Turbulent Times in Turkey, Brazil and …

From a totally peaceful a sit-in at Istanbul’s Gezi Park (Taksim Square) to a country-wide militant mass movement – the rapid progress of the latest protest movement in Turkey graphically demonstrates the trend of the times. When the sit-in was started by some 50 odd environmentalists on 28 May, their demand was very simple: drop the plan of converting the park into a posh commercial complex. They were brutally evicted by the police and this opened up the floodgates of protest across the country on a wide range of concerns. These included, as formulated by Taksim Dayanışması (“Taksim Solidarity” – TS for short -- the most representative body of the demonstrators,) demands like the preservation of Gezi Park; an end to police violence, the right to freedom of assembly and the prosecution of officials responsible for the violence against demonstrators; an end to the sale of “public spaces, beaches, waters, forests, streams, parks and urban symbols to private companies, large holdings and investors”; the right of people to express their “needs and complaints without experiencing fear, arrest or torture.”

According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, protests took place in 78 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, with around 640,000 people participating as of 5 June. The most prominent scene of action, of course, was Gezi Park itself. With thousands of protestors in tents, organising a library, medical center, food distribution arrangements and their own media, it really looked like New York’s Zuccotti Park in 2011.

Whereas much of the mainstream corporate media downplayed the movement, particularly in the early stages, social media played a vital role in organising the actions and in disseminating the true stories of resistance. In a blatant attack on freedom of expression, the government’s TV watchdog fined the broadcasters that showed live streaming of the Gezi Park protests. In quick retaliation, the global hacking collective Anonymous (famous for its role in the Occupy Wall Street Movement) hacked the website of the watchdog itself. On 4th June an advertisement designed and funded by activists and supporters around the world appeared prominently in the New York Times, demanding “an end to police brutality”; “a free and unbiased media”; and “an open dialogue, not the dictate of an autocrat.”

The spreading movement got a fresh boost on 5th June, when tens of thousands of workers joined a solidarity strike called by a few trade union centres. It did not amount to a total general strike because the biggest trade union confederation Turk-Is stayed away, but the impact was felt almost everywhere.

In addition to eminent persons within the country, others like radial intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek, and celebrity singer Madonna expressed their support in various ways. Protests were also organised in other countries with significant Turkish communities, including European countries and the US.

While the movement was spreading in the face of harsh repressive measures, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on 13th June that his patience had run out and dropped clear hints about a final crackdown. Late in the night, however, he met representatives of the TS group and proposed that the government’s plan regarding Gezi Park could be put to a referendum. Representatives of the TS saw this as a diversionary tactic, rejected the formula and decided to continue the protest.

Not surprisingly, the final crackdown began immediately, particularly in Istanbul and Ankara. Disproportionate use of tear gas and water cannon led to injuries running into thousands, including critical injuries, loss of sight, and a number of deaths. Over three thousand arrests (including those arrested earlier) were made. Even first aid counters organised by doctors and medical students in Gezi Park were not spared by the police. One medical student volunteer was brutally beaten up and had to be sent to an ICU. According to the Turkish Medical Association, the unrest has left at least five people dead, including one policeman (who actually had a fatal fall while chasing protesters) and about 7,500 injured. After a prolonged police operation, ‘normalcy’ was finally restored.

Or was it? 17th June saw a novel way of non-violent protest when performance artist Erdem Gündüz just stood still for hours together in Taksim Square, before being arrested together with some others who joined him. He immediately became famous in the social media as “the Standing Man” and the feat was imitated by hundreds in other towns and cities.

Such extreme intolerance of even the most peaceful and passive form of protest only shows that the outwardly overconfident Prime Minister views the unrest as the greatest public challenge of his 10-year rule. According to a recent opinion poll, Erdogan’s approval rating dropped to 53.5 percent in June from 61 percent in April. Later on, however, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters that the government has no objection to this type of protest. And the PM on his part tried to wrest back the political initiative with weekend rallies in Istanbul and Ankara attended by hundreds of thousands of supporters.

Behind the widespread popular outbursts surely there are more fundamental factors than the Gezi Park issue. People are fed up with the government’s urban development projects and other aspects of its neoliberal economic policies. They are angry with the shameless subordination to the US – the provision of military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters being a case in point. There is no dearth of issues, economic as well as political, around which mass movements will flare up again and again.

And this applies not just to Turkey. As we write these lines, Brazil is seething with militant protests that began with the demand for bus fare hikes to be revoked but quickly turned into a nationwide demonstration against austerity measures and a host of other issues. The largest demonstration was in Rio de Janeiro, where some 100,000 people marched peacefully through the city centre, followed by violent clashes between protesters and police. The Rio de Janeiro state assembly was attacked, shops were vandalized and a car was set ablaze. There were clashes also in Sao Paulo, Brasilia, Porto Alegre, Salvador and other cities. Many of the marchers said they needed better education, hospitals and security, not billions to be spent on the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, to be hosted by Brazil.

A panicked government was quick to revoke the proposed hike in bus fares, but the movement – the biggest in two decades – continues to spread. In the second spell, some 300,000 people took to the streets of Rio de Janeiro and hundreds of thousands more flooded other cities. Indeed, such is the trend of the times, and in the coming months we can expect to see more of such movements across the world.

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