The Gezi Park protests began on May 28, 2013, when 50 members of the group “Stand Up for Taksim Platform” kept guard in Gezi Park, adjacent to Taksim Square in Istanbul. Attempting to protect the trees from being bulldozed as part of a government project to build a replica of Ottoman barracks that would include a mall and mosque, the activists were attacked by riot police, who dispersed tear gas and burned down the tents in the park.
On May 31, the day of the second raid, the movement erupted with a surge of support from other citizens in Istanbul and across the country, who were angry with the heavy-handed police response to the protests and frustrated with the government’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
The Gezi movement quickly became a force of opposition to much more than just the demolition of a park, evolving into a movement against the government’s authoritarian neoliberalism and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s disregard for the opinions of the populace, among other concerns. Throughout the summer protests continued and escalated; according to the official police report, approximately 3.6 million people attended the protests, which occurred in all but one of Turkey’s 81 provinces.
Six months on, Gezi has retreated from the streets. Although support remains, and the movement did succeed in preserving Gezi Park, the spirit of the summer appears to have dissipated. What was seen as the biggest resistance to Erdoğan’s rule has not seen real gains politically, at least not in the short term, and seems to be taking a back seat to the current power struggle between the Prime Minister’s ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP) and some of its former supporters, most notably the conservative Gülen movement, while many protesters remain in jail.
The Battlefield of Public Opinion
Will Gezi be fruitless, a small blip on the radar in Turkish politics — or will its effects continue to resonate in the following years? When making predictions about protest movements, it is useful to view them in connection with the past, and in this respect the movement against the Vietnam War of the late 1960s and early 1970s may be a fitting backdrop. Understanding how the anti-war movement succeeded in the long-term may help us understand if Gezi can as well.
US involvement in the Vietnam War, which ran from 1965-73, was the main driving force behind the movement. Fueled by opposition to the suffering of both civilians and conscripts, demonstrations grew from 25,000 participants to hundreds of thousands within just a few years. Over time, American public opinion began to sway from support to opposition to the war. Ultimately, the US pulled out of Vietnam, the main goal of the movement achieved.
The truth of the matter, however, is that the anti-war movement was not the reason for the US government to end its military involvement in Vietnam. Much of America viewed the protesters in a negative light and had little sympathy for them, looking down on them as draft dodgers and hippies. This is not unlike the current climate in Turkey, where much of the population stands firmly behind the AKP. Although a mid-June survey showed the percentage of citizens who would vote for AKP to have fallen to 35%, it was back above 50% by August.
So, what was it that turned American public opinion against the Vietnam War, if not the protesters themselves? Usually, US media are credited with swaying the public against the country’s involvement in the war, showing the images of both suffering Vietnamese civilians and American soldiers, and reporting on events such as the My Lai Massacre. As the American public became more and more disgusted by the images and headlines of children burned by Napalm and the rising death tolls of soldiers, the war lost public support, ultimately leading to US forces pulling out of Vietnam.
The Gezi Movement did not enjoy this type of media support. When the protests began, Turkey experienced a massive media blackout. Major domestic news networks reported very little on the protests, or not at all, focusing on bogus reports of protesters drinking alcohol inside mosques rather than on the excessive use of force by police as they filled the air with 130,000 canisters of tear gas in just 20 days — amounting to one canister shot every 13 seconds, 24 hours a day.
Alongside leftist channels, which were later handed fines for their anti-government reporting, social media became the source for up-to-date information on the protests. CNN Türk infamously ran a penguin documentary as Taksim swelled with demonstrators in a live feed on CNN International.
These protests could have acted as a catalyst for change in Turkey, bringing and keeping AKP approval ratings down as supporters became disillusioned with police brutality and Erdoğan’s handling of the demonstrations. In order to accomplish this, however, the message needed to be spread much further than the reaches of Twitter and leftist channels and into the living rooms of Turkish citizens of all ages and political persuasions.
An Unlikely Ally
Even though the summer has ended, the Gezi movement continues. If the media were to begin reporting on the movement without bias, Gezi could still garner public support. The problem is that this is highly unlikely. Being a media organization in Turkey means preserving the status quo. Criticize the government, and you will have your assets seized and will be levied with fines; many journalists practice self-censorship merely in order to keep their jobs and remain out of jail. In a country ranked 154th in the world for press freedom by Reporters without Borders, the odds for Gezi are not very favorable.
