Lesson Plans from History

I have been a student of social movements for as long as I can remember.  It was not because I set out to do so.  It was that world events took place, and they quickly filtered into the everyday verandah talk and exchanges that emerged around me.  “Unnu nuh ‘ear seh…?” was a signal to stop and listen, even if it meant sitting by the doorway and out of sight while ‘big people’ argued with each other.

"The Verandah"

Then, as now, the Middle East was a hot topic: Israel; Palestine which was not allowed to call itself that; Lebanon; Algeria; Libya; Iran and Iraq.  But Pakistan, Nicaragua, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, FRELIMO of Mozambique and Angola were also part of the mix.

Names like Somoza, Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, Julius Nyeriere, Anwar Sadat, Golda Meir, the Shah of Iran, Patrice Lumumba, Jomo Kenyatta, Pierre Trudeau, Mengistu of Ethiopia, Maurice Bishop, Ali Bhutto, Muammar Khadaffi, Margaret Thatcher, Peter Botha, and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, Jonas Savimbi seemed to ring often, and with much feeling, as if someone had met or seen them recently, and was reporting on the quality of that encounter.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my best friend through infant, primary and high school was named after a Palestinian freedom fighter.  I still cannot think of any other reason why I shouldn’t consider her a soul-mate.  When my grandmother directed a stranger to hoist me onto his shoulders so I could see – and hopefully touch – Fidel Castro as he was passing through the crowd gathered at St. James Parade (now Sam Sharpe Square), it was clear to her that this experience was part of my education.  School hadn’t ended yet; that I was still in my school uniform seemed to cement that notion.

Grandma Mida in her spot. Besides me, nobody else was allowed to sit in that chair. And you had to be really special to be able to perch on the ledge.

I didn’t grow up around educated people; most barely finished grade school and certainly didn’t have a chance to attend high school.  I was part of the generation of promise, where all these opportunities were being opened to me, and they insisted that I be ready to take them on.

Everything that family members, friends and neighbors knew came from what they had read in the newspapers, in books they acquired, and heard on the radio stations they picked up on AM and FM bands, as well as in conversations with white tourists.  Gossip flowed, and with it, everything that was worth knowing at the time. I never believed that I didn’t have access to information.  It was always a matter of asking. Memories were there to tap into, even in the form of newspaper clippings pasted to the walls of their homes.

The old LS & A Building on State Street; UM - Ann Arbor

Those memories – along with lots of unanswered questions – certainly stayed with me when I was doing graduate studies.  When I read dense scholarly articles about the very social movements that occurred during my childhood, it was a very personal experience. That early political literacy which was shaped by mass media as well as constant exposure to the ideas that were circulating at the time, made it possible to connect to these disparate histories of places I had never visited.   It certainly helped me to connect to fellow students who were coming from a variety of backgrounds, and who sought to study topics that made complete sense to me:


Women soldiers in the Nicaraguan civil war;

Religion, Popular Education and Democracy in Haiti;

Palestinian Women’s organizations before and after the Intifada;

The role of Songs & Storytelling of Algerian and Greek women in the resistance movements;

Antillean Women in the Negritude Movement;

Caribbean women’s involvement in labor and socialist movements.

Long-lasting friendships emerged because we were connected across differences by a history much bigger than us, and we saw the parallels and intersections clearly.  But most importantly, we came to see that our childhoods and adolescent years were closely intertwined; each of us is a chapter in another person’s biography.  We were also committed to the same ideals: justice and the freedom to help shape the world in the way they imagine. Together, we can all testify about how the world came to as it is, at this moment.  And we believe that we can still change it.

For this reason, Egypt has had a special place in my heart.  But, as I watched the unfolding of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the People’s Revolution in Egypt, I thought about how these events would inform the political literacy of Jamaican youth.  How many were even aware of what was happening?  Did they realize that they were living in and witnessing another major turning point in world history? Did they understand that these heady moments – captured so eloquently in the tweets, status updates, music videos, pictures, blogs and livestream reporting via social media – are really the spectacular culmination of many other moments before?  Were they feeling the same sense of anticipation, hope, sadness, confusion and promise that I did when I was a child, and still do now as an adult?  Do they know that it is always young people, and especially students, who have pushed their societies to become better, more just, more democratic, more open? Who will explain these things to them?

