The everyday praxis of occupied Taksim was in some ways more radical than that of Occupy Wall Street or even Tahrir during the 2011 uprising – but their demands, so far, have not been.
What started out as a protest tactic became an experiment in communal living. Activists occupied Gezi Park in order to prevent the cutting down of its trees – but their encampment soon grew into a utopian community whose everyday praxis was much more revolutionary than its demands.
Gezi Park: A Radical Space with Realistic Demands
In occupied Gezi Park everything was free. Food, water, gas masks, hard hats, medicines, tampons, blankets, tents. There was a free library with free books, and free concerts every night. “We didn’t want money to come into the park,” an activist explained. “We knew that would cause problems.” According to surveys, the vast majority of people took part in the protests as individuals, not as members of political parties, much less socialist organizations. And yet the park was run according to anti-capitalist ideas. Some occupiers likened Gezi park to the Paris Commune, others to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. (1)
The occupation of public space has been a key component of recent mass movements across the world. Despite very different goals, not to mention political contexts, activists from Egypt, to Bahrain, the United States, Germany, Spain, and now also Turkey, have sought to not only protest in, but rather occupy public space through the creation of encampments. Yet once established, their everyday praxis varied. During the massive anti-Mubarak protests in early 2011, occupied Tahrir became a liberated zone in a double sense. It was free of the police, but also largely free of oppressive practices. Civilian volunteers guarded security checkpoints around Tahrir while groups known as legaan shaabeya protected neighborhoods. The repressive security apparatus of the state had not only – momentarily – been brought to its knees. It had been made superfluous. (2) But there was no attempt to abolish the use of money. While some donations were made, Tahrir was largely supplied by informal street vendors who sold everything from koshary to cigarettes. Instead of embracing the idea of free goods and services, Egyptian activists had to defend themselves against accusations that they were receiving free meals.
But the radical praxis of Gezi park was not matched by equally radical demands. The five main goals include: preservation of the park, ending police brutality, halting the sale of public spaces, and freedom of expression and the media. Despite the fact that the opposition is boiling with anger about Prime Minister Erdoğan, it has not demanded that he resign, nor that early elections be held. While “Erdoğan istifa” may be heard in chants, or seen on banners, or scrolled as graffiti on the walls of Istanbul – the Taksim Dayanışması, (Taksim Solidarity) a platform of over 117 groups, shows no sign of even considering to embrace this demand. This is not a movement that wants the fall of the regime, or the ruling party, or even the Prime Minister. In the words of one activist: “We just want Erdoğan to shut up.”
A banner in Gezi Park demanding that Prime Minister Erdoğan resign; this demand has not been embraced by the Taksim Dayanışması. Photograph taken by the author.
Some analysts have applauded the “noble ethics” of these utopian communities that seem to spring up wherever mass movements arise. (3) Others have criticized them as an unrealistic strategy that only people with time on their hands can take part in. (4) Single parents, or those who work multiple jobs or more than 40 hours a week, could not spend weeks camping out in a park.
But this anti-capitalist experiment inside the belly of a capitalist society, however quixotic it may appear to outsiders, was perhaps what energized activists the most. The people I spoke with in Istanbul said that instead of draining their time and energy, that this community was precisely what energized them. “When you’re at home, you feel lonely and meaningless. You feel like you’re betraying the movement.” It was this communal space that Erdoğan was determined to crush. Perhaps it was not the demands of Gezi Park that threatened Erdoğan, but the utopian experiment itself. And the fact that – to everyone’s surprise – it garnered such widespread support, with protests spreading to at least 80 cities throughout Turkey.
To destroy a Park, they attacked a City
In order to destroy the commons that Gezi Park had become, the police had to attack more than just the park, or the physical space in which it was located – but all of downtown Istanbul. Including luxury hotels, restaurants, residential areas, and the main shopping thoroughfare of Istiklal.
I was in Gezi Park on Saturday June 15 when they started gas bombing it around 9pm. Along with hundreds of others, I fled to the Divan Hotel. For more than 2 weeks this 5-star hotel had opened its doors to activists seeking refuge from the onslaught of tear gas, water cannons, and police brutality. But instead of being safe inside, mayhem ensued as the police fired tear gas directly into the hotel. Even in the basement of the hotel, it was hard to breathe. People were having respiratory attacks and being carried out on stretchers. The tear gas was worse inside than outside. Children were in the park when it was attacked. Medics who assist injured protesters have been attacked. Lawyers who defend protesters have been attacked. And the hotel that acted as a safe haven for protesters was under siege. (5)
Around 1am, I decided that, rather than spending the night in the basement of a hotel that was being systematically tear gassed, I would be better off to find my way back to where I was staying in Cihangir. Not able to find a taxi, I ventured out on foot. Luckily there were a few journalists who were walking in the same direction, in other words back across Gezi Park and Taksim. We watched in disbelief as bulldozers razed the park to the ground, scooping up tents, tables, banners, blankets, and signs. They were not just throwing away the collective resources that had been accumulated through donations and the hard work of activists. They were destroying a utopian community – the people’s park – as if it were a piece of rubbish to be tossed away.
