Today’s Zaman: Gezi, anatomy of a public square movement – Nilüfer Göle

A new movement is in the making right in front of our eyes. Even the participants in this movement are astonished. They feel the joy of hearing their own voices and seeing the unifying power of their acts. The tension is high, even days later. There is a festive atmosphere despite the disturbing sense of potential clashes, the police pressure, the wounded people and deaths.


“Living like a tree alone and free; and like a forest in brotherhood” — Nazım Hikmet

A new movement is in the making right in front of our eyes. Even the participants in this movement are astonished. They feel the joy of hearing their own voices and seeing the unifying power of their acts. The tension is high, even days later. There is a festive atmosphere despite the disturbing sense of potential clashes, the police pressure, the wounded people and deaths.

As many commentators have noted, this movement signifies a new turning point. We are still trying to give this movement a name. Some try to draw an analogy with the French civil protests of ’68 or make references to the Arab Spring and others find a closer analogy in Europe’s “angry citizen” movements.

The Gezi Square movement is all and none of them; it has borrowed elements from each of them. Like all of them, it is a movement where citizens occupy a square and stand guard there. But it has an originality that sets it apart from others.

The 1968 youth revolt movement was triggered by the weakening of the long-standing de Gaulle government and consisted of French youths occupying the streets and clashing with the police, shouting, “Stop.” Like the 1968 movement, the Gezi Square movement is a revolt movement that says “stop” to the individualization of a ruling party that has been in office for the last 10 years. But while it was initiated by the youth, it has managed to bring together people from diverse segments of society, ordinary citizens who have come to the square after leaving their offices, shops and houses.

The Arab Spring, as symbolized by the occupation of Tahrir Square, is associated with demands for the overthrow of authoritarian regimes and for the voice of the majority being heard via democracy. In Turkey, on the other, the majority democracy is criticized.

As for the angry citizen movements in cities throughout the West, they promote the preservation of human dignity that is crushed by the global neo-liberal economy. The Occupy Gezi movement also criticizes liberalism. However, the protesters are not the victims of the economic crisis. They just don’t want to be the pawns of the monster of economic growth that commodifies everything.

Where does the originality of this square movement come from?

Like the movement itself, its anatomy has a close analogy to the roots of trees. The attitude that sees trees only as a pretext fails to notice the meaning, innocence and root power of the movement. To protest the project that called for the removal of the trees from the park and building a shopping center (AVM) in their place, young people occupied the park, bringing a new urban awareness to the agenda.

Environmental concerns, critique of capitalism

Environmentalist concerns were intermingled with a critique of capitalism. In general, people tend to nurture a fuzzy understanding of abstract notions such as capitalism, global powers, the finance world and neo-liberalism.

In Turkey, however, capitalism has a name: the mall, or AVM (Alışveriş Merkezi). As an embodiment of commercial capitalism, consumer society and the global exploitation of labor, AVMs became part of the daily urban life. Although they were initially met with enthusiasm and they emerged not only as popular destinations for consumption, but also as excursion destinations, AVMs are increasing viewed with skepticism. Collaborating with the dynamics of insatiable consumerism and an economy of riding the gravy train, they have started to wreak havoc on the urban texture. Building an AVM at the very center of Gezi Park is, in the eyes of the residents of İstanbul, nothing but an act of plundering the public sphere or a place open to citizens being committed by private capitalists.

The pious-capitalist critique voiced by leftist Muslims signified the Islamic transformation in Turkey. The Gezi movement has helped to articulate an emerging urban awareness against the hyper-development that prioritizes consumption at the expense of culture. Protection of the park literally means affording physical, not only metaphorical, protection to it. So protesters protect a public place against the commodification of the state and against the tendency to transform urban life into a source of lucre.

The ruling party’s intervention with tear gas and the police force has shown that the public sphere has been suffocated or poisoned. The fact that even ordinary citizens coming from their homes and workplaces took part in the wave of demonstrations is proof that this observation is shared by many.

In the pre-Gezi era, the public sphere was shrinking. Restrictions on the freedom of expression, the litigation of journalists, the silencing of dissident figures and the widespread practice of self-censorship as evidenced in particular by the latest Hasan Cemal incident, have long been on the agenda and this is really hurting us.

The fact that the latest revolt was essentially not covered during the most important first few days by the mainstream media was a saddening indication of the extent of the ruling party’s grip on the freedom of expression. Given the sheer number of TV channels in Turkey, the media’s silence was hard to explain.

The concerns nurtured by some segments of society, known as “concerned moderns,” over the likelihood of intrusion into their way of life have long been voiced, sometimes in tones that are reminiscent of Islamophobia. While they were tainted with pro-coup and subversive sentiments, the Republic rallies revealed that the republic classes’ fears and concerns of the potential for interference in their lifestyles.

They also can be seen as the preliminary signs of the socialization of secularism or its taking to the streets. The current movement, on the other hand, is a voluntary civilian resistance movement. We cannot say that they adopt the exclusionary interpretation of secularism as advocated by the state. It is a youth movement in which secular values are embodied in lifestyles.

A pluralistic movement

But it is pluralistic. It unifies in “the square.”

The beginnings of an intervention in lifestyles in the name of morality, as seen in the public announcement made in the Ankara subway with a warning to young people kissing each other, added to the suspicion that there would be an attempt to regulate the public sphere within the framework of Islamic values. The bill regulating the sale of alcoholic beverages also drew reactions, especially for the moralist rhetoric surrounding it.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s tendency to personify power and his habit of imposing his own tastes and ideas on other people can be seen in a number of cases, ranging from the statue in Kars to the project of rebuilding the Atatürk Culture Center (AKM) in İstanbul and have made people feel impotent about their own lives, environments, and cities.