Whether they knew it or not, Jamaican youth had an unprecedented opportunity to watch a revolution in the making.  No college course at UWI, UTech or NCU could replicate or even rival the experience of sitting in front of the television and computer between January 11 – February 11, 2011 and watching young people change the course of history – again. And yet, I suspect that many youth did miss this opportunity in expanding their knowledge about what leadership looks like, and getting a deeper understanding of how to claim their own place in history.  What did they have to compare this to, exactly? What conversations did these happenings provoke? there it was right in your face: the good, bad and ugly of a revolution.

The moments of transcendence, sheer terror and hope, all rolled into one.

The bloodshed, tears, shouting, laughter, songs.

Valiant bodies preventing looting, picking up trash, using non-violent tactics to move past the military blockades preventing them from join their fellow protesters.

The women facing down the stoic battle-ready military officers

with signs,

their bodies

speaking eloquently and passionately to reporters.

The heroically- borne corpses and wounded stemming bloodflow and still fighting back with words.  The massive numbers of bodies standing shoulder to should taking up public and political space.

There it was: the messiness and openness of democracy at work and on international display.

None of the millions of people around the world who were watching was left untouched by what those youth managed to do.  We basked in the energies that they have helped to unleash and direct towards a particular end.  This is what it means to be young. To be fearless.  As my dear friend Frances put it:

“We (and I mean all people in the world) really, really needed this. This is the opening of the new century that we wanted, but instead we got hell. We had to wait 11 years and go through a whole lot of fear, pain and loss. There will be more of that, but it’s wonderful to be reminded of the beautiful possibilities. To get our thinking caps back on, to lose the cynicism, to be hopeful, but not in the superficial Obama way, to connect across difference. I mean how cool is that!”

I couldn’t agree more.

There are so many lessons for Jamaican youth to learn from Egypt and Tunisia.  One is this: you are not experiencing anything new, and that nobody else has dealt with at some point in time.  This is a profoundly humbling but empowering view to take.  Too many Jamaican youth don’t even have a sense of their place in history.  The Egyptian and Tunisian youth believed that they ought to the only ones to define that place.  And, if they used their existing knowledge to step out of the silo that their societies had become, they could see more clearly, get more perspective, and see that there was something to learn from their own, as well as others’ history.   After all, revolutions are not that infrequent.  They happen in quiet ways and they happen in noisy, dramatic ways. And nothing makes cutting a hole in that repressive silo more possible than access to the internet.

I hear people say that social media through popular applications such as Facebook, Skype, Google, and Twitter made this revolution happen.  To me, that claim is a profound insult to the thoughtful, informed, systematic, no-holds barred approach that the April 13th Movement in Egypt in particular, took to mobilizing their society.  It is also an insult to Egypt’s formidable history of protest.

For me, it was truly stupendous to behold: it was as if the small group of persons who were the core committee of organizers in the movement had carefully read and reviewed the entire history of social movement scholarship from the past fifty years.  I imagined that they must have used white boards, PowerPoint, network analysis, and pen and paper to create an exhaustive list of language, terms, strategies, tactics, failures, missteps, images, etc. used over time.  More likely though, is that they created a script based on what they had learned from their parents and their education about the long history of struggle for justice and democracy in Arab countries.  If anything, this group of self-proclaimed change agents turned social media into the tools of revolution.  Gil Scott-Heron was a product of his time. He certainly could not have anticipated that the revolution would be televised, tweeted, reported, forwarded, and used as backdrop to music videos.

One thing for sure, constantly being inundated with information made everybody into an Egyptian for a while.

