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The world’s most colorful protest: How paint helped Turkish people win a stare-down with the government

   /   Dec 9th, 2013International, Opinion, Photos & Videos

In the 1500+ cream-of-the-crop TED and TEDx videos that make it to TED.com, Derek Sivers’s 3-minute breakdown of How to Start a Movement is the 32nd most viewed. His story is simple and hilarious: A shirtless man’s ridiculous (and very public) dance solo turns into an all-out, jam-packed dance party in a matter of seconds.

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At 2:21, Sivers confronts the giggling audience with a much deeper insight. “Did you catch it?” he asks. “Yes, it was the shirtless guy who was first, and he’ll get all the credit…but it was really the first follower that transformed the lone nut into a leader.”

What is it about this simple, straight-up talk that stops us in our tracks?

We all know what it’s like to ditch our fear and dance along. Our own ideas and values are hardwired into who we are; but sometimes, we need permission to live them out. An earnest invitation to dance is enough to do the trick.

This August, Turkey lived out its own version of Sivers’s anatomy of a movement. Instead of a shirtless guy and a silly dance, however, it was a retired guy and a lot of paint – and shortly to follow, an epidemic of color-filled protests that swept through the entire country.

It all started with a slanted, slumpy staircase in the Istanbul neighborhood of Cihangir. Huseyin Cetinel, a retired engineer, decided they could use a little love. Armed with $800 worth of paint, Huseyin transformed the staircase into a 145-step rainbow. The staircase was an instant success with locals and tourists alike, becoming an iconic backdrop for passing tourists, an embraced act of beautification for the neighborhood’s brimming artist population, and an adopted symbol for the LGBT community. But then, something happens that sends a wave of shock through Istanbul.

A Turkish woman takes pictures of rainbow-colored stairs on August 31, 2013 in Istanbul. Stairs in the Cihangir and Findikli neighborhoods, which attracted attention after being painted in rainbow colors by a local man on August 27, were all painted grey on the night of August. 29, and following comments on social media, the municipality of Beyoglu immediately painted them again in rainbow colors. AFP PHOTO/OZAN KOSE        (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

Four days after Huseyin completed his masterpiece, the city government organized a “dawn raid”, covering the Cihangir staircase in a dull, sloppy coat of gray paint. Neighbors woke up to find their staircase conquered; the rainbow hues still peeking through the bad paint job.

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This is where things get interesting – and where Huseyin ceases to be the story’s hero.Within hours of the new artwork’selimination, Cihangir neighbors’ outcry had already exploded through social media. As the story spread, a beautiful thing happened: One by one, people across the country had taken to their own public staircases, covering them in a brightly colored coat of solidarity. Here’s a glimpse of the results. I promise you’ll have goosebumps by 0:50:

It’s important to recognize that the creation and graying of the Rainbow Stairs took place against a tense political backdrop: the Gezi Park protests had already crumbled into a dark and discouraging chain of police assaults, injuring hundreds of activists and killing eleven. And yet, ordinary citizens managed to wrangle up paintbrushes in dozens of neighborhoods, insisting on bringing color to a reality threatened with gray paint and gas bombs.

When bureaucracy, habit, or mindless power tries to kill our instinct to be courageous and colorful, our audacity seems to resurge with more power than we could have hoped for.  Through our next short film project, we hope to amplify the voice of the first followers, and to the hundreds of Turkish people who were brave enough to stand up together, brushes in hand, and say, “Our world has color, and if you take it away, we will bring it back.”

Through film, we want to bring this story to the world – but we need help. You might not be able to take up a paintbrush, but you can take a big part in bringing this film to life. We have until December 16 to make this happen.

By the way, I am happy to report that the city government gave into the protests, and the neighbors of Cihangir got their rainbow staircase back.

Sivers’s talk closes by saying, “If you really care about starting a movement…and you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first one to stand up and join in.”

To Turkey: Thanks for standing up. Paint on.

Brittany Koteles is currently producing Diren Merdiven, a fictional short film based on the rainbow staircase of Cihangir, and the colorful revolution that followed. To learn more about the project, visit the Diren Merdiven project page.

Photos courtesy of OZAN KOSE / AFP / Getty Images & Twitter.com.

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