On December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian fruit vendor—whose entire life had been the cruel epitome of that awful lot shared by the impoverished, oppressed “wretched of the earth”—simply couldn’t take it anymore.
Faced with one indignity too many, the cumulative impact of which made his ability to earn a living so difficult as to become essentially impossible, he set himself ablaze in protest.
Exactly what happened is a matter of some debate.
One account says he was publicly humiliated when a local functionary slapped him, spat in his face, seized his weighing scales, and upended his produce cart. All this, and a subsequent beating, were allegedly accompanied by derogatory remarks directed against Bouazizi’s late father.
In any case, his following self-immolation resulted in burns over 90 percent of his body.
He died 18 days later, never having emerged from a coma.
Bouazizi’s sacrificial symbolism then became legend, first inspiring the long-downtrodden Tunisian masses to successfully overthrow their hated dictatorship, which grew into the exemplary impetus for revolution in Egypt and every associated uprising that jointly came to be known as the Arab Spring.
Throughout 2011, as restive masses around the world began to break the shackles of class exploitation, Bouazizi’s ghost marched at the head of each redemptive throng moving forward to a better future.
He was there in Greece and Spain, in Rome and London, and certainly in my home state’s capital, Madison, where the seeds of what has now blossomed into the magnificent, unstoppable Occupy movement were initially planted.
Suicide by fire has occasionally been employed to make a political point, most notably during the Vietnam years, when Buddhist monks in Saigon torched themselves, with full awareness that their incredible sacrifice constituted the ultimate statement against a terrible, totally unnecessary conflict.
One American man used kerosene and a match for exactly the same reason.
Norman Morrison, a 31-year-old Baltimore Quaker immolated himself beneath Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Pentagon office window, on Nov. 2, 1965. There’s now a street named after him in Hanoi, and he’s also been honored with a commemorative Vietnamese postage stamp.
His death was preceded by the similar deed of an elderly female pacifist in Detroit, Alice Herz, who lamented that marches, vigils, petitions and letters, etc., hadn’t brought the humane conduct to Southeast Asia that was so urgently required.
She died on March 26, 1965, 10 agonizing days after her profound act of ultimate courage.
Following the Morrison incident, Roger Allen LaPorte set himself on fire outside The United Nations building in New York. He succumbed a day later, but remained lucid until the end.
When asked why he’d done what he did, La Porte answered, “I’m a Catholic Worker. I’m against war, all wars. I did this as a religious action.”
In 1967, a Los Angeles mother of two, Florence Beaumont, also committed suicide by fire in opposition to the escalating Vietnam war.
Mohamed Bouazizi probably acted on outraged impulse. He likely didn’t see his suicide as a broadly galvanizing political catalyst.
And yet, more so than all of the other self-immolations combined, his impact on human consciousness and resulting global change is unequaled.
Venerated everywhere, the mayor of Paris dedicated a square in Bouazizi’s honor shortly after his passing. He was also a posthumous co-recipient of the prestigious Sakharov Prize for 2011.
He lies buried at Garaat Bennour cemetery near Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia
It’s an unadorned resting place, flanked by cactus plants, almond and olive trees, with an adjacent Tunisian flag.
But Mohamed Bouazizi really resides in the hearts of battlers for peace and justice all across our planet, where he is collectively embraced with deep love and gratitude, which humankind will never relinquish.
The Tunisian street merchant who started this year’s amazing, liberating events is truly a hero for the ages.
Dennis Rahkonen of Superior, Wisconsin, has been writing progressive commentary with a Heartland perspective for various outlets since the ’60s.