Coloured Rays of Gezi

By Erden Kosova
  • Erden Kosova

    Erden Kosova is a critic and writer living in Istanbul. He contributes to the e-journal magazine red-thread.org as a member of the editorial board. Kosova has been active in Ortak Müfredat, an initiative that is set to study and discuss current problematics of art education. He also participated in the field research activities of Siyah Bant, a project, which has the objective of mapping out cases of censorship within the cultural sphere in Turkey. He wrote two monographic texts on Aydan Murtezaoğlu and Esra Ersen (published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları).

When I used the phrase ‘slippery grounds’ for the title of the first text I submitted to WdW Review a month ago, I had no clue that the grounds it referred could shift so soon and so emphatically. The events that radiated from the Gezi Park protests left everyone here in Istanbul speechless; and as the first days of the Gezi meetings passed swiftly, everyone was amazed about the energy in the country and the surprising potential for cohabitation between different social groups. Despite the uncertainty around the future of the resistance, a plethora of academic and journalistic examination of the explosion and its causes appeared in the press and social media (and in pathetically belated TV news channels) –from the transformation of AKP policies to the character of the Prime Minister, from fallacies about the Turkish economy to detailed analyses of the urban problematics of Istanbul. Apart from the misreading of events as a dichotomy between the secular and the Islamist, which appeared in some of the Western European press in an Orientalist flavour, the foreign media also produced occasionally insightful pieces. It is truly difficult to proffer new insight within such a constantly and swiftly changing agenda. But I wanted to write down my subjective opinions and impressions of my visits to the park, and thereby try to make some sense of it.

One of the most striking aspects of the protests has been the amazing heterogeneity of the actors. Political dissent in Turkey has for many years been splintered into niches harboring specific concerns. And on the political level, it was practically impossible to bring groups together; the dividing axes of Turk-Kurd, Secular-Muslim and Sunni-Alevi have, until now, hindered a possible bloc-reaction to the government. At Gezi we saw that the psychological borders have melted among the protesters. Except for some squabbles, there has been an inspiring atmosphere of cohabitation in the field. Let’s concentrate on the components of the Gezi assembly.

Youth: The proportion of young people within the protests is still being debated, but it’s obvious that people in their early twenties have been the most active segment. They were at the front of clashes, producing the swathes of graffiti on the occupied territory, conducting alternative methods of communication and supplying the physical force required for the daily maintenance of the park. Academic research compiled since the protests started shows that their primal concern has been the protection of their liberties, which, they felt, were under threat from the government’s conservative advances. For most of them, the Gezi uprising is the first political activity they have contributed to. Much has been said about the previously existing prejudices about this generation, portraying them as apolitical youngsters atomized in their rooms, immersed within the gratifications of the digital sphere, and completely detached from their social and political environment. This line of thought seems to assume that the young crowd came out of nowhere, reacting to the authoritarian practices of an elected government in a spontaneous fashion. I perceive it differently: the energy hasn’t just come from nowhere and doesn’t correspond to the whole of the generation. The students I taught at the university and came across at the park were the ones who had already expressed political awareness and social sensitivities during class. The difference with the previous generations was that they could not identify themselves with an existing body of political dissent, which apparently created a psychological compression, releasing the energy in an explosive way. But there is a new and striking language, which they brought with them and that represents the character of their generation: while articulating their criticisms of the government they aimed directly at the patriarchal logic of the currently existing political system. Never before has a political figure been exposed to such revilement and debasement. There have been deep antagonisms within the political sphere in Turkey for some time and there is a rich tradition of dissent. But the overriding language of opposition has been defined by a call for soberness and seriousness – reasonably deriving from the formal and hierarchic structures of the oppositional groups. But the language expressed in the Gezi protests (a language which infectiously spread from Istanbul to nearly all Turkish cities and backgrounds) blends playfully mockery, surrealist connections, classic détournements, absurdist jokes, sexual insults, and other tropes of satirical humour magazines in equal parts. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s patriarchal aura founded on a laddish cocksure swagger and other megalomanias are the primal causes of this transgressive, nearly patricidal language. But also the fact that the youth has not been disciplined within the hierarchies of the oppositional traditions has helped them to swiftly ditch the icon – and it looks like Erdoğan will not be the only victim of this emancipatory move.

