If you’ve been following Twitter over the last few days, or reading the news (in certain outlets, anyway), you’ll no doubt be aware of the ongoing protests in Istanbul against the Turkish government. Specifically, you may have noticed the #OccupyGezi hashtag cropping up repeatedly, and wondered how the Occupy movement has spread to Turkey. Or has it? The use of this Occupy “branding” by protesters in Istanbul raises all sorts of fascinating questions, foremost amongst them being this one: given that “Occupy” has become the banner of choice for pretty much anyone who considers themselves anti-establishment and/or to be operating outside mainstream channels, has it become so widely used that it doesn’t really mean anything any more? And does that matter?
The free-form nature of the Occupy movement means that it’s always been laden with contradictions. In the 18 months since the emergence of the original Occupy Wall Street protest and its various offshoots, the label has been applied to everything from hurricane relief (Occupy Sandy) to opposition to GM crops (Occupy Monsanto). It’s also been applied retroactively to the Arab Spring — the phrase “Occupy Tahrir” gets bandied about these days as a way of making an explicit association between the protests that brought down the Mubarak régime and the wider global movement their methods inspired.
Ironically enough, given its roots in anti-capitalism, this all means that Occupy has been a pretty spectacularly successful exercise in global branding. It’s provided visibility and infrastructure to a disparate assortment of groups, and as such it was almost inevitable that it would make its way to Taksim Square and Gezi Park. You can certainly see the use of “Occupy” as an entirely pragmatic measure: it ties you instantly into existing channels of activism and support, both at home and abroad.
As a hashtag, “Occupy” is instantly recognizable and laden with meaning, a fact that’s important given the post-millennial power of social media as a force for mobilizing protest, and especially important in Turkey given the local media’s apparently determined refusal to report on anything that’s going on. Like any hashtag, it provides both a common language and a means of aggregation — something that’s been put to good use by sites like GeziParki.me, where some 15GB of images and video have been collated from the protests, with the aim of “document[ing] all police brutality enforced by the Erdogan administration against peaceful protesters in Turkey.”
In this respect, then, the word has real practical utility — it’s something that helps you to mobilize and also to communicate. Is that, perhaps, all it should represent? As former Flavorwire colleague and ANIMAL New York art editor Marina Galperina, who was at the Occupy Gezi “hackathon” in Brooklyn last night, says, “Don’t needlessly politicize the term. The Sandy relief efforts didn’t have to be Occupy, either — they just functioned by utilizing the pre-existing indie communication channels established during Occupy Wall Street. Get with the spirit.”
The label is also a convenient shorthand for attracting media attention, especially in the West, which is especially relevant in Turkey, where protesters are appealing directly to foreign outlets because of the local media blackout. Branding yourself Occupy is far more productive and attention-grabbing than giving yourself a name that might mean nothing to those not well-informed about your cause — “Citizens Against the Gezi Park Mall,” say, would have been more informative than “Occupy Gezi,” but also less effective, because if you’ve never heard of Gezi Park or its prospective redevelopment, the name would mean nothing at all. In 2013, Occupy always means something.
But what? That’s hard to say. It’s a reductive label, because it doesn’t really say anything about what it is that you want, just that you want something — and by branding yourself “Occupy [whatever]” you’re immediately associating your movement (in the minds of the public, if not necessarily in your own mind) with “Occupy [everything else]” and the causes espoused by those movements. The discussion of Occupy Gezi on the Occupy Wall Street website, for instance, includes the following statement: “Our grievances are connected through the violence brought when people stand up to say no to the initiatives of big business, planned behind closed doors and without our consent.”
It’s not for me to say, of course, but I suspect that at least some of Occupy Gezi might question this — the protest was catalyzed by the loss of a park to big business, certainly, but also appears to be far more about the frustration with Turkey’s slow shift toward political and religious conservatism under a decade of AKP rule than it is about anti-capitalism. It’d be a shame to see the West’s understanding of this point undermined by some inherent mental association with dreadlocked dudes playing drums in Zucotti Park, which, despite its accomplishments, is sadly the sort of stereotype we ended up with for Occupy Wall Street (and just about every other left-wing movement over the years).
All this is ultimately beside the point when it comes to what’s happening in Istanbul, of course — it’s a case of doing whatever works, and certainly the protests have attracted a huge amount of publicity the world over, which is a clear vindication of both their aims and their methods. The wider implications of what this means for the “Occupy” label are presumably not at the forefront of the minds of the people using it at the moment in Gezi Park, and nor would anyone expect them to be.
But still, for those of us on the other side of the world (and especially those of us sitting a mile or so north of where Occupy started), its evolution bears consideration. It has grown into the most curious of beasts, a political cause whose aims and motivations are so nebulous that it’s essentially become apolitical. In some respects, of course, Occupy has always been like this — the fact that the movement’s agenda and its entire structure have always been ill-defined and open to question is both a strength and a weakness.
But then, maybe the best future for Occupy isn’t to be a movement at all. These days, not even two years after Zucotti Park, it’s essentially a toolkit, a sort of DIY template for starting your own protest, an infrastructure that’s open for anyone to use. It’s, dare I say it, a brand. If it means nothing more than that, then it really is free to be whatever you want it to be.
Image via Justin Wedes/ANIMAL New York