Before coming to Turkey concerned friends and family only knew Turkey was part of the dreaded Middle East. They told me not to go near Syria even though I’m living on the opposite side of the country on the European continent. They told me not to go near Gezi Park–the site of anti-government protests summer 2013 which turned violent when police used water cannons and tear gas canisters to disperse Turkish people encamped in the park. The protests have been compared to the Occupy Movement and the 1968 protests in America because of how people of all political affiliations have been involved and it is not just one issue they are fighting for.
When the Occupy movement swept through American news, it was a joke to me. The people holding their protests against Wallstreet weren’t making change, they were making fools of themselves and contacting TB while they struggled to get organized. From my sheltered life as a college student in GA these protests were futile and I barely paid them any attention.
But living in Istanbul I’ve seen protests. I walked outside of Istanbul Cevahir (the biggest mall in Europe) and there was a crowd of people chanting in Turkish, yelling in Turkish words that I didn’t understand. The other American exchange students I was with stopped to gawk, inching closer with smiles on their faces as they felt like such big-damn heroes for braving a protest scene. As soon as the police showed up and started attacking people in the crowd, my acquaintances ran off, yelling for me to follow them. I cannot remember the last time I was so angry. How could these other exchange students be so heartless and exploitative at the expense of people putting their safety on the line for something they believe in? When did protests become a spectacle?
I believe it happens when people find them exotic. The Occupy Movement aside, there is not a large protest culture in America since the 1960s because it seems as if protests haven’t been working. Maybe it’s because America is such a large country that creating national fervor has become near to impossible. Maybe it’s because the American government is so great at turning its citizens against each other that we’re too busy to fight the real enemy of the government who is supposedly elected to serve us. I do not feel served as an American citizen, I feel betrayed by a system I was taught all my life is perfect. American Democracy.
And because have American democracy, things may not be perfect as we’re told they are as children, but things could always be worse so sit down, shut up and don’t complain. Laugh at the people brave enough to complain. Run away when things get too dangerous and don’t you dare try to stand up for your rights. It won’t work.
The protests in Atlanta after the Zimmerman trial didn’t stop the government or the court systems from being racist. The No More Names protest against gun violence following the Newtown school shooting didn’t stop the NRA from keeping its boot on the American government’s neck. They marched on Washington and nothing has happened to pass gun safety laws. It seems as if every protest we have is quickly forgotten as people turn a blind eye to suffering that does not affect them. Again, we are too busy fighting ourselves to fight the government and this is a form of oppression. Although the system of democracy advocates for the voice of the people in making decisions, the real world of living in American democracy tells you the opposite. It tells you not to make change and that maybe change isn’t possible.
Yesterday, March 11th 2014 marks the death of Berkin Elvan a 14 year old who left his home to buy bread during the Gezi Park protests and was hit in the head by police. Elvan had been in a coma since he was attacked and yesterday he died. In Istanbul and Ankara (the two largest cities in Turkey) there were massive protests and looking at the pictures I wondered if protests like this could happen in America today. I wondered if protests like this do happen today and the government is great at covering them up or turning them into parodies to be laughed at.
But no matter what I wonder, there is one thing I know. One of the most striking ways Turkish protests differ from what I have seen and understand about American protests is that in Turkey, the protesters are not pushing for the government to enact small reforms. They are asking the government to resign.
That is what American protests are missing: the belief that large-scale change can occur and that we are not beholden to the current system. I do not have all the answers for a perfect government but I do not fear a change in the system, I fear living my life under the belief that change is impossible.