Saturday, February 26, 2011

From Tripoli to Tripoli

Tripoli is a small unincorporated town in northern Wisconsin.


Tripoli is a big city, capital of Libya, and is under siege from an insurrection.

Of course, there is also Tripoli in Lebanon, a city about half the size of Libya's tumultuous capital, but also on the Mediterranean. The Med, a small sea compared to the Atlantic or Pacific, is ringed by Europe, the Middle East and Africa, quite a richly diverse, polluted, busy and contested body of water now and stretching back through history.

In Wisconsin, Tripoli is pronounced TRIPle-eye, and is as rural as you can get, generally quite peaceful, and they do play rocket launches for fun. Seriously.

But Wisconsin in general is experiencing its own insurrection as their new governor attempts to kill off collective bargaining for public employees. Governor Walker is a Tea Party Republican whose goals are not so much to balance the state budget as they are to destroy labor rights. The union essentially offered a package of concessions that would meet all the stated goals of the Republicans but the Republicans in Wisconsin will not rest until they have taken away the right to collective bargaining for public employees. It is no coincidence that this is happening during a recession; indeed, Walker is acting much like the governors of the 1930s in the Upper Great Lakes, who called out the National Guard to quell labor unrest as unions first organized there--in Wisconsin, in 1934, to crush the Kohler strike, specifically.

As a young man I knew that our region's governors had called out the National Guard to suppress labor and I recall talking to one of the Guard members, then retired, and he recalled being incredibly scared and ready to shoot, since strikers were not nonviolent. "I was not even 20 yet and they wanted to kill me, so I was ready to defend myself," he told me. That was in Minnesota, but the story is the same worldwide, then and now. Violence against the armed forces is just about the poorest tactic available to those agitating for social change.

In Tunisia and in Egypt, the contours of the resistance and democratic uprising were nonviolent, with occasional forays into the dysfunction of violence. In Libya, sadly, the resort to violence has been more frequent, and Gaddafi is all too happy to escalate and prolong the battle. He now fears for his life, his troops fear for their lives, and black Africans are being attacked and slaughtered because Arab racism has determined that all black Africans are mercenaries hired by Gaddafi to kill civil society resisters. This spiral is predictably tragic on all sides. Where there is little or no particular commitment to nonviolence nor discipline toward a nonviolent set of means, the means quickly transmogrify to violent battle and targeting based on a presumption of guilt, as we see again and again.

It was quite touching to read recently of the message sent by Kamal Abbas, General Coordinator of the Centre for Trade Unions and Workers Services in Egypt to the public employee union members of Wisconsin, including the beautiful line, "I want you to know that we stand with you as you stood with us."

And so, from the shores of Tripoli, to the other shores of Tripoli, to the lakeshores and streambanks of yet another Tripoli, the world is learning the lessons of nonviolence and methods of uprising. We harvest what we sow. Gandhi said the means are the ends and this is what we see.


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