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From Europe to the US, protesters are inspired by Arab spring

Activists take to the streets, fuelled mainly by anger at the world financial system, the unequal burdens of austerity and other social, political and environmental grievances, and inspired by the Arab uprisings.

A protest outside the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago against alleged greed and corruption among banking and business leaders. Scott Olson / Getty Images / AFP
A protest outside the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago against alleged greed and corruption among banking and business leaders. Scott Olson / Getty Images / AFP

AMSTERDAM // A wildly disparate protest movement, fuelled mainly by anger at the world financial system, the unequal burdens of austerity and various other social, political and environmental grievances, is gearing up for a global day of protest on October 15.

In Brussels, international activists will start arriving this weekend for a week-long rally at the heart of the Eurozone crisis.

From Spain's indignados ("angry ones"), who took over the central square in Madrid in May to the current Occupy Wall Street action in New York, many of the mostly young protesters say that they have been inspired by the Arab spring popular uprisings that have so far swept dictators from power in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

But rather than aiming at the overthrow of the political system, the immediate goal of the action in Brussels and the global day of protest was "to stop the austerity measures that are being taken because of the financial world", said an organiser of the planned Brussels protest, who only gave his name as Damien.

He emphasised the global reach of the movements, despite their widely varying goals and backgrounds. "We went global from the start. I would actually describe the start not being in Europe, the start was in Tunisia," said Damien, who emphasised that nobody spoke for the movements, which he described as "leaderless".

As indicated by the Occupy Wall Street action, the unifying theme of the movements was outrage at the world financial system, he said. "The spirit of what is pushing hundreds of thousands of people to go in the street is exactly the same - whether in Cairo, in Madrid, or in Athens - and that is that people are tired of being victimised by the financial system."

The European protest movements started in the spring of this year mainly as a response to biting austerity measures in Spain and Greece as those countries grappled with a spiralling debt crisis.

The action of occupying the Plaza del Puerta del Sol in central Madrid, under the banner of a "Take Back the Square" movement echoed Egypt's revolution in Tahrir Square, although many Spanish participants did not draw that parallel at the time.

With the debt crisis continuing and austerity spreading, activists spent the summer setting up groups, or assemblies as they call them, across Europe and elsewhere.

Riots rocked London and other cities in Britain in August against a partially similar social and economic backdrop. But the peaceful protests envisaged by many activists largely failed to take root or draw in more than a handful of people, until the Occupy Wall Street movement sprang up about three weeks ago in New York.

The action in lower Manhattan initially did not draw a lot of attention but that changed after the authorities arrested about 700 people trying to cross Brooklyn Bridge to join the protest last Saturday. The activists now say that the protests have spread to dozens of cities in the US.

Even though the movements themselves eschew a hierarchy and were leaderless, they did manage to coordinate to a degree, said Damien. The European movement communicated with groups across the world, including in New York, he said. And such coordination may be growing.

"We are in close contact with them through the internet and so on. There is a reflection on starting an international network or at least some kind of online tool in which contact between some of these world movement can take place or at least they can meet online."

The activists pride themselves on their non-hierarchical approach, the loose ties that bind them and the differences that allow each local group to tailor its actions to local circumstances. One activist from Spain who is now in New York - "mostly as an observer" - said that he and his colleagues had not briefed the US protesters but that he was struck by the similarities. He called the progression of the protests "viral".

"It is similar, yet very different, reactions to similar problems. In the circumstances, it is only logical the evolution followed this geographical order. We are now getting close to the root of the problem, we're only three or four blocks away from that here," said the Spanish activist who wished to remain unnamed.

Many of the protesters are irked by the observation that they lack a clearly defined programme or even some well-articulated political goals. One of the purposes of the pan-European meeting in Brussels was to crystallise some of the thinking.

But a deliberate vagueness and an openness to let people fill in the goals locally, is also a strength, said the Spanish protester in New York. "There is a lot of unity, there is a lot of solidarity that's the emotional force of these movements and it's a worldwide solidarity. What there is not is a clearly defined discourse that everybody reproduces from the beginning."

fbiederman@thenational.ae