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10 Disruptors: People Who Really Shook Up the System in 2013

In a bleak year filled with bad news, people from Edward Snowden to Elizabeth Warren were brave enough to shake up the establishment. "Fighting the power," as people used to say, is no easy task. Victories are hard to come by and can quickly slide away because the power establishment of money, lobbying, lawyers, PR machines and out-and-out corruption are like Neil Young's rust: they never sleep.

Protest against G20 summit - London, March 27, 2009,BBC News

Americans live in a country lorded over by corporate and banking power. Our big business culture is accompanied by a pervasive and extraordinarily expensive military dominating the globe, ensuring our economic hegemony and protecting our interests. Meanwhile, there is a steady push to privatize as much of the public sector for private profit as achievable, especially in the education sphere.

In addition, the intelligentsia, the hipsters and the most progressive people embrace the corrupt company that is Apple; we are seduced by the beautiful functionality and design of its products, ignoring the fact that Apple is a corporation that is not friendly to America. Despite its rank at the top of the most profitable corporations, Apple gives almost no money to charity-a legacy of Steve Jobs-and as Business Insider describes: Apple avoids $17 million in taxes everyday "through a ballsy... tax avoidance scheme."

As consumers we often shop and eat at huge companies like Walmart, Dardens and McDonald's-companies that don't pay their employees living wages, or remotely what they could, given the historic profits they're earning.

The exploitative power of the virulent strain of American capitalism is meticulously documented in countless articles, books and documentaries, capturing the thousands of ways the U.S. is an outlier compared with other advanced nations. Vast amounts of our federal budget is devoted to the military, instead of supporting people in need. American companies produce arms and weapons for people, ethnic tribes and countries battling and killing each around the world, while making and selling guns by the millions so people can shoot each other in unprecedented numbers at home. Our penal system by is far the largest in the world, and continues to expand - and privatize- so that our prison population is now over 2.4 million people.

The American capitalist juggernaut seems to gather more steam every day, effectively using its Tea Party shock troops in Congress to stymie even the most modest and humane policies, and leveraging a vast array of resources and political influence to protect its interests at every turn.

The Power of Disruption

"Fighting the power," as people used to say, is no easy task. Victories are hard to come by and can quickly slide away because the power establishment of money, lobbying, lawyers, PR machines and out-and-out corruption are like Neil Young's rust: they never sleep.

Often the most effective approach people can take to make the system more equitable is to disrupt it-to force a temporary changing of patterns, expose wrongdoing and spread the word, so some of the contradictions are exposed. Then maybe a change can be achieved, or a harm mitigated, even if temporarily. There is a long history of disrupters of many stripes in America, more recent examples being the Merry Pranksters and the environment warriors, Monkey Wrenchers.

As we know, new technology has long had various disruptive effects on the status quo and brought vast new forms of communication (and unfortunately, spying), while creating a whole new gaggle of obscenely rich people. But the hope that many had for the democratization impact of technology has proven to primarily be a false one, as technology's primary focus seems to be watching everything we do, everywhere we go-there is no escape.

People often say that sunshine is the best disinfectant. Well, perhaps it can get the ball rolling. But knowing is not changing. Change takes resources, organizing and strong spines. Serious organizing in America has mostly disappeared, replaced by the mentality that signing a petition is effort enough. That may give people a sense of participation, but it rarely translates to systemic change.

1. Edward Snowden, chief disruptor.

There is little doubt that the chief disruptor of our system in 2013 was (and still is) Edward Snowden, whose treasure trove of memos, PowerPoints and classified documents has exposed an all-powerful technological spying machine. Working with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, and in turn journalists from many other media organizations, we now know amazing amounts of information about just how intrusive and widespread our government's spy system is.

Many other countries and their leaders are irate. Some American tech companies claim to be upset as well. We shall see whether all this exposure leads to any significant reform. Unfortunately, just letting the world know how screwed up things are can just as easily make people give up, get depressed, and become docile, as move people to some kind of action. The massive security apparatus of the U.S. seems to be far beyond any reform, if President Obama and the Democrats were ever serious about it, which they don't seem to be. What do they have to gain by reforming this system?

2. Bill de Blasio: mayor of potential disruption.

It is very rare these days for someone with disruptive instincts and intentions to actually gain power.  But Bill de Blasio's landslide victory to become mayor of New York City was one of voters' most disruptive acts in recent memory. Along with Elizabeth Warren, "Big Bill" becomes the elected official with the most potential and influence.

The thing about de Blasio is that he is already a political pro on every level. He will operate in ways that will sometimes inspire progressives and will at other times chagrin them; for example, his appointment of Bill Bratton as Police Commissioner. Bratton was a brilliant political move doing away with the dark shadow of Ray Kelly and his stop-and-frisk advocacy in one fell swoop. De Blasio told me he thought Bratton "had done an excellent job in LA, working well with progressives and people of color," so he intends to have him do an excellent job in NYC. It was a neat way of solving what could have been a big political headache.