Furthermore, while the American public craved Vietnam-related news, AKP supporters are content with conspiracy theories and despising the çapulcular. They are more likely to believe that Germany instigated the protests because it fears the planned new airport will drive traffic away from Frankfurt, than they are to believe that police killed protester Ali İsmail Korkmaz. One AKP supporter verbalized what many are thinking, telling WDR Weltweit’s reporter Jens Ebert that “we will depopulate those who think differently.”
Unlike the change in American public opinion during the Vietnam War, Gezi cannot rely on the domestic media to bring the rest of the populace around to its side. As long as the media continues to censor the news channels and mold public opinion by portraying the AKP in a positive light while demonizing the protesters, the probability of Gezi succeeding in ousting, or at the very least pulling support away from the AKP, appears to be very low. However, Gezi is not the only group that opposes the ruling party.
The current dispute over the closing of prep schools between the AKP And Cemaat, followers of Islamic scholar Fetullah Gülen and previous supporters of the party, has demonstrated how powerful a tool the media can be. The latest arrests of 52 people on charges of bribery, three of whom are the sons of cabinet ministers, dealt a major blow to the AKP, which reacted by sacking multiple police chiefs who oversaw the arrests. Both stories have made headlines across the country, creating a scandal that is proving to be a much stronger threat to Erdoğan’s rule than Gezi, with its lack of media exposure, could have attained.
As the corruption scandal continues, AKP risks losing support from its followers. The public resignation of former national footballer and current politician Hakan Şükür from the party over the planned prep school closures is just one example of how opposition to the AKP has become visible to the public; something that would have been condemned just six months earlier in the midst of the protests.
The Turkish media’s changing portrayal of the AKP parallels the American media’s anti-war sentiments of the late 1960’s and early 70’s. While the anti-war protesters received little love, their goals were nevertheless reflected and achieved in and through the news broadcasts and newspapers of the time. In Turkey, the current corruption scandal is fostering opposition to the AKP, which was a major focus of the Gezi movement.
However, Gezi’s goals — which include the elimination of authoritarian neoliberalism — are much more ambitious than simply removing Erdoğan and the AKP from power. While Cemaat followers may now oppose AKP, that does not make them friends of the Gezi protesters, many of whom consider Erdoğan and Gülen to be two sides of the same coin. And, just like for the anti-war protesters, despite growing opposition to the government, there is no real complementary increase in support for the Gezi movement.
Therefore, even in light of recent events, Gezi’s relevance has not changed. Unlike Cemaat, Gezi is not a powerful, organized group but a disparate and diffuse movement. As the BBC’s James Reynolds notes, “In Turkey, organization wins.” This perception was apparently reflected by Gezi activists, who founded the Gezi Party in October. However, the likelihood of the party exerting any influence or mustering a large number of votes is low.
If Gezi wants to remain relevant and achieve its goals, it will have to attach itself to pre-established organizations or parties. Whether or not this is likely to happen remains unclear. Gezi protesters represent a vast spectrum of political opinions, many of which are contradictory. During the summer, nationalists and Kurdish activists demonstrated side-by-side; whether or not they will vote together is a different story.
Still, with the corruption scandal threatening the AKP’s reign, other parties are Gezi’s best chance to continue its fight. The most likely candidate is the current opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). While many Gezi supporters are not fond of CHP, and are unlikely to vote for them simply due to a common dislike of AKP, there is still hope for Gezi to capitalize on the currently growing anti-Erdoğan sentiment. If CHP chooses to acquiesce some of Gezi’s concerns, and come to a compromise in order to access Gezi supporters’ votes, it may be possible to gather enough support to inflict serious damage on AKP at the polls.
Although this situation is not the most ideal, as Gezi would have to rely on another organization with its own agenda, it is the most practical. In order to navigate the current Turkish political and media climate and continue the fight, Gezi, too, will have to compromise. If it does not, the movement’s longevity is threatened.
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?