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The Gezi spirit and the forums

Gezi Resistance has raised awareness about the importance of public spaces and the need for democratic platforms of deliberation. The local park forums are open to everyone who wants to join, and the only rule is to be respectful to others’ cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientation.

İrem İnceoğlu
17 July 2013

The resistance continues both on the streets and at the parks in Turkey, despite Deputy Prime Minister and Spokesperson of the Government Bülent Arınç’s declaration that the Gezi Park resistance is not worthy of being an agenda item for Cabinet meetings[1].

As discussed so often, since the very beginning of the Gezi resistance, the dominant discourse of the AKP government mainly relies on the level of representation they claim, due to the percentage of votes the AKP received in the 2011 general elections. Prime Minister Erdoğan is over-reliant on the 50% backing he gained in these elections.

The Government has been proposing or passing legislation that has been disturbing many people for many different reasons, but mainly because they have not been included in the decision-making process, although the legislative meddling would impact directly on their lives. Therefore, people from different identity positions and ideological stands have linked up with one another to resist the authoritarian tone of the government: cutting down trees in a public park was the last straw and the ensuing occupation has turned into a once-in-a-lifetime- uprising in Turkey.

I would like to give a brief overview of what has been happening in İstanbul, Turkey since the Gezi Park was evacuated violently by the police force on 15June, focusing on the on-going forum process that has begun to take place in various parks in Istanbul and across Turkey. Is this a democratic use of public spaces? And if so, what kind of use?

Remembering 15 June

In the second week of the Gezi Park occupation and transformation into a real public space with workshops, gigs, communal kitchens and infirmary, the Prime Minister finally met up with representatives of Taksim Solidarity along with some celebrities on 13 June around midnight.

During the meeting, Taksim Solidarity once again repeated their demands[2]. The response of the government to these clear, concrete demands was rather feeble. They acknowledged the demand that Gezi Park should remain a park and they noted that they would await the court decision before making their move, so that if the court decided that the park should be demolished, then they would call for a plebiscite among Istanbullers to decide its fate. However, the government also noted that all the tents should be immediately removed from the Park as its occupation was intolerable.

Many resisters responded critically to these statements, as they claimed that the preservation of parks as public spaces should be considered a basic human right, a future not to be decided through bare YES/NO votes. Taksim Solidarity, after the meeting, proposed to discuss the details of the meeting within the Platform and through forums to be held in Gezi Park. They would not leave the park until the Government met their demands. On 14June there were six main forums within Gezi Park where thousands discussed future strategies on the one hand to protect the park, and on the other - how to avoid police violence and even an attack.

On 15 June, many more people joined these groups and everyone there must have felt the very positive and productive mood in the park. AT 20.50, while the forums and workshops were still in session, the police made an announcement at which was could only have been heard at the entrance to the park: the warning to evacuate immediately or face an imminent police intervention. In less than 20 minutes, with thousands of adults and children present, police entered the park with gas canisters as well as water cannon. That night, and the following day the police brutally attacked many infirmaries as well as hospitals. Medics and doctors were accused of working outside office hours, and many were taken into custody. Countless adults and children were hospitalised.

In response, the resisters collectively put up barricades at several points around Taksim as well as in other neighbourhoods, including Nişantaşı and Kurtuluş. The public was banned from entering Gezi Park until 9 July[3]. As of today (16July), the heavy police presence and violence in and around Taksim continues.

Enter the park forums: searching for freedom of speech and democracy

Turkish citizens were shocked by the level of brutality, especially on the evening of 15 June. But the resistance did not stop. As the police started to use Gezi Park as their base, banning the public from its use, the people chanted once again, “Everywhere is Gezi, resistance everywhere”.

A collective call was made to gather in local parks to carry on the forums, which had begun in Gezi Park. The first park to be turned into a democratic public space was in Beşiktaş. The ÇARŞI group declared that their new resistance site would be Abbasağa Park.

On 17 June more than 700 people responded to this call and the debates proceeded at the forum, with an open platform. The next day there were four main forum sites in Istanbul (Abbasağa, Haydarpaşa, Yoğurtçu and Cihangir) and at all four, the forum debates hummed till the early hours of the morning. And by June 20, Taksim Solidarity announced that there were 38 forums in Istanbul, all formed by civil initiative[4].

Other cities also responded to this latest development and forum sites mushroomed immediately around Turkey, in all the major cities. As of today tens of forums in Istanbul still continue, not only in the very central parks but also the ones at the periphery of the metropolis. Therefore, after the police attack and evacuation of Gezi Park by force, the protest movement has extended its limits and created its own public spaces by decentralising the site of protest.

