Barely a year into the 2010s, Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York decided, for reasons that we may never understand completely, to tweet a photo of his crotch.
That split-second act initiated a chain of increasingly far-flung consequences, as many observers have chronicled: Weiner’s resignation; his repeated relapses; the tabloids’ years-long obsession with him and his wife, Huma Abedin, who happened to work for Hillary Clinton, who happened to be running for president in late 2016 while dogged by a dormant email scandal, which reactivated 11 days before Election Day when the FBI announced its agents had discovered hundreds of thousands of Clinton’s emails while searching Weiner’s computer for evidence of sexts with an underage girl. That dramatic reminder of Clinton’s email woes arguably swung the election to her opponent, all of which raises the question of whether Donald Trump would be president today had Anthony Weiner not chosen nine years earlier to photograph his underwear.
Even the most seemingly insignificant (or in Weiner’s case, ignominious) decisions can influence the course of history. As the 2010s come to an end, we revisit the people whose choices helped spark sweeping changes to our politics, law, culture and the geopolitical order.
Dec. 17, 2010
A fruit seller tries to get his apples back
Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, lived without electricity, savings or hope in a rural town in Tunisia, under the rule of a dictator who had held power nearly as long as Bouazizi had been alive. Every morning, he pushed a cart of fruit a mile to the market, where he tried to sell whatever the police did not steal from him.
His frustration built day after day, until one day he was pushed too far. As an officer was loading her second basket of unpaid-for apples into her car, a Washington Post reporter who visited the town wrote, Bouazizi tried to block her.
The officer pushed the vendor to the ground, confiscated a produce scale that was likely one of Bouazizi’s most valuable possessions and slapped him in the face in front of the entire market.
“Bouazizi wept with shame,” The Post wrote. City hall turned him away when he tried to complain, so he “told his fellow vendors he would let the world know how unfairly they were being treated, how corrupt the system was.”
Later that day, Bouazizi stood in front of the municipal building, doused himself with paint thinner and ignited.
“There had been self-immolations in Tunisia before and others since. For whatever reason, his act seemed to be a tipping point that pushed a lot of people over the edge,” said Steven Heydemann, a political scientist at Smith College who studies the aftermath of Bouazizi’s actions, known today as the Arab Spring. “He really became this kind of iconic symbol to conditions that millions of young people were finding intolerable. They very spontaneously and without much organization just swept into the streets to express anger.”
Protests spread from the town of Sidi Bouzid across the country and then through much of North Africa and the Middle East, fueled by social media and Arab newscasts. Tunisia’s ruler was ousted 10 days after Bouazizi died of his burns. The dictators of Egypt, Libya and Yemen soon were gone, too.
For a while, it seemed that the Arab Spring would revolutionize the region, but Heydemann noted that most countries eventually fell back to autocracy — or civil war as regimes beat back the protests with violence. Only one country affected by the Arab Spring has managed to hold democratic elections: Tunisia, where a fruit seller started it.
June 26, 2013
Jim and John decide to marry
They waited two decades to do it, and then everything happened at once.
Jim Obergefell was sitting in an armchair in their Cincinnati condo. John Arthur was on the bed, which he rarely left since Lou Gehrig’s disease began to destroy his body. The TV was on, and a news alert informed them that the Supreme Court had just struck down a law that prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex married couples.
“That was the first moment in our almost 21 years together when, wow, marriage now has the potential to mean something,” Obergefell recalled. “After I hugged and kissed him, I said let’s get married. Luckily, he said yes. It was totally spur of the moment.”
The court’s decision did not affect their state’s ban on same-sex marriage, so Obergefell and Arthur — who by that point was too sick to walk — flew to Maryland on July 11 and got married without leaving the plane.
After they returned home, a civil rights attorney heard about them at a party and asked to meet.
