Had I not experienced it myself, I would hardly believe that the apolitical people of Turkey, cowed by a history of coups d’étât, peer pressure and civil authoritarianism backed up by a vicious security apparatus would fill the streets of the country and resist for months after. We were there to protest the authoritarian front that found its voice in Erdoğan, and the intolerable assertiveness of a corrupt government. But the demonstrations spread so swiftly that I, along with many others, was puzzled and unable to grasp how and to what end things were happening.
Now, looking back, I have even more questions than I started out with. Of one thing I am certain: the resistance sparked by Gezi was a proud stance against neoliberal insolence; a strong outcry defying the silence and submission that is predominant among my people, and which is solidified by both conventional and informal education. I will try to share my answers to some questions that troubled me during the course of the resistance, mainly shaped around my personal experiences in Istanbul.
The Spark of Resistance
The ruling bloc dominated by Erdoğan has been shaping the political climate in Turkey for over ten years through the majoritarian power derived from representative democracy, without any effective and unified opposition. Their attacks on individual liberties and social rights got bolder with a discriminating rhetoric. Among many others, Erdoğan himself deemed the death of 30 miners in Zonguldak as “fate”; announced plans to ban abortion; and compared abortion to the bombing of 35 Kurdish civilians in Uludere by the army, which he barely apologized for. Mostly, everyone was silent.
The Syrian civil war spilled over into Turkey due to Ankara’s deranged policies, and 51 citizens were killed in Reyhanlı due to car bombings. The first thing the government did was to impose a complete media blackout. Still there were no mass protests. Then the government tried to raze the only green area in the Istanbul center as part of their neoliberal gentrification process — and the spark of resistance spread like wildfire.
The Crackdown Begins
I was probably as surprised as the council of ministers, but their terror must have been greater — as became overly clear from their reckless resort to violent repression, which provoked resistance on a nation-wide scale. In the first few days, we had no solid news sources save the social media, which was oftentimes unreliable, but we soon learned to sort out the pieces of information aimed to instill panic or frenzy in the crowd. By the second day the police intensified their attacks, and as the protests grew we started hearing about scores of wounded people.
In the beginning, as a medical professional, I decided to put my skills to use. I need not give any details, but what I saw was enough to understand the government’s approach to the situation. They would not refrain from killing, which they did not. Six people were shot dead in the following months, eleven people lost an eye to teargas canisters aimed directly at their faces, countless more were severely wounded. It was not surprising but rather sad to hear the police forces — directly taking orders from a warmongering, sectarian Prime Minister — shouting “infidels, Alevi bastards, terrorists!” while they attacked.
The Gezi Spirit
After the initial confusion, most of us started to wonder what we were doing, and to what end. I could not refrain from being in the streets, because I was angry. We all were. Our questions found their answers when police withdrew and the park was occupied. We were hundreds of thousands of people who came together spontaneously, without leadership, without common ideological backgrounds. This ambiguity reflected itself in the phrase “Gezi spirit”, which was widely used among the protesters to describe the experience in the park.
We were there against an authoritarian, conservative, neoliberal government, but also for personal reasons. We were unjustly treated by the system in different ways. LGBT people were protesting for equal rights; Alevis were there against continuous denigration by the state; feminists were shouting against violence against women; anti-capitalist Muslims — as they call themselves — were there with the slogan “all trees prostrate to Allah, and AKP to the capital.” Kurdish people chanted for freedom for Öcalan, anarchists and socialists against capitalist injustice, and there were many banal nationalists with Atatürk posters and Turkish flags. Soccer fans supporting different clubs stood up together.
I was happy to see the Park changed into a unique installation, a piece of art made overnight by the people, unthinkable before then. Different groups were involved in various activities, environmentalists raised a vegetable garden, medical workers built a free medical center. Socialists were educated about the LGBT movement, the feminists about anti-capitalist Muslims, football fans about trade unions. There was a library, a food center and various workshops, all for free. It was not a self-sustained commune, but the thousands living in the park did not need money to live.
More than a Bourgeois Protest
The Prime Minister was quick to defame the protests as a movement of tree-huggers infested by radical Marxist organizations, claiming that foreign provocateurs were behind the resistance and pointing to the nationalist groups that participated in the protests. I have to say that the latter troubled me, along with a lot of socialists and also Kurdish people I met. Many of them refrained from giving active support to the protests for fear that the “Peace Process” would come to harm, and also because they remembered the silence of the Turkish public while they were subject to state terror and violence for more than 30 years.
