It was just the other day that we were celebrating the 24th anniversary of the unknown hero that the world knows simply as Tank Man. You know exactly what I'm talking about, the solitary protester in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, who refused to move in the face of four Chinese tanks involved in crushing a pro-democracy movement. The image "went viral" in 1989 before most people even had the Internet, because it spoke to both our fears and fantasies of the 20th Century -- a valiant stand for personal freedom in the face of a totalitarian government, a memorable battle in our long slow drive to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.
In 2013, the world is rallying behind...Standing Man. His name is Erdem Gunduz, a Turkish "performance artist" who yesterday strolled into the heart of Istanbul's Taksim Square, which had been cleared of protesters just the night before by Turkish police firing tear gas canisters and water cannons. At 6 p.m. local time, the Standing Man dropped his bag and stood completely still, staring straight at a giant portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the godfather of modern Turkish democracy, and the Turkish flag. For the next eight hours, Gunduz did not move -- an act of defiance so simple, so dignified, that it electrified the nation. Some rushed to the square, others took up a solitary stance in the capital city of Ankara and elsewhere, and a few even stood with him in other nations around the globe.
The 21st Century was having a moment.
As the Standing Man's protest was winding down, several hundred-thousand demonstrators were taking to the streets of Brazil in a remarkable event. Maybe you've seen the amazing footage, the "if you build it, they will come" protest video, with peaceful nighttime marchers filling a wide boulevard in the heart of Rio de Janeiro as far as the eye could see, in both directions. In Rio, in Sao Paulo, in the capital Brasilia and elsewhere, demonstrators pushed their demands for affordable transit fares and for a government that responds to the needs of its people, and then vanished into the South American night, to regroup again.
Somewhere in between the Standing Man's night of solitude and the carnival-like frenzy of the streets of Rio is my own hometown of Philadelphia. At roughly the same time that Erdem Gunduz was walking into the Taksim Square, four people -- two parents and two other union activists -- sat down in front of an office belonging to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett. The four announced that they are going on a hunger strike -- taking in nothing but water -- until state and local officials act to restore funding to city schools, which have given pink slips to roughly 3,900 workers in a crisis that threatens to turn places of learning in America's fifth-largest city into giant understaffed warehouses for children.
But something has changed dramatically since 1989. Turkey is not an unelected dictatorship like the People's Republic of China, nor is Brazil, nor, or course, is the United States. To the contrary, the conservative government of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the result of parliamentary elections that have been held out as a role model for its neighbors in the Middle East. In Brazil, democracy replaced a military junta in 1985 and the current elected president, Dilma Rousseff, was once a leftist guerrilla waging war against those former dictators. In Philadelphia....well, perhaps you have heard of a piece of paper called the Declaration of Independence, penned about a block from where I'm now sitting.
Increasingly, it is in the world's democracies where people are standing up, sometimes -- like in Istanbul -- literally, or taking to the streets. But why? While a free and open democracy should enshrine the right of protest and public assembly, the real place for making the ultimate political statement is supposed to be behind the curtain of a voting booth, not the middle of the town square. But it's becoming increasingly clear to millions of everyday people around the world that the current practice of democracy isn't working for them.
More than ever, the realities of modern capitalism and the cash-infused art of democratic elections have left citizens with a right to vote -- and yet oddly disenfranchised. From Wall Street to Malta, the world has bailed out giant banks that are "too big to fail," and cut social programs for regular folks to pay for it. The rights of citizenship that we do enjoy seem hollow without a job, and yet large profit-maximizing corporations have zero incentive to hire more workers -- not when they can replace humans with a robot or pay just-above-slavery wages somewhere else halfway around the world.
It's telling that both the governments in Turkey and Brazil are facing massive unrest for similar reasons -- their elected leaders have invested their political capital in grandiose public projects that offer little for the masses. In Istanbul. the trigger has been a plan to replace one of the city's last green places for a shopping mall, while in Brazil the crowds are furious over the billions spent to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics amid widespread poverty; a higher bus fare is simply the last straw.
Democracy isn't supposed to go down like this. The rise of money -- as opposed to the people power of political parties -- in elections has caused leaders of every supposed stripe all over the world to cater to the narrow interests of the one percent. What's more, the threat of terrorism has been used to justify the rise of militarized police forces, laws that stifle dissent, and in the larger powers like the United States or the United Kingdom, Orwellian spy agencies that monitor our phone calls and emails. We paid little heed to the rise of these vast and powerful state apparatus -- and then we were shocked, shocked when they were turned against the citizenry. In both Turkey and Brazil, it has been the reckless brutality of the security forces -- captured on smartphones and broadcast to a whole world that's watching -- that has caused the protests to grow.
Will the United States go down the same road? That's hard to say, but we seem to have reached a Rubicon in our 237-year history as an independent nation, with no one or no party speaking for millions of the disenchanted. In Philadelphia, many of us have been stunned not just by the lack of action but by the lack of passion from leaders who did nothing as 23 schools in struggling neighborhoods were closed, amid frenetic protests, and who are doing too little, too late to fight massive layoffs and the end of music, art and other essential programs. Mayor Nutter -- who was all but unopposed in his last campaign -- went on national TV to offer only a bloodless defense of the status quo. I've looked over the 2013 field of mayoral candidates in New York and the likely contenders in Philadelphia in 2015, and there seems to be no one to take on the demons of corporate education reform or the lack of a living wage that are destroying the very cities they hope to run.
Nationally, President Obama's approval rating is sinking -- and deservedly so. Millions of voters who desperately wanted a change from the corporatist and anti-civil liberties policies of George W. Bush have been crushed to watch the banksters and the torturers walk away scot free, to see Guantanamo remain open, and to see targeted assassinations abroad and domestic spying actually increase. That's why a 29-year-old contractor who blew the whistle on the surveillance state is a hero to millions of people, and yet the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties agree that they want Edward Snowden to be tried as a traitor. Where can America's disenchanted turn between now and 2016, and quite likely beyond that. I have no idea, and I suspect many others don't know either.
In spite of all the corruption and everything else that's gone wrong, many of us still believe that real elections -- getting the money out of politics -- and fair capitalism where everyone plays by rules that protect workers, the environment, etc., are still better than any other, more radical solutions. But here's the Catch-22: It increasingly seems impossible to fix democracy and capitalism at the ballot box. No wonder so many people are taking to the streets -- and this is only going to grow bigger.
Standing Man is a man for our century. In a time of tear gas, he breathes the free and open air. In a time of riot police and social control, he will not be moved. In a time of unchecked government surveillance, he says nothing that can be picked up by their headphones. In a time when our so-called leaders refuse to stand up for us, he holds his ground. The Standing Man is not going away.