Quito: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Quito, Ecuador, historic center: as I always discover when leaving the U.S., people and cities elsewhere are generally much more civilized. Look at this dense pedestrian zone in Quito's center!

We landed in Quito, Ecuador on Feb. 21 and made our way to the Magic Bean hostel without any trouble. As the driver let us out though, he seemed really nervous and warned us that we were in a difficult area. Hard to believe when we woke up the next morning and walked a block from our hotel (somewhat nervously) and found a thriving commercial district, with a fairly gentrified feeling to it, including plenty of upscale clothing stores and restaurants.

I'm standing in front of the Magic Bean here on the first morning--seems fine now!

The Marsical district in the daytime is a fun melange of old refurbished buildings and new boring architecture.

In fact, we had a wonderful 6 days in Quito, mostly visiting new friends in the local bicycling scene. (There is a more complete report on that over at sf.streetsblog.) We rode bikes all over thanks to the loaners from Frank at Cicleadas del Rey and the wonderful guidance and company he gave us, along with the charming Mashol and equally engaging Pablo. Here’s a moment when Mashol was in conversation with Adriana while we were riding uphill on one of the many nice separated bikeways, or ciclovias, in Quito.

Mashol and Adri in conversation cycling uphill from Mariscal district in Quito.

But the title of this post became our code to each other because wherever we went, and whomever we spoke with, all gave us urgent warnings about public safety. We both have traveled extensively so we tend to take such warnings pretty lightly, but it did affect us after a while, how consistently we were being told that it just wasn’t safe to walk places, to go up and down the scores of alluring staircases that ascend the towering slopes on either side of Quito, or to be anywhere at all after about 9 pm! In fact we learned that most of Ecuadorian city life shuts down very early, which we noticed as we’d be walking around. Suddenly the streets which had been bustling and lively were eerily empty. And then Mr Hyde would begin to appear. We figured some deal had been made (a la The Wire) in which the police agreed to leave the dealers and prostitutes alone if they keep away from some specified zones that were Quito’s night life, in particular a block from our hostel, the Plaza Mariscal Foch, which was heavily patrolled by police and even heavy-weapon carrying military on Saturday night!

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The Springtime of Peoples Redux

The plum blossoms outside my window are stunning in the faux summer of early February, but a nice complement to the springtime emerging in Egypt, Tunisia, across North Africa and the Middle East.

The Egyptian Revolution is continuing. Today on Democracy Now’s ongoing fantastic coverage from the ground in Tahrir Square, they interviewed a man who with an almost devilish look on his face, smiling while he acknowledged that the slowness of the government’s response was greatly helping the movement to become deeper and more creative. It was just the latest in a long list of incredible moments sparkling out of the uprising. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend the two-hour special Democracy Now had on Saturday. In the midst of it is the incredible video that went viral all over Egypt in the week before January 25, showing Asmaa Mahfouz’s Jan. 18th message which some are calling “the video that started the revolution.” We were brought to tears by the intensity of her appeal, the urgency and dignity of her address. Don’t miss it!

The Springtime of Peoples originally was applied as a label to the rapidly spreading revolutionary tide across Europe in 1848. I was reading up on it to contextualize the origins of San Francisco, a city which has only been a city in any sense of the word since 1849-1850. I came upon this passage about the sudden collapse of the Hapsburg Imperial center in Vienna, March 15 1848, quoted in Mike Rapport’s “1848: Year of Revolution” which I thought remarkable for how closely it resembled the events in Cairo:

In Vienna, the whole aspect of things seemed changed, as it were, by a magician’s wand… The secret police had entirely disappeared from the streets; the windows of book-stores were now crowded with forbidden works, which, like condemned criminals, had long been withdrawn from the light of day; boys hawked throughout the city addresses, poems, and engravings, illustrative of the Revolution—the first issues of an unshackled press; while the newly-armed citizens formed into a National Guard, marched shoulder to shoulder with the regular military, and maintained in unison with them, the public tranquillity.

Similar stories are pouring in from many sources now. A fantastic essay appeared in The Asia-Pacific Journal by Mohammed A. Bamyeh, which he datelined Al-Qahira, The City Victorious, February 6, 2011.

