Saturday, April 18, 2009

Shoe today, bomb tomorrow

There were not many highlights in the George W Bush Presidency. But one event, other than the occupation of Iraq, that stands out in my mind was the shoe-throwing attack on Bush by Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi.

As everyone knows by now, Zaidi, as an insult and a form of protest against the illegal occupation of Iraq by the US, hurled his shoes at Bush during a news conference in Baghdad last December.

For his troubles, Zaidi has been imprisoned, allegedly tortured and potentially faces two years in jail. He has also become an international icon. Zaidi’s internment has led to protests and shoe throwing has become a global phenomenon and a symbol of resistance.

Shoes were left at US embassies around the world as part of the demands to release Zaidi. Various protest groups have engaged in symbolic acts of shoe flinging. Antiwar group Code Pink tossed shoes at a Bush effigy outside the White House. Others have engaged in similar acts. Another creative initiative included building an enormous sculpture of a shoe to commemorate Zaidi’s bravery. The sculpture was built by children at an orphanage in Tikrit. Earlier this month, in a copycat attack, a protestor wishing to register his disgust at the Chinese human rights record threw his shoes at the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, during a speech at Cambridge University.

In short, shoe throwing is catching on and I am not surprised. There are so many global events that ordinary people have less and less control over these days. Wars are waged in the name of regular citizens when, in fact, many want nothing to do with warmongering. Many of us fantasise about doing things differently or forcing governments to be agents of peacemaking rather than peace breaking. But it is normally impossible to get your voice heard.

Peaceful protests are becoming increasingly ineffective against counterattacks from media agencies controlled by governments. Tight security makes it difficult to get near political leaders to express your opinions. Blogs, letters and email peti- tions are popular ways to register disagreement but they are often only read by those who share your views rather than those in power. There is a popular senti- ment that political leaders now live in a detached bubble and, even in democracies, the only time you can register your protest in a meaningful way is in the ballot box every couple of years.

People need an outlet and many are fed up with being disempowered from decision-making. Hurling shoes provides a relatively harmless way (well, as long as hobnailed boots are not used) of effectively registering your opinion. Shoes are readily available, easy to transport and simple to get through security checks since most of us wear them (unless you are Zola Budd).

Of course, I am not advocating unbridled shoe chucking every time we are unhappy. But we should salute the courage of those who choose to register their voice in a way that is direct, yet, broadly speaking, a symbolic gesture of disgust rather than a hard-core act of violence. I know such a comment is controversial and I wonder how Gandhi would feel about it. Is shoe tossing, especially if you miss, an act of peaceful protest? I do not know. I also acknowledge that Zaidi’s act was not particularly professional from a journalistic perspective, and he might have caused Bush a mild head injury, causing him to do something rash, like starting a war without planning it.

But, equally, we must acknowledge the frustration felt by ordinary citizens the world over who feel excluded from politics and marginalised from key decisions. We must find ways for average people to be heard and influence global events, whether in Iraq, South Africa, or the US. Without this, a shoe today will be a bomb or a gun tomorrow and that would be no laughing matter.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 12 February 2009.