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Laurie Penny: This is not some sort of polite protest

It's the eyes that hit you first – the sort of eyes that stare at you from the other side of a glass window, considering whether and when to throw a brick. Masked up in front of a backdrop of unspecified placard-waving public rage, "The Protester", the cover image of Time magazine's "person of the year" issue, is so obviously designed to be iconic that it almost feels offensive. It is as if the demonstrations, revolutions, occupations and riots that have cascaded through the streets of Tunis, London, Cairo, Athens, Barcelona, New York, Moscow and hundreds of other towns and cities were somehow a fad, a manifestation of a zeitgeist, rather than historical necessity.

On the cover of Time as much as anywhere else, we are used to seeing power wearing the face of a rich, white American. Since 1927, when the magazine began selecting its "Man of the Year", the process has become as close as the English-speaking press comes to open declaration that affluent American males run the world, or should – in 84 years, only four women and 14 people of colour have been named. The rest of the list is a dull procession of well-cut suits with jowly Caucasian men inside them, with the occasional gimmicky nod to things the suits don't care about – "the Endangered Earth"in 1988 or "You" in 2006.

The idea that "the protester" can be "the face of the year" may be a comfortable one for many Time readers. It implies that the angry crowds that have populated their televisions for the past 12 months are engaged in only polite protest.

The best summary of the distinction between protest and resistance still comes from Ulrike Meinhof, who wrote: "Protest is when I say I don't like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don't like. Protest is when I say I refuse to go along with this anymore. Resistance is when I make sure everybody else stops going along too."

Protest, to put it another way, says "not in my name". Resistance says "over my dead body". What is happening now in the streets of Moscow, in the city squares of Egypt, in foreclosed homes in Oakland and east New York and Barcelona, and in Wukan in China, is resistance, and it is happening because people around the world are sick of being told to wait while their lives and futures are mortgaged to the notional interests of a rabid financial elite intent on cannibalising its own future.

For my generation, with no memory of a political alternative to unfettered capitalism, the questions are no longer how we will be able to afford a mortgage, or get a secure job with a pension, or educate our children, or pay for the care of our bodies when we are sick. We already know the answers to those questions. The only important one left is, will we let it happen?

Are people content to voice their objections politely, to sign petitions and wave placards and go home, or are they prepared to put their bodies and futures in the way of encroaching catastrophe? Will people be content to remain "protesters" – or will they resist? Those who do will surely not find themselves alone.