A brand new movement is unfolding in front of our eyes. The participants themselves are pleasantly surprised. Hearing their own voices and seeing the unifying power of their protest fills them with joy and euphoria.
Five days into the protest, things are pretty highly strung. Despite the fear and anxiety of conflict, police pressure, casualties and loss of life, the show goes on.
All observers agree that this movement marks a new threshold.
We are trying to define it.
There are those who are reminded of the 1968 uprising in France, those who make references to the Arab Spring and those who feel closer to the European “Movement of Indignants” including “Occupy Wall Street”. The Gezi movement is both all of the above and none of the above.
It borrows from them all.
It is a movement where people are in the streets, occupying squares and keeping vigil. However, it is distinct and unique.
The 1968 youth movement in France was the occupation of the streets by the youth and their conflict with police following the long-in-the-tooth reign of de Gaulle. The fatigued government triggered the youth to pour into the streets with the slogan “enough is enough”. The Gezi protest, similar to the 1968 movement, says enough to the cult of personality after ten years.
However, it attracted a lot of people from different segments of society; people left their offices, workplaces, homes to unite under the umbrella of this movement led by the youth.
The Arab Spring, symbolised by the occupation of Tahrir Square, caused the dissolution of an authoritarian regime and the demand for giving the majority a voice through democracy. The case in Turkey is the criticism of a democracy of the majority.
The “Movement of Indignants” engulfing Western cities speaks for a human dignity undermined and violated by the global neo-conservative economy. The Occupy Gezi movement criticises conservatism. However those on Taksim square are not victims of the financial crisis. They refuse to be the tools of the monster of economic growth.
Why is the Gezi movement unique?
Analysis of the movement, like the movement itself, should start at the roots and branch out into the tree. The mentality which sees this tree as an excuse misses the point, the innocence and the grass-roots power of the movement. Young people have brought a new urban awareness to the agenda by occupying the park in protest against plans for replacing the trees with a mall.
Environmental sensitivity and criticism of capitalism got intertwined.
In general, capitalism doesn’t affect the day to day life of a citizen through concepts like global forces, the financial world and neo-conservatism.
In Turkey capitalism is also known as: the mall.
They have become components of daily urban life as the material state of commercial capitalism, consumer society and global exploitation of labour. The initial enthusiasm for the malls as hang out spaces as well as shopping centres has faded away. They have started to ruin the urban fabric hand in hand with the dynamics of government and commercial greed and consumerism. The building of a mall right in the middle of Gezi Park is nothing more than the confiscation of a public space by private capital right under the noses of the people of Istanbul.
The criticism of “capitalists with ablution” defended by left wing Muslims have been an indicator of the transformation of Islam within Turkey. The Gezi movement has created a new urban awareness against over-development focusing on consumerism instead of culture.
The struggle for the protection of the park is not just metaphorical. It signifies the physical rights to and protection of the park. They are protecting public space against the commercialisation by the state and the transformation of urban life into a mere generator of rent.
The reaction of the government with pepper gas and police violence portrayed the poisoned and choking public space. The participation of ordinary citizens, kids and all, with pots and pans shows how this observation is shared by the general public.
Public space was shrinking prior to Gezi.
Limitations on the freedom of expression, trials of journalists, the silencing and firing of opposition voices, the spread of self-censorship, as painfully revealed by the latest Hasan Cemal incident, have been on the agenda for a while.
The lack of coverage of the latest protests by the mainstream media has been a poignant indicator of how the government has freedom of expression under its thumb. We were presented with a picture hardly compatible with the myriad TV channels in Turkey.
The angst over the invasion of personal space had been on the agenda of the “Anxious Moderns” from day one, at times verging on Islamophobia. The “Demonstrations for the Republic” have voiced this fear of interference but they can be seen as tainted with hints of sympathy for military interventions.
On the other hand, they spread the first signals of secularism getting out and proselytizing. The current movement is a volunteer-based civil resistance. We cannot say that it embodies the same exclusive nature of secularism seen under centralised authority. This is a youth movement where secular values are ingrained in their lifestyles.
But it is pluralistic and inclusive.
The intervention in personal areas in the name of morality has, as seen in the warning issued to the youth kissing in a subway in Ankara, aroused suspicion that the intent was the reorganisation of public space along Islamic values. The decree controlling the sale of alcohol has ignited a huge reaction due particularly to the moralist rhetoric surrounding it.
As Erdoğan’s reign became increasingly autocratic and personal (from the statue in Kars to the mall project in Istanbul) and the imposition of his own taste and viewpoint abounded, people felt more and more disempowered about in own lives, environment and urban spaces.