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A photo from Abbasağa Park Forum 28 June 2013.

Forums where people can utilise a public space for public debates are a relatively new concept for the people of Turkey. I believe they would never have taken off had it not been for the various global precedents, such as the Occupy movement. Our local park forums adopt the methods of global justice movements such as Occupy. The hand gestures to enable communication among crowds without creating noise have been emulated at some of the forums with larger participation. The open stage where individuals queue for and take turns to express their thoughts, ideas and vision freely, is another element of this movement’s repertoire that is becoming more and more common. These methods are offered and they are being practiced as a conscious attempt to enable a horizontal structure.

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A visual distributed via social media regarding the conventions of forums

Organisation and communication in and within the local forums

The mainstream media of Turkey, not surprisingly, has completely ignored the significance of the forum process. Therefore, once again, the movement has turned to social media in order to reach out to wider audiences as well as keeping a record of their meetings.

Twitter, Facebook, blogs, websites and fanzines, all managed by the civil initiative on a voluntary basis, have become the main sites of information about these on-going processes of discussion. Social media also functions to link the local forums to one another and provide a network of forums.

For example, various fora established their own twitter accounts and facebook pages in order to share information and make announcements. The twitter account @parklarbizim (parks are ours) has been set up in order to enable coordinated communication among local park forums. In addition to this, #parklarbizim became the collective hash-tag for the forums, especially in Istanbul.

Under the same name there is also a blog through which more detailed information, i.e. regular meeting notes, action plans, covering every forum[5]. Hemzemin Forum Postası[6], a bulletin first published online on 20 June with the aim of circulating information from and within forums also provides another example of the related networking and communication through what we now call the Gezi media[7]. Having said that, communication within the forum is not limited to social media and online sources. Forums make solidarity visits to each other and march together during demonstrations as you will see. 

How do the forums organise?

Gezi Resistance has raised awareness about the importance of public spaces and the need for democratic platforms of deliberation. The local park forums are open to everyone who wants to join, and the only rule is to be respectful to others’ cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientation.

They usually allow more organised representation as well as individual participation. In each forum there is an open-mike where individuals and groups freely express their opinions. Within each forum there are also many workshop groups. Each workshop group (i.e. creative resistance group, LGBT group, law group and so on) reports back to the local park forum via a chosen representative and the wider audience give feedback. Then each forum prepares meeting notes to share with other forums via the social media networks.

The multifarious and complex profile of the participants of Gezi Resistance created the commonly referred to, ‘Gezi Spirit’, which involves listening to one another, respecting each other’s identity position, and working in solidarity. This awareness also leads citizens active in the forums to question the representative parliamentary system in Turkey.

One of the common demands of many forums confirms this: citizens of the forums demand the removal of the election threshold. The election threshold that marginalises many political parties is widely seen as the reason for the lamentable representation of social diversity in the Turkish parliament. Another shared requirement seems to be the need for a new political agency-party-group that would take the role of democratic opposition against the authoritarian government.

This idea of a newly established political position that enshrines the Gezi Spirit aspires to reach beyond the standard political confrontation of the classical left/right binary. Citizens active in these forums express the need for a political establishment that goes beyond such arid stand-offs to form a unity around democratic rights, regardless of class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation etc. This argument goes hand in hand with a Gezi Spirit that values the language of dialogue, understanding, solidarity and empathy with each other.

The demand to sustain this language and culture of Gezi Resistance is important as it bears the potential to transform not only the language of our forums but also of everyday life. In that sense the statement posted following the “Cultural Awareness and Cultural Peace Workshop” at Abbasağa Park on 28 June defines the type of solidarity we want to inculcate: “We will fight against hate discourses… we will stay away from words and attitudes that humiliate cultural groups…we will replace the word ‘minority’ with ‘cultural group’. When we are angry we will not swear using words that humiliate other culture groups i.e. chav, faggot…”

It is crucial to note that despite the peaceful common language and democratic activities of the local park forums, some of them have become the target for hate speech and physical violence from small groups of civilian paramilitaries, especially in more ‘conservative’ neighbourhoods.

For example, on 21 June, around midnight, while the public was energetically discussing urbanism in Yeniköy Park at Sarıyer district of Istanbul, a group of thirty people asked them to leave or else, and then they attacked the forum. The next day, to show solidarity, the local forums gathered together to visit Yeniköy Park. A similar solidarity action was also organised on 12 July, after a similar attack of Kocamustafapaşa Forum on 11July, this time with knives and sticks.

Besides the ‘spontaneous’ solidarity gatherings, local park forums pay regular visits to each other. There are now two main parks that function as local hubs for forums and smaller neighbourhood forums that usually gather on an ad hoc basis. In Istanbul the two main sites are Abbasağa Park for the European side and Yogurtçu Park for the Anatolian side.

Some also organise social events, i.e. picnics, an exchange market, especially during the weekends, with opportunities to foster conviviality and solidarity. The local forums are also functional in terms of organising collective actions. For example various local forums come together during hospital visits for the injured resisters of the uprising, to prepare press releases for Taksim Solidarity and other forms of resistance.

Another noteworthy feature is the collaboration between diverse identity positions. Forums, as extensions of Gezi Park occupation, are becoming sites of radical democracy. That is to say, acknowledgement and acceptance of differences with respect and acting together in various ways to increase the visibility of certain disadvantaged groups and identity positions. This has been a commonly accepted feature integral to the whole process of resistance. In that sense, as one of the constituents parts of Gezi Park resistance, there has been remarkable support for the LGBT movement. For example during the LGBT Pride Week (24-30 June) Parade calls were made part of the agenda in many fora. This call received an enthusiastic response, and on 30 June 2013 about 50,000 people attended the parade from Taksim Square to Tünel, a record number for Turkey’s LGBT parade.

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A photo from LGBT Parade on 30 June 2013 (Source: Kaosgl)

On another occasion, a group naming themselves the ‘Anti-capitalist Muslim- organised iftar’ (the fast-breaking dinner in Ramadan) collaborated in various local parks with the forums. The invitation announced that anyone in solidarity could attend these dinners regardless of their beliefs or religion. Also when police brutally attacked with gas bombs and bullets and killed a citizen in Lice, a Kurdish town in Southeast Turkey, on 29 June, activists flocked together to protest and thousands gathered together on the streets. This is more than one-off solidarity – this is a process of radical democracy where everyone changes at least a bit. As one of the main slogans of the Gezi Spirit puts it: “Kurtuluş yok, tek başına Ya hep beraber, ya hiçbirimiz” (No liberation alone, either altogether or none of us). 

Where do we go now?

Both the resistance and the its transformation of spaces into democratic platforms of discussion continue apace, despite on-going police violence on a daily basis, and the unlawful arrest and home searches of Taksim Solidarity representatives, the threats and attacks by civilian paramilitaries, and mainstream media propaganda against the demands of resistance. 

It would not be wrong to claim that the people of Turkey who were either misled or kept isolated from each others’ concerns and political struggles through the efforts of the mainstream media and hegemonising discourses of hate, are now becoming aware of each other through resistance. The power of a public space such as Gezi Park and the need to protect it from becoming a controlled place of consumerism has made people realise that there are many more things to be shared.

The resistance that is going on in the street now has the chance to influence policy making through practicing democracy in its most attainable form. Individuals without being represented by groups, organisations, parties or unions can come together and learn to listen to one another.

This may or may not turn into a force that pushes the government into listening to people who are not within their understanding of the 50%. But in any eventuality there will be a lot of gains out of this process, as those involved seem to be ready and willing to lay aside their prejudices about each other and start getting to know one another in a horizontal setting - with the spirit of solidarity, sharing, caring and empathy.

This would be a nightmare, not only for the current government, but also for any other political party defending the status quo and dreaming of manipulating the Turlish masses along the lines of their pursuit of a biassed politics. 

 


[1] This declaration was made during the press conference following a Cabinet meeting on 9 July 2013.

[2]  (i) Gezi Park should remain as a public park, (ii) Governors and the police chiefs, and everyone who gave orders for, enforced or implemented violent repression must resign.(iii) Teargas bombs and other similar materials must be prohibited, (iv) Detained citizens must be immediately released (v) All the meeting and demonstration bans affecting all squares and public areas must be abolished and stopped.

[3] The ‘re-opening’ of the park by the Governor of Istanbul was also brutal  - see later in this text.

[4] http://taksimdayanisma.org/forumlar

[5] The blog (only in Turkish) can be reached at <http://parklarbizim.blogspot.com/>

[6] Hemzemin Forum Postası (only in Turkish) can be downloaded from the website, http://hemzeminposta.org/, and encourage its reader to print and circulate the fanzine. 

[7] Please note that the social media mentioned here only provides a sample of the entire Gezi Media that reports from and about the forums.

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