The power of the long march

Walking across a country provides people with a tangible and visceral experience of solidarity.

Julian Sayarer
1 August 2017

The ‘adalet’ march in Turkey. Credit: Flickr/Ziya Koseoglu. Some rights reserved.

On July 9, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of Turkey’s CHP opposition party, completed his 450-kilometre march from Ankara to Maltepe, Istanbul, where a member of his party is in jail for leaking the news that Turkish Intelligence has been supplying arms to jihadis in northern Syria. The day closed out a journey in which the politician had—come its end—at some point walked alongside millions of citizens in solidarity with the rights of women, journalists, the Kurdish population, and all who feel afraid to live a free life inside modern Turkey.

The distance travelled, especially in the punishing heat of a high Anatolian summer, is no meagre feat, its toll such that one marcher died from a heart attack in its early stages. Kılıçdaroğlu himself, writing an op-ed in the New York Times during the last days of the walk, seemed somehow greater in stature for his undertaking, and also rightly quite proud of his achievement. Many Turkish commentators have voiced opinions that only now, after seven years in the job, has he truly become the leader of the opposition in more than name.

Something in the story warrants reflection on the medium of the march itself. In aspirational terms, Turkey is a country of car drivers. In functional terms, tens of millions regularly use public transport, though few necessarily wish to. Amongst family and friends here, walking, for the most part, isn’t a big thing, perhaps aside from occasional recreation, and seldom as a means of transport. All this lends a greater sense of the monumental to Kılıçdaroğlu’s journey across a sizable portion of a large, mountainous country.

Frequently referencing Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March, and joining a noble tradition that includes the Jarrow marchers against unemployment in the UK, Kılıçdaroğlu’s ‘adalet’ (or ‘justice’) march enters a proud tradition of these grand and potentially transformative physical and political statements. The man himself is careful and correct to stress that this is only a beginning, a first step—but as such it’s not a bad one.

In a country grappling with authoritarianism, and where demonstrations are nevertheless frequent and still sometimes sizable, the march has succeeded in engendering a little hope in the population. It has also given purpose to Kılıçdaroğlu, who had always seemed to lack the necessary bite to unify a country as splintered as Turkey against a leader with such slavish support and so brutal an apparatus as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In her new book, Twitter and Teargas, the academic Zeynep Tufekci compiles a full analysis of modern political protest and reactions to it by the powerful. In so doing, one core part of her assessment recalls George W. Bush’s dismissal of the 2003 anti-war Iraq demonstrations in a single line: “Why should I listen to a focus group?” In a similarly lukewarm response to boots on the street, the then-Prime Minister of the UK David Cameron was moved by the 2015 Refugees Welcome demonstration, which drew 100,000 people but only led to a derisory increase in Britain’s Syrian refugee quota from 5,000 to 20,000.

What then, if anything, separates a march like Kılıçdaroğlu’s from demonstrations that can be dismissed as mere focus groups?

First of all is the sheer distance crossed. Precise figures vary, but even conservative ones suggest that, by the time of its culmination in Istanbul, millions of people had joined the adalet march at some point. Effectively spreading a demonstration across 450 kilometres guarantees that greater numbers can be reached.

Perhaps more significant still, in a political climate that is ever more at-ease in its disdain of metropolitan ‘elites’ (Turkey’s three largest cities all voted against Erdoğan in the April referendum on his presidential designs), in a march, the demonstration effectively comes to you. It visits your own version of the local, your off-the-beaten track, and rejects the idea that there are any ‘backwaters.’ Düzce and Sakarya gain the same prominence as Istanbul and Ankara, or London and Washington DC.

The importance of location here is in keeping with a trend now coming into greater prominence. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg resolved to visit every state in the U.S. on his recent ‘not running for President’ roadtrip. In the UK, John Harris made himself the most widely-regarded journalist in the country by covering the 2017 general election with a series called Anywhere but Westminster. And in the US, Guardian editor-at-large Gary Younge, and also Chris Arnade—one practising journalism more political and the other more personal—have clearly made it their business to keep on moving, either driving vast distances around the country or opting to base their 2016 presidential election coverage around Muncie, Indiana.

If mobility is an asset in itself, then what of the physicality of the march? Binali Yildirim, Erdoğan’s right-hand man in the office of the Turkish Prime Minister, snarked that Kılıçdaroğlu should stop his march and get the train instead. Dumb and churlish as his comment was, it was nevertheless a slight improvement, and less menacing, than the usual dismissal of critics as ‘terrorists’ or ‘terrorist sympathisers’—a sign that the march, for a while at least, confounded the usual assumptions and put-downs.

Meanwhile, the march has resonated with those less partisan than the Prime Minister—people who grow ever more concerned for Turkey’s turn away from democracy and towards a state of nepotism and ruin, both fiscal and political. To commit a month of your time and 450 kilometres of yourself to an idea is, by and large, worth more than a day and two-kilometres on a well-worn, city centre drag.


Credit: Julian Sayarer. All rights reserved.

More than that, a long march is a tangible, visceral engagement with a country and a nation. These are words and concepts that are bandied around freely in political discourse, especially the base populist version, but are never fully experienced in any actuality. The country is out there, yet it does not truly figure or come alive without being crossed.

There is a parallel here with our relationship to human rights, especially at a time when the rule of law has—with frightening speed—been exposed as a paper reality that can be screwed up at whimsy by hard power. In this regard statutes are no different to maps: both are abstractions of an irrefutable reality that affirm who we are and where we are, but they are abstractions all the same, illustrating the classic differentiation between map and territory.

The map shows the place accurately but it is not the place itself, just as our rights are inviolable and natural, but nevertheless condemned to an existence in words only. If place is neglected by centrist, Beltway politicians (note the ‘she didn’t even go to Wisconsin!’ dismay of Hillary Clinton’s critics), it is no less vulnerable to being invoked without sincerity by authoritarian nationalists. The march can reclaim geography from both types of disengaged politician.

In recounting these ideas I have some degree of personal experience, and Kılıçdaroğlu’s march recalls my first times cycling across Europe, a journey I often made between London and Istanbul. As I pedalled along and across so many contours, I discovered something obvious and yet still remarkable—that the vast physical expanses represented on paper maps were something through which I could propel myself with only the power of my body.

In this process, the abstraction of the map became accumulated physically in the journey I undertook; what had been paper became the territory itself, and with that realisation, the idea of impossibility in the world melted before the evidence of that new reality. Rigid conceptions of what was achievable collapsed into what I was apparently capable of. Kılıçdaroğlu’s recent comments after he finished his walk suggest that he might be feeling similarly: “I have returned by car via the same road that I walked,” he said, and “I asked my friends how I walked such a long way.”

Using Tufekçi’s approach to understanding protest, power-holders read signals from protests in terms of their underlying capacity and the threat that they signify. Political movements, as anyone in Turkey will tell you, are slow and hard-fought things that demand constant creativity. There is always going to be a place in the panoply of protest for putting bodies on streets at short notice. In unifying more and more people however, and in societies apparently more polarised and digitally-focused than ever before, long marches, as Kılıçdaroğlu has discovered for himself, could still prove to be a very effective tool in the modern protester’s arsenal.

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