December 17, 2011, Washington, DC: One year ago today, a young Tunisian man set himself on fire after police seized his vegetable cart, his sole source of income. His fellow Tunisians began the year 2011 incensed over the event and all it reflected about the country’s rampant unemployment. In January, they gathered on Twitter and Facebook, but they also gathered in real live person. They weren’t alone. The reaction was contagious. People emerged from the isolation of their homes and gathered in other places too, demanding jobs, demanding lower food prices, demanding regime change. They gathered in places like Algiers, Algeria and Cairo’s Tahrir Square. By month’s end, Tunisia’s leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali had left the country. In February, images of celebration burst from Tahrir Square as Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office. In places like Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, like Sanaa, Yemen, like Benghazi, Libya and Daraa, Syria, the drumbeat continued into the spring.
We honeymooned in Greece at the end of June. In Athens, we trekked up to that old gathering place, Acropolis Hill, and that newer one, Syntagma Square. We walked through the square on June 30, one day after riot police and protesters had clashed in that very space. The slightest hint of tear gas lingered in the air, just enough for school children on tours to cover the noses and mouths with a tissue. We thought a lot about these places, these squares, these hubs where we gather. By summer’s end, Egypt’s Mubarak was wheeled into his trial on a stretcher. The Gaddafi family had fled Libya.
In early fall, a group of Americans had crept out from behind their computers screens to camp out in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and communicate their discontent in person. On October 1st, 700 protesters were arrested crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Throughout the fall, protesters erected tents in city spaces throughout the country. Places like Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and Chicago’s Grant Park and Denver’s City Park and Portland’s Jamison Park and in front of Sproul Hall on the campus of Cal-Berkeley.
In mid-October, the same day 175 protesters were arrested in Chicago and less than one week before former Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi was killed in a gunfight, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman hit the nail on the head. Kimmelman wrote about “an architecture of consciousness,” called it nothing new, referred back to Tiananmen Square and Kent State and Artistotle’s polis. Check it out. I won’t do it justice. It’s well worth the read.
Next came words like Eviction to counter one of the heftiest words of the year: Occupy. Around Thanksgiving, police raided several encampments as winter approached, telling protesters it was time to go, from Zuccotti Park to St. James Park in Toronto. One Sunday in early December, I pedaled past Occupy DC protestors in McPherson Square. Twenty feet off the ground and surrounded by police, protesters straddled the frame of a structure they’d erected overnight.
Given how much we gripe about the increasing isolation that comes from spending time in the virtual world, the physicality of it all is astounding. The world is seemingly hell-bent on face-to-face interactions. Maybe we know that, in the end, it’s still the only way to get things done. Maybe we’re more eager than ever to connect in person given the oversaturation of our virtual lives. Maybe we’ve always known that real change requires gathering in real live places. Maybe we’re tired of hiding behind the computer screen. Maybe we know it’s more personal than that.
This week, TIME magazine named The Protester its Person of the Year. He would have never earned that distinction had he not been so visible, had he protested from home. Our world would look differently — a lot more like it looked 365 days ago — had he stayed inside. But the protester got out of the virtual world and into the real one. He got out there in person. Into these real live places we can see in our cities and pinpoint on maps.
In a few short weeks, it will go down in history. This year. 2011. The year that revealed the power of place.