Whether in Turkey or Brazil, “the street’s the place to go” (from a song by the Weather Girls). Social media has allowed hundreds of thousands to protest against government policies throughout the two countries. But questions remain about the identity of the protesters, what they are protesting against, and the outcomes desired.
There were two specific issues during the 1968 protests in the United States: ending racial segregation and ending the Vietnam War. Although the protests were not necessarily identical, these were the fundamental issues around which students and sympathizers coalesced. Many of the same people participated in both protest movements, united by the two progressive causes. (I will ignore those cynics who said that the real issue behind the May 1968 movements was for students to get out of final exams.)
The protests in Turkey and Brazil are of a different nature. While both had specific issues to begin with – in Turkey the urbanization of a popular square, in Brazil the rising cost of transportation – they soon steamrolled into larger manifestations of dissatisfaction – in Turkey the increasing authoritarianism of the government, in Brazil the expenses in preparing for the World Cup and Olympics in the face of growing inequality. To continue my musical analogies, the general theme of both demonstrations seems to be “I can’t get no satisfaction.”
While the protests in the United States were specifically against two policies, the protests in Turkey and Brazil seem more a reflection of a general dissatisfaction, moving from one issue to another. Because the issues change, the identity of the protesters changes as well. While the ’68 protesters were generally angry students, those in the streets of Ankara and Rio come from a greater cross-section of the populations.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the recent protests for someone who lived through and participated in the 1968 upheavals is the specific role of social media. It is obvious that social media has an enormous potential to assemble a large group of people in a short period of time. More interestingly, I believe, is that because social media is so diffuse, there have been no specific leaders who have emerged. Where are the Tom Haydens? Mark Rudds? Mario Savios? Bob Moses? Martin Luther Kings? Just like the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the lack of a centralizing figure or organization seems prevalent in both countries.
The lack of leadership may answer the last question about the eventual outcomes desired. The 1968 protests were politically oriented; they were against specific policies and specific candidates. There were riots at both the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and the Republican convention in Miami. Politics was in the air and on the street. Perhaps because of social media, the protests in Turkey and Brazil are less politically structured and oriented; they seem to lack leadership and organization. While social networks are to be praised for their democratization, it remains to be seen how they will perform politically. We are seeing social movements more than political movements.
In sum: If you are not getting satisfaction, the street may be the place to go, but in the long run, will your actions be transformational?