The main point is, unlike say Rudy Giuliani, de Blasio does not have a security-obsessed brain. He has many other fish to fry, in particular aiming to reduce some of the inequality in NYC, no easy task. As key advisor Kenny Sunshine points out, "de Blasio says basically the same thing wherever he goes." He is not a politician who tailors things. I loved it at the Nation dinner when he said, "Well you know, I didn't get the endorsement of the New York Post, or the Daily News, or even the New York Times. The one magazine I did get endorsed by was the Nation, so you could say that the road to City Hall goes through the Nation magazine."

3. Michelle Alexander: author and speaker as disruptor.

There is nothing more infuriating and depressing in America than the "culture of mass incarceration" that has dominated the U.S. for decades. The result is a virtual gulag of people under the control of the fundamentally racist criminal justice system. Even though white people outnumber black people five to one in the U.S., and both groups use and sell drugs at similar rates, the latter make up 55 percent of those convicted for drug possession and 74 percent of those imprisoned for drug possession, according to the ACLU.

No one has fought harder, and been more articulate in the attempt to bring some sense to American policymakers and the public about our jail-crazy society than Michelle Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University and a former ACLU lawyer.

The all-powerful prison-industrial complex undermines the futures of those behind bars and their extended families-a poison whose ripple effect contaminates millions upon millions of people. The tragedy is that many are behind bars for victimless crimes, serving harsh sentences. When similar sentencing practices take place in other parts of the world the U.S. is quick to label those nations "police states." Nothing has contributed more to poverty and inequality than the oppressive U.S. penal system. As Michelle Alexander has pointed out in great detail in her bestselling book The New Jim Crow-as well as in the speeches and talks she gives across the country-nothing else so underscores how deep and persistent racism is in America. There are many heroes in the struggle to disrupt the massive prison complex, but Alexander has become a most visible symbol of smarts, grace and determination.

4. Elizabeth Warren: progressive superstar disruptor.

Progressives have a new leader and Americans a newfound hope for change, as 2013 comes to an end. Warren is a senator who has enjoyed an unusually quick rise to power, so clearly with a huge constituency, that she overnight changed the nature of debate about the future of Social Security. The fight is no longer a matter of billionaire Pete Peterson and Barack Obama pushing cutbacks to a skeptical public. Thanks in great part to Warren, we're arriving at full recognition of a giant, looming retirement crisis, in which Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid need to be improved and expanded, or many millions of our aging populace will be living in poverty for decades to come. Warren has now come out against the Keystone XL Pipeline, and she is a powerful watchdog over the excesses of the mega-banks. Her speech to the AFL-CIO convention this summer was electrifying as she forcefully told her audience that the Supreme Court is on the path to being a "wholly owned subsidiary of big business."

5. Harry Belafonte: long-distance disruptor.

The legendary activist, singer and heir to Paul Robeson, Belafonte is still going strong at 87. He's organizing musicians for many vital causes, bringing together gang leaders to work for peace, and acting as a force of nature and role model for so many talented artists. A strong supporter of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress while Mandela was still in prison, and a key player in the "We Are the World" musical moment, Belafonte's arc is broad and his light still shines bright.

As an early supporter of new NYC mayor Bill de Blasio, he made for an interesting moment in the campaign at the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem when he connected the Koch brothers and forces of the right-wing with the Ku Klux Klan-which has some historical accuracy. Ever the adroit, de Blasio didn't directly endorse Belafonte's KKK messaging, but soon after he proceeded to criticize the Koch brothers for a batch of other sins, making it clear that progressives had a united front in NYC. Harry Belafonte is a brave, persistent and hugely articulate change agent, making trouble on behalf of the people against the vast array of power, trying to disrupt at every turn, bringing along many thousands of adherents along the way.

6. Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez: fearless, truth-telling disruptors.

As far as being persistent thorns in the side of politics as usual, no one does it better than Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. Goodman is, as virtually everyone knows, the hard-working creative force in charge of Democracy Now!, by far the most important and influential progressive media outlet in America (in part because they do TV and radio, and their transcripts are very popular, too). Goodman travels the country, supporting local media, selling books, and telling her stories, and her fans are legion. She is fearless and relentless.

Goodman's sidekick and cohost for these many years, Juan Gonzalez, may get overlooked at times. But Gonzalez is a top-notch, news-breaking reporter and columnist for the New York Daily News, as good as they get, and deserving of much praise. I can remember back in the late '60s when I saw Gonzalez standing majestically on the steps of an East Harlem church as one of the revolutionary leaders of the Young Lords, the Latino version of the Black Panthers. Unlike many from that era, Gonzalez has stuck to his guns, a deep and honorable progressive for his entire career.

