The Limits of Turkey’s Occupy Movement

Since Friday, the twitterverse has been saturated with news about a now large, loud, and defiant protest in Gezi Park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Soon after, there was talk of the Occupy Taksim/Occupy Gezi movement. Sitting at my desk in Ottawa, it is unclear to me whether this handle originated somewhere on the web as a very catchy hashtag or whether it was originally promoted by the protestors themselves. Origins aside, Hurriyet is reporting on their English website that presently the protestors are now identifying with the Occupy movement. This pains me since this is not a protest model that will likely lead to a valuable outcome.

A bit of history: What began as Occupy Wall Street in New York in 2011, quickly transformed into an international protest movement with Occupy protests being set up in cities around the globe. There were few commonalities among these protests other than a general call for greater income equality, a commitment to non-violence, a strong aversion to hierarchical organization within the movement itself, and an uncanny ability to attract media attention. However, with a lack of leadership and a firm policy agenda to advance, the Occupy love-ins degenerated into shantytowns that marred often previously pristine public spaces and that unfortunately, as time wore on, attracted larger and larger proportions of hooligans and extremists. Today, the Occupy movement has largely faded from public consciousness. It has made little lasting impact other than introducing the catchphrase “We are the 99 percent.”

Unless something changes soon, Turkey’s Occupy movements (there are now protests in Ankara and Izmir as well) will be just as forgettable. Like the Occupy protests that have already come and gone, the protest in Turkey is directionless and leaderless. Originally, when the protest was very young and still small, it clearly articulated one demand: it wanted the government to not follow through with its plan to mow down the greenery in Gezi Park in order to make room for a shopping mall. Although the movement grew out of dissatisfaction with urbanization it is now believed to represent an increasingly large number of complaints such as Turkey’s autocratic leanings, its movement away from secular policies and practices, abuses of the population’s physical integrity rights, and its limited freedoms of assembly, of the press, and of expression to name but a few. In sum, a movement that began making one focused demand is now demanding all the rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights and all the treaties and covenants it encompasses.

The Turkish population deserves all this. They deserve the full range of civil, political, economic, cultural, and social rights that is owed to each human independent of their place of residence or birth. The problem is asking for it all at once. Where’s the government to begin? Is there a place to begin that won’t disappoint more people than it pleases? Do the protestors have a prioritized list? If yes, who should the government be speaking to? Who should they negotiate with? Unfortunately, I believe the lack of focus of this Occupy movement may lead it in the direction of the Occupy movements that preceded it: towards insignificance.

It is my hope that this is not the case. I would very much like it if Occupy Taksim/Occupy Gezi turned out to be the sole jewel in the Occupy movements’ crown. I just can’t see how it will accomplish the goal of having all the above-mentioned concerns addressed unless the movement evolves. Sidney Tarrow in Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics would argue that the movement needs leadership and it needs a well-framed issue around which collective action is rooted. Presently, Turkey’s Occupy protest has neither.

Stephanie Soiffer is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

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3 thoughts on “The Limits of Turkey’s Occupy Movement

  1. Pingback: ‘Occupy’ is not a good model for change, in Turkey or anywhere else | Florida State Tribune

  2. Although this article makes valid points about the dangers of disorganization, it somewhat downplays the scope of the Occupy Turkey movement. The movement has spread to cities across Turkey (not just Istanbul, Ankara, or Izmir) and the world, and has the rather broad yet concrete and tangible goal of preserving Turkey’s democratic qualities. The group with which the government should engage in dialogue are the opposition parties in Parliament, which the President has already begun to do. Regardless of whether the rest of the world remembers these protests, they have undoubtedly conveyed to the political leaders of Turkey that the Turkish people want a secular democracy, and will not accept the dictatorial mentality that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan taken on due to his long tenure in office.

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