Istiklal Caddessi, usually vibrant and full of people on a Saturday evening, was eerily empty while tear gas billowed through the air. On the streets of Cihangir, however, the people were not so easily dispersed. The police seemed to have had orders to clear everyone from the streets – whether or not they were protesters. Although the few people I was with were readily identifiable as journalists carrying large cameras, the police treated us no differently: chasing us and throwing tear gas canisters after us. While virtually all of the shops by then were closed, we were able to escape into a cafe on the second floor that was still open, although the lights were off. In the darkened room, the waiter asked us to “pretend to be customers” in case the police came.
On Sunday, protesters tried to take back Taksim. Similar to the Ultras in Egypt, the Çarşı, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahçe football fans have played an important role in defending Gezi park against the police. But women were also on the front lines. On Sunday afternoon on Istiklal, a group of women sat down defiantly in front of approaching police tanks. As they waited for the pressurized water cannons to pound their backs, they chanted against Erdoğan’s admonition that women should bear at least three children.
While this level of police repression within the urban cities of Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir is unprecedented in recent Turkish history, it has not come close to the level of violence in Kurdistan or Egypt during the revolutionary upheaval. Within the span of just 18 days, over 800 people were killed during the anti-government uprising in Egypt. In the 27 days since protests began in Turkey, 6 people have been killed.
The ‘Standing Man’ Strategy as an Anti-Occupation
Over the last week, activists have devised a new protest strategy. On Monday evening, June 17, Erdem Gündüz stood silently on Taksim for eight hours. He was soon dubbed duranadam “the standing man”. When I arrived to Taksim around 2am Tuesday morning, he had already been dragged away, although he was soon after released. But five others had replaced him, standing silently on the square. And #duranadam had become a globally trending topic on Twitter. By Tuesday afternoon individuals across Turkey had taken up the new protest tactic. Instead of trying to retake Gezi park, activists are on the contrary realizing the goal of one of their main slogans: “Her yer Taksim, her yer direniş” (everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance). The idea of spreading their movement beyond Gezi Park is being put into practice in two ways: through the standing man/woman demonstrations that are happening throughout the country, and also through nightly meetings in various urban parks. While the meetings in parks serve the purpose of internal coordination within the movement, the standing man/woman protests symbolically carry their message to the larger public.
First meeting in Abbasağa Park in the neighborhood of Beşiktaş, after the destruction of Gezi Park. Photograph taken by the author.
Indeed, the standing man/woman protests can be understood as an anti-occupation. The people are effectively occupying public space without declaring an occupation. The police don’t know how to respond. Rule number three of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals published in 1971 was to “go outside the experience of your enemy.” This is not to suggest that the Turkish protesters are followers of Alinsky. On the contrary, processes of social movement diffusion these days are traveling more often from East to West. David Graeber wrote about the Occupy Wall Street Movement: “…we chose to occupy a park, inspired by examples from the Middle East and southern Europe, on the grounds that, as the public, we should not need permission to occupy public space.” (6)
By subverting the police crackdown, the standing protesters may have – at least momentarily – gained the upper hand. They have, however, lost the commons. What they have gained is still unclear.
Standing Man/Woman protests on Taksim Square. Photograph taken by the author.
Amy Austin Holmes has been an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo since 2008. Her previous research on social movements in Turkey has resulted in a forthcoming book Social Unrest and the US Military Presence in Turkey and Germany 1945-2005 with Cambridge University Press, as well as a feature-length documentary film. She was in Istanbul during the attacks on Gezi Park. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @AmyAustinHolmes
1. See also Ayşe Gül Altınay: “Direnenlerin Pedagojisi: Gezi Okulundan Öğrendiklerim,” June 11, 2013, http://www.bianet.org/bianet/toplum/147466-direnenlerin-pedagojisi-gezi-okulundan-ogrendiklerim, and Ali Bektas: “I’ve gone to resist, I’ll be right back.” June 14, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/06/14/“i’ve_gone_to_resist_i’ll_be_right_back”/
2. Amy Austin Holmes: “There are Weeks when Decades happen: Structure and Strategy in the Egyptian Revolution” in: Mobilization, December 2012
3. Bamyeh, Mohammed A. 2011. “The Egyptian Revolution: First Impressions from the Field.” The Asia-Pacific Journal 9(7). www.japanfocus.org/-Mohammed-Bamyeh/3486.
4. “Occupy ist noch nicht bereit für die Gesellschaft”, Interview with Oliver Nachtwey, May 31, 2013, http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2013-05/nachtwey-blockupy-frankfurt
5. Ian Alan Paul: “Resisting Tear Gas Together”, June 18, 2013 http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/12294/resisting-tear-gas-together; TÜRK TABİPLERİ BİRLİĞİ’NDEN ACİL ÇAĞRI http://www.ttb.org.tr/index.php/Haberler/cagri-3870.html; Matern Boselager “In Istanbul ist die Zeit der Verhandlungen vorbei”, June 16, 2013, http://www.vice.com/de/read/kampf-gezi-park-istanbul-erdogan-wasserwerfer-traenengas
6. David Graeber: “Occupy Wall Street’s Anarchist Roots”, November 30, 2011 http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/11/2011112872835904508.html