One Ordinary Man

Hundreds of thousands rally in Tahrir Square, Egypt in 2011. 

Hundreds of thousands rally in Tahrir Square, Egypt in 2011. 

Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor from the tiny nation of Tunisia, was an unlikely candidate to shake the pillars of history. 

And just a few years ago, Mohamed Bouazizi’s life was notable only for hardship. His father died when he was the age of 3. He became primary breadwinner for his family when he was 10, selling fruits and vegetables on the street. He dropped out of high school, because his family needed him to work, by the age of 18. Mohamed was remembered for being handsome and friendly, and for giving fruits and vegetables to the poor children of the street. But his life was otherwise… ordinary.

That changed on December 17, 2010.

Mohamed set out that morning with his vegetable cart, as he did on every other morning. A group of police officers approached. They demanded a bribe. But Mohamed had no money to offer. The police knocked over his cart, and confiscated his scale. When Mohamed tried to stop them, they knocked him over, too, and kicked and beat him on the street.

Mohamed, bloodied and broken, picked himself up and stumbled to the governor’s mansion. He tearfully begged for his wares. He told them that his family’s children would starve if he could not sell his fruits and vegetables on the street. But Tunisia was ruled by an iron-fisted dictator, the cruel Zine Ben Ali, who did not care for his people’s tears. Mohamed was thrown out, and left with nothing.

He had no cart, no scale, no vegetables. And no more hope, in such a brutal system. The dictators of Tunisia had taken everything.

Now, Mohamed could have gone home quietly on that day. Or he could have returned to the oppressors the next day, and fallen on his hands and knees to beg them, once again, to return the life they had stolen. But Mohamed decided that the begging must end. He decided that he could no longer tolerate, such intolerable injustice. He decided it was time to act.

He took a can of gasoline to the governor’s mansion and poured it over his head. He shouted out to the dictators:


And then he set his life ablaze. It was his first act of protest, and his last.

The dictators of Tunisia laughed at Mohamed’s sacrifice. They called him a fool, who simply did not understand the ways of Tunisia. “In Tunisia,” they said to themselves, “the powerful rule, and the people obey.”

But a strange thing happened, in the days after December 17. There was a stirring among the people, as Mohamed’s story spread far and wide. First, it was just whispers, whispers of sympathy and compassion. But the whispers grew louder and more frequent. And soon the whispers became spoken words. It was said on the street:

“But for the grace of God, that could have been me...”

As the people pondered these words, they became angry. The bravest began to shout on the streets:

“But for the grace of God, that could have been me!”

Dozens of others, hearing the shouts, streamed out onto the streets. The dozens became hundreds. The hundreds became thousands. And soon the streets where Mohamed Bouazizi had been beaten, were flooded with the people of Tunisia. They shouted out, together:

“But for the Grace of God, that could have been me. But for the Grace of God, WE ARE ALL MOHAMED BOUAZIZI!”

And when the people shouted together, the iron-fisted dictator of Tunisia, the brutal Zine Ben Ali, was the one who had to flee.

Those of you who follow the news may know what happened next. Inspired by the Tunisian revolt, the people of Egypt and Libya rose up against the dictators who had terrorized the people for decades. Seeing the power of the protesters in Egypt, the indignados pitched tents in Madrid, to speak against a political system that had left so many forgotten. And a little-known magazine in New York, inspired by the indignados and the Arab Spring, decided to call for an encampment in Manhattan that they would call “Occupy Wall Street.”

"Just an ordinary man; just an ordinary life," they said of Mohamed Bouazizi. And yet look at the extraordinary difference that "ordinary man" made.

I'm telling you this now because I hope that, on August 24, all of you are animated by the same spirit of protest that animated Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010.

We are often told that we are “foolish” for raising our voices. People say that no one listens to what we have to say. That we have no power to stop the horrible violence that happens behind closed doors, by brutal dictators and corporate titans.

The truth is the exact opposite. Because it is the "foolish" of this world who bring the progress it so desperately needs. Because the world is never ready for a message of change until change is demanded. And because when the Revolutionary Moment comes for the animal rights movement, it will come, not because of some Great Man... but because of the acts of "ordinary" people who decide that they simply must be heard.

And so the streets of the world will hear us on August 24. Time is of the essence. Unspeakable atrocities are perpetuated on our animal friends every day, and all around us.  But together we can and will take a stand. Together, with thousands of our allies in cities all over the world, we will speak for our fellow Earthlings. Together, we will open our eyes to the violence that happens behind closed doors