There's a sensational, controversial, and inspiring new protest movement out in full force in Turkey. Stunning images of police brutality are circulating the internet, demonstrators are organizing through social media channels, a vaunted public space lies at the heart of the protest, and the whole thing was likely precipitated at least in part due to income inequality. Deja vu, right?
Of course, there are plenty of dissimilarities to Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring uprisings—there's an undercurrent of religious tension, for one, as the protesters appear to be primarily secular citizens who've chafed under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist prime minister, and his increasingly autocratic governance.
But the parallels are myriad, too. There are so many, in fact, that you'd be forgiven for thinking some kind of a pattern was emerging here.
But let's zoom in, and work outward. First, there's the spontaneity. Neither Occupy Wall Street nor the gathering in Tahrir nor, certainly, Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia nor the upheaval in Istanbul were pre-organized to be major events. A small group of proto-Occupiers strategized some in advance, the Egyptian labor unions laid some serious groundwork before the big event, and there was a small protest defending a public green space in Istanbul, but nobody thought any of it was going to explode.
Yet they all did, for a tenuously similar reason: brutal overreactions from the state and police authorities—and vivid photo and video documentation of the carnage that proliferated through social media channels. #OWS didn't really erupt until word spread that police had doused a couple of young women with pepper spray. The Arab Spring was ignited by the most desperate and graphic act imaginable—a man setting himself on fire—and state crackdowns on growing protests fed the tide of dissent.
In Turkey, what began as mere scores of environmentalists camping out in a public space to protest its imminent razing soon stoked the ire of Istanbul when the police pelted the demonstrators with tear gas and set their tents ablaze. The disturbingly dramatic photos and video drew tens of thousands of more protesters onto the streets.
As with Occupy, local media refused to cover the protests' early stages—it was even more egregious an omission in Turkey, where multiple injuries were inflicted on civilians, tear gas cannisters were launched into crowds, and escalating social turmoil wracked the nation's largest city.
But, like Occupy, the media blackout was circumvented by social media—once some of these photos went viral, any sympathy for the state's dictates and use of force eroded. Again, this was especially true in Turkey—long simmering tensions over Erdogan's drive to develop and commercialize Istanbul's historical districts, his overt religiosity, and his perceived unwillingness to heed democratic input, finally erupted when the images of violence spilled into the public consciousness.
A single photo has the power to inspire sympathy with the beaten-back and the oppressed—and obviously, the chances of such a photo getting taken and shared has increased exponentially with the proliferation of the smart phone. Images like these transform the authorities into an ugly ouroboros, and the protesters into hydra heads. They did in Occupy, they did in Tahrir, and they're doing so right now.
Sometimes, it's the less chaotic, casually brutal images that inspire the most outrage. That pic above remind you of something? Maybe this?
When we're looking at something that resembles a war zone, we're looking at hostile alien territory; it overwhelms. When we're looking at one human insouciantly inflicting excruciating harm on another, it's clear that civil society is fraying before our eyes, that one party is wrong.
The Turkish protest serves these up in droves, and they get tweeted and blogged with gusto. The Istanbul protesters are also, naturally, deft users of social media and the latest information tech. In addition to staying abreast of the latest demonstrations and the authorities' movements on Twitter and Facebook—and incurring the wrath of Erdogan for doing so—they've also gotten creative. They successfully completed a crowd-funding campaign to place a full-page ad in the New York Times, and are continuing to solicit additional donations through the same channel
Occupy and Tahrir were each potent reminders of the power and necessity of public space—and the movement in Turkey was actually born over a fight to protect it. They actually called it Occupy Gezi, after the name of the park, for a time. The New York Times: explains:
"A government plan to convert Taksim Square, historically a place of public gathering, into a replica Ottoman-era army barracks and shopping mall — what Mr. Eldem, the historian, called “a Las Vegas of Ottoman splendor” — is what incited the demonstrations. But there are many other contentious projects that have drawn public outrage.
The city’s oldest movie theater was recently demolished for another mall, raising howls of protests, including an objection from Turkey’s first lady, Hayrunnisa Gul, the wife of the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul. A 19th-century Russian Orthodox Church may be destroyed as part of an overhaul of a port. And in ghettos across the city, the urban poor are being paid to leave their homes so that contractors — many with ties to government officials — can build gated communities."
And that's a fine segue as any into the final commonality that undergirds the disparate movements: Income inequality. Occupy was aimed at the bankers and investors who tanked the economy and flourished anyway, while the middle class continued a decade-long decline—the We Are the 99% Tumblr was its most effective public artifact. (#Occupy Gezi has its own top-notch Tumblr, too) Bouazizi's self-sacrifice came on the heels of years of impoverished desperation and rising food prices.
It's the same old story in Turkey, as EurasiaNet reports that "In 2012, the Ministry of Family and Social Rights revealed that nearly 40 percent of Turkey’s population of over 75.6 million lives at or below the monthly minimum wage of 773 liras, or about $415.19. A further 6.4 percent live below the designated hunger line of 430 liras ($237.95)."
Meanwhile, "63 percent of the country’s bank deposits belong to a mere one-half of a percent of all account holders."
Rampant income inequality is breeding social unease. A non-responsive leadership is determined not to open meaningful dialog with dissenters. The pressure cooks, and the police get brutal. The brutality goes viral, and so does the outrage. Nimble social media maneuvering lends additional tools to organizers, and channels that outrage. The showdown unfolds as a war over public space, and guess who wins.
These ingredients, have, it seems, grown a protest time and again over just the last few years. And for good reason. The elements are a perfect powder keg. And it's going to keep on exploding unless we make some adjustments to the recipe.