Last week marked the first-year anniversary of the Gezi Park protests in Turkey. The following piece reflects on the protests and their meaning.
The 2013 uprisings in Turkey took the world by surprise, and both the themes of the protests and the state’s response has punctured international ability to point to the Turkish model as the flagbearer of democracy in the Arab world. Over the course of the protests, the response of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his government has been consistently heavy-handed, using both police force and a divide-and-conquor political strategy by mining old divisions between disparate groups that had unified during the protests. At the same time, Erdogan’s international credibility and local respectability has been seriously damaged by his (and police) responses to both the ongoing protests and events like the recent mine tragedy in Soma. Events like the mine fire, which killed 301 people, have fed into the ongoing protests around the country.
As the protests continue to spark around events like Soma, they highlight a change in the way democracy is lived and performed, about communication across formerly deep divides, about community engagement with the state, and about the impact on national politics.
As with other recent social change movements, the Turkish protests began small but grew quickly. On 28 May, a small group of mostly locals to Taksim square in central Istanbul set up on site to protest an AKP government decision to build a shopping centre over a small public park; one of the few remaining green spaces in the city centre. The protesters received little media attention until police moved into the park, trying to disperse them by firing tear gas and water cannons directly into the group, and later setting fire to their tents. From there, the disproportionate use of police power and the government’s continued cavalier attitude to the issues being raised sparked broader protests first across Istanbul and then the rest of the country, including all the major cities.
The protests traverse not just Turkey’s geographical landscape but also the socio-economic and ideological: pulling onto its page people from across the entire spectrum of political and social divisions. This is unique.
The protests have been remarkable for two primary reasons. First, they have given the Turkish public its voice.
The AKP’s approach to decision-making over the past ten years and particularly over the course of its third term in office has left many groups sidelined and disgruntled. The protests have become a lightning rod for calls for change that centre on three main themes: respect, inclusivity, and consultation. In that regard, people comparing the Turkish uprisings to the Arab spring are not entirely correct. This is not a protest to overthrow a dictatorship, or a ‘Turkish spring’, but a warning shot to the AKP to take heed of the interests, demands, and expectations of those who don’t form the party’s core constituency.
‘Every day I’m Çapuling’.
The protests have in part been about taking the power back, and opening up alternative pathways for expressing opinions and demands in a context in which official avenues are no longer viable. Moreover, they have pulled in the so-called ‘apolitical youth’ who had no previous experience with activism; surveys point out that the average age of the protesters is 28. The original Gezi Park protest, and the broader country-wide demonstrations have emphasized Erdogan’s perceived lack of respect for the broad swaths of the Turkish public affiliated with the protests. This was captured early when in a now-famous statement, Erdogan dismissively called the demonstrators ‘çapulcu’ – looters and miscreants. This phrase was immediately usurped across the country and the world by people who wished to show solidarity. A music video was quickly created and You Tubed called ‘Every Day I’m Chapulling’, with the protests as a backdrop, to the tune of LMFAO’s Every Day I’m Shuffling, on Facebook sites people continue to include the word ‘çapulcu’ in their name, and Urban Dictionary now includes a definition of ‘chapulling’ as “resistance to force, demand justice, seek one’s right.”
‘Don’t ride over us and don’t play us against each other’.
Many of the messages to the Turkish government have focused on limitations on freedom of speech, the deep widespread fear of speaking against the government, and the lack of consultation in large-scale development and redevelopment projects including last year’s announcement of a new airport in Istanbul, the Istanbul canal project, the naming of a third major bridge across the city after a sultan who massacred a portion of the Turkish population, various shopping and residential projects, bans on the sale of alcohol after 10 pm, and the increasing Islamicisation of public spaces. These have been perceived as efforts to micromanage people’s lifestyles, and dictate cultural patterns.
A pre-existing history of excessive use of violence by the police, and Erdogan’s dismissive and at times threatening choice of language to respond to the protesters have reinforced their claims and appears to have strengthened their resolve to work together. In addition, the mainstream Turkish media’s complete lack of coverage of the issue, the blocking of Turkish Facebook and YouTube, and Erdogan’s comment slating the use of twitter by protesters, have contrasted sharply with heavy international attention to the protests, and have underlined the calls for respect, consultation, and dialogue. Interestingly, social media sites, which have been a main form of communication, were also used in the early days of the protests to shoot warnings to political parties that the public was sick of political manipulation and divisions.
Second, the uprisings are deeply unusual for Turkey.
While the clashes have been violent in places, and the state has been criticized by organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for its excessive use of force, the protests have also been characterized by celebration, humour, joyfulness, and cooperation between groups of people who would otherwise not cooperate. A recent commentary piece by Ozan Varol titled ‘How Turks Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Tear Gas’ captures the protests’ overwhelming response to violence with humour.
‘Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance’.
There have been remarkable scenes of solidarity and cooperation. Protests in Turkey are usually large affairs, organized by trade unions or political parties, and divided clearly down one of the country’s many deep politico-religious fault lines. Protesters will be left-wing or right, pro-Ataturk and fiercely secular or religious and conservative, Kurdish or nationalist, supporters of one football team or another. By contrast, these events have marked the very first time in Turkish political history that all the above groups, as well as the LGBT communities and the to-date entirely apolitical have stood side by side in the same space, and also given space to each other’s concerns. In other words, the last year has seen a maturation of concepts of democratic inclusiveness in Turkey that is by far one of the country’s most important markers of change.
‘DIY democracy’, and a lesson in empathy.
The protests have evolved into one of Turkey’s first real experiments with direct democracy (especially for the youth), springboarding into series of spontaneous dialogues between the different ideological communities, and into the creation of people’s forums. In Istanbul alone, 40 city forums ran in parks across the city, with anywhere between 100 and 2000 people regularly in attendance. What this frames, as Ayça Çubukçu has pointed out, is people’s desire to reorganize their political lives; for more autonomy outside of the established political structures through which the relationship between people and politics is normally conducted.
In addition, Erdogan and the state’s actions have changed people’s perception of how issues are ‘delivered’ to them. People have begun to see that alternative truths to the government’s are possible. Widespread direct experience with police violence, a first for most protesters, has collapsed the gap between groups that have historically suffered at the hands of the state and military, and those who were formerly hostile or indifferent to their struggles.
Questions surround how the protests might affect the process for redrafting the constitution as well as peace negotiations with the PKK, and especially around whether Erdogan will try to sure up his nationalist support by resuming hardline tactics on the Kurdish issue.
The tension between the government and the people is increasing, especially through sometimes overt but mainly subtle clampdowns on social media, corporate bodies, and universities. The government’s neoconservative position regarding privatization and industry development will also be open to criticism in a way it previously was not. There may also be more self-consciousness internally that the Turkish economic miracle came at the expense of people’s, and particularly workers’, rights.
It has been a year now, and people’s responses to events like Soma show that the Gezi spirit is not gone. Looking forward, questions sit around whether the experiments with direct democracy will develop into a less ideologically-pillared, and deeper democratic engagement. Forums like those occurring throughout the country are still evolving, and their power to create lasting change is difficult to guess.