Another point stressed by many liberal commentators was that Gezi was predominantly composed of white-collar people and lacked support from workers and popular masses to provide continuity. These analyses played in the government’s hand in terms of trying to alienate the protesters from the public. As the protests spread throughout the country, with over four million people participating, we saw that it was much more than a white-collar protest. In Istanbul, the resistance continued the longest in the working-class suburbs. I also remember seeing many workers from trade unions bearing socialist flags, and a group of farmers protesting against hydroelectric power plants. Even to begin with, the protests were never about the demands of the urban elite. Moreover, it bears emphasizing that the white-collar workers are also badly affected by the government’s neoliberal policies, and depend on selling their labor to earn a living. They, too, form part of the broader working class.
The Mental Fog of Kemalism
It was true that groups with nationalist agendas were active in the resistance, and at some locations were able to hijack the protests. Kemalism is a frayed, eclectic ideology that caused much sorrow in the history of Turkey, especially for minorities. This reality is further complicated by the fact that the Atatürk cult still clouds the consciousness of many Turkish people. This November, on the day of his death, more than a record-breaking one million people visited Atatürk’s mausoleum. Erdoğan’s government, while boasting of their role in the fall of military tutelage, behaved no different than the Kemalist elite in terms of authoritarianism and “modernization” at any cost.
Combined with their Sunni-Islamist policies, this created fear, especially among the Alevi minority and the secular middle-class, which further motivated the move towards Kemalism. I should note that a considerable part of the people waving Atatürk posters on the streets were not represented by hardcore nationalists, but there were points of convergence. On one hand, they had democratic demands, on the other they maintained a strong anti-Kurdish stance. Ultimately, the divergent political claims of Islamists and Kemalists produce nothing but schism and intolerance, even while both share the same hypocritical approach towards minority and worker rights.
I still do not know if it is possible to spread the spark of mutual tolerance that was there in the first few days of the uprising, but if Gezi has a legacy, it is “to listen to the other”. I find peace in having witnessed people wrapped in Turkish flags joining the protests against Medeni Yıldırım’s murder (a Kurdish youth who was shot dead by the police), shouting the slogan: “long live the brotherhood of peoples!” in Kurdish. Some people learned a lot from the resistance.
Spontaneity and Horizontality
Amid all this, I was thinking that the spontaneity and horizontality of the uprising, which was a unique strength of the resistance, could also be its Achilles’ heel. Sure, there was a Solidarity Committee, members of which were negotiating with the government, but they were in no way in control of the protests. I still do not know how they were chosen, and to what extent they represented the will of the resistance. For me, the Solidarity Committee represented a strange, vertical contradiction against the horizontality that is Gezi. Paradoxically, as far as I believed, a deeply rooted and powerful socialist organization was the only thing that could have shaken the social inertia and transform it into a lasting movement. But leftist traditions in Turkey had been viciously crushed in a process spanning over four decades, and have remained under heavy state oppression ever since.
Now, when I look back, I realize that even if the socialists had been powerful, they would not have been able to guide the masses. Building barricades and fighting at the front, they were indisputably essential for the physical success of the resistance — but the socialists had neither the practical experience nor the political grasp of the situation. The majority of the protesters were young people who were totally unfamiliar with ritualized protest and leftist parlance. Our uprising was nothing like the traditional resistance templates which we were historically familiar with, but what we did was perfectly political. In any case, a viable political opposition could not be shaped, and so all those questions regarding the aims and methods of the resistance were left to the spontaneous will of the streets.
I should also make it clear that were it not for the experienced activists fighting bravely, the parks and cities would never have been occupied. Underrating their contribution would be unjust. For decades, revolutionaries and socialists resisted imperialist policies under the most vicious forms of state oppression. Be it against the murder of revolutionary prisoners or gender chauvinism, some people chose to be on the streets. Be it anti-war marches or demonstrations against the imperialist policies of collaborating governments, major rallies have taken place. Be it May Day or the 21st of March, people celebrated. After Gezi, one can clearly see that these experiences were not for naught. They created cracks in the system that lay there for years, generating little streams of resistance that in turn gave rise to a much bigger social explosion when it was least expected.
