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?
Gezi: the name of a little-known and even less appreciated park in the heart of Istanbul’s booming Beyoğlu district. Generally known as a place to be avoided at night, when the small area adjacent to Taksim Square is taken over by drunks and drug addicts, who find shelter and security in the darkness provided by the shadows of the large trees. But this was before, before anyone could have even guessed that this obscure oasis, this last green refuge amid the encroaching concrete jungle, this biotope of fresh air courageously pumping out oxygen in a place where smog, toxic fumes and pollution are the norm, would be the rallying cry for thousands upon thousands of angry citizens from all walks of life.
The popular uprising that rocked Turkey in the summer of 2013 has generally become known as the ‘Gezi protests’, but attached to this reification comes a warning. A warning already so clearly articulated in the early 1980s by the Marxist anthropologist Eric Wolf, who cautioned that by turning names into things we create false models of reality. The Gezi protests are not just a thing to be quantified and analyzed; something that was, or still is; an entity with limits in time and space. Gezi is a signifier, a symbol, an idea — but the name no longer refers to a physical space or even the month of protest sparked by its violent eviction and attempted destruction at the hands of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s conservative AKP government.
The Spirit of Gezi
Gezi today has come to encompass something much bigger. Gezi is the Spirit of Revolt that animated the construction of the Taksim Commune and that still beats warmly in the hearts of those who were lucky enough to be a part of it. It is the fighting force that fearlessly faced down the fascist police and that today still builds barricades on the Bosphorus. It is the frivolous joy of rebellion that humiliated a Prime Minister and that, at least for a little while, loomed ominously over the political establishment.
Gezi was the indomitable genie of revolution that previously spooked ruling elites from Tahrir to Zuccotti; the genie world leaders have been so desperately trying to stuff back into its suffocating neoliberal bottle ever since. Gezi was a brief glimpse of utopia that is still carved onto the retina of its participants. Gezi was a breath of fresh air that blew through a nation and inspired the hopes and dreams of a generation. It was a mirror we collectively held up to ourselves that expanded the horizons of the present and provided a glimpse of what may lie ahead. Gezi, in a word, was an echo from the future.
The Forest and the Trees
Speaking about Gezi as some tangible thing, one all too easily misses the bigger picture. Popular resistance in Turkey did not begin with the fight over a park, and nor will it end there. The massive scale of the nationwide uprising in the summer of 2013 was a culmination of years, even decades, of organized grassroots resistance against the increasingly authoritarian neoliberalism of Erdoğan’s Islamist AKP government. In Turkey, people of a wide variety of backgrounds have resisted deepening inequality, fierce nationalism, systematic oppression, environmental destruction, illegal evictions, the gradual encroachment on the freedom of speech and the press, the erosion of social rights, and the marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities for a very long time.
And still, Gezi was somehow different. Gezi was something new. What was it about Gezi that turned an environmental ‘right to the city’ protest into a nationwide uprising? What was it about Gezi that resonated so strongly throughout Turkish society? In a June 2013 op-ed, ROAR editor Leonidas Oikonomakis urged us not to miss the forest when it comes to Turkey’s trees. Gezi may have been born of its own particular local and national context, but the shape it took, the claims the protesters made, and the methods they adopted were very reminiscent of contemporary uprisings in places like Egypt, Greece and Brazil. As elsewhere, the Young Turks — at times hand-in-hand with their oppressed Kurdish comrades — rose up against a system that simply did not represent them. Erdoğan, who was immediately branded “the dictator” by the protesters, became the singular concentration point of all the popular wrath that had been accumulated over the years.
The Crisis of Representation
In this sense, the June uprising in Turkey speaks to a global crisis of representation in democratic capitalism. This crisis is itself the outcome of three decades of rapid political economic change, which has brought about a dramatic restructuring of the capitalist state from a limited Keynesian welfare state (in North America and Western Europe) or an import-substituting developmental state (in most of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East) towards an increasingly authoritarian neoliberal state (virtually everywhere), whose overriding policy priority is simply to satisfy the global financial markets and thereby to guarantee the continued accumulation of capital. In Turkey, this restructuring has been in full force ever since the 2001 financial crisis. After a decade of IMF-imposed neoliberal reform and AKP-led authoritarian implementation, the Bretton Woods Project concluded that “Turkey [has] managed to replace public deficits with a democracy deficit.”
In Turkey and around the world, this democratic deficit is really an expression of the growing incompatibility between capitalism and democracy. When political elites are seen to be doing everything within their power to guarantee the uninterrupted circulation of goods and money, even prioritizing banal commercial projects — like the construction of a shopping mall on top of a city’s last-remaining green space — one begins to realize that existing political institutions offer very little in the way of democratic accountability, especially when deeply unpopular policy decisions are pushed through by force. As the crisis of representation deepens, the street once again becomes a primary locus of political intervention. Without any credible opposition in Parliament, popular needs and desires eventually move out of the institutions and into the parks, neighborhoods — and, eventually, onto the barricades.
