Derrick Z. Jackson

Fighting through the abyss

Thousands of demonstrators marched through the Tunisian capital Friday. Thousands of demonstrators marched through the Tunisian capital Friday. (Associated Press)
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / January 18, 2011

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MARTIN LUTHER King Jr., whose birthday was celebrated yesterday, would have written quite a sermon based on a young man in Tunisia. For 23 years, that nation was under the autocratic rule of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. During that time, he kept his repression under the global radar; the country has a more moderate image relative to other Arab nations, Western tourism along its Mediterranean border, and is considered an ally in the US fight against terrorism.

But most iron-fisted rules eventually rust and the event that cracked it open was fascinating. Food prices and unemployment have been soaring, even among educated Tunisians. Last month, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed university graduate, tried to sell fruits and vegetables at a market without a permit. Police confiscated his produce and some supporters say he was slapped. He was so humiliated and despondent that he set himself on fire and died two and a half weeks later.

The symbolism of food, unemployment, and the grim finality of suicide so shook young Tunisians that they took to the streets in protests. “When a father can no longer feed his children, he loses his place. . . and his dignity,’’ activist Selim Ben Hassen told the Associated Press. “It’s not just a question of money. It’s a question of honor.’’

Dozens of people have been killed in police crackdowns on protests and in rioting. President Ben Ali, 74, at first blamed foreign media and foreign terrorists. As the unrest continued, he cosmetically shuffled government officials. Then, as calls for his resignation mounted, he pledged freedom for the press and said he would not run again for president. That still did not matter as modern protesters organized nonviolent demonstrations on Facebook, and more traditional rioters began ransacking the homes of some of Ben Ali’s relatives, who have hoarded the nation’s riches.

Finally, the people were heard. Last week, Ben Ali fled the country, and Prime Minister Mohammad Ghannouchi took over, promising constitutional, social, and economic reforms.

King, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, would of course have decried the violence. But the fact that the humiliation of a humbled young unemployed man could rivet a nation and now the world speaks to his final speech, given in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis. It speaks back to 1956, when he gave his speech in Montgomery, Alabama, saying, “There comes a time when people get tired. There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of exploitation where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair.’’

Mohamed Bouazizi was the kind of person King was thinking about when he urged people to fight through the abyss. “Whatever your life’s work is, do it well,’’ King said in the 1956 speech. “Even if it does not fall in the category of one of the so-called big professions, do it well. As one college president said, ‘A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.’ If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music.’’

Yesterday a street sweeper. Today an unemployed Tunisian trying to sell fruits and vegetables to maintain his dignity. The people were tired when the iron feet of oppression crushed his hope. Bouazizi’s death is not just the source of a fresh desire for freedom in Tunisia. It is a reminder that a nation’s hope can spring from anyone’s life, or death, no matter how humble, if we are willing to pay attention.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at