Losing their fear and fighting back

February 3, 2011

I COULDN'T help but notice in so many of the reports coming out of Egypt how one protester after another told journalists that they were no longer afraid. They had lost their fear of the government and the police and had become fearless.

Fear is a powerful force that is necessary to keep people oppressed. In a police state like Egypt, the riot police are notorious for their ability to use violence to instill fear.

Mubarak's fear enforcers number over 100,000 and dress in black, padded uniforms and wear thick helmets. The men carry weapons and batons. They look like the robocops that line the streets and plazas in the United States when we protest our government.

The following account from an Egyptian protester describes perfectly what is possible once fear is overcome:

On the Qasr al Nil Bridge, Central Security police clashed for four continuous hours with a column of protesters that stretched for two miles, blocking it from joining other columns converging on Tahrir, or Liberation Square, the city's heart. Their ferocious pop-popping deluges of teargas flooded the oncoming crowds in an almost continuously blinding, choking cloud. Volleys of plastic bullets and grapeshot scattered the front lines of protesters again and again, and the security forces charged in repeatedly, batons crashing, accompanied by armored vehicles shooting their water cannons.

In the past, the sheer scale, power and ferocity of the riot police had easily overcome any challenge. This time, such tactics did thin the ranks of protesters, but a remaining hard core of unarmed youths not only endured the repeated onslaughts. Again and again, they countercharged, hurling rocks, screaming in rage and seemingly oblivious to danger. In the course of the afternoon, these protesters overran the bridge three times, only to be beaten back by Central Security's immensely superior firepower.

Eventually, the police retreated, beaten by thousands of young people who finally on their way across the bridge to Tahrir, overturned and set police vehicles on fire.

This reminded me of a story that Cleve Jones--one of the leaders of the gay rights movement in San Francisco--once told. After the murder of Harvey Milk, thousands of angry and distraught LGBT protesters gathered in the Castro District and along Market Street. The police started to charge the crowd and began beating people.

At first, the protesters were afraid and ran away. People in the crowd started to chant, "slow down, slow down." And then, the protesters turned and ran toward the police and began to fight back, overturning and burning police cars, their fear all but forgotten.

This kind of fearlessness and bravery was a hallmark of the civil rights movement, too. "Ain't Afraid of Your Jails," and "Ain't Gonna Shuffle No More" were two of the slogans of the movement. The famous photos of fearless Black men, women, and children holding hands being blasted with water from high-pressure fire hoses and charged by vicious dogs is seared into the consciousness of this country.

Losing fear is a prerequisite to fighting back against oppression on a mass scale. And when our side loses its fear, something amazing happens. The other side, the people in power who want us to continue to huddle at home in fear, live on less than $2 a day and accept that we have no future, become very afraid. They begin to fear our side. And that is exactly what we want.
Helen Redmond, Chicago

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