Men and women perform a standing protest in Istanbul city centre. Demotix/Miguel Caminati. All rights reserved.
A man stands in a square. That’s headline news in Turkey these days. After a sleepless weekend of clashes between riot police and anti-Government protesters, standing in a square has now become a symbolically defiant act.
The weekend’s near-inconceivable uproar in Istanbul had burnt itself out by Monday morning. But, that afternoon, Erdem Gunduz – a Turkish performance artist and choreographer – returned, unannounced, to a reopened Taksim Square – twice the scene of intense battles between protesters and riot police over the last week, and overlooked by the centre of the protests, Gezi Park. There he stood, motionless and silent, staring down a giant portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father.
The ‘standing man’ (‘duran adam’ in Turkish, #duranadam on Turkish Twitter) stood in Taksim Square for around eight hours on Monday night. Having attracted a few too many news crews, onlookers, and other ‘standers’, he left, telling the press that he didn’t want the growing crowd to justify police intervention. The crowd was, in fact, dispersed by the police, and a few people were reportedly detained. But by Tuesday morning, standing as a form of protesting Recep Tayyip’s Erdogan’s Government had swept across Turkey. Inspired by this ingenious return to the pacifist beginnings of the Gezi Park occupation, thousands are now enacting the vigil.
Ersa, a young Turkish lawyer working for a top commercial law firm (name has been changed, as she wanted to remain anonymous) - someone who’s been in favour of the protest since the beginning, is enjoying the legally-savvy nature of this new wave. Technically, if over seven people meet on the streets of Istanbul, she tells me, you have to notify the Governor. Without informing him, you’re likely to be nicked. So, the standing protest, with people being carefully and evenly spaced apart from one another, is “a way of getting around this law”.
So now most squares and major high streets in Istanbul are punctuated with motionless, silent, contemplative figures. Istiklal – Istanbul’s busiest shopping street, which leads to Taksim Square – had quite a few arty, twenty somethings reading or defiantly staring yesterday evening. “I have to say, this is the most creative way of ‘chapulling’ I’ve seen since the beginning of these protests” says, Baris, a civil engineer (referring to an appropriated term that, strictly speaking, refers to looters but now means something along the lines of ‘claiming your rights’). “The police don’t know how to react, they don’t know what to do”, he says, having stood for a few hours prior in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of the city. And that seems to be the point. Indeed, Bulent Arinc, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, has tacitly approved this new form of protest: “this is not an act of violence”, Arinc said on Wednesday, “we cannot condemn it”.
Standing still and silent is a tactic, but it’s also an implicit comment on the fact that people are no longer sure they’ll be safe if they meet in large groups, for fear of tear gas or water cannon. Standing might not explicitly communicate much, but it’s now a popular, political DIY performance art that mirrors the contemplative mood that’s fallen on Istanbul.
Erdem, the original standing man, stood purposefully facing the Ataturk Cultural Centre, which was draped by the authorities with a picture of Turkey’s founder, Ataturk, flanked by two huge Turkish flags, since the square became so politicised at the beginning of these protests. Olga, a young graphic designer who’s also been out on the streets this weekend, suggests the standing man protest is directly linked to Ataturk. Annually, at 9.05pm on 10 November – the minute Ataturk died in 1938 – most of Turkey stands up for a one minute silence, she tells me. “The current form of protest sweeping the country is similar”, she says. What this means is up for grabs, but these protests certainly feel like a contemplation of citizenship.
“The standing protest also reflects the innovative nature of this movement”, says Olga. Since the beginning, Gezi Park and the online organisation surrounding it has been markedly sarcastic, playful and meme-ridden. It’s caught on to such an extent that there was even an anti-standing-man protest, which consisted, rather sillily, of eight men standing in front of other standing people.
The movement is evolving. Spontaneously, non-hierarchically, it was also agreed via social media that people would start gathering in their small neighbourhood parks on Tuesday night to discuss the weekend’s events, and what they’re going to do now. Again reflecting the more contemplative mood, people want to understand what they have and haven’t achieved, and what their demands are, if any. In a sign of greater organisation, the protesters are using the silent, wavy hand signals that are second nature to hardened activists, and that you might have seen passing through Occupy London. Last night, in Abbasaga Park – the heartland of Besiktas football fans – the atmosphere was fun (although no bulldozer joyriding) and civil.
First-time protesters have realised that, yes, the riot police are well equipped and, yes, they can disperse big crowds. If protesters are digging up the road to build barricades, with some stones being thrown, then the government is legally justified in intervening. Although, as many have commented, police intervention was unnecessarily and fatally brutal, most I’ve spoken with are tired of the clashes. They want to achieve something positive out of all of this. Organising on a neighbourhood basis, and taking time out to reflect, they might do just that.