In the first days of the uprising, nearly all national TV channels decided to ignore and veil the events: the two supposedly objective news channels, CNN-Türk and NTV, screened documentaries about penguins and food shows reruns. Consequently, information from and communication with the protesters was established via digital media and in a remarkably efficient way. The conventional social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook 1In Turkey there are 20 million social media users, which constitutes 79% of the online population – a rate that is 17% higher than the world average. were reinforced by applications and programs such as Vine (a short clips app), Zello (a kind of digital transmitter app for smartphones) and ustream (a video streaming program) that I personally didn’t know of before. Much will be written about young people’s skills and their pioneering role in adopting these new tools, and the ways in which they applied the lexicon and the logic of popular computer games to a physical conflict taking place in a real social space – but I must confess I’m not expert enough to give an insightful analysis on that. But it was also interesting to see these young people going back to a more conventional medium of information: books. The Gezi library authorized a mutual and free exchange of books, magazines and catalogues, and the practice of reading at the park became a common sight, mostly among the young. As the already politicized circles and formal structures of the opposition are trying to understand the specific dynamics of this uprising and admit the necessity for a reflexive consideration on emerging paths of political action, young people are also looking to relate their dissent to the accumulated experience and knowledge coming from the existing plurality of urban politics and thinking. I had the chance to observe the quick and remarkable politicization of the graduate students at Goldsmiths College in London during the protests against the British invasion of Iraq in 2003. Seeing a similar process of politicization here Turkey, I can’t help being optimistic about the future of activism and creative expression in the country.

Feminism and the LGBT movement: The most striking aspect of the Gezi uprising has been the visibility of women in the events. Contrasting with the male-dominated nature of demonstrations in the past, women were this time in abundance and at the front. Brave gestures like standing in front of water cannons at the barricades, having physical contact with the police, and operating as an adhesive between the groups defied the patriarchal call for submission. The government’s policies, mostly declared by the Prime Minister himself in relation to the policing of the female body and family matters 2New restrictions on abortion, failed attempts to criminalize extramarital relationships, constant demands for “at least three children” from families, hypocritical reactions coming from the conservative ranks, which aimed to block membership of veiled women in parliament, and the scandalously soft approach of courts to accused subjects in rape trials etc. had already put a lot of pressure on women, and accordingly the reaction that followed allowed women to open up another crack in the discursive coherency of the existing order.

The language used during the protests was, as I said, quite hostile to the paternal authority the Prime Minister and to the logics of patriarchy in general. We have come across instances with curiously psycho-analytic implications – a lot of references to ass, excrement and nakedness, as with the man who took off his clothes during the night clashes and ran against the water cannon on Istiklâl Street. Naturally, there is a lot of sexism therein… The feminist groups staged tours of the misogynistic and homophobic graffiti on the streets and patiently reminded the protesters to be wary of using other modes of discriminative thinking in their criticism of the government, and embrace the radiant plurality of the emerging resistance.

The visibility of the LGBT movement in the social space has been up until recently quite restricted. In the face of social conditions becoming increasingly hostile 3Recent murders of transsexuals (18 murders this year alone); the harassment of people who remain visibly outside of the normative gender binary; and the AKP’s insistent unwillingness to processing legislations that would acknowledge the rights of non-heterosexual persons in accordance with EU standards., there was a need to communicate the struggle for rights to the society at large and for that reason, LGBT groups began to organize the Gay Pride at İstiklâl Street (first in 2003) and to participate in big demonstrations such as the May Day demos and Newroz celebrations. Their active participation and jokes at Gezi Park were received with sympathy and reinforced the sense of solidarity among the groups present at the park. As a result, this year’s Gay Pride (held the last weekend of this June) attracted huge crowds of all sexual leanings.

Coordinators: Gezi Park attracted tens of political organizations and thousands of people with no group affiliations. Taksim-Solidarity, supported by nearly all the organizations that took part in the demonstrations (political parties, unions, chambers, NGO’s, neighbourhood associations, art groups), has acted as coordinator, without claiming to establish a central structure, conforming to the revolt’s progression without hierarchies and leader positions, and respecting the specificities of its constituents. Taksim-Platform, one of the constituents, was established to monitor and analyze the grand scheme of transformation that has been implemented at Taksim 4As the urban theorist Orhan Esen pointed out at a recent seminar, the issue at hand is not only about the transformation of Gezi Park, and not only about the pedestrianization of the surface of the square and the building of dividing tunnels for cars underneath it; what the government proposes with the ongoing project is the investment in functional and economic change at the square and various neighborhoods adjacent to it, and the introduction of a new regime of control. for the last one and a half years. Its members, mostly residents of Taksim and its neighbourhoods struggled to open up a participatory ground for reflecting upon the future of their locality and to persuade the government and metropolitan municipality to negotiate with the residents and urban thinkers in shaping projects. The hypocrisy of the government in its claims to open up a general atmosphere of inclusivism in key issues in the country 5Most importantly, the AKP government promised an inclusive approach for developing a new constitution that would eliminate the militaristic and statist remnants of the previous one, but it did everything to avoid an egalitarian platform for discussion with other parties in parliament and with civic organizations from outside parliament. was re-staged during the Taksim discussions and after with limited human resources and a distinct lack of media attention. Taksim-Platform decided to concentrate its criticism on the government’s Gezi Park plans – the struggle against the dividing tunnels and the fake pedestrian malls attached to the project seemed already lost. The Platform thought they could reach out to the ecological sensitivities and attention of the people by trying to protect Gezi’s greenery along with other activist groups. The strategy seems to have been efficacious, and further enhanced by the irrationally brutal police reaction. There were tens of groups that took on organizational tasks and contributed to the festive atmosphere at the park, but it seems to me important to name one in particular: Müştereklerimiz (Our Commons), another joint project between different activist and resistance groups. The project aims at thinking about the connections between the grievances of individuals, groups and neighbourhoods, stepping out of isolated struggles, reinforcing the transversal interaction between resistant units, and creating a united ground for action. This multifaceted political energy released from Gezi Park is in need, at critical moments, of trajectories of continuity and coherence, and the theoretical repertoire achieved so far by activist and academic experiences needs to be acted upon. Müştereklerimiz promises the potential for such a synergy .

Alevis 6Alevism (Alevîlik) is a religious group combining Anatolian folk Shi’ism with Sufi elements, such as those of the Bektashi tariqa. Believers live almost entirely in Turkey, with minorities in Albania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Crimea, Greece, Tatarstan and the Turkish Diaspora. Because of their heterodox beliefs and practices, Alevis have been the target of historical and recent oppression [Note from the editors].: As I stated in the previous text, in their first two terms in power, the AKP was careful to maintain a low-profile character, establishing affiliations with liberal intellectuals, trying to soften the prejudices about them by approaching minority groups and promising improvements in community rights. They had difficulty convincing the Alevis. After the first election victory, in the AKP’s parliamentary ranks, there were eight lawyers who had defended the perpetrators of the Sivas Massacre in 1993, one of the most traumatic events in recent Turkish history, in which a mob of Sunni zealots burnt down a hotel hosting young Alevis, socialist intellectuals, poets and musicians. Thirty-five people lost their lives in the atrocity, opening another deep wound in an already five-centuries-old paradigm of Alevi suffering. The AKP made some symbolic gestures to warm relations with the Alevis, such as inviting a couple to MP positions, organising an Alevi Workshop or attending ceremonies on their holy days, but with their third term in power, Alevi demands (allowances for their specific worshipping houses, public budget for clergy expenses, etc.) were received coldly. Since Alevism belongs to Islam, the AKP argued, Alevis had to worship in mosques, not cem houses.

AKP’s aggressive rhetoric in relation to the civil war in Syria and its controversial support to the opposition forces, including the al-Qaida-related units, has deepened fears of sectarianism. Rivalling Iran for Shia influence in the Middle East, the AKP’s foreign policy gradually shifted to one of leading the Sunni forces in the region. As the opposition forces failed to deliver a swift collapse of the Assad regime, the impatient AKP diplomacy appealed to an ideology of demonising the non-Sunni constituents of Syrian society. The increasing tension came to a climax when two car bombs exploded in Reyhanlı near the Syrian border earlier this year, killing 51 people. The instant ban on broadcasting on the incident as ordered by the courts reinforced the widespread anger against the government, which was accused of bringing the Syrian war home. And just a couple of days before the Gezi crisis, another scandal broke: at the ceremony marking the start of work on the third bridge along the Bosporus, the project’s name was declared to be “Yavuz Sultan Selim,” the sultan who beat the Safavid army in Iran (1514) and massