Those passing through New York’s Union Square on June 16 witnessed a spectacle that to an outside observer might have seemed incongruous. Approximately 100 people stood on steps leading to a steed-mounted George Washington cast in bronze. They were chanting and waving Turkish and Mexican flags. At their feet someone had scrawled “DEMOCRACY NOW” in large chalk letters.
The Turkish flags fluttered in the grip of activists in solidarity with protesters occupying public spaces across Turkey; those waving Mexican flags were supporters of the Yo Soy 132 movement, which arose in the lead up to a disputed election last summer but has since encompassed struggles for land redistribution and media reform, and against corruption.
“What we want is democracy,” said Angie Galindo, a Yo Soy 132 activist visiting from Mexico. “The same as in Turkey.”
Though they were fewer in number, Brazilian nationals were there as well, voicing solidarity for what would days later explode into million-strong demonstrations — but what was, at the moment, still a relatively isolated effort by a few thousand demonstrators in São Paulo to reverse a transit-fare increase. Members of Occupy Wall Street were also present.
The separate groups of protesters had planned to rally independently of each other, but when they spotted one another in the square they decided to join forces. The rally became a sampling of the revolts currently popping up like a game of Whac-A-Mole around the globe.
How these movements will mature is a question facing each of them, and all of them together. The ability to gather and communicate over the Internet has created opportunities for collaboration, but it has yet to produce the robust global organizations one might expect. Long gone, for instance, are the workers’ internationals of the past. Like the current wave of encampment movements, these represented a recognition that a trans-national response was needed to challenge the power of trans-national elites.
The First International, or the International Workingmen’s Association, was active between 1864 and 1876 and amassed millions of members; it dissolved in a row between communists and anarchists. The Second was formed in 1889 but splintered along national lines with the outbreak of World War I. The Third International, or the Comintern, existed between the world wars and was heavily dominated by the Soviet Union.
In each case, the internationals were an attempt to form cohesive, collective strategies on a global scale, and to enable movements around the world to learn from each other by sharing their experiences.
Nothing comparable has formed since. There was a Fourth International, led by exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, which was meant to reclaim the roots of the Comintern, but — facing persecution from both Stalinist Moscow and capitalist governments — it was never able to reach the mass scale of its predecessors.
Perhaps the closest thing to an international in existence today is the World Social Forum, which was formed amid the global justice movement of the previous decade. As Occupy activist Marisa Holmes argued in Waging Nonviolence, however, the forum that took place in Tunis earlier this year failed to integrate the latest wave of popular movements into its governance structure.
Journalist Paul Mason has described these movements as the “Human Spring” — a radically new, global phenomenon grounded in the proliferation of new communications technologies alongside the decline of faith in neoliberalism as an economic model.
“There is a change in consciousness,” he writes, “the intuition that something big is possible, that a great change in the world’s priorities is within people’s grasp.”
Even the spontaneous nature of the June 16 gathering in Union Square fit this model; word spread through social media networks or, in some cases, word of mouth, rather than through party or union organs. But when articulating their model of organizing, participants still tend to speak in negative terms.
“The group that is protesting against the government — there is no leader,” said Yusuf Simsek, a graduate student with dual Turkish and American citizenship, discussing the protests against Prime Minister Tiyyip Erdogan’s government. He could just as easily have been referring to Occupy Wall Street early on, when Democrats, anarchists, Trotskyists, Maoists and Ron Paul supporters shared the occupation together. “They are leftist and they are rightist,” said Simsek. “There are educated people. There are uneducated people. It’s people who are for freedom.”
The tear gas canisters fired by Turkish riot police to clear Gezi Park have had a catalyzing effect on the protests, just as outrage at the excesses of the New York Police Department helped Occupy multiply its numbers. For a time, outrage can serve as a stand-in for political unity, but not for long.
The practice of direct democracy has become another common thread throughout the Human Spring; the occupations foster a space where strategic debates can be had and soap-boxers get an airing. Open assemblies draw a contrast against corrupt governments, but the consensus they aspire to often prevents them from being able to make decisions quickly.
This is part of why Occupy Wall Street never rallied around one set of over-arching demands. As the movement developed, however, specific demands emerged from the Occupiers’ struggles around ecological, racial justice and housing issues. The demonstrators in Istanbul, for their part, just days after their encampment began, submitted demands to Erdogan’s government for Gezi Park to be salvaged and for an end to violent repression. In Brazil, São Paulo’s contested transit hike was reversed. But in both Turkey and Brazil, the initial struggles over localized issues have broken out into a wider and less concrete set of grievances addressing disparities in wealth and influence.
Zuccotti Park was once again occupied on June 22 as about 200 Turks, Brazilians, Occupiers and European anti-austerity activists spent the afternoon mingling in a planned “meet-and-greet.” May Veral, a Turkish-American student, was one of the people who stood up on a marble bench and spoke.
“This is not about one country,” she said. “This is about every person. This is for our children. We cannot leave this world to our children the way it is today. And we will not stop fighting till there is a better, a just, a free tomorrow.”
In conversation later, Veral said that the new crop of global insurgencies were not political movements in the traditional sense. “We are not talking about neoliberalism or capitalism. Right now, we have anarchists and communists and socialists holding hands and speaking with one voice against violations of human rights. This is not political.”
Not everyone agrees with that characterization. Daniele Mussi, who is from Brazil and organizes with International Workers Solidarity in the United States, insisted, “It’s civil and its very political.” To her, the melting pot of political persuasions can create serious problems.
Mussi explained that ultra-right-wing groups had infiltrated the Brazilian protests in the vacuum of organization and were dividing them. “The same process is going on in Turkey. The same process happened in Egypt during the Arab Spring.” She expressed a desire that smaller, experienced political organizations should play more of a leadership role.
“Right now, we’re losing,” said Mussi. “It’s very confusing. We want people to stay in the street so that we can organize to fight.”
Today, activists around the world have the ability to communicate with one another instantly, while those of earlier generations had to travel by rail or ship, risking imprisonment and death in order to meet with their counterparts from other countries. The common features of the disparate movements arising in recent years are striking. The potential for solidarity among them seems especially strong, yet perhaps in some respects the ease of communication has made it harder to build strong, lasting organizations together.
What the Human Spring will look like in the months and years to come remains to be seen. Its movements have created powerful spectacles that come and go, often without leaving institutional legacies to carry on their work and help it keep spreading. Perhaps we should join the poet Allen Ginsberg in proclaiming, expectantly, “Holy the Fifth International.”
• This article first appeared in Waging NonViolence