If it’s true that “a riot,” as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “is the language of the unheard,” then a lot of people around the world are becoming fluent in that particular dialect.
Hong Kong, with its epic showdown between street demonstrators and police over demands for more democracy, has grabbed most of the world’s attention. But there also have been violent demonstrations in Barcelona, Spain, over sentences of up to 13 years handed down by the Spanish Supreme Court to leaders of the Catalan separatist movement whose criminal act was to oversee a nonbinding referendum.
Elsewhere, economics and corruption have been the driving force, as in Haiti, Ecuador and Chile in the Americas. In the Middle East, violent demonstrations have occurred in Lebanon and Iraq over corruption and failed government services. In Indonesia, a new law that weakened an anti-corruption commission led thousands of people into the streets for violent clashes with police.
The world, it seems, is channeling Howard Beale, the network television news anchor in Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 Academy Award-winning movie “Network,” who, as he’s being forced out of his job over dwindling ratings, gave voice to the unvoiced by bellowing, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Interestingly, most of the global protests began with seemingly minor friction points — a subway fare hike in Chile, a fuel-subsidy cut in Ecuador, a new law in Indonesia — that ignited deeper anger and frustration over poverty and corruption, or led the citizenry to demand more democracy and self-governance.
Is this a tipping point? Probably not. But it is a sharp warning to political elites around the world about what happens when governments fail to address, or worsen, deep poverty and social divisions.
Income inequality is a massive problem, with the U.S. having the worst of it. According to the research group Inequality.org, “the top 1% in the United States holds 42.5% of national wealth, a far greater share” than in other member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “In no other industrial nation does the richest 1% own more than 28% of their country’s wealth.”
But that doesn’t mean such disparity isn’t global. People with more than $1 million in investments control 45% of the world’s wealth, the group says. Conversely, those with less than $10,000 make up 64% of the world population but account for less than 2% of global wealth.
And as governments are perceived to be serving the interests of the haves over those of the have-nots, or of undercutting the public interest for their own enrichment, protests are inevitable.
The demonstrations not only are the “language of the unheard,” they are the predictable results of broken systems of governance. And the first steps toward chaos.
The question is, will governments heed the messages of abject frustration delivered by banners, rocks and firebombs?
Scott Martelle, who joined the Los Angeles Times’ editorial board in 2014, is a veteran journalist and author of six history books.