The End of Gezi
Still, we had more diversity than what we had in common. I was sure that the uprising would instantaneously dissolve, without leaving solid ground on which to continue the resistance. Although settling for the government’s terms was impossible, to continue would mean more casualties, and the people did not have the means to defend themselves. Those responsible for the murders were never brought to justice. They did not move an inch from their initial stance, and they attacked with all the might of their police organization. Civil fascists even attacked protesters on a number of occasions. People were getting tired, and it was about to come to an end.
Along with many other people, I thought that the uprising would leave nothing tangible behind. But it was naive to believe that such a major mobilization would not generate its own innovations. In Istanbul, when the resistance in the park was about to be broken up, people decided to stand their ground. Some, including most socialist organizations, insisted that all tents in the park be removed, save for a single one which would be defended symbolically. People did not agree. To discuss the process, the park was divided into seven so-called “forums” overnight, represented by three people each. The protesters were eventually scattered, but not before giving birth to a brilliant practice of horizontal self-organization, materializing in more “forums” all over the country. In the following nights, more than fifty public assemblies were formed in various public parks in Istanbul, Ankara, İzmir, Eskişehir, Adana, Samsun and Mersin.
In the following weeks, each forum developed its own agenda. The horizontalist structure also found much support in the forums. Even in the most crowded forum, every participant could directly express themselves. People discussed political issues, organized meetings and reported forum sessions in the media to inform the public and create a web of solidarity. Since some forums harbored a great number of individuals from various ideological backgrounds, there was great effort to continue the emphatic dialogue that was discovered at Gezi, mostly successful.
Workshops were continued in public spaces. Some forums emphasized a communication strategy with local residents who did not necessarily support Gezi. One of the most strongly expressed demands in all forums was that the 10% election threshold be removed. But the most important function of the forums was to try to sustain the joyous feeling of solidarity brought into our everyday lives by the resistance. We tried to invent a new type of public interaction, which was mostly successful. The intensity of the participation decreases over time, media coverage was never much to begin with, and there is always the risk that people lose interest, or forums get locked-in. Nevertheless, these forums now stand as a testimony to the people’s will, against tiresome, traditional politics.
Now, the waters have relatively calmed. When we rise again, what we did will provide guidance to our collective memory. Hopefully we will build up a lasting foundation that will transform the oppressive, patriarchal, neoliberal mechanics of this country. As millions chanted in the Gezi Resistance, “this is just a beginning, we keep struggling.”
Reflections on the Gezi Uprising
Gezi and the Spirit of Revolt
2. Rüzgar Akhat
Gezi: Losing the Fear, Living the Dream
3. Dilan Koese
Revolt of Dignity: Gezi and the Global Legitimation Crisis
5. David Selim Sayers
Gezi Spirit: The Possibility of an Impossibility
6. Cagla Aykac
Strong Bodies, Dirty Shoes: An Ode to the Resistance
7. Stephen Snyder
Gezi Park and the Transformative Power of Art
8. ROAR Collective
The Sultan Is Watching: Erdoğan’s Lust for Power
9. Yasemin Acar & Melis Ulug
The Body Politicized: The Visibility of Women at Gezi
10. Elif Genc
At Gezi, a Common Voice Against State Brutality
11. Erkan Gursel
Sarisuluk’s Story: A Family Fighting for Justice
12. Beatrice White
Cracking Down on the Press: Turkish Media after Gezi
13. Matze Kasper
To Survive, the Gezi Movement Will Have to Compromise
14. Mark Bergfeld
Beyond the Hashtags? Gezi and the AKP’s Media Power
15. Emrah Güler
Is Social Media Still the Way to Resist in Turkey?
16. Lou Zucker
Reclaim the Urban Commons: Istanbul’s First Squat
17. Christopher Patz
From Madrid to Istanbul: Occupying Public Space
18. Sinan Eden
The Mayonnaise Effect: International Inspiration from Gezi
19. Mehmet Döşemeci
Superman, Clark Kent, and the Limits of the Gezi Uprising
Beyond Gezi: What Future for the Movement?
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/gezi-reflections-protest-forum/