A Reality Check for the Gezi Park protests. Is it too Late?
Signs of the end of the Gezi Protests has been documented in Jenny White's insightful (but by no means authoritative) blog post, and made 'official' by Nicole Pope’s Gezi Park 'Lifetime Achievement' recap in Today’s Zaman article entitled "Has anything changed?”
When writers are celebrating your lifetime achievements, what they're really saying is, 'your life is over.'
In White’s report, published at kamilpasha.com she notes that "In the village, Gezi might have been happening on another planet. People really weren’t that interested, having made up their minds that this was a bunch of hooligans and that it was under control." Pope references White's assessment to conclude that ‘the villagers bought the government’s line’ and while ‘The protesters appear to have at least won the battle for Gezi Park", the protests will not gain the wide support they need.
As supportive and pro-Gezi as Pope's words are, it's still hard to ignore the sound of dirt being thrown on the still-warm body of Gezi.
So what went wrong?
Unlike a ruling political party, a 'protest' can't easily isolate and purge those 'counter-productive' elements that undermine the consistency of its net impression. This problem is acerbated by a typical lack of strategic chops to manage its image in response to counter-moves coming from multiple fronts: the 'official' enemy, the course-diverting proclamations of well-meaning friends pontificating from armchairs, the agenda-tainting opportunists posing as friends, and the pure opportunists who join in as an excuse to throw rocks and vandalize property.
But by far the biggest damage inflicted on the Gezi Protest was its own increasing self-absorption; the tendency of organizations to become increasingly inner-directed until the group itself becomes the reason the group exists rather than the external causes that brought the group together in the first place. This is evidenced in an increasing distance between the concrete and measurable expressions of the group's goals (Save Gezi Park from becoming a Mall!) and its actions.
Gathering for increasingly abstract goals like 'Freedom', or 'Fighting Rapaciousness', and so on without any destination or road-map for how to get there should always be a warning sign to any responsible Activist; something's not right when you're protesting 'for' something whose progress can't be measured or tracked to a specific, concrete goal.
If you don't know how to tell if you've won, you've already lost.
Ms. White suggests Romanticism as a culprit and, to the degree unquestioned romantic thoughts can blind groups without strong pragmatists in leadership (often shunned by romantic thinkers who think 'plotting' is 'evil') she is not incorrect. In her choice of the word 'romanticized' Ms White is offering a clue as to what all groups like Gezi protesters sustained by unusually strong shared perceptions about its role in society often neglect undertaking: a reality check.
Without regular, 'brutal truth' reality checks to keep the group's self-perception 'real', the group often fails to recognize when it needs to alter course to stay on course. Without reality checks, without performing and disseminating the learning from such checks, shared perception of what is real becomes a shared delusion that only grows deeper as the 'outside' world becomes increasingly more 'hostile' and the group seeks affirmation from inside (think hippies in the US in the 1980s).
Facts become "provocations" engineered by "enemies" who are trying to "undermine" you rather than confronted as FACTS—regardless of how or why they came to be true. Commerce knows this—you will never find a successful brand dismissing loss of market share in such a manner because if they did, they would soon be out of business. Loss of mindshare is loss of marketshare and that means loss of profit. And loss of profit means the reasons for that 'brand' existing no longer become viable.
And this is true whether you are a political party, or a protest movement or a cereal brand; whether your profit is measured in dollars, power, or freedom.
If you don't have a realistic idea of where you stand, you're already down.
The 'government line bought' by the villagers didn't take much selling. After its initial victories, the 'protest' failed to tell or show those both opposed inside and those living outside Istanbul anything meaningful, to incline them to put into perspective what they witnessed with their own eyes or personally experienced. The protesters’ inability to see ‘perception control’ as a responsibility on their part rather than on the part of those who report on them and who were perceiving their actions is a symptom of self-absorption. It blinds to both the responsibility that needs to be taken for injustices created (and even fabricated) in its name, and the opportunities to galvanize those parts of population that's been alienated or were once on the fence.
From a strategic point of view, Gezi Protests failed to develop any effective response to what was only a strategically rational counter-move on the Government's part in the face of a real threat to its (and its commercially-minded allies') self-interests.
For Gezi, the most immediate yet counter-intuitive response as to how they should have responded to the growing focus on vandalizing and financial damage to the ‘mom-and-pop’ business sector was: take responsibility for it. This is not the same as ‘taking the blame’ but, rather, is about assuming that one is, well, responsible for whatever new reality is created as a result of their actions. Reality is reality, and the fact that it's not carved in stone but rather pliable, like Play-Doh, is exactly why one must do what one can to ‘reshape' that reality when it becomes a problem rather than allow that problematic reality to harden while debating whose fault it is or who the 'real' victims are (especially when one ignores the real victims by claiming themselves as victims instead: of propaganda, for example).
'Enough is Enough'
For the most telling clues as to why strategic thinking about 'reality' is critical, one only has to look at the comment left by Snysny—who says her husband is an owner/manager of a small business in the vicinity of Taksim—on Ms. White's blog post:
Yes, enough is enough. Each weekend that goes by with nights of violence means more and more businesses will go under. Beyoğlu, and especially İstiklal, will undergo immense changes in the coming year or so, with small restaurants and cafes being replaced by corporate-run establishments. The result will be that Big capital will replace small capital.
This in essence is what the AKP policy of brutal police intervention is bringing about. And the Gezi spirit, no matter how uplifting it may be for a certain sector of society, is powerless to prevent this.
The protests need to come out of its sugar coma and realize they're really screwing up. Really? You kept calling for rallies even when the gains they produced were only to incite more violence from police and more damage to small businesses? Were you thinking strategically when you saw the damage this inflicted on your friends, your neighbors, the 'people' you claim to represent? Sure, on one hand, that might seem like an excellent strategy—antagonize the proven over-reactionary nature of the government and demonstrate its authoritarian nature to the population (for what end? What was the next move? What Gezi agenda was this serving?)
Certainly, in the very beginning, the police's brutal response did work in favor of the protestors, and did win popular support of surrounding businesses. So why didn't it continue to work out that way? And who did it ultimately work out for? In calling for such mass rallies—over and over again even once the productivity for such massing were over (ie the physical occupation of Gezi Park in order to save it from being bulldozed)— whose strategy was being served, really?
You didn't see the damage coming to businesses against whom your gathering could never sustain itself? Somebody did. Do you really think those water cannons and all that chaos and closing streets was to punish you? Somebody knew it wasn't. If the point of constant mass rallies was to continue to elicit brutal police response, how'd that work out for you? And if not, what was the point?
The Game is Chess, Not Ring Around the Rosy
One of Gezi's big mistakes is thinking the game is Ring Around the Rosy when it is actually a game of Chess.
The mass rallies stopped working a long time ago and that's the exact time they began to be a problem. To suggest that the groups ‘mass gathering’ was strategically engineered to hurry this transition from ‘positive’ to ‘negative’ media attention is to invite another 5000 words into the article. Suffice to say a good strategic enemy would actually feed/fuel a perception that 'love is all you need", effectively diverting the group's resources toward the the idea that 'UNITY' is where the 'power of the people' lies rather than in the concrete, tangible issues that UNITED them in the first place.
It’s easier for a government to justify maintaining the status-quo by turning a concrete, measurable crowd into a vandalizing mob than it is to justify the status-quo by turning a concrete, measurable injustice into the will of the people. As we’ve seen, and that is the thing that was working, not the literally amassing!
Gezi's Failure Allowed Truth of 'Out-of-Proportion' Response to be Rewritten
Gezi was out-maneuvered and, considering how strategically self-destructive the government's ham-fisted response was in light of criticism flying from around the globe, they have no one to blame but themselves. Rather than make sure this perception of authoritarian government response—the only powerful leverage Gezi ever really had—remained true, Gezi's continued call for people to amass reached that inevitable point when that government response could be perceived as justified.
Gezi committed the oh-so-common error that keeps all strategists in business: the belief that what is true today will still be true tomorrow. This failure on Gezi's part not only re-distributed advantage, it rewrote how history will be remembered. Because people tend to put more value on what happened last, the truth of police brutality out-of-all-proportion to the peaceful protest that launched the Gezi movement in the first place is unlikely to ever factor in popular analysis.
Some Tips from the Strategist's Table
Protest is not a tea party. Protesting is not an alternative to thinking. You've got to anticipate and hypothesize. When you start believing a tactic is what 'you do' that's when you need to stop doing that and start figuring out what you have to do Differently. Because when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is insidious because the group believes that, by performing the same activities that grew and united the group before, they are 'growing' and 'uniting' the group 'some more'—but they're not. Strategic rule 101: what worked before only worked because the opponent didn't know it was coming. For example, Gezi got an unexpected 'bump' from the 'standing man' campaign because the opponent hadn't been exposed to that and so hadn't 'learned and adapted' (think: The Borg).
