I had the privilege of starting out the year witnessing, firsthand, the unfolding of the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square. I saw people who had been muzzled their entire lives, especially women, suddenly discovering their collective voice. Singing, chanting, demanding, creating. And that became the hallmark of entire year–people the world over becoming empowered and emboldened simply by watching each other. Courage, we learned in 2011, is contagious!

1. The Arab Spring protests were so astounding that even Time magazine recognized “The Protester” as Person of the Year. Sparked by Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi‘sself-immolation to cry out against police corruption in December 2010, the protests swept across the Middle East and North Africa—including Egypt,Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, and Jordan. So far, uprisings have toppled Tunesian President Ben Ali, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Libyan leader  Muammar Gaddafi–with more shake-ups sure to come. And women have been on the front lines of these protests, highlighted recently by the incredibly brave, unprecedented demo of 10,000 Egyptian women protesting military abuse.

2. Wisconsin caught the Spring Fever, with Madison becoming home to some 100,000 protesters opposing Governor Walker’s threat to destroy collective bargaining and blame the state’s economic woes on public workers. Irate Wisconsinites took over the Capitol, turning it into a festival of democracy, while protests spread throughout the state. The workers managed to loosen the Republican stranglehold on Wisconsin state government and send a message to right-wing extremists across the country. This includes Ohio, where voters overwhelmingly rejected Governor Kasich’s SB 5, a measure designed to restrict collective bargaining rights for more than 360,000 public employees. A humbled Kasich held a press conference shortly after the vote, saying: “The people have spoken clearly. You don’t ignore the public.”

3. On September 17 Occupy Wall Street was born in the heart of Manhattan’s Financial District. Protesters railed against the banksters and corporate thieves responsible for the economic collapse. The movement against the greed of the richest 1% spread to over 1,400 cities in the United States and globally, with newly minted activists embracing–with gusto–people’s assemblies, consensus decision-making, the people’s mic, and upsparkles. Speaking in the name of the 99%, the occupiers changed the national debate from deficits to inequality and corporate abuse.  Even after facing heightened police brutality, tent city evictions, and extreme winter weather, protesters are undeterred and continue to create bold actions–from port shut-downs to moving money out of big banks.  As Occupy Wall Street said, “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come.” Stay tuned for lots more occupation news in 2012.

4. After 8 long years, U.S. troops were finally withdrawn from Iraq. Credit the Iraqis with forcing Obama to stick to an agreement signed under President Bush, and the peace movement here at home for 8 years of opposition to a war our government should never have started. The US invasion and occupation left the country devastated, and Obama’s administration is keeping many thousands of State Department staff, spies and military contractors in the world’s biggest “embassy” in Baghdad. But the withdrawal marks the end of a long, tragic war and for that we should give thanks. Now let’s hold the war criminals accountable!

5. The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was presented to three terrific women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia; Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian peace activist; and Yemeni pro-democracy campaigner Tawakkol Karman. A total of only 15 women have received the Nobel Peace Prize since it was first awarded in 1901.These three women were recognized for their non-violent struggle for women’s safety and for women’s rights to participate in peace-building work. Never before in history have three women been awarded the prize simultaneously. How inspiring!

6. The bloated Pentagon budget is no longer immune from budget cuts. The failure of the super-committee means the Pentagon budget could be cut by a total of $1 trillion over the next decade — which would amount to a 23 percent reduction in the defense budget. The hawks are trying to stop the cuts, but most people are more interested in rebuilding America than fattening the Pentagon. That’s why the U.S. Conference of Mayors, for the first time since the Vietnam war, passed a resolution calling for the end to the hostilities and instead investing at home to create jobs, rebuild infrastructure and develop sustainable energy. 2011 pried open the Pentagon’s lock box. Let’s make the cuts in 2012!

7. Elizabeth Warren is running for Senate and Rep. Barbara Lee continues to inspire. After the financial meltdown in 2008, Warren was appointed chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel to investigate the bank bailout and oversee TARP–and investigate she did. She dressed down the banks and set up a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to protect borrowers. Warren became so popular that tens of thousands of people urged her to run for the Senate in Massachusetts, which she is doing. And let’s give a shout out to Rep. Barbara Lee, who worked valiantly all year to push other issues with massive grassroots support: a bill to “only fund the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan” and a bill to repeal the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Force bill that continues to justify U.S. interventions anywhere in the world.

8. Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi  is running for Parliament! Released last year from nearly 15 years of house arrest, this year Suu Kyi held discussions with the Burmese junta. These talks led to a number of government concessions, including the release of many of Burma’s political prisoners and the legalization of trade unions. In November 2011, Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD, announced its intention to re-register as a political party in order run candidates in 48 by-elections. This puts Suu Kyi in the running and marks a major democratic opening after decades of abuse by the military regime.

9. Opposition to Keystone pipeline inspired thousands of new activists, together with a rockin’ coalition of environment groups across the U.S. and Canada. They brought the issue of the climate-killing pipeline right to President Obama’s door, with over 1,200 arrested in front of the White House. The administration heard them and ordered a new review of the project, but the Republican global warming deniers are trying to force Obama’s hand. Whatever way this struggle ends, it has educated millions about the tar sands threat and trained a new generation of environmentalists in more effective, direct action tactics that will surely result in future “wins” for the planet.

10. Following the tragic meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, the growing appetite for nuclear energy has been reversed. Women in Japan are spearheading protests to shut down Japan’s remaining plants and focus on green energy. Braving a cold winter, they have set up tents in front of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and pledged to continue their demonstration for 10 months and 10 days, traditionally considered in Japan as a full term that covers a pregnancy. “Our protests are aimed at achieving a rebirth in Japanese society,” said Chieko Shina, a grandmother from Fukushima. Meanwhile Germany, which has been getting almost one quarter of its electricity from nuclear power, has pledged to shut down all 17 nuclear power plants by 2022. Chancellor Angela Merkel said she hopes Germany’s transformation to more solar, wind and hydroelectric power will serve as a roadmap for other countries. Power (wind and solar, that is) to the people!

* * * * *

The common thread in the good news this year is the power of ordinary people to counter the abuse of privileged elites, whether corrupt politicians, banksters or greedy CEOs. People all over the globe are insisting that social inequality and environmental devastation are not inevitable features of our global landscape, but policy choices that can be–and must be–reversed. That certainly gives us a full plate for 2012!

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of the human rights group Global Exchange and the peace group CODEPINK.

The following article by Global Exchange and Code Pink Co-founder Medea Benjamin also appeared on AlterNet.org.

As long as people keep organizing and mobilizing, there will be victories to celebrate.

This year was marked by turmoil at home and abroad, including a deepening financial crisis that continues to leave millions jobless and homeless, as well as ongoing and expanding wars. But despite the setbacks and disappointments, here is a list of victories to be thankful for, starting with three inspirational women.

1. On November 13, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. In 1990 her party, the National League for Democracy, won the elections but the military junta refused to let them take power. Instead, Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest for almost 15 of the last 21 years. Her release brings great joy and hope to millions of people in Burma and supporters of democracy worldwide.

2. Dilma Rousseff was elected president of Brazil and takes power on January 1. Dubbed by the media “the most powerful woman in the world,” Rousseff was tortured and jailed for three years for opposing Brazil’s military dictatorship. She later became Chief of Staff for the popular outgoing president and former metalworker, Lula da Silva, whose policies of growth with equity have helped pull millions of Brazilians out of poverty. While some worry about Rousseff’s commitment to the environment (she was also Lula’s Energy Minister), the fact that a progressive woman from the Labor Party will rule a powerhouse like Brazil is cause for celebration.

3. Elizabeth Warren became “consumer czar.” After the financial meltdown in 2008, Warren was appointed Chairwoman of the five-member Congressional Oversight Panel created to investigate the banking bailout and oversee TARP. She won tremendous public support by sharply criticizing the banks and calling for greater transparency and accountability. Warren advocated for a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to protect borrowers from abuses in mortgages, credit cards and other consumer loans. On September 17 President Obama named her special adviser by to oversee the development of this new bureau.

4. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese literary critic and professor Liu Xiaobo. Liu, a critic of China’s one party state, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for drafting a petition calling for free speech and open elections. The Chinese government usually escapes rebuke for its oppressive practices because the country is such an economic superpower. However, according to Amnesty International, some 500,000 Chinese prisoners are in detention without charge or trial. Harassment, surveillance, house arrest, and imprisonment of human rights defenders are on the rise, as is Internet and media censorship, and repression continues for Falun Gong practitioners and minority groups, including Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians. The Nobel Prize for Liu Xiaobo has helped expose China’s dirty secrets.

