began to look as they’d be needing a lot more in bailouts. For much of this time Greece was the main concern, but before long it spread to Italy, Portugal, Spain and any number of others. The “contagion risk”, if these loans went bad, posed serious threats to most of Europe’s banks and a good chunk of the rest of the world (and still do). Greece has been the victim of an austerity regieme which has crippled its economy and the thought of further cuts in order to float foreign banks is not terribly popular with the population. Major protests and general strikes raged in spring, summer and fall, often descending into rioting including molotov cocktails, barricades and attempted sieges of Parliament. The passing of the austerity bill itself was highlighted by a massive brawl outside, and Prime Minister Papandreau’s resignation, soon after, was met with 50 000 in the streets.

2. Benghazi – February – Libya
Libya was one of the first nations to witness the ‘Arab Spring’, and as protesters gathered across the country, the nation’s legendary dictator, Mohammar Gaddafi was quick to send in security forced to stamp them out. The resulting clashes left many injured, including a few of the troops, and quickly escalated into a national civil war. Soon after America and other western nations saw an opportunity to do something they’d wanted to do since Reagan – they sent bombers to “assist” and paved the way for the eventual overthrow of Gaddafi.
This case highlighted the risks posed by demonstrators, and how ugly things can get when a ruler feels backed into a corner. The case highlighted many of the problematic aspects of Western intervention, and will hopefully (though not likely) give us a bit of pause in the future. Nonetheless, another of the world’s longest reigning and most notorious dictatorships has come to an end, and I can’t help but feel the world’s a better place without Mohammar Gaddafi in it.

1. Cairo – Egypt – January
Though Tunisia and Libya also played important roles in the early “Arab Spring”, it was the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square which really caught the globe’s attention. The square was first occupied on January 25th and numbers swelled to hundreds of thousands or possibly a million, as the occupiers fought off police, military and paramilitary forces to unseat Egyptian Dictator by the 11th of February.
The military, of course, remained in charge, so the protests have continued, but the effects of last January’s uprising resonated around the globe. with sticks and stones, they managed to hold onto a space which was soon to become a global symbol of revolution.

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