The public sphere turned into a ring with a single boxer.
The AKP, its MPs and council officers have been mere spectators, excluded from the game. The reconciliatory words of the Mayor of Istanbul went to waste. The press, politics and the civil society, all intermediary mechanisms have left the stage, leaving Erdoğan as the sole target of public anger.
The way the PM addresses people has become an issue. His remarks, initially commended for their sincerity, occasionally humorous, turned into offensive, patronising, scornful and insulting rhetoric.
The Gezi protest reminds us of the importance of public manners with slogans of “respect” and “civility”. It seems like a paradox in itself that a young and libertarian movement owns concepts like respect and civility, traditionally regarded as the monopoly of conservatives. This movement displays a new public culture respectful of the other, careful in the rhetoric of the movement.
Another characteristic of the movement is that they put on a good show.
As opposed to political movements, this one is open to improvisation, creativity and humour. Hence, these youngsters have been experiencing a kind of communal life with music, environmentalism, politics, flowers and beer, reminiscent of Woodstock.
They are sharing their improvised, performed, alternative, peaceful square culture instantly in the social media with the rest of the world, Facebook and Twitter being the new global networks of our time.
We are facing a broad spectrum of activity. The movement has created its own dictionary. Ayyaş (drunkard) and çapulcu (looter) have acquired new meanings through humour.
For instance Murat Belge has criticised the vulgarity of the word “ayyaş” and suggested the word “aksamci” (man of the evening) referred to the tradition of drinking raki and the culture of drinking and added that the people with a good command of Turkish would actually distinguish between these nuances.
All protesters, presenting themselves as “ayyaş” and “çapulcu” have inverted these hurtful, offensive words, forming the common identity of the movement.
The playful nature of the movement was brought to the screen when the presenter of a TV word game changed the original meaning of the word “çapulcu” (looter) and redefined it as “a proactive person who puts his money where his mouth is, an activist”.
The Gezi movement managed to unite people in a square, around a tree and against the polarising rhetoric and politics of the government.
Both young and old, students and bureaucrats, feminists and housewives, Islamists and leftists, Kurds and Alawites, supporters of Besiktas and Fenerbahce, people with disparate ideas, lifestyles even soccer clubs who would not normally be seen together were united. Maybe these people were on the stage for a brief moment, but this moment is now etched in the collective memory.
This movement is doomed to stay as a minority movement in the eyes of some, since it cannot impose sanctions or turn into a political opposition. However, the significance and transformative power of active minorities in democracies should not be underestimated.
Moreover, it is wrong to view this movement through a political lens. A public protest can only regenerate the social imagination and fabric of democracy as long as it remains innocent, sheltered among the trees, and as long as it remains autonomous and unaffiliated with political parties. If it becomes a political movement, it will stray from democracy.
This is why the call to show respect and the call for resignation represent different dynamics. We should not confuse an uprising for dignity with an effort to topple the government. This would mean that the street defies the rules of democracy and shows contempt for the elections.
This movement has provided some breathing space to the shrinking public area. It defends squares that should be open to the public, not trapped in state authority or shared with capitalist ventures.
What the government cares about is public order, not public areas. The square must be a synonym for chaos for the government. It endeavours not to give in to a bunch of looters and fringe extremists. Their method of rule, legislation, and over-enthusiasm to discipline the citizens are indications that they have trouble leaving public spaces for the people. They prefer ballot box democracy to street democracy.
The struggles for democracy can occur across time zones. The retreat of the army from the public domain, the initiation of the Kurdish peace process and the discussion of the taboo of Armenian genocide are all pointers for the democratisation of Turkey.
Beside these vital and persistent issues, the Gezi Park movement might be underestimated as a struggle by people for day-to-day issues, aiming to preserve their privileges. Some criticise it for harming the peace process by wearing down the AKP.
There are also others who are not interested in peace, but are adamant that peace will only consolidate the AKP government, not bring about true democracy. This civil resistance movement has already expanded the limits of our democracy. Hence, as Sırrı Sürreyya Önder, a supporter of the movement and MP for Istanbul (BDP – Kurdish Party) stated, it is inconceivable that the movement could harm the peace process, the real threat to the process would be dominating these people, ignoring them, not giving them some space.
The Gezi movement shows that we are at a new threshold of democracy.
It has proved to us once more that contrasting dichotomies like Kemalist/Islamist, nationalist(Ataturkist)/sectarian, reformist/coup supporter, progressive/conservative are not as relevant as they used to be.
The square presents an opportunity and space for congregation, debate, support and coming together. There are libraries, “kandil simidi” (a holiday bagel) is distributed.
This is the rehearsal for a new citizenship.