Public life has turned into a ring with only one wrestler.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputies and local administrators have refrained from getting into the game thus far and have opted to just sit and watch. The soothing words uttered by the İstanbul mayor about Gezi Park have been lost in the noise. The fact that all intermediary mechanisms, including the press, politicians and civil society have faded from the scene is the reason why the anger is currently targeting Erdoğan personally. He has been left alone as the sole addressee of the protesters in the square.

The prime minister’s manner has become a problem in the eyes of the general public. Though it was initially welcomed as sincere and amusing at times, his attitude and behavior have evolved into a style that hurts and denigrates citizens. Indeed, with the slogans “Respect” and “Watch your tongue,” the Gezi Square movement reinforces the importance of public manners. That such concepts as “respect” or “manners” or “etiquette,” which are often thought to be monopolized by adults, especially conservatives, have been adopted by a young, pro-freedom movement seems paradoxical in itself. This movement is bringing about a new public culture that is mindful of its discourse and that pays respect to others to the public stage.

Another characteristic of the square movement is its ability to stage. Unlike political movements, it is open to improvisation, humor and creativity. Indeed, in a way reminiscent of the Woodstock rock festival, which became the symbol of peace and counter-culture movements of 1960s, these young people today also experience a sort of commune life mixed with music, ecology, politics, flowers and beer. The improvised alternative peaceful square culture they stage via globalizing communication networks, such as social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, is simultaneously shared with a global audience.

We have a rich repertoire of protest. The movement has its own glossary, too. The words “ayyaş” (drunkard) and “çapulcu” (looter) have been filtered with humor, transformed and new words have been coined using English and other idioms. Different media and people have become involved in the process; new meanings have now been attached to these words.

Murat Belge criticized the artlessness with which the word “ayyaş” is used and said that the world “akşamcı” (habitual evening drinker) refers to the rakı tradition and the nuances of alcohol consumption. People who are versed in the Turkish language can perceive these nuances. By introducing themselves as “ayyaş” and “çapulcu,” the protesters have reversed the hurtful, offensive words and it contributed to the formation of a common identity for the movement. The host of a famous guess-the-word program on TV changed the literal meaning of the word “çapulcu,” describing it as “someone who tries to implement his/her ideas through physical means or an activist” and capitalized on the playful dynamics of the movement.

Uniting against polarizing policies

The Gezi movement has united people in a square and around a tree against the polarizing policies and rhetoric of the ruling party. It has brought together people, ideas, lifestyles and clubs that are hard to get to come together, including young and old people, students and bureaucrats, feminists and housewives, Muslims and leftists, Kurds and Alevis, Kemalists and communists, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş supporters. These people might have taken the stage perhaps only for a moment, but that moment has been engraved on the square and on the collective memory.

Some see this movement as doomed to be a minority movement as it cannot create an impact or opposition in the political arena. But the role and transformative power of active minorities in democracies cannot be underestimated. More importantly, it is wrong to look at this movement with a political perspective. The square movement can renovate the social imagination or texture of democracy as long as it remains independent and autonomous from political parties and preserves its innocence in the shadow of trees. But if it inserts itself into a political movement, it will, in fact, distance itself from democracy.

Therefore, the call for treating people with respect and the call for [the government's] resignation signify different dynamics. The revolt that seeks dignity should not be confused with the quest for overthrowing the ruling party. This means that the streets don’t care about the rules of democracy or disregard democratic elections.

The square movement has breathed new life into the shrinking public sphere. It has advocated that squares should be open to the public and they cannot be restricted to state control or plundered by capitalism. The ruling party is concerned about public order, but not about the public sphere. Perhaps, squares mean chaos in their parlance. They are determined not to be “deterred” by a handful of marginals and looters. Their insistence on the manner of administration, legal arrangements and disciplining citizens indicates that they have difficulty in handing over squares to individuals. They prefer the democracy of elections to the democracy of the square.

Struggles for democracy may exist in different time frames. The withdrawal of the military from the political arena, the launching of the peace process with the pro-Kurdish movement, the debate of the Armenian genocide taboo — each of these illustrates Turkey’s democratization. In the face of these entrenched and important issues, the Gezi Park movement may be despised as being the movement of those who are obsessed with daily issues and who seek to preserve their privileges. Some even argue that this movement undermines the AKP and therefore the peace process.

On the other hand, there are people who don’t want peace or who believe peace will not bring democracy, but reinforce the AKP’s power. However, the civilian resistance movement has helped to expand the sphere of democracy. Indeed, as noted by pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) İstanbul Deputy Sırrı Süreyya Önder, who lent support to the Gezi Park movement, this resistance will not undermine peace, but rather oppression; i.e., that refusing to give room to people, or not taking them seriously, would undermine this process.

The Gezi Square movement shows that we have arrived at a new watershed in democracy in Turkey. It has indicated once again that Kemalist-Islamist, neo-nationalist-separatist, reformist-pro-coup, progressive-conservative and other dichotomies that have left their marks on our political and philosophical lives are not as functional as we believed them to be.

The square is emerging as a venue or a means for coming together, debating, showing solidarity and intermingling with each other. Libraries are being established and cookies are being distributed.

A new form of citizenship is being rehearsed.

Nilüfer Göle
7 June 2013

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