Visions of Democarcy: From Tahrir Sqaure to North Carolina
By: Jordan Green
Published Monday, September 19, 2011
The Arab Spring has made a distinct impression on people in Greensboro and other North Carolina cities, beginning with the protests in Tunisia. Early on during the revolts, and led by members of the Arab community, residents in these locales held at least one rally in solidarity with those demanding change in Egypt, and Facebook buzzed with amazement at the power of the nonviolent movement in Tahrir Square in the early months of the year.
Wesley Morris, a community organizer with the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, found himself impressed with the protesters’ resolve. “I was wishing I could be there without making the sacrifice,” he said. “Being a part of people singing — one heart, one mind, one voice — they even won over the military because they didn’t come with the over-and-against [spirit]. That’s the power of nonviolence. It raises your own dignity and it recognizes the dignity of all people.”
Since that time, riots in London had supplanted events in the Middle East and North Africa as a topic of discussion. The Arab Spring resonated with the hopes of North Carolina activists, while London burning strikes a more ominous chord. “I would not be surprised if it happened here if things continue to go the way they are,” said Kristen Jeffers, a 25-year-old graduate student at UNCG who is volunteering as a communications director for a city council candidate. Since the recession hit in late 2008, the official employment rate across the state has hovered around 10 percent — hitting young and non-white people the hardest. “It’s a feeling that no matter what you do, there’s nothing left,” Jeffers said. “You’re down to your last dollar. You’re discounted because of your race. You’re discounted because of your gender. You’re discounted because of your age. It sticks to you: I’ll never get ahead. I think there’s a general frustration among the youth. “I’m looking at nine months down the line whether I can make a living. I wouldn’t resort to violence. There’s a tear in me that I may not be able to give back to my hometown in the way I’d hoped for.”
A popular multiracial and multi-generational movement in Greensboro has mobilized to stop a narrow conservative majority on city council from reopening a landfill in a predominantly black and working-class part of the city within a planned urban loop. While the landfill has brought people in Greensboro together in opposition, many activists here are asking themselves the same questions as their counterparts in Egypt: What next? “We’re issue-oriented and not community oriented,” said Lamar Gibson, who serves as the business manager for a local homeless day center. “What if we win the election? What if we win the landfill debate? Where do we go? Do we have a monthly house meeting? Do we check on each other? I think those have to be more a part of any kind of sustainable movement. We can have movements around issues. But I’m more interested in a movement that, when issues arise, people aren’t lining up on either side, but are sitting down to figure it out.” Along with the principle of nonviolence, the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa have inspired North Carolina activists to reflect on the meaning of democracy. “The United States is the most religiously diverse country in the world, and potentially the most culturally diverse,” community organizer Mustafa Abdullah told Eric Ginsburg of YES! Weekly newspaper in February. “Martin Luther King. … was identifying what it meant to be human, that there isn’t a lesser human or greater human.” Abdullah, who has family in Alexandria, Egypt, is an associate organizer with CHANGE, a Winston-Salem affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation. “This is where the community organizing has a lot of impact,” he continued. “The more people that you have in civil society the more powerful the meaning of democracy becomes. The work of Dr. King and the work we’re doing here at CHANGE with the IAF embodies the spirit of what this country is supposed to be. Going to Egypt, there is a lot of tensions or perceived tensions between the Muslim and Christian communities. Pluralistic relationships serve as the bedrock for the tomorrow of the Egypt that should be.”
Interviews with a wide range of activists in the North Carolina area underscored the importance of political participation and speaking out as means to create more democratic and inclusive societies, both here and abroad. Jeffers said her mother did not vote until 2008, when Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry North Carolina since 1976. The introduction of early voting allowed a broader cross-section of citizenry to participate. “In 2008, I waited until Election Day,” Jeffers said. “I knew it was going to be a historic vote.” Dunia Fleihan is a first-generation American of Lebanese descent who works in marketing and development for a Greensboro nonprofit that provides occupational services to developmentally-disabled adults. She considers it her responsibility to correct misperceptions held by people in the US about the Middle East, and takes pride in her native country. “We’re very lucky to have such a strong community in Lebanon, regardless of religion,” Fleihan said. “Really, the last decade has brought about more change than we’ve seen in the past 30 years. A lot of it is due to young people speaking up.”