The final month of 2014 is now upon us, and along with holiday shopping and Christmas lights, we should take a look at some of the overarching themes of the year.
I think 2014 will go down as a year of protests and movements that shook the whole world.
From the Presidential Palace outside Kiev, Ukraine, to the streets of Admiralty District in Hong Kong and most recently the smoldering alleyways and businesses of Ferguson, Missouri, the voice of the people has rung out loud and clear to those in power.
The recipients of their fervor were different: a dictatorial strongman, a tone-deaf central government and a racial system five centuries in the making. But the message in all three cases was the same—the status quo won’t do.
I rang in 2014 watching Dick Clark’s Rockin’ Eve show, but half a world away, unrest was brewing in Ukrainian cities like Kiev and Donetsk. It came to a head on Feb. 20 when peaceful-turned-ugly protests left Independence Square in Kiev more akin to a Hollywood production of “After the Aliens Invade Us” than the heart of an Eastern European nation.
While initial public anger at the luxurious lifestyle of former president Viktor Yanukovych faded into a realization that the future for Ukraine would be divided along East-West lines, Putin and Obama began sparring in a geopolitical boxing match. Initial hopes for a more democratic and independent Ukraine are now nothing more than a pipe dream in a country torn apart by a civil war over the direction of the economy and, inevitably, whether or not Ukraine should ally with the West, or with Russia.
Meanwhile, another less destructive but equally fervent movement was growing in Asia’s financial hub.
I was there in Hong Kong on July 1 when 100,000 protesters marched from Victoria Park to Central to show their disapproval of Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying.
When Beijing issued a inflammatory “White Paper” document in August designed to show Hong Kongers who was in charge, the people reacted in small skirmishes. Several hundred showed up in front of the Legislative Council and government headquarters to protest, but were quickly arrested and let go.
Nothing could prepare Hong Kongers for the grassroots reaction that happened when city police, famous for their discipline and manners, rained tear gas and pepper spray on unsuspecting protesters.
My own students were caught up in the scuffle, and several were gassed along with hundreds of other students and hundreds of elderly.
To Leung’s surprise the police’s actions didn’t shut down the protesters: it pushed hundreds of thousands of normal Hong Kongers into the streets while igniting a war on class division: the pro-Beijing oligarchs who rule Hong Kong against the pro-democracy student movement.
As the days have become weeks and the weeks have become months, public support has ebbed and flowed, but one thing has not changed.
There is still no framework for true democratic elections. Rather, it seems this is becoming a war of attrition.
While Hong Kong’s protests have been at times commended as the “world’s safest and most peaceful protests,”—demonstrators have separated out trash from recycle, brought in power generators to feed hungry Samsung Galaxy batteries and even led group study sessions to catch up on missed class time—the most recent weeks of demonstration have brought with them a violence previously unseen. Metal batons, tear gas and pepper spray no longer seem to have any effect on jaded protesters.
Just this past week, though, a different demonstration showed far more destructive tendencies.
The shooting of Michael Brown led to hundreds of protests, fanning out from St. Louis to all major cities in the country. When police officer Darren Wilson was acquitted of all charges, looting and riots destroyed Ferguson.
I understand the anger that the protestors are up-in-arms about, but does the destruction of their own neighborhood really add anything to their movement?
Rather it detracts from their argument, as a backdrop of arson doesn’t mesh with a storyline of downtrodden masses.
While I won’t go into the morals of it all, I don’t enjoy the unwarranted destruction of private property.
The ubiquitous arson attacks and looting of local businesses in Ferguson without any connection to the Brown case have shown an uglier side to the protests that have swept the nation and ultimately the world.
2014 was a year of movements for democracy and equality. People around the world have been screaming for our leaders to listen for the past year. The question now is whether or not they will in 2015.