Protests in Turkey: Utile or futile?

The oft quoted expression, ‘if you want to know where you are going look to your past,’ applies and points direction to what is happening in Turkey. Following the death of Ahmet Atakan, the Taksim solidarity group called for a gathering of remembrance, carnations in hand for the evening of Tuesday September 10th. Police closed Gezi Park, in anticipation of the large crowds, and presumably the stand off to come.

If we take a look at social movements, those which succeed are defined by a few things: a clear goal, leadership and organisation. Those that fail have diverse, even conflicting goals, lack of clear leadership and organisation. For those inclined to read up on this, see Comparative perspectives on social movements : political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and cultural framings.

When the protests began on May 31 earlier this year, they continued for a month with three clear demands: stop the removal of trees in Gezi park, ban the use of tear gas and hold to account the excessive use of police force. These demands have been iterated, but not really met. Trees are being cleared through Middle East Technical University in Ankara, which has drawn Gezi-like sit ins and police confrontations. Tear gas is still used while some police have been held to account via demotion and court proceedings. All this erupted again tonight in what a few commentators are calling a ‘return to resistance,’ in other words the continuation of the original Gezi protests which had simmered during July and August… Turkey’s holiday months.

I decided to do a little test on Twitter. I asked, “What is the objective of tonight’s protests in #Turkey? Sympathy for another death? Protest for the sake of protest? New demands?

The reaction this drew is indicative of the sentiment in Turkey. There were emotional responses, questions asking whether I was ignorant of the situation, and the other side of the coin, namely that for changes to occur, they don’t overnight particularly in the judicial system where proceedings are months long. That is of course, unless kangaroo courts count.

From various feedback, here is what seems to be todays protests sentiment:

1. Against the deforestation taking place at METU

2. Against police violence

3. Against actions in Syria (military intervention)

Although a simple question, responses showed there were no simple answers. That points to a failing by protests organisers and by extension those taking part – if the thousands who are taking part are not able to clearly answer what the point of the march is beyond resistance, by failing to state what the tangible outcome is, we return to the main question – what is the point of the protests? Yes, you can show solidarity en masse but these protests ended the same way others did. Dispersal of crowds via tear gas, building of barricades and property destruction. So what changes? What stays the same?

The positive thing is that from the responses gathered, demands can be measured and there are ways to achieve them. Yet without a clear strategy and effective leadership, will protests risk futility? One person replied that protests were for the death of Atakan, although reports on the autopsy in various Turkish media have cited his falling from high ground and sustaining internal injuries as the caused this and not a tear gas canister shot to the head. Another said protests would continue unless justice was served, with another person replying that was not a rational pretext as legal proceedings stretch into months.

By pitting one side against the other, dialogue, debate and clear steps forward fall through. The protestors become a labelled a group of troublemakers while anyone in authority is lumped as authoritarian. The cycles repeats. Police use force, protestors react, police use more force protestors react until fatigue wears down or heavier handed tactics disperse crowds. Issues remain unresolved and simmer, until the next spark, such as the death of a protestor, the clearing of trees or what is happening in Syria providing the next impetus to demonstrate.

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