From 2010 to 2020, more people participated in protests than at any other point in human history. But we are not living in a world that is more just and democratic as a result. In If We Burn, acclaimed journalist and author of The Jakarta Method Vincent Bevins sets out to answer a pivotal question: How did so many mass protests lead to the opposite of what they asked for?
In this exclusive excerpt, Bevins explores this question by turning to the 2013 protests that erupted in Turkey in spite of mainstream censorship, giving context for journalist Osman Orsal’s viral “Lady in Red” photograph, in which a peaceful protester in a red dress was sprayed with tear gas at close range, becoming a symbol of the unrest and police brutality in Turkey at that time.
Writer and community organizer Asha Ransby-Sporn will join Bevins in what will surely be a dynamic and engaging conversation on building the movements we need this Sunday, October 15th at 4:00-5:30 PM (CST) at Lincoln Lodge in Chicago. Please RSVP at this link to attend.
İstiklal Avenue runs through the center of Istanbul, on the European side of the ancient city. There are no cars here, just endless street cafés and vendors selling ice cream in the summer or roasted chestnuts in the winter. You can pop down a tiny side street, perhaps built when this was still the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and have grilled lamb and fresh vegetables, or a bottle of Efes beer, brewed and bottled in Turkey. Just a few blocks east is the water of the Bosporus Strait, which you can jump on, via ferry, to the more conservative and religious Asian side of the city. İstiklal, on the other hand, has been the traditional heart of secular elite culture, the stomping ground of the urban bourgeoisie and its fun-loving children, many of whom fared well under the modernizing regime of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. If you walk up to the end of İstiklal Avenue, you will find a big open space, Taksim Square, and then a humble patch of trees and grass, called Gezi Park. It is not a particularly special or beloved park, but it is in the middle of everything.
In the beginning of 2013, activists staged a set of interventions in defense of the environment, public space, and the secular lifestyle in general. There was nothing very surprising about this. This was a democracy, and the city was going through a number of transformations that were always going to be subject to discussion and contestation. That is how the game is supposed to work in the era of liberal globalization. For many years, Turkey had often been held up, especially by Westerners, as a model for the rest of the Muslim world. Under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first elected prime minister in 2002, the European Union began to seriously consider (or at least discuss) the possibility of admitting the country as a member. Erdoğan had incorporated its Muslim majority more fully into the body politic, while remaining ardently pro-Western and bringing the country in line with the rules of the global capitalist economy. The Turkish left, historically strong enough that the military felt the need to take power in a violent 1980 coup, denounced this as neoliberal capitulation and pointed to widening inequality. But Erdoğan had established a broad coalition of supporters, and his project — moderate Islamism, pro-business, and pro-Western, contesting elections — appeared hegemonic. In March 2013, his approval rating hovered around 60 percent, though it was only 46 percent in Istanbul.
Protests began when intellectuals and artists in that city mobilized against the demolition of a beloved downtown café and then a historic movie theater, which were to be cast into the dustbin of history to make way for a new shopping mall. The activists failed, and the mall went forward. A group of environmentalists made contact on social media so that they could do something to protect the city’s remaining green spaces from rapacious development. Furkan, a college student from Istanbul, joined the loose network and started planning. Like many of his friends, he looked more to Europe than to the Arab world for inspiration. They were moved more by the ways that environmentalists organized in the West, and the way that leftists had taken to the streets in nearby Greece in 2011, than the example of Tahrir Square. In any case, he didn’t have much hope his little group of tree huggers would accomplish much, aside from slowing down the ongoing commodification of Istanbul.
On Twitter, he discovered that the city planned to bulldoze trees in Gezi Park on the night of May 27. In addition to destroying a bit of nature, the president wanted to build a large mosque, which would celebrate the Ottoman period. Furkan and a few dozen comrades went to the park. A group totaling perhaps 85 activists, 15 journalists and one member of parliament from the pro-Kurdish party managed to stop the bulldozers. But those big machines were going to come back. The protesters spread the word and a thousand people came out the next night. Most were committed environmentalist types, with a smattering of different political viewpoints represented — but the one commonality was that nobody was pro-Erdoğan. On a whim, some of them dragged out tents so there would always be someone there to protect the park. In the middle of the night on May 29, the government arrived, this time to clear out people instead of trees. As the cops began to tear gas the settlement and torch the tents, Furkan scrambled in panic across the square. Desperate to escape, dozens of people tried to rush down the same small set of stairs at the same time and they crashed to the ground. The whole thing was filmed on camera phones.
On May 30, the entire country woke up to the shocking images of a crackdown on nonviolent environmental protesters, in the middle of Istanbul, with Taksim Square on fire. Except, that is, for those who tuned in to state media, which wasn’t talking about this at all. But social media — Twitter especially — and international coverage made it easy for well-connected Turks to see past the censorship. And so citizens poured into the square in solidarity with the victimized demonstrators and in protest of police brutality. Then, photographer Osman Orsal produced an even more scandalous image. A young woman, elegantly poised and wearing a flowing red dress, was pepper sprayed at close range by the Turkish police. After seeing this on Twitter, a lot of people felt like Hazar, a shopkeeper in the bazaar from a middle-class family. He said: “A sandstorm is erupting, and I want to be one of the pieces of sand. I just want to support the people.” The square was entirely packed now, 24 hours a day, and the whole world was watching.
Excerpted from If We Burn with permission from PublicAffairs.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Vincent Bevins is an award-winning journalist and correspondent. He covered Southeast Asia for the Washington Post, reporting from across the entire region and paying special attention to the legacy of the 1965 massacre in Indonesia. He previously served as the Brazil correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, also covering nearby parts of South America, and before that he worked for the Financial Times in London.
Among the other publications he has written for are the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Economist, the Guardian, Foreign Policy, the New York Review of Books, the New Republic and more. Vincent was born and raised in California and spent the last few years living in Jakarta.