On the streets of Moscow in the tens of thousands, the protesters chanted: “We exist!” Taking into account the comments of statesmen, scientists, politicians, military officials, bankers, artists, all the important and attended to figures on this planet, nothing caught the year more strikingly than those two words shouted by massed Russian demonstrators.
“We exist!” Think of it as a simple statement of fact, an implicit demand to be taken seriously (or else), and undoubtedly an expression of wonder, verging on a question: “We exist?”
And who could blame them for shouting it? Or for the wonder? How miraculous it was. Yet another country long immersed in a kind of popular silence suddenly finds voice, and the demonstrators promptly declare themselves not about to leave the stage when the day — and the demonstration — ends. Who guessed beforehand that perhaps 50,000 Muscovites would turn out to protest a rigged electoral process in a suddenly restive country, along with crowds in St. Petersburg, Tomsk, and elsewhere from the south to Siberia?
In Tahrir Square in Cairo, they swore: “This time we’re here to stay!” Everywhere this year, it seemed that they — “we” — were here to stay. In New York City, when forced out of Zuccotti Park by the police, protesters returned carrying signs that said, “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.”
And so it seems, globally speaking. Tunis, Cairo, Madrid, Madison, New York, Santiago, Homs. So many cities, towns, places. London, Sana’a, Athens, Oakland, Berlin, Rabat, Boston, Vancouver… it could take your breath away. And as for the places that aren’t yet bubbling — Japan, China, and elsewhere — watch out in 2012 because, let’s face it, “we exist.”
Everywhere, the “we” couldn’t be broader, often remarkably, even strategically, ill defined: 99% of humanity containing so many potentially conflicting strains of thought and being: liberals and fundamentalists, left-wing radicals and right-wing nationalists, the middle class and the dismally poor, pensioners and high-school students. But the “we” couldn’t be more real.
This “we” is something that hasn’t been seen on this planet for a long time, and perhaps never quite so globally. And here’s what should take your breath away, and that of the other 1%, too: “we” were never supposed to exist. Everyone, even we, counted us out.
Until last December, when a young Tunisian vegetable vendor set himself alight to protest his own humiliation, that “we” seemed to consist of the non-actors of the twenty-first century and much of the previous one as well. We’re talking about all those shunted aside, whose lives only weeks, months or, at most, a year ago, simply didn’t matter; all those the powerful absolutely knew they could ride roughshod over as they solidified their control of the planet’s wealth, resources, property, as, in fact, they drove this planet down.
For them, “we” was just a mass of subprime humanity that hardly existed. So of all the statements of 2011, the simplest of them — “We exist!” — has been by far the most powerful.
Name of the Year: Occupy Wall Street
Every year since 1927, when it chose Charles Lindbergh for his famed flight across the Atlantic, Time magazine has picked a “man” (even when, on rare occasions, it was a woman like Queen Elizabeth II) or, after 1999, a “person” of the year (though sometimes it’s been an inanimate object like “the computer” or a group or an idea). If you want a gauge of how “we” have changed the global conversation in just months, those in the running this year included “Arab Youth Protestors,” “Anonymous,” “the 99%,” and “the 1%.” Admittedly, so were Kim Kardashian, Casey Anthony, Michele Bachman, Kate Middleton, and Rupert Murdoch. In the end, the magazine’s winner of 2011 was “the protester.”