Brazil exploded with mass demonstrations and riots while I was driving north from the American south. The best one could do was to listen to radio reports. But, a few things stood out. A gathering of 1.25 million marchers in Brazil’s meant something huge. Their turnout dwarfed the largest Vietnam demonstrations thatranged between 100,000 to 200,000 in 1968-71. Brazil is 2/3rds the U.S. population. Imagine one million protestors descending on Washington? Or one million demonstrating the same day in cities across the U.S.? Was this a strident demand for action? – But if so, what action? Initial press reports said the public wants a rollback of the bus fare hike, but later said that the movement does not seem to have a clear purpose. —Recent reports also say some of the steam seems to be evaporating. There may be a hiatus until the next time. But, there will be more to come.
The big fat target– billions being spent on World Cup soccer stadiums is not going to go away. The protestors compared the roughly $50 billion in pork laden spending with the lack of funds for those on the streets. This time it was a modest increase in bus fares of 10% that incited the crowd. Hardly life threatening, but a reminder of what the government could impose on the people in a nation where the elite travel in armored cars or private helicopters. A bucket of other grievances—from poor health care to weak education to lousy transportation then spilled into the streets.
The blowup in Turkey is of course different. They always are. This one started against plans to raze Gezi Park in Taksim Square in Istanbul and build a military barracks on the site. But it really was a backlash against the strong willed, but three-times-elected Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His authoritarian rule rather than economic loss is the frontal issue and Erdoğan lived up to form. He sent in armored carriers, water canons and riot gear police with tear gas to clear the square, vowing to his supporters that he is not going to allow a mass gathering anywhere. Like Brazil, Turkey is a developing nation darling for investors and a forceful leader usually wins their plaudits – unless of course he oversteps and loses public support.
Turkey’s protests seem more targeted, but really are not, because like the inequality in Brazil, rights in Turkey too are a broad issue. The protestors venting anger were not offering specifics. Like the Occupy Wall Street protesters which tried to take over a park. When Occupy succeeded, its example spread to dozens of cities around the world. Critics said Occupy had no tangible demands, so how could they negotiate? That was the point. Occupy activists knew politicians need tangible demands to appear to be – if not actually be – engaged with seeking solutions. The only response they got was “we’re the 99 % vs. your wealth holding 1 %”. Fix it.
When New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg finally cleared Zuccotti Park in mid-November 2010, he used riot police and tear gas and locked away the press. It would be a stretch to say Bloomberg – who first championed Occupy’s free speech rights – is a strong man like Erdoğan. But he was a strong man in the end.
And even as Bloomberg’s workers were hosing down the park, India’s anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare was gearing up, ordering up flash mob protests of 10,000 to 100,000 to spring up in major cities. This time the demand was tangible: passage of an anti-corruption bill which remains to be implemented. There was also a police dragnet to sweep away Anna’s supporters.
Corruption, inequality and government power are the seeds for modern protests.
It would be a cosmic stretch to suggest that demonstrators around the world seeking justice—which is really the bedrock cause of those on the streets in Brazil, Turkey, India and New York —are akin to those who toppled communism in 1989 amid cheers from the U.S. and Western leaders. In fact good journalism demands that we work hard to distinguish their differences. But trust in governments around the world is at a near all time low—down to 26% in the U.S according to the Pew Research Center. So is trust of the messenger. In 2011, 80% of Americans said the press was “often influenced by powerful people and organisations.” No one knows what America’s current NSA spy leak scandal means for attitudes now. Suffice it to say people do not trust their leaders and have grave doubts about the news they are getting. Large crowds are demonstrating in the most prosperous developing countries around the world. You might say something’s going on.
Bob Dowling is the Editorial Advisor at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
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