…in every sense the revolution maintained throughout a character of spontaneity, in the sense that it had no permanent organization. Rather, organizational needs—for example governing how to communicate, what to do the next day, what to call that day, how to evacuate the injured, how to repulse baltagiyya assaults, and even how to formulate demands—emerged in the field directly and continued to develop in response to new situations. Further, the revolution lacked recognized leadership from beginning to end, a fact that seemed to matter greatly to observers but not to participants. I saw several debates in which participants strongly resisted being represented by any existing group or leader, just as they resisted demands that they produce “representatives” that someone, such as al-Azhar or the government, could talk to. When the government asked that someone be designated as a spokesperson for this revolt, many participants flippantly designated one of the disappeared, in the hope that being so designated might hasten his reappearance. A common statement I heard was that it was “the people” who decide. It appeared that the idea of peoplehood was now assumed to be either too grand to be representable by any concrete authority or leadership, or that such representation would dilute the profound, almost spiritual, implication of the notion of “the people” as a whole being on the move.

I was watching Aljazeera on Friday and at one point there was the anchor querying a guy in Tahrir Square. “Isn’t it a problem that you don’t have a leader? Someone who can speak for the movement?’ or something like that. The guy in the square was beautiful, totally eloquent, and said without hesitation. “No, absolutely not! We don’t need any leaders. We speak for ourselves. We’re very well organized and we don’t need anyone to represent us!”… wow!

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Egypt Stands Up!

Wow! I’ve been brought nearly to tears over and over again during these past days. It’s so inspiring! It’s such a relief! Finally, the ossified world is cracking up, the old order is crumbling. It’s hard to believe the resilience and beauty of the Egyptian revolution. Everyone knows Mubarak is going to go, either on a plane within a few more days, or maybe he’ll be dragged out and hung in Tahrir Square like Mussolini was in Italy in 1945. The role of the “street” is particularly exciting. In this era of numb isolation, clicking and petitioning and online voting, the Egyptian “Internet generation” has turned that isolation on its head, provoking a mass uprising in the streets. By retaking public space and thereby opening a much larger public sphere, long suppressed by the Egyptian police state, they’ve made an incredible breakthrough for the whole world!

But the most inspiring reports are about the direct democracy that has emerged on the barricades all over Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt. When the government facilitated prison breaks and sent their police and secret service in to loot and terrorize people, they inadvertantly inspired an intense, block-by-block self-organization that was so natural that it took only a few hours or a day to spread throughout the city. In today’s New York Times an unusually clear report corroborated the incredible footage showing on Aljazeera in which people from all walks of life are fully engaged in defending their revolution from the attacks of the paid thugs and coerced employees of the Egyptian state. So moving!

In Tahrir Square, Sharif Abdel Kouddous on Democracy Now! has been providing fantastic on-the-spot reports. Today he showed how the self-organization of the people in the Square has even led to a massive garbage recycling system, something very unusual in Egypt (or many countries of the global South), but indicating a level of self-regard, a commitment to a new kind of self-care. We might scoff at recycling as a bourgeois distraction (sure, it’s probably quite inefficient in terms of energy usage), but as a symbol of a transformed public life, it’s pretty compelling. It points to a different way of life that has the potential to go much further than any prior revolution.

Could this be the beginning of the 21st century at last? Could it be the beginning of a truly new path out of the cul-de-sacs of bourgeois democracy, brutal dictatorship, and ossified state capitalism masquerading as socialism? Probably too much to hope for, since “socialism in one country” is as impossible now as it ever was. But that’s the beauty of Egypt’s location in the heart of the transnational Arab world. Imagine if this bottom-up grassroots revolution erects new democratic forms of networked power, based on self-management and rigorous respect for individual and social rights? They’ve practically put it in motion already! And from Tunisia to Yemen, Jordan to Saudi Arabia, the people are rising. How far can it go… on Fox News they’re freaking out that it could make it to the United States! Well, of course it could! It’s the new world struggling to emerge from the dying old world… Yeah, I’m excited! Let’s go!