“He came over on Tuesday, five days after the marriage,” Obergefell said. “He pulled out a blank Ohio death certificate and said, ‘Do you understand that when John dies, his official death certificate will be wrong? They’ll say he was single, and you won’t be his spouse.’”
Obergefell had never been to court before, he said. He and Arthur had never considered themselves part of the equality movement. They had been, until that moment, content that the federal government validated their marriage, even though Ohio’s state constitution forbade it.
“This piece of paper — knowing John would die officially as an unmarried man — it broke our hearts,” Obergefell said. “But it also made that [state] constitutional amendment real. It made it hurtful. More than that, it made us angry.”
The lawyer asked them: “Would you guys like to do something about it?”
On July 19, the couple sued their state in federal court. In October, Arthur died.
A district judge ruled Ohio’s marriage ban unconstitutional in December. One year later, an appeals court overturned the couple’s victory, along with the victories of 15 other couples who had taken their states to court. The Supreme Court stepped in again and this time Obergefell’s name was on the case.
On June 26, 2015 — two years to the day after Obergefell and Arthur’s engagement — same-sex marriage was legalized across the country.
Aug. 9, 2014
Johnetta Elzie goes to a vigil
A few months before a Ferguson, Mo., police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, Johnetta Elzie said, a friend of hers was killed by police in St. Louis. She hadn’t protested that; it was par for the course for a black community living under a police department they saw as trigger-happy.
“In St. Louis, there are so many people who have so many stories like that,” she said. “I’ve been harassed over a speeding ticket, had a warrant issued, followed everywhere I go.”
Elzie didn’t know Brown. She learned of his death the same way many others did: through a viral photo of him lying in a pool of blood in the middle of the street. On an impulse, she decided to drive across town with a friend that evening to see the scene herself.
They arrived after Brown’s body had been removed. About 15 people were still gathered there, and Elzie began tweeting about what she saw and heard.
“I just remember there were these two little toddlers and their parents, and they’d been out there all day,” she recalled. “They had to be 2 or 3 years old. And the two little ones kept saying they saw Mike-Mike get killed."
“The fact that they kept repeating it — sometimes in life, I wonder what happened in the moment that made you become the person you are right now. For these kids, you could see the point where this is going to be a lifetime of trauma, for these two kids who saw a black man get killed."
After she and her friend drove back home that night, she thought about what she’d seen — and what she might see if she returned to the neighborhood. “We stayed up talking. I stayed up tweeting, trying to figure out what was the next thing for tomorrow, or were we even going to go.”
She did go to the next vigil for Brown, and the next, and the next, documenting protests, riots and police retaliation in 140-character dispatches.
Elzie is loath to take any special credit for the movement now called Black Lives Matter, but nevertheless is known across the country today as one of its most prominent founding activists.
Jan. 15, 2015
April Reign makes a joke
“The Oscars were like my Super Bowl,” said April Reign. “There were special snacks involved. I’d rip off the TV so the kids know this is mommy’s night.”
Back in 2015, Reign was a Washington-area attorney, raising two kids with her husband and occupying her free time watching movies and writing tweets for the entertainment of her 8,000 followers.
That all changed on the morning the nominations for the 87th Academy Awards were announced. The kids had left for school, and Reign was standing half dressed in her family room listening to the list of names: Julianne Moore, Steve Carell, Bradley Cooper, Laura Dern, Edward Norton …
“There were no people of color nominated at all,” Reign observed of the acting nominees. “And this is the year that gave us ‘Selma.’"
She reached for her phone tweeted: “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.”
The joke had sprung to mind spontaneously, born from the countless strangers who would walk up to her and ruffle her curls, and the white children in her elementary school who would compare their summer tans to her natural skin. “It was a snarky one-off,” Reign said. “I got dressed and went to work.”
The next time she checked Twitter, #OscarsSoWhite was the top hashtag in the world. “#OscarsSoWhite they are adding a best golf movie category.” “#OscarsSoWhite they got their own sitcom on NBC in the 90s.” “#OscarsSoWhite they accurately represent Hollywood and its racial make up.” (That last from Trevor Noah.)