Social media certainly helped to make the core aspect of mobilization – getting the word out – easier and faster to do.  The technologies also freed up people’s energy and time to do other things, and made it possible for Egyptian youth of all stripes – no matter where they were located, how much money or property their parents had, or how much education they had – to contribute something to the movement.  This tech-savvy generation used the tools available to them to create perhaps the best digital archive and most widely accessible documentation of a revolution, ever.  Taken together, all the bits of information that came through the computers and cellphones form an amazing textbook of how to create a movement.

They also had a critical ally: Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based television station that has remained steadfast in its commitment to reporting everything that happens in the Middle East, despite being periodically lambasted by American anti-Arab groups as pro-Islam and anti-West.  Al-Jazeera continued its high standard and fearless mode of reporting by taking what the youth were doing seriously, even when the other media houses were faithfully carrying the government’s message.

Al Jazeera also produced the news segment below called “People Power: Seeds of Change.”   It’s a must-see:

But the youth had to have something to say, and they had to have an idea of who they needed to hear it, and how to get various people to hear them.   They wanted justice, opportunities for mobility and to express themselves, and they saw that the political process had a lot to do with the absence of such.  In other words, they offered a cogent analysis of what was wrong, why things were the way they were, and what could be done about it. They wanted to have a say in the future of their country and they were determined to do so.

They also made use of what they had a lot of: time.  You see, when millions of youth are unemployed – whether or not they are educated – that’s a lot of free time just waiting to be put to use.  Obviously, they did, and beyond what one could imagine.

That’s another key thing: they had imagination.  In a moment of anger and frustration, someone posed the question: what if…?  And then they went about answering their own question. They acted as if their question was worth considering, and that they knew what that answer ought to include.

They also had a vision.  That vision was simple:  translate the disaffection that their generation was experiencing into a movement for positive social change.  They articulated a shared vision, one that was echoed by many, many Egyptians of their generation and beyond.  They understood that it would take work to realize their vision. But their idea of who could participate was inclusive:  they moved beyond those with friends in high places to include young men and women who brought nothing more than their bodies and their willingness to do whatever it would take.

There is no obstacle that they didn’t try to get around.  This is what distinguishes and unites youth everywhere:  there is no rule, no social norm, no set of expectations that youth don’t try to skirt at some point in time.  Except, this time, it was for a collective good.

One of my favorite videos of the Egyptian protests is made by a young Muslim woman wearing a hijab.  It was made a week before the protests began, probably using her cellphone.  She clearly anticipated what detractor of her age would say about the January 25th ‘Day of Rage’ protests.  But she was ready for them.  She declared that, well, if you [young men] say that women shouldn’t be in public protests because they will be harassed and get hurt, well, you need to be a man and come and protect me, because I am going.  And if you don’t come and protect me, you are a coward and traitor to your country!

I laughed so hard when I heard this.  I don’t know if she realized it but she was certainly channeling women of her grandmother’s age who had also been quite vehement about why they refused to wear the hijab, as well as Palestinian and Algerian women who fight daily against the humiliations they suffered under Israeli occupation and dictatorship.  Her adolescent self was steeped in that history, and she was willing to take her place in this latest chapter.

The youth movement and leadership that emerged more than five years ago in Egypt also knew that it was not only them, this educated, jobless and technologically-savvy generation that was feeling the limitations and being walled into poverty, denied the right to speak their views, and being forcibly spoon-fed political propaganda from morning till night.  They saw and felt their parents running into the same walls, over and over again.  And they saw that their parents felt humiliated, powerless and embarrassed at not being able to prevent this from happening to their children.  They felt for them, and wanted to restore their dignity.  Empathy.

These youth had significant differences with their parents, and they fought about the things that all young people argue with their parents about – what kind of career to study for, who to have sex with, when was the right time to be married, how soon could a child move out of their parents’ homes, how often to go to religious services, and whether they wanted to share their parents’ religion.  But the youth came to see that their own inability to break through and become what they dreamed – independent, employed, autonomous from their parents, living a meaningful life – was limited by the same forces that had put their parents in a box.  And they understood that they had – by benefit of the repressive regime that they lived under – the gift of time to figure out what to do.  What did they have to lose?

