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Doğan Eşkinat

IS FERGUSON THE NEW GEZI PARK?

Doğan Eşkinat 18 August 2014, Monday
Until last week, hardly anyone outside the U.S. had ever heard of Ferguson, a small city with approximately 21,000 residents in St. Louis County, Missouri. On August 9, Darren Wilson, a local police officer, shot dead an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, which instantly turned the area into a hotbed of racial tension. The next day, the local protests took a violent turn as journalists covering the developments reported incidents of looting – which represented the community's response to official statements that the police officer had identified Brown as a shoplifting suspect. A violent response from law enforcement, who used military-grade equipment, tear gas and rubber bullets to contain the situation and went so far as to arrest two journalists, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Huffington Post's Ryan Reilly, for no obvious reason. Six days into the protests, Missouri governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and ordered a curfew in Ferguson.

News of the Ferguson unrest made many Turks think of last year's Gezi Park protests, which began as a minor and insignificant protest against urban renewal and rapidly evolved into one of the largest wave of protests in the country's contemporary history when members of law enforcement raided an impromptu camping site at the park, sprayed the protestors with tear gas and set their personal belongings on fire. Others pointed out that U.S. media outlets largely refrained from covering the Ferguson riots just like their Turkish counterparts last year. Not only ordinary citizens but also Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek drew parallels between the two cases and took to Twitter to criticize the global media's double standards. "It is not my intention to compare police violence in one country to another. Violence against innocent protestors is wrong no matter where [it happens]," he said.

To be perfectly honest, there are similarities between the two incidents including police brutality, the participation of young people and the mainstream media's unwillingness to cover otherwise newsworthy developments. Comparing the Ferguson unrest with the Gezi Park protests, however, conveniently turns a blind eye to the class origins of the two protest movements.

According to a January 2014 report by the Wall Street Journal, 49 percent of black males in the U.S. were arrested by the age of 23. Meanwhile, Bruce Drake, a senior editor at the Pew Research Center, said in 2013 that black men were six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and noted that the incarceration gap had widened since the 1960s – when the Civil Rights Movement successfully challenged racial segregation in America. In this sense, the murdered teenager in Ferguson belonged to a historically disadvantaged group whose troubles did not end, as pundits like to believe, when Barack Obama became the first black president of the U.S.

The driving force behind the Gezi Park protests, in contrast, was a small group of disillusioned urban youth suffering from a severe case of political underrepresentation. They were, as a number of studies have concluded, not part of Turkey's lower classes. Instead, the average protestor- either already had or was pursuing a college degree. Most participants were secular-minded millenials who obviously disliked the government but were equally fed up with establishment parties unable to develop a concrete road-map for the country and challenge Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time. As a matter of fact, many members of the lower classes camping out in Gezi Park in June 2013 were critical of the national media's exclusive coverage of white-collar protestors and turned a blind eye to their demands for better jobs and higher wages. The Gezi Park protests, therefore, primarily aimed at restoring a sense of superiority among a small number of citizens rather than advocate for the oppressed.

Simply put, comparing the Ferguson unrest to last year's urban protests in Turkey represents a convenient opportunity to ignore the central role that social class and stratification played in the two situations. It is perfectly understandable that some media outlets might rather translate old-school racial tensions into hipster language and make it about social media rather than race, but suggesting that Turkey's angry youth were motivated by the same reasons as the urban poor in the American Midwest does great disrespect to past generations who suffered the most grave violations of their human rights and were systematically deprived of human dignity.