If you want to represent the people, you need to never see yourself as the victim—ever. Many Gezi protesters dismissed violence and assault committed during or linked to group activities by responding with denials that it was 'not in the spirit of Gezi'—in other words, it's not the women who were assaulted, or the shops that were destroyed, but 'Gezi's good name' that was being attacked. It was 'Gezi' that 'Gezi' defended. How do you think this resonated with the women and their families and their friends? And in thinking about this, how can Gezi not take some responsibility for the dilution of its 'good' name? If your mode of protest allows for this to happen, you need to do things differently or else face the inevitable backlash that comes with, yes, being 'responsible' for it. Even if it 'wasn't you' even if it was 'provocateurs'—if there's something about how you organize, or disseminate information, or amass that ALLOWS this to happen and you continue to do nothing to stop it then, yes, you are responsible.
The problem with social media is that it makes you think YOU are a lot more important than you really are. Because Social Media is, by and large, a bunch of you's talking about yourselves.
Romanticism, by Ms. White's meaning, is just a euphemism for being unwilling to do the hard work of bringing about meaningful change.
Gezi protests have passed the tipping point long time ago and has become more of a problem than a solution. I think the protesters have had a good run but now its time to adapt to reality.
Stop gathering in massive crowds which has shut down entire districts and robbed the small businesspeople of their livelihoods. Stop contributing to the circumstances that attack them at their roots. Stop expecting them to bend and bend and not break. Show them the respect you'd show to a tree.
Unity has many expressions. Put aside your self-absorption and spend time in twos and threes. Spend time with your families. Go shopping. Go out to eat. Spend some money. Spend a lot of money around the communities affected by your actions. Taksim area is nice, I hear. Sit for hours in small groups and talk and buy lots of tea. Or do some community service.
If something is broken, fix it. If something is crooked, straighten it. If someone is down, pick him up. If you're going to unite, unite on PayPal and pay someone's rent.
The people who need cows milked need cows milked. Go milk a cow. Begin mending fences.
Yeah, it's counter-intuitive but do not gather together in gangs. Do not send tweets that say: ‘Hey, guys. How about we ALL meet up at x, y, and z and show our support/protest/do....’ The time of the cicada has passed. You don't need to be cicadas anymore. Be individuals. Don't wear blue wristbands or leaves pinned to your shirt. Don't be tempted to let businesses know 'you' support 'them.' Just support them.
In fact, let the need to identify with 'Gezi' be the way you mark those who have a hidden agenda. Gaining nothing if he cannot show his face, he will float away like smoke on a breeze. Let it be common knowledge that no real Gezi supporters will be found gathering in large, public groups. You want to communicate what sort of behavior, what sort of 'spirit' is not Gezi? Give people a concrete tangible way to recognize 'not' Gezi!
Disperse and those who would harm you by hiding among you and pretending to be you and who profit from the sheer mass and size of you, will find nowhere to hide.
Let every act of kindness be Gezi. Let every act of discord be not Gezi.
Go out and talk to real people. Leave town and face the music. Maybe join in on some. Ask questions, and don't be defensive when you get the answers. Stop telling people what they should think or shouldn't think or what they are or are not because of what they do or don't think: remember, reality is pliable! Stop blaming others for what people think or don't think and change their minds. You can learn a lot about how to defeat ‘your enemy’ by listening to him and trying to understand him. You can gain a lot when you don’t assume that those who aren’t with you are against you.
And when that work is done, do something differently. What worked yesterday doesn't work today. What works today won't work tomorrow. Stop running toward the football; run to where the football will be.
If you want to change the way things are, you have to be willing to change with the change you create! Freedom, justice, peace—these are processes, not products; journeys, not destinations. Whenever a group believes there's only one right way and they're it; when they believe only they can care about or can contribute to solutions— that's when they become dangerous. That's when they become a problem for a new protest rise up against.
If you don’t adapt to the new realities created by your own actions, then you will be absorbed by the new realities as translated by those who wish to keep the realities you wish to change unchanged; or by the new realities as manipulated by those who want the status quo to change, but not in the direction you wish it to.
Just because you’re having an impact doesn’t mean it’s the impact you intend. If you don’t make a plan, someone else will make a plan for you.
If you don't adapt to the new realities you create, you will be absorbed by the ones created for you.
Don't be so arrogant to believe your righteousness is impervious to time or your judgment invulnerable to ego or your messes for someone else to clean up.
That’s the other guy, remember?
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