7. Peter Lewis; Uruguayan president José Mujica; and the people of Washington and Colorado.

Besides gay marriage, one of the few areas in society where there has been a positive disruption is the growing success of the long-term effort to legalize cannabis. Starting today, residents of Colorado over the age of 21 will be able to legally buy cannabis in public stores and smoke it freely. The same will soon be true in Washington State and in the country of Uruguay. After decades of struggle, this is a small miracle. It's happening despite the fact that thousands are arrested every day and hundreds of thousands are in jail because of this harmless and often highly beneficial plant.

One of a handful of people most responsible for this sea change in the U.S. is Peter Lewis, the fabulously wealthy founder of Progressive Insurance, who died unexpectedly on November 23 this year of a heart attack. Lewis' financial support, political acumen, and attention to polls and details made him instrumental in many of the campaigns for medical pot, and now for legal marijuana. A big personality, Lewis gave away hundreds of millions to social cases, to Princeton University, and to cultural arts institutions in his hometown of Cleveland. He will be missed, as serious consideration is underway to put legal pot on the ballot in California in 2014.

Meanwhile, Oregon will try to follow in its neighbor Washington's footsteps. There is hope that Lewis' family will continue to support public initiative campaigns for legal pot under the guidance of his highly respected strategist Graham Boyd. Advancing legalization will immediately lower the nation's prison population, and offer easier access to the many proven health benefits of cannabis for millions of people, while potentially undermining the consumption of alcohol, especially among young people, which is one of the true health hazards of our culture.

Uruguayan president José Mujica has a lot of guts and Uruguay will be the first country to be in charge of the pot business-unlike in Colorado and Washington, where it is a highly regulated but private enterprise.

Also this year, Illinois and New Hampshire joined the 18 other states that have legalized medical marijuana use. Even the stuffy Canadian federal government made medical marijuana legal. You'll soon be able to get a deal on your dope from Groupon and pay in bitcoins. The times they are a changin'.

8. Pope Francis: disruptor from the bully pulpit.

Can Pope Francis be a true international game changer? Let's hope so  Without a doubt, he and Snowden are the two shockers for 2013. I know this pope hasn't shown himself to be great yet on the question of women-let's pray that he does. Still, Pope Francis' message of less greed, less austerity, less corporate irresponsibility and more love will help women around the world and has produced an 88% approval rating. Hmm. Talking radical politics and economics and getting huge popularity is worth paying attention to, especially people with the initials B.O.

9. Ju Hong, immigrant activist: disrupting the president.

One of the hard-to-believe facts about President Obama is the huge numbers of immigrants deported during his term, accompanied by cruel polices breaking up countless families with incredible pain and hardship. According to the New York Times, there is a congressional requirement that more than 30,000 immigrants be detained daily. As of December, 368,000 have been detained this year. As Suzy Khimm reports in the Washington Post, "As of July, Obama deported 1.4 million illegal immigrants since the beginning of his administration - that's 1.5 times more immigrants on average than Bush deported every month, according to official numbers from the Department of Homeland Security."

Mass deportations under the Obama administration has been met with resistance and protest, although the media barely covers the topic. The young people known as "Dreamers" are a powerful force among those pushing for immigration reform. They can better be described as fearless and determined. Enter an activist with just the right luck and timing to disrupt an Obama speech in San Francisco this November. Ju Hong, an immigrant rights activist from South Korea and member of Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights Through Education, interrupted President Obama to call for an end to mass deportations, engaging in a back-and-forth dialogue with him, not giving in inch. "I thought about my family, I thought about my personal struggle as undocumented, and I thought about my friends and my communities who have been deported and who are currently in detention centers," Hong told who else but Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman about why he spoke out. "I felt I was compelled to tell the truth to President Obama that he has the ability to stop the deportations for all."

10. Disrupting the NFL: Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, authors of "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth."

Imagine trying to disrupt pro football, American's most popular sport and a thriving billion-dollar business. League of Denial is a deep and meticulously investigated read, both fantastic and depressing, which exposes how the NFL denied and then consistently covered up overwhelming evidence that the basic everyday violence of football, especially in the brutal trenches of the NFL, causes irreparable brain damage.

The Fainaru brothers probe the increasing public health crisis, a huge problem, not only in the $10 billion NFL industry but in colleges, high school, and even in midget football where children are increasingly at risk. It is hard to come to grips with the fact that the most popular sport in history causes untold harm, and probably should be rethought and eventually eliminated, as crazy as that idea sounds.

There are many heroes and villains in this story, but special thanks to Mark and Steve for telling the story so compellingly, and to ESPN, which despite its dependence on the NFL for its enormous success, gave these top-notch reporters the freedom to do what was necessary.

[Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.]