Occupy movements from Wall Street to Gezi Parkby Aydogan Vatandaş*

Occupy movements from Wall Street to Gezi Parkby Aydogan Vatandaş*

Protesters chant anti-government slogans, silhouetted by the light of flares in Taksim Square in İstanbul on June 12. (Photo: Nasser Nasser, AP)

June 20, 2013, Thursday/ 15:56:00

After the Gezi Park protest in Turkey sparked huge demonstrations against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the movement received extensive coverage in the Western media.

While many Turks, including some authorities, believe there was an agenda behind the coverage of the protests -- a conspiracy involving Western governments -- one thing is starkly evident: the protests have given birth to something that has divided Turkish society. Will it result in a more progressive democracy, in which civil rights will be taken more seriously, or chaos?

Although we don't yet have the answer, it is clear that the Occupy movements around the world are calling for governments to pay more attention to the demands of the people. Sometimes governments will have to compromise with protesters. In order to understand the nature and motivations of the Occupy Gezi Park demonstrations, we must consider the causes of other Occupy movements across the globe.

The so-called Occupy movements were actually influenced by the Arab Spring. Occupy Wall Street (2011), for instance, was born in a cultural landscape that has inspired the Occupy Gezi protests in Taksim Square. Although the motivations and aims of these movements are quite different, their tactics, language and artistic designs are similar.

While the Occupy Wall Street movement focused on expressing “outrage at the inequities of unfettered global capitalism,” Occupy Gezi started as a reaction against Erdoğan's plan to redevelop Gezi Park in Taksim Square but has rapidly transformed into a reaction against Erdoğan's governing style and attitude. The Gezi movement has brought together people from all walks of life who are upset with Erdoğan's policies.  

Many believe that one significant factor of these uprisings is their unpredictability. But even small shifts in social dynamics can have large consequences. In the era of the social media revolution, when the peoples of different countries are interconnected, totalitarian regimes are likely to be more vulnerable to uprisings. One could argue that social media is one of the key reasons that the Occupy movements grow so rapidly. But another, and perhaps more important, reason for this accelerated growth are governments' brutal reactions, which aggravate the problem.

On Oct. 1, 2011, for example, over 5,000 people marched on the Brooklyn Bridge. Seven hundred were arrested. Excessive police force brought the media's attention to the occupation, and awareness of the 200 people camping out on Wall Street grew. It is important to note here that almost the same thing happened in Taksim Square, where hundreds of people were camping out in Gezi Park.

The growing tents in Zucotti Park

On Oct. 5, another Occupy Wall Street march gathered an estimated 15,000 people. Throughout October, the number of tents in Zucotti Park grew rapidly. It was interesting that similar kinds of encampments emerged all over the world. This is clear evidence that protesters across the globe are connected with and inspired by one another.

The occupation of Zucotti Park triggered protests in Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

In Tahrir Square, making one simple demand was the central strategy of the Egyptian protesters. The reason for the success of the Tahrir movement was probably their sticking to a singular and straightforward demand -- “Mubarak must go” -- until they won.

The demands of Occupy Wall Street were quite different than those of Tahrir Square. Nathan Schneider, one of the planners of the movement, writes: “In the weeks leading up to Sept. 17, the NYC General Assembly seemed to be veering away from the language of ‘demands' in the first place, largely because government institutions are already so shot through with corporate money that making specific demands would be pointless. ... Instead, to begin with, they opted to make their demand the occupation itself -- and the direct democracy taking place there -- which in turn may or may not come up with some specific demand.'

Professor Noam Chomsky explains some of the outcomes of the Occupy Movements: 'The Occupy movements are quite right to try to avoid this quasi-totalitarian structure. On the other hand, consensus can go too far, like any other tactic. I think the criticism that Occupy hasn't come up with actual proposals or demands is just not true. There are lots of proposals that have come out of Occupy. Many of them are quite feasible, within reach. In fact, some even have mainstream support from places like the Financial Times, things like a financial transaction tax, which makes good sense.”

US President Obama said the protests reflect a "broad-based frustration about how the US financial system works.”

“American people understand that not everybody's been following the rules. These days, a lot of folks doing the right thing are not rewarded. A lot of folks who are not doing the right thing are rewarded. ...That does not make sense to the American people. They are frustrated by it, and they will continue to be frustrated by it until they get a sense that everybody's playing by the same set of rules and that you're rewarded for responsibility and doing the right thing as opposed to gaming the system.”

Obama took a cue from the protesters in forming his economy policies.

Even though the Gezi Park protesters started off focusing on one particular demand -- that “Gezi Park should remain untouched and a park” -- the movement has turned into a broader reaction against Erdoğan's government. It is now clear that Erdoğan sees the demonstrations as a serious security threat.

Similarly, the US government saw Occupy Wall Street as a serious terrorist threat to US security. Later, the release of internal FBI documents revealed that the agency extensively monitored the Occupy Wall Street movement around the United States, using counterterrorism agents and other resources.

The Obama administration passed two bills in 2011 -- the National Defense Authorization Act and the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act -- that allowed the US military to detain suspected terrorists and try them in military courts. Many believe the laws were a reaction to Occupy Wall Street. As of Feb. 17, 2012 there had been at least 6,557 documented arrests in 111 US cities related to the Occupy Wall Street movement.  

Again, the Turkish authorities see the Gezi Park movement as a security problem, but in contrast to their US counterparts, they view it as an extension of certain internal and external threats.

As many critics have noted, mainstream TV stations failed to cover the demonstrations from the beginning. To speak frankly, however, the Turkish media's response to Gezi Park was not very different from the US media's response to Occupy Wall Street.


*Aydoğan Vatandaş is an investigative journalist and author based in New York.