Times of hope and despair: lessons of democracy from Gezi resistance

The latest developments translate as the end of justice and legality as we know it. What we are experiencing is a ‘state of exception’ par excellence, in Agamben’s terms, as the rhetoric of ‘necessity’ is creating a ‘space devoid of law’.

19 June 2013

Security forces arrest a doctor in Turkey.

On June 15, Gezi Park was more vibrant than ever, with people playing various musical instruments and singing, children painting pictures of the Park, tourists wandering around to get a glimpse of this ‘new open museum of resistance’, mothers and fathers showing up to support their children, and different groups exchanging views on what to do next. Just a couple of days ago, the Governor of Istanbul had called on the protestors to meet them ‘face to face’ to hear their demands. According to a friend who attended the meeting, although the Governor was keen on listening on what they had to say, he was quite obstinate in perceiving the protest solely within the contours of the demands on Gezi Park, and not a general discontent with the policies of the government. During the same period Prime Minister Erdoğan held meetings with representatives of the Taksim Solidarity group, including artists as well as trade union leaders, which resulted merely in a somewhat similar ‘victory’, whereby the AKP government declared that they might consider a plebiscite regarding the prospects of the Gezi Park.

Notwithstanding the lukewarm posture of the government representatives, most people including myself who have been taking part in the protests were becoming more and more optimistic, since the channels of negotiation were laid down and our voices were starting to be heard... or so we thought. On June 15, not only because it was the weekend but also because the government was exhibiting an ostensibly amiable posture, people were pouring into Gezi Park not expecting any intervention by the police. Yet, before we understood what was taking place, the police initiated the most violent attack yet at height of the crowd. Concomitantly, in Ankara a massive meeting was being staged by the AKP government to demonstrate the strength of the ‘national will’ and apparently Erdoğan himself had ordered the police force to ‘cleanse’ the Park of ‘marginal’ elements during this meeting. What followed was a series of ‘protester hunts’ while all the safe havens were raided by the police, infirmaries were gassed, and doctors treating the wounded protesters were arrested. Since then, the Park has literally turned into a ‘police park’ where no one except for the police is allowed to enter.

For the first time throughout these events, the gendarme forces came to the stage as a back-up for the police. When this move was met with criticism, Deputy PM Arınç boldly asserted that if necessary they might even call on the military to step in and put an end to the protest. Today 26 addresses in Ankara and 94 addresses in Istanbul have been raided, and an undisclosed number of people arrested under ‘counter-terrorism’ laws. There are still people missing, and lawyers are not able to access every individual that is under arrest. Such infringements of the rule of law are a continuation of the arrests that took place last week, in one of the biggest Justice Halls in Istanbul, Çağlayan Adliyesi. The Justice Hall had been raided by the police, resulting in 73 arrests of lawyers who were defending the protesters under custody. Studying and teaching the concepts of human rights, democracy and the rule of law for a number of years now, I was appalled and shocked to say the least. All these developments translate as the end of justice and legality as we know it. What we are experiencing is ‘state of exception’ par excellence, in Agamben’s terms, as the rhetoric of ‘necessity’ is creating a ‘space devoid of law’.

Following these recent developments, the festive and humorous atmosphere that marked the early days of the resistance has given way to a general mourning period. Particularly following the ruthless attacks on June 15 and the funeral of Ethem Sarisülük the next day, a 27 year old protester who was shot in the head by a police bullet, the tolls of violence are rising and we are losing our sense of witty humour. The characteristics that distinguished this prolific movement from the protests of the 60s and 70s were firstly the employment of sarcasm and humor as a means of protest, an unorganized structure, the unwavering insistence on being a pacifist movement despite provocations, and most importantly the context of deliberation and dialogue it has triggered among different segments of the society. Despite the refusal of the government to consider people’s demands and the unreasonable levels of violence that have been resorted to, despite the unbearable silence of the mainstream media that has been turning a blind eye towards the protest, Gezi Park has initiated an irreversible process of grass-root democratization among the traditional binary oppositions prevalent in the Turkish society.


Police inside the Hilton Hotel on Taksim Square.

The events taking place all around Turkey, inter alia Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, can be rightfully defined as ‘unprecedented’ in Turkish history. Turkish society and politics have been undergirded by overlapping dichotomies: the left vs. the right, the secular vs. the conservative, religious minorities vs. Sunni Muslims, Turkish nationalism vs. Kurdish nationalism, patriarchy vs. women’s rights, hetero-normativity vs. LGBTT rights…etc. While the latter is a rather novel field of contestation, the others have been the salient antagonisms dividing up the society at large. Even ‘nationalism’ as a pivotal concept of Turkish politics is conveyed by two different terms: Ulusalcılık connoting the so-called left-wing nationalists and Milliyetçilik, though more commonly used, generally referring to right-wing nationalism. What is striking about the protests is that for the first time in Turkish history, the clash is not taking place along such conventional lines, instead it is a fight of ‘the people’ against an ‘authoritative government’.