The hashtag remained viral well into 2016, until the academy was so thoroughly embarrassed that it redrew its membership to include more people of color. The last Oscars included one of the most diverse list of nominees in history — and Reign was invited.
Ashley Judd speaks out
Ashley Judd had told her story about Harvey Weinstein — what had happened after the all-powerful film producer invited the actress to his hotel room about 20 years earlier — to many people before she began to speak off the record to the New York Times. Judd had told her parents, her agent and her therapist that he had made sexual advances at what she expected to be a business meeting.
Weinstein’s sexual predation was something of an open secret in Hollywood. Now the Times reporters were asking her to become the first actress to put her name to an accusation.
Judd took a day to think about it. “I just laced up those sneakers and went for a long run,” she said.
Her regular route is a one-lane road through the hills, pastures and forests outside Nashville. “I just listened to the countryside and the wind, and the dialogue between my head and my heart,” she said.
She imagined the worst-case scenario: retaliation from Weinstein and all the power structures around him. Best case: “I thought maybe there’d be some protests in front of Harvey’s house.”
She made up her mind when she reached a farmhouse at the three-quarter-mile mark: “I’d already made the most important decision I’ll ever make: I decided to turn my life over to a loving God,” she said. “The important question is whether you believe the universe is a friendly place. Then it became very — to choose to be Jodi [Kantor] and Megan [Twohey]'s named source became very simple and exceedingly forthright. The yes was absolutely automatic.”
The article, which included other accusations and ran just before a New Yorker exposé on Weinstein, did inspire protests. By the end of the month, a viral campaign known as #MeToo was revolutionizing the standards of behavior for powerful men.
June 22, 2018
A restaurant owner asks Sarah Sanders to leave
Stephanie Wilkinson was at home on a Friday evening when her chef called from the Red Hen, a 26-seat restaurant she owns in Lexington, Va., and informed her that President Trump’s press secretary had just walked in.
Wilkinson is a Trump critic in a conservative county, and had until that evening kept politics off the menu. But this was the summer of 2018, as Trump was pushing harsh policies against immigrants and transgender people, and several administration officials had already been heckled in public.
The staff of the Red Hen, some of whom were gay and concerned about his attitude toward LGBTQ community, were asking for help.
Wilkinson arrived at her restaurant — “a tiny little box of a room,” she said — to find Sanders, her husband and a few presumed relatives seated around a plate of cheese. Disconcerted waiters and cooks were in the kitchen, preparing the main course.
Wilkinson huddled with her staff, about 10 feet from Sanders’s table, and asked them what they wanted to do.
“It was the moment when every single bit of news was happening at the southern border,” Wilkinson recalled. “It felt like a moment of crisis, and I know if I’d said, ‘Suck it up, we’re going to serve her and in two hours it’ll be over,’ to all of us it would be a bit of an ignoring of our moral compass.’”
“I said I’d like to ask her to leave. Very quickly, everyone said yes.”
So Wilkinson took Sanders outside and did just that. She comped the appetizers and went home. When she woke in the morning, she discovered that one of her kitchen workers had written about Sanders’s eviction on Facebook.
In the days that followed, the Red Hen was forced to close, as reporters, supporters and protesters swamped its regular clientele. In the following months, it became almost routine for Trump allies to be hounded in public, as when former Democratic governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland lit into Ken Cuccinelli II, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, at a bar on Capitol Hill last month.
In hindsight — at the end of a decade in which every aspect of public life seemed to become political — Wilkinson believes she wouldn’t have acted differently that evening. “This is a unique moment in history,” she said. “People want to have their values heard and upheld by businesses they want to do business with.”
The Red Hen has long since reopened, and Wilkinson said business is up.
Illustrations by Jacob Thomas for The Washington Post. Design by Beth Broadwater