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Popular protest: new media and the spread of inspiration

Made in Brazil, used in Turkey: a teargas canister. Özlem Gürses

A protest against the destruction of green space in central Istanbul escalates to national protests against a remote, desecularising political leader; public transport fares in Brazil lead to a national upsurge of protest against an uncaring elite.

But what similarities can be found between these two and other protest movements globally? The answer lies in the emotive imagery that they both share, from the Gandhian passive-resistance of Gezi Park and the images of thousands in the streets of Rio to the Occupy protests of New York, London and California.

The images and footage created of these movements at once inspires others to join that particular movement, and gives impetus to other protests the world over. Each of these movements has an inspirational image, piece of footage or even a sound bite that defines them in the eyes of a global audience. What is also shared among these captured moments is that they are rarely created or even dispersed by traditional forms of media.

Egypt’s protests were epitomised at the time by a top down view of a packed Tahrir square. The sheer volume of people created an inspiring image that encouraged people throughout the world to consider what could be achieved through mobilising the masses. The protests in Turkey and Brazil are already finding their symbols.

A ‘standing man’ protests in Turkey. Zsombor Lacza

The Turkish protests soon found the image that will embody and immortalise their movement. Ceyda Sungur is the woman in the red dress who can now be found all over the internet as she is pepper-sprayed by police while attending a protest in Gezi Park. Sungur now exists alongside Erdem Gunduz’ standing man as a symbol of passive resistance. This resistance has spread from Taksim square throughout the country, as a telling commentary on police reaction to demonstrations. Together they are the leitmotif of this popular motion against perceived wrongs.

In November 2011 an Occupy demonstration at the University of California, Davis gave birth to an image that has since achieved cult status on the internet. The image in question: footage of John Pike, a UC Davis police officer spraying already seated and peaceful protesters with pepper spray.

John Pike sets off a global meme. Louise Macabitas

The similarities are obvious and, while traditional forms of media reported the story, they couldn’t do it fast enough. The internet rapidly filled the gap with the images and video spread through youtube and twitter. The counter-point of violent reaction against what appeared to be perfectly peaceful action was a powerful image, just like that of the woman in red.

Several elements of this imagery can be found in Brazil as well, and indeed mirrored in earlier protests such as the Occupy movement. What these key moments share is that the images all capture some form of unnecessary violence, they are all taken from an intimate perspective, and then they are spread using a medium that throws off attempts at restriction.

In Brazil, we’ve already seen the resonant and almost nostalgic pictures of throngs of people filling streets and squares by night. But the unfortunate truth is that artistic images such as the “standing man” represent a rare example of a defining image without violence or pain.

What is more likely is that Brazil will come to be defined by a picture such as that taken last week of a woman pepper-sprayed by police. Like those mentioned earlier, images like this create empathy, and spread through crowd sourced and popular new media to reach a global audience.

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