On May 28th 2013, students in Istanbul, Turkey, staged a sit in protest against an urban development project to build a mall in the city’s largest green space, Gezi Park. One hundred activists were met with police opposition on May 30th, when water cannons and tear gas were used to disperse the crowds who had gathered in front of the green space. Finally, the tents and belongings of the protestors were burned and the park was barricaded. Using the internet, the activists reached out for help and organized a massive effort to retake control of the park. The protests soon poured into the street as others, emboldened by police actions, joined the students in the park and Taksim Square. As the crowds grew, the protests soon began focusing on issues beyond development and became a protest against the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who many feel stifles democracy and opposition in the country (Uras, 2013).
While the movement has largely become an anti-government protest, calling for reforms and the resignation of the Prime Minister, its initial goal as a desire to preserve green space in the city, and subsequent evolution, highlights the way in which the environmental movement and democracy are entwined. Further, the protestors made use of social media and technology to organize a large group of people in a short amount of time. This use of technology has become unprecedented in recent years as smart phones and the Internet helped protests to grow instantly. As in other environmental protests such as the WTO “Battle in Seattle” in 1999, the main organizers are young college aged students, showing that the environment still remains a central concern to today’s youth.
The protests in Gezi Park highlight a number of issues that have been seen in past environmental debates, including the WTO protest in 1999. These include:
• Should environmental protection stop economic development, especially when the world economy is still recovering from the recession?
• How does new technology influence the environmental movement at large?
• Faced with a mobilized generation, will politicians be more willing to listen to their concerns on the environment?
• How will new concerns about limited space and increasing urbanization influence environmental policies?
The environmental protests in Turkey demonstrate how the country’s environmental policies have failed. However, many other developed countries also face similar issues which could just as easily result in mass protests. On the heels of the Arab Spring protests, leaders who often felt immune to such uprisings could begin to change their policies. Harnessing the power of the Internet and gaining global support for protests is the way in which future environmental debates will take place, no matter the location.
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