When things go wrong

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 12.14.58One of the most extraordinary aspects of the events that took place during the Azusa Street Revival that began in 1906, was the breaking down divisions between women and men of all races.

Up to 1,500 people would meet at the disused Church building that was in a Los Angeles ghetto on 312 Azusa Street. Given that it was the height of the “Jim Crow” era of racial segregation, and it was to be 14 years before women’s Suffrage in the US, the intermingling of races and encouragement of women in leadership was remarkable.

But it wasn’t long before the grassroots movement began to revert to patterns of domination and segregation.
Less than 100 years after the revival came to an end, Egyptians took to the streets in protests that eventually overthrew the president Hosni Mubarak and Cairo’s Tahrir Square became the site of which writer Ahdaf Soueif has described as a reflection of “humanity at its best in diverse forms”.

Speaking in 2011 in London, Soueif described how what had begun as a young people’s movement was eventually joined by “four generations” and all sectors of society, from those who worked for daily wages to those “who parked their Mercedes by the opera” to join protests. Rural and urban people were also represented by delegations sent by other cities and towns.

What Azusa Street and the Egyptian uprisings have in common – and there are many more examples – is an encounter with possibility – and with a unity that transcends all divisions.

So, how do we read the situation when things start to go wrong? As the above images shows, a Google search indicates the media started writing off the revolution as early as 2012, some of them even earlier. But does that explain the apparent lack of interest in the current plight of activists as president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi bids to quash all dissent

It was the days after the fall of Mubarak, that it became clear how ill-equipped the British media was dealing with change, transition and revolution. A number of the activists who had been involved in the protests expressed exasperation with journalists whose questions focused mainly on their lack of a blueprint for change when they spoke at talks at the Frontline Club in London.

The response from many was that they knew they didn’t want dictatorship, they didn’t want humiliation at the hands of a corrupt despot. And after almost 30 years they had overthrown him – didn’t that count for something?

A little further down the line, the questions focused on whether one event or another served to show that the revolution had failed. But many of the activists in Egypt knew from the beginning that an authoritarian regime was still in control, and that there was a long road ahead. One, Salma Said, said that she cried when she heard that Mubarak had stepped down, because she knew that the real struggle was only just beginning. And while the country appears to have divided into two camps – the army generals and the old guard vs the Muslim Brotherhood – the people who started the revolution reject such polarisation and continue the struggle for social justice, while facing arrest, imprisonment and government opposition.

Today those heady 18 days in Tahrir Square seem far off. But as prominent activist Khalid Abdalla said, following the massacre at Maspero, which he describes as “his lowest point in the last three years”:

“[The] lowest points are when you keep walking. That’s when change happens and things get defined.”

But such nuance rarely translates in the media, which casts little light on process of change. BBC correspondent Mark Easton’s question two years ago to a protester outside St Paul’s Cathedral ‘Do you really think you can change the world’ summed it up – asked in a tone that suggested the idea ridiculous. But it raises the question; If we don’t think we can change the world, then what?

When things don’t work out, when they become difficult, dire and complicated, do we simply conclude that things like those seen and felt in Egypt, or in Azusa Street, were only illusions or just too unrealistic? Or perhaps there’s something we need to grasp in terms of the transition from seeing the possible and making it ‘real’.

How do we close the gap between the things we glimpse and touch, at times? How do we disrupt the sense of grinding inevitability, the suggestion that ‘that’s just the way things are’ especially during dark times?

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