They read the newspapers, they watched the television stations, they listened to the radio, they checked with each other to find out what others were thinking. Yes, they talked to each other – a lot. They met on the walks to and from class, church, mosque, social events, coffee shops, outside their apartment buildings, in the squares within the tenements and the public spaces. They created a dialogue among youth, and learned from each other.  They listened, they learned, they planned, they reassessed, and they planned some more.  They organized themselves and spread the word at every possible moment.

Whenever those youth who were already politically conscious and organized saw an opportunity to mobilize others, they took it. They have been doing that for years on college campuses, in high schools, in the streets.  Being vocal is a part of the political tradition in Egypt; were that not so, there would be nothing for the Mubarak regime to repress.   Marwan Bishara of Al Jazeera offers a really insightful look at the people who built the revolution up from the ground here.

They built on the work that came before them. They also developed an incisive analysis of power, and the ways that even the most ordinary person could feed into the cycle of repression. They had seen how power based on money, family, and political networks had been wielded against the Egyptian people for many years and they wanted it to end.  They openly questioned their detractors’ sense of honor and commitment to country.  They made it clear that those who did not stand with the protest movement – whether because they were unsure or confused – were, in fact, taking a side with the extension of the status quo, i.e. traitors.

The youth groups saw national celebrations – similar to our Labor Day, Emancipation Day, National Heroes’ Day – as opportunities to speak up, to gather more youth, and to make themselves heard by more people. They took charge of their message and they never stopped speaking.  The text message was the method of choice, but word of mouth, along with fliers cheaply produced in the thousands by hand – those same idle, unemployed hands – as well as photocopied and distributed everywhere.  A square of space on an empty wall, a garbage bin, a block of sidewalk, a utility pole, a door, a basket: if it could be seen, it was asked to bear a message.

The execution of the movement was simply breathtaking.  Indeed, it is fair to say that nothing that happened during the eighteen day period was unplanned or unanticipated.  They didn’t need an office in a government-owned building complete with a fax & photocopy machine, letterhead stationery, a desk, a landline with several extensions, and a name plaque on the door.  Instead, they created a mobile nerve center of the movement, one that could be taken apart, where branches of it could be moved easily and undetected, and where each person was responsible for keeping their branch alive.  The organizers understood that effective protest required creating an alternative community, and all the elements were in place for those who occupied Tahrir Square.

They foresaw and mobilized effectively to make sure that every need was addressed: hospital and first-aid stations, food and water, communication hubs, childcare, garbage, sleeping facilities, public relations, sanitation, musicians, poets, someone tallying the dead.

This revolution was filled with much dancing, singing and laughter.

Hopefully, young Jamaicans got a glimpse into how Egyptian youth used whatever was available to them – including hip-hop and reggae – to create a vibrant protest culture.

Protesters choreographed dance moves and created bawdy, unsentimental and highly critical tunes, all of it politically potent and directly aimed at validating the people’s voices and destabilizing the regime.

To see the young people’s strategy to counter the tactics used to put down protests made me both smile and cry in awe.

There they were, in one moment, forming a wall with their bodies so as to non-violently and yet physically hold the line against the military trying to close them in. Both protesters and military fallen on their knees in prayer in the next moment, and then, the protesters immediately thereafter getting up and taking advantage of the situation by stepping over and around the military officers still shifting from prayer to battle mode.  They stayed true to their commitment to non-violent protest.

Teargas? Vinegar-soaked tissue & masks, and back onto the streets. Water hoses? Heads down, wall of bodies, no retreat.  Rubber bullets? Drop and roll, dodge and stand. Machetes and stones? Shields of corrugated zinc. One leader’s house is burned? They moved to another place.  Cut off internet? We’ll ask someone to donate a television, take up a collection and make a satellite.  Military and police vehicles parked for the evening?  Sleep around them so these vehicles can’t be moved the next day.

