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11.27.2011 _____________________

On New Year’s Day, 1970, I flew to Cairo on a Newsweek assignment. The Egyptian government had just reduced subsidies on essentials like gasoline, flour and cooking oil, sending the impoverished deeper into hunger and despair.

My assignment was to photograph unrest beginning to break out on Egyptian campuses. I went straight to Ein Shams University and within minutes of starting to take pictures of students, placards and graffiti I was arrested.

I spent the night in jail. I was served innumerable cups of sweet tea, stale biscuits, taught some colloquial Arabic and played cards. I was only interrogated for an hour and I was released the next afternoon.

Calls from Newsweek and the American Embassy, and the privilege of being Western made my stay in the brig brief and comfortable, but not before the government-controlled press trumpeted that the unrest citizens were witnessing was a foreign provocation and that they had arrested the provocateur. Me!

This past Thanksgiving morning, I read a good friend, Mona Eltahawy, an acclaimed New York-based Egyptian-American journalist, had been detained in Cairo for 12 hours, beaten, blindfolded and sexually assaulted by Egyptian security forces.

Mona has twice been a guest at Phillips Exeter Academy, and spoke at assembly with humor and passion on the Arab Spring, on the importance of an independent press, on social media and on her love for Egypt and New York. She received a standing ovation.

“5 or 6 surrounded me, groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count how many hands tried to get into my trousers,” she tweeted from Cairo. “The past 12 hrs were painful and surreal but I know I got off much much easier than so many other Egyptians.”

She’s right. Where dictators rule, where anarchy and chaos thrive, no one ever knows how many people die or disappear.

Military force, detention, intimidation and tear gas are not the only tools available to control restive populations. Boycotts, sanctions, cultural, economic and social pressures are all weapons used to disenfranchise citizens. And what weapon can the unarmed and disenfranchised muster in response to injustice?

Direct action. Witness Cairo, Selma, Bahrain, Kent State, Budrus, Tiananmen, Washington, Tehran, UC Davis. Some win. Some lose. Nothing stays the same.

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote,”You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

In New York City’s Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street protestors were removed by order of Mayor Bloomberg. Tents, personal effects and thousands of books were destroyed.

“Isn’t negotiation a better path?”

In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, non-violent protestors are suppressed by the military government using tear gas made in Jamestown, Pa.

“Isn’t negotiation a better path?”

In Seattle’s Westlake Park, and on the UC Davis campus, protesters are gassed with pepper spray that is more than three times stronger than the Dorset Naga, which has the hottest heat level ever recorded for a chili. That is more than 1,200 times hotter than Tabasco sauce.

Fox New’s Megyn Kelly says pepper spray is a “food product.” That’s like saying cyanide is a food product because it can be derived from apricot pits, or that ricin is benign because it’s made from the castor bean.

That’s like saying waterboarding is only an enhanced interrogation technique.

“Isn’t negotiation a better path?”

In 1865, it took two weeks for news of President Lincoln’s assassination to reach Fort Kent, Maine. Today, when students are gassed in California, journalists arrested in Cairo, or funeral marchers shot in Syria we have the news in seconds. Responses are measured in minutes, counter-actions launched within hours.

These are not Facebook, Google and Twitter revolutions. They are revolutions using those tools to galvanize action. Mainstream media (MSM) views social media as the same as MSM, only newer. It’s not.

Governments, and MSM, will lose authority and power if they don’t figure it out. If the establishment can’t escape the old power paradigms they created to protect their privilege, they lose. If there is no negotiation and understanding we all lose.

To face tear gas and pepper spray, to Occupy Tahrir, to Occupy Wall Street, to risk life and loss to confront authority, to confront injustice and corruption, is an act of love for one’s nation.

Today, we are stumbling along Luke’s road to Emmaus where our “eyes (are) kept from recognizing” truth. Strangers in crisis pass us without recognition. Tensions increase. To reach a destination of mutual security, equity and social justice we must be mindful and have the courage and strength to invite strangers to break bread with us.

Only then will our eyes be “opened.”

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