“What is it these people are protesting against?” foreign press members are continuously asking to the reporters. That is a very understandable enquiry as this movement is quite unique and complicated in many ways. But the answer to that question is very simple; people finally got enough of being told off on a daily basis by the authoritarian father figure, Mr Erdogan that is. One day it is academics, the next artists… yet the main group who kept being bullied by was the journalists as if there were any opponents left in the mass media.
It all started by a small group of young people acted as peaceful ‘tree-huggers’ in attempt to save a park situated at the centre of Istanbul from turning into 103rd shopping mall in the city. Whilst they were occupying the park singing, dancing and reading books in the frame of a pacifist sit-in resistance, on early Friday morning, 31st May, police raided the protest site in a brutal manner. The epic resistance of the crowd against the water cannons and pepper gas, especially by young women, snowballed into a nation-wide outrage. As the reaction accumulated at an amazing pace, despite the recent autocratic atmosphere in the country, the whole nation managed to get over the fear threshold, including myself. Last week today, when I wrote another article on the top-to-bottom administration in the Turkish cities, I had also told a friend that the whole country felt like living in a home with a constantly furious authoritarian father figure, thus dreaming of escaping the house one day. Then she told me to write a separate article around that issue and I replied her asking if she wanted to see me in trouble. Yet today here I ago, I feel encouraged to say it loud.
The strength of the movement lies in the diversity of the crowd. What brought so many diverse people in unity is their reclaim for their dignity and desire to be treated as adults. Erdogan has at times insulted not only his opponents but also even his supporters including the Ministers in his cabinet openly in front of the public. Moreover, some people close to him started to resonate this behaviour, for example son of a Member of Parliament in his early 20s, has recently put the police officers in line at a Police Station and bullied them to identify the one that got into quarrel with him in a previous occasion. Whilst this is a mere example, there has been hundreds of patronising and bullying treatment from people in power towards ‘bottom’. As these examples kept accumulating, whole month of May has been full of much distress every other day, starting with the banning May Day celebrations in Taksim Square. Then the last day of the month, as CNN International has put it, ‘something snapped inside Turkey’. That is neither ‘Occupy’ nor ‘Spring’ as it would be misreading the essence of the movement as either solely anti-capitalist or confronting the legitimacy of the current regime. Especially when considered nothing has come to the terms yet, the nature of the protests is constantly being reshaped in an organic way. Therefore it cannot be emphasised enough that, this is neither a war against Sharia or capitalism, this is about a public that wants to be taken into account.
It is totally clear to me why this whole protest is triggered by a debate about a park despite the fact that there are much more problematic issues in the country. And the reason is not that environmental concerns are the top priority for the majority. Neither are the neo-liberal policies that resulted in building more than 100 shopping malls in only Istanbul (and yet not one big public library). That is not to suggest that these are not actual concerns for some people, otherwise the whole action would have not been initiated in the first place. However the lack of participation in the policy making at local level has made the deficiency of general grassroots participation in politics more obvious. Whilst that is a common problem in almost all the cities in Turkey, in Istanbul things get more dramatic as the historical and cultural value of the city exceeds further than its national boundaries. Plus, it is the major economic and cultural hub of the country. Therefore both local and central administrations see it in a way that every inch of the land is too profitable to let the ordinary citizens decide its fate. When the level of the participatory decision making mechanisms in the city are limited to carrying out an electronic poll to select the colour of new public buses, naturally people’s feeling of being left out and not heard kept gradually increasing.
That is of course not the first time the central government has taken a decision in a top to bottom fashion about city planning. In the mid-April, a historical building that included the oldest cinema theatre in Istanbul has also been demolished defying a long period of grassroots resistance. Although there is a brand new and also a very controversial shopping mall right next to it, there is going to be built another mall instead of 150 years old Cercle D’Orient building. The form of resistance to keep this cinema was quite similar to the initial resistance at the Gezi Park, however that has not developed into a protest at national level like this time. As the concept of ‘right to the city’ is a strongly middle class concern in a society like Turkey, the majority were either oblivious about the issue or conceived it as a luxurious concern given the many problems in the country. Therefore nobody, including the activists themselves had foreseen the upcoming nation-wide protest.