Leader refuses to step down? People refuse to go home.  As one organizer on his way back to Tahrir put it: “I have 3 PhD’s in stubbornness, and 2 PhD’s in “stay in Tahrir until [Mubarak] leaves.” Somehow, I have a feeling that he was a really willful child who always gave his parents a headache.  Seeing him put that personality trait to use in this way must have made them proud.

When American media was busy proclaiming the Egyptian protests as a “leaderless revolution”, and then sought to remedy the situation by naming someone who would be instantly recognizable to us in the West as ‘important’, the youth leaders shrugged and kept going.  They had anticipated this:  they knew that reporters would try to creating a leader for their viewers to identify with as well as to blame for whatever problems that emerged.  But they also understood the weight of the work they had taken on: that authentic leadership required that each person put the movement first and made it as successful as possible.  They knew, and wanted to the reporters to have no choice but to agree: the people in the streets day and night spoke more profoundly about the demands and desires of this movement than any single person could try to do.  Leadership for them was about honor, keeping their people safe and unharmed, while also negotiating for the outcomes that the people wanted.  It was not about seeking out and hogging the spotlight. The spotlight belonged on the people in Tahrir Square, Alexandria, the ports, etc. The dreams and aspirations of these young people were the same as the protesters, and that was evident to anyone who wanted to look.  Leaders of this movement emerged and acted as conduits for collective outrage and demands; they were not created or anointed by anyone.  The very existence of this protest illustrated the damage that this strategy had done to Egyptian society.

The youth leaders took their people’s concerns seriously, and crafted a campaign based on real knowledge of and respect for their country, history and the people.  They were able to distinguish between what they government wanted and what the people wanted.  And they had to understand how the existing government worked, and what was not conducive to a fair, just and democratic society.

The revolution is not over. Hosni Mubarak has been deposed but there’s much left to do.  The youth leaders clearly understand that and they are ready, probably more ready than the rest of the world is.   What we have witnessed was like a dance – a well-orchestrated, high–stakes, and dangerous one, where young people were determined to change the tune forever.  Scratching the record or the DVD was one way to do that, until they could put on the song of the people’s choice.  Their work so far shows that they have a good sense of what that is.  They brought along many people with them to witness, support and do what they could not do by themselves: properly represent Egyptian people’s heartfelt desires for collective self-determination.

Already, young people around the world are watching, listening and hoping.  They are asking the same questions my generation and the one before did: What is my responsibility as a citizen? How can we take control of our destiny? How can we leave our mark on history? Is a new world possible?  Over and over, young people are answering those questions on their terms.  Egyptian youth did it in their way, for the whole world to see.

And yet, the frustrations being expressed by Jamaican youth in the wake of these events are tempered with enormous self-doubt as well as a tendency to retreat to justification of the very status quo that disempowers them.  Always, there is the sense that someone else will eventually step in and rescue them.  Sadly, history shows that no such thing will happen, nor will the answers to their questions be found in their textbooks, on television shows or in the music videos they watch on their Blackberry cellphones.

Instead, those answers will come when they take it up on themselves to begin reflecting on what role they wish to play in their country’s history, and how do they want to engage in a serious and committed fashion about their visions and desires for the society.  Only then will they be able to define a place from which they can contribute to the collective good.

There’s no shortcut through this process: they have to be willing to be students again, and to embark on a different kind of education, where they can fashion a response to the only question that really matters: what have I done to help make the society and the world in more just place for my and future generations?  What they decide is entirely up to them.

NOTE: All the images documenting the Egyptian Revolution are linked back to the sites where I found them. No credit was given to the photographer in those places, so if you find out who took them, let me know.


One response to this post.

  1. Thanks for documenting so thoroughly the historic Egyptian revolution. It is truly momentous and bears many lessons for the world, and in particular Jamaican youth. I hope they can turn off dancehall even for a minute to listen and learn.


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