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How the 'Year of the Protester' played out in Europe

The protests in the Middle East and United States may have garnered more attention, but 2011 was just as much a year of awakening in southern Europe, where young people are worried their future. 

By Staff writer / December 30, 2011

A Spanish protester in a Guy Fawkes mask demonstrates against banks and politicians in Madrid. The text on the dollar bill translates as "I won't be silenced."

Susana Vera/Reuters

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This year, no one waited for Dec. 31 to interpret the significance of 2011. By early fall, it was being hailed as the year of people power, indignation, upheaval and revolt, of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street

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This month, Time Magazine named "the protester" its person of the year.

A deeply felt global impulse, a rejection of police control, a sense of inequality, outrage over bankers that got bailed out, and a desire among youth for a stable future – what the Polish poet and Solidarity godfather Czeslaw Milosz called “the deepest secret of toiling masses, more than ever alive” – found unexpected power and expression in 2011, even if, as Mr. Milosz says, this secret often “finds no language to express itself.”

The language of the protester this year was greater dignity in ordinary lives, and it went viral. In 1989, an East German pastor in Leipzig described the spirit of protest as "we lost our fear and went into the streets.”

The specifics of 2011's protests varied from place to place, but everywhere they cropped up, they highlighted the “power of the powerless,” as Czech dissident and president Vaclav Havel, who left us two weeks ago, described it. Disillusionment with elites, autocrats, politicians, and policies of self-interest found a voice in places as disparate as Tunis, Athens, Madrid, New Delhi, New York, Oakland, Tel Aviv, and the suburbs of Damascus. It is now on display in Moscow, where Russians are challenging the tightly controlled “democracy” of Vladimir Putin.

Fears of a bleak future

In Europe, protests reflected fears of a bleak future in the face of colossal debt, harsh austerity measures, and an epic lack of faith in political leaders. It rose up in Greece and coursed through the upper Mediterranean, through Italy to Spain.

In May, young people in Madrid launched protests after they were told they could not stay all night on Puerta del Sol square – where only days before, they were allowed to camp out for tickets to a Justin Bieber concert – to discuss educational budget cuts.

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