As said, what happened this time was, things have finally reached to the boiling point throughout the whole month, and many people has run out of their patience. Therefore following the severe police attack towards a peaceful sit-in protest, people started to flood into Taksim Square to back up the protesters. And the fact that Prime Minister’s reaction to that was once again telling off public by underlining that he would obviously not going to ask public opinion about these issues, has not helped the situation to calm down. And as many have already written, despite the mass media being mute, the word has managed to spread by means of mainly Twitter as the core group of protestors come from an affluent middle class background that have fancy smart phones. And simultaneously, there have initiated supporting demonstrations at the other big cities like Ankara and Izmir. It should be noted that though there is no particular leadership in organising those, these demonstrations were mostly led by urban middle class. However it would be totally unfair to ignore that it managed to diffuse to all the layers of the society very promptly. For example as reported, one of the guys that has deceased during the protests in Antakya –a small city at the border of Syria-, Abdullah Comert was a labour at a packaging factory.
Now that the cause has spread at a large extent and the government in a way accepted the excess police intervention that consisted of way too much pepper gas, people started to ask ‘what is next?’. As there is no particular political leadership of the movement, the follow up is yet to be designed. Also it should be kept in mind that the initial goal has yet to be achieved as Erdogan keeps underlining in every speech he makes that the park will definitely be replaced by the historical military barrack if not a shopping mall. Besides, he still keeps calling the protesters as vandals and extremists rejecting to listen the content of the demands. Nothing has changed in his bullying authoritarian attitude, which is the core reason why protesters and now even his supporters are raging. Furthermore, there is another legislation draft at the Parliament waiting to be in rule soon, which allows foreign companies to search for petrol in the forests of Turkey. Another law that has never been discussed by the public participation and likely to end in giving a huge damage to natural resources for the sake of attracting foreign investment.
From what the Prime Minister and the members of his cabinet have been saying in the last week, there is little hope that the government will change its autocratic attitude. However it also looks like protesters will keep resisting until their demands are considered. Whilst having no ideological frame or a political agenda makes its sustainability questionable that is also the reason why the participation is incredibly diverse hence a powerful one. As I write these lines, the site of the protests’ initiation, Gezi Park has turned into a peaceful commune with a library, a gratis grocery and a concert hall after 3-4 days of battle with the police. Protesters have taken the initiation and built what they wanted. And due to the fact that affluent middle class is the critical mass of the protests; some companies have even turned the whole thing into a marketing opportunity. The very quick spread of praise or condemnation of the shops or media channels according to the level of their support to the protesters have been a commercial opportunity. Therefore as never seen in Turkey (or perhaps in the world) before, even big corporations are now taking a side in a social movement.
Consequently, at this very moment, protesters claim for a democratic climate in which they can discuss whether they want to be more or less conservative or whether they want more shopping malls or not. Once that achieved, people can go back to their own ideological enclaves and start to negotiate their own opposite standings in a peaceful manner. Otherwise even the (almost extreme) right wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) members wouldn’t go on the streets and chant as ‘in solidarity, against fascism!’ hand in hand with groups identifying themselves as communists.
Chapullin is a neologism born out of this movement as the Prime Minister Erdogan in his speech referred to the protesters as ‘Capulcu’ that means bummers/looters so used as to describe the participants of the resistance.
Güneş Tavmen was born in Ankara and has worked in Istanbul. Now in London, she is studying for an MA Degree in Sociology at the City University, holding a Chevening Scholarship. She is interested in Information and Communication Technologies, urban life and grassroots participation.
Categories: Outflanking Platitudes