5. Speaking of exposing secrets, WikiLeaks has sent shock waves around the world by exposing the inner machinations of U.S. foreign policy. After a decade of illegal wars, lack of accountability, government secrecy and embedded journalists, WikiLeaks has given the public a much-needed look at the way the U.S. government continues–under President Obama–to cajole, bribe and strong arm other nations into supporting U.S. policies. We look forward to more revelations in 2011 and we hope more people will step forward to defend WikiLeaks and suspected whistleblower Bradley Manning!

6. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed. The LGBT community has been fighting to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell since it was first introduced as a compromise measure by President Clinton in 1993. In an historic Senate vote on December 18 the policy was repealed and then signed by President Obama on December 22. While some find it hard to celebrate the ability of more people to now fight in U.S. wars, let’s remember that this victory will help the gay community win upcoming, more important struggles for marriage rights and equality in the workplace.

7. U.S. troop levels in Iraq declined dramatically.
While President Obama has presided over a disastrous surge of troops in Afghanistan, he does seem to be holding to his promise of ending the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The number of U.S. troops has declined from some 144,000 in January 2009 to roughly 50,000 today. The remaining troops are supposed to leave the country by the end of 2011, and many worry they will be replaced by private contractors. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, based on lies and resulting in the death and displacement of millions of Iraqis, is one of the most shameful episodes in our history. The sooner it ends, the better.

8. The health care bill passed. No, it was not a single payer bill and it didn’t even have a public option, disappointing many of its original supporters. But the bill does extend health coverage to over 30 million Americans who would have otherwise been uninsured; it stops private insurance companies from rejecting people for preexisting conditions; and it allows children to remain covered by their parents’ insurance until the age of 26. Taken as a whole, it represents a progressive shift in U.S. social policy, which is why it is being so viciously attacked by the right. And from the left, the fight for a single payer system, especially on the state level, is far from over!

9. The Senate ratified the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) between the U.S. and Russia. The New START provides modest reductions in the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, and includes monitoring and verification procedures. Unfortunately, to get Republican support the U.S. commitment to disarmament is countered by a new commitment to spend $180 billion over 10 years to “modernize” U.S. weapons and delivery systems. But not passing the treaty would have been disastrous. The new treaty will undoubtedly improve U.S.-Russia relations and will hopefully move us closer to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

10. In a little noticed automobile obituary, the last Hummer rolled off the production line on May 24–a casualty of higher gas prices, the economic crunch and a shift in consumer preferences. The cool cars of today are no longer monstrous gas guzzlers but hybrid and electric cars. There are 28 hybrid models already on the market today. At least 12 plug-in electric cars are planned for 2011, kicking off a wave of new green vehicles.

And a few extras for good cheer:

11. At the White House Tribal Nations Conference on December 15, President Obama announced that the United States would support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The statement is significant because the United States was one of only four countries that voted against the declaration when the UN General Assembly adopted it in 2007, and the last of those four to have reversed its former opposition.

12. In a policy reversal after the BP oil disaster, the Obama administration announced that it will not allow offshore oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico or off the Atlantic coast for at least seven more years. Meanwhile, offshore wind power is taking off from Maine to Georgia.

13. Foreign private security contractors were banned by the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Blackwater founder Eric Prince–hounded by lawsuits and bad press–felt compelled to sell the company and move out of the country.

14. Thanks to California’s Proposition 19, also known as the Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act, the debate on failed Marijuana Prohibition has arrived!
Despite not passing, 4 million people voted to control and tax marijuana, with endorsements coming from new allies from the SEIU to the NAACP to law enforcement groups.

15. The government-supported student loan program was dramatically restructured, eliminating private banks and thereby ensuring that more money goes directly into the hands of low-income students.

I could keep the list going. It’s an important reminder, as we go into what will be a very difficult new year, that people on all continents continue to struggle for a more peaceful, just, sustainable world. And as long as people keep organizing and mobilizing, there will be victories to celebrate.