Some might find this observation an exaggeration, but what I have experienced and observed proves otherwise. The early days of the protest were decisive in creating solidarity among groups who have been upholding rival ideologies and worldviews. Gezi Park has become a niche of political socialization, active engagement and self-restraint. Probably a couple of examples can help me illustrate. One remarkable dynamic in the Park is taking place between the Kurdish people who have been struggling against police brutality for decades and the Turkish ‘nationalists’ - a bit of an umbrella concept encompassing left-wing nationalism, right-wing nationalism, and ‘Kemalists’. Among the latter group are individuals, including high school kids, housewives, and white-collar middle-class individuals, who are taking part in a protest for the first time in their lives and whose only means of political expression lies in the Turkish flag and the principles of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Having indicated the inherent variety, I opt to refer to this group as the ‘Turkish nationalists’ as an umbrella term. This generic group has been ardently against Kurdish nationalism which has been deemed not only as ‘separatist’, but also as being predicated on ‘terrorist’ motives. On the other hand, the Kurdish movement has been critical of the assimilationalist and discriminatory policies of successive Turkish governments and the concomitant state violence pursued against this population. Surprisingly, these traditionally adversarial groups have shown an incredible display of self-restraint in the recent events, as they have resisted (I am not using the term ‘fought’ intentionally, for the protesters are adamant on being unarmed) against the violent police attacks side by side. After the fierce period of clashes withered and Gezi Park turned into a site of deliberative democracy, much like the Syntagma Square in Athens, despite the temptation these opposing groups refrained from instigating any confrontation within the Park or elsewhere. This is not to say that they have come to recognize each others’ claims for this is very difficult to achieve in the short-run, but the mere fact that they have put aside their animosities for a ‘greater’ cause is definitely an innovation in Turkish politics. A photograph that was taken during the police intervention in Gezi lucidly illustrates this point, as a girl carrying a Turkish flag with the picture of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and a boy holding the flag of the Kurdish party BDP are trying to run away from the police attack hand in hand.

Another significant example of socialization and deliberation Gezi resistance came to host is predicated on the prevalence of patriarchy in Turkish society and how it has been challenged throughout this process. One of the most proactive involvements during the protests came from the fan groups of the three prominent football teams in Turkey, Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray, and particularly the Beşiktaş fan group Çarşı. Çarşı has been the most vibrant fan group in political events, showing up continuously in May 1 demonstrations. Since the onset of the Gezi protests, the group has been in the frontlines forming barricades against police attacks and protecting the ‘inexperienced’ and ‘unarmed’ protestors. Yet, the culture of football in Turkey is generally imbued in a heavy patriarchal mentality, whereby many slogans carry sexist or homophobic undertones. The Gezi resistance has given way to a process of learning and understanding between the Çarşı football fans on the one hand and the LGBTT and women’s rights organizations on the other. The latter has been endeavouring to cleanse the language of protest from sexist and homophobic expressions, and the former has been quite attentive to such warnings. A friend of mine reported that this conversation had taken place between him and a couple of members of the Çarşı group, who were shouting out to the police calling them ‘faggots’ (or ibne in Turkish). Being offended by such remarks, my friend approached the Çarşı group and told them he was also a ‘faggot’ and that such language was homophobic. The response he got was that unlike the police, he was an ‘honourable’ (delikanlı in Turkish) faggot, supporting the resistance. Following this exchange, it seems that the Çarşı group has paid a visit to the LGBTT organization Lambda and initiated a process of cooperation and mutual understanding.

Against this backdrop, the government has been blatantly using disproportionate police force towards peaceful protesters, deeming them vandals and good-for-nothing marginals that lack any legitimacy. Successive declarations made by the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have infuriated the protesters and their supporters as he threatened to ‘unleash’ the 50 % of the society who voted for the AKP, amounting to a civil war. Since the beginnings of the protests, not only has the Prime Minister undermined the demands of protesters, he has also openly targeted certain segments of the society (such as the CEO of a prominent bank due to his support for the Gezi resistance), and triggered hatred and hostility with his comments. An imam who opened the doors of a mosque for the wounded during the clash to have medical treatment has been suspended from his post because he refuted the claim made by Erdoğan that the protesters were ‘partying’ in this particular mosque.

Yet, the uncompromising stance of the government has not succeeded in hindering the movement, quite the opposite. It has made people realize the sort of political regime they would be subject to if they were to give up. Now that Gezi Park is under siege by the police force, new strategies are being formulated and new sites of resistance are emerging. The protestors are spreading all over the city of Istanbul, both in order to outmanoeuver the police and also to become more visible further afield.

The residents of some of these vicinities are trying to expel the police, telling them that they are not wanted in their neighbourhoods. The most recent trend of the resistance has been set off by ‘the standing man’ who has become a figure representing the pacifist nature of the protest. The act of ‘standing’ signifies a form of resistance that refuses to reciprocate the violence of the police. It is a form of silence and inertia that reads, “even if you are not willing to listen to what we have to say, you cannot dismiss our existence, which itself is a statement.” The movement is reproducing itself and coming up with new forms of expression every day. It seems neither side is going to back up easily. At his juncture, all I can hope for is that the socialization process and the concomitant foundations of solidarity laid in Gezi Park will be a harbinger of a new beginning predicated on tolerance, freedom, and democracy.

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