The Emerging Market Rumble
Gezi showed that emerging markets, with their rapid GDP growth, were far from immune to this crisis of representation. When the people first rose up in Tunisia and Egypt, the dominant narrative of the mainstream media was quite simple: these people were rising up for democracy. But then the Greeks and the Spaniards rose up, and the narrative had to be adapted somewhat: these people were rising up against austerity and reform. Then Occupy Wall Street began and the desiccated prairies of left-wing activism were set ablaze across the Anglo-Saxon world: these people were rising up against economic inequality and financial speculation. Until 2013, there was always a way for the media to segment the symptoms and leave the root cause — global capitalism — untouched. The events in Turkey and Brazil last summer changed all of that.
For years, both Turkey and Brazil had been hailed as neoliberal success stories with impressive growth rates that seemed to defy the sense of crisis pervading the West. What Gezi once again made all too clear is that metrics like “political legitimacy”, “popular satisfaction” and “personal happiness” cannot be measured in terms of election outcomes or economic growth. The Turkish economy and the AKP were doing better than ever, but the accumulated wealth refused to trickle down, and — now that Erdoğan was becoming ever more violent and intransigent — frustrations with the power structure were starting to boil over everywhere. Finally, if exploitation within the bounds of the law were not enough, corruption thrived among the ruling elite — as was recently exposed in a politically motivated corruption investigation by the police and judiciary.
The Resonance of Revolution
This was the fertile soil on which Gezi arose. Today, as a testament to the protesters’ resolve, the trees at Gezi Park still stand tall. But, as was often repeated by the protesters themselves, the uprising was ultimately about much more than just the trees. This leaves us with a crucial question: what was it all about? Why did people suddenly take to the streets in the millions? Ask ten different çapulers why they participated in the protests, and you are likely to get ten different answers. Young Kemalists were out on the streets to defend Atatürk’s legacy; Kurds to draw attention to their decades-old struggle for self-determination; LGBT activists to stand proud, without fear of being attacked or targeted for who they are; communists to fight for the workers; anarchists to resist brutal state repression; feminists to secure a rightful place for women in society; environmentalists to raise awareness about the destruction of Turkey’s natural environment — doctors, lawyers, students, workers, housewives, artists, football fans, and ordinary people from all walks of life stood their ground for very personal reasons, frustrations, motivations, fears and angers.
But, at the same time, this great plurality of grievances hides a deeper dimension. The immediate motivations to take to the streets may have been very personal, but — at least for a while — all of these personal motivations resonated with one another in defiant harmony. In The Coming Insurrection, the Invisible Committee wrote that “revolutionary movements do not spread by contamination but by resonance,” indicating the existence of an intangible unifying force that has the capacity to draw a disparate multitude of claims together into a singular movement for radical social change. But if this new and relatively amorphous social protagonist is to leave a lasting mark on the history of Turkey and the world, the movement will have to keep evolving. Ultimately, it will have to trim its arrows much higher than Erdoğan himself. At the end, it will have to face down the neoliberal state as such.
Reflections on the Gezi Uprising
In the experience of many of those who manned the barricades, slept under the trees, choked on the tear gas and resisted the police, Gezi’s most important legacy cannot be reduced to something material. Rather, it resides in the flame of indignation and the beacon of hope that was lit in the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of çapulers. Eventually, the collective realization that a different world and a different way of organizing are possible is worth much more than any short-term concessions by a thoroughly corrupt government. It is this humble flame, which continues to burn bravely in the darkness of winter, that we now collectively refer to as the Gezi Spirit. This fire needs nurturing, it needs indignation for fuel and hope for oxygen, it needs the courage to return to the streets and the determination to fight on in any way possible. But it also needs a vision — a vision of how to defeat the system that brought us to this decisive moment in history, and a vision of something better to replace it with.
This is the spirit in which ROAR decided to organize a special symposium on one of the most monumental popular uprisings of recent years. We were genuinely overwhelmed by the dozens of contributions we received over the last couple of weeks, and we would like to thank everyone who to took the time and made the effort to send in these many thought-provoking pieces. Unfortunately we had to make some difficult decisions that forced us to leave out a number of very interesting submissions. In the coming week, we’ll be publishing a selection of 18 short essays dealing with a wide variety of themes related to the Gezi uprising. The main questions we will be confronting are: what was Gezi all about, what remains of it today, and what is next for the movements in Turkey?
This year, ROAR wants to organize many more of these thematic symposiums to deal with some of the most important challenges facing the global movements today. Take a look at the IndieGoGo campaign we just launched and, if you have the opportunity, please consider making a contribution to help us build a cutting-edge new platform for independent news and critical analysis. We find ourselves on the eve of a major social transformation. We must keep on pushing. Help us report and reflect on history as it unfolds all around us. From Tahrir to Taksim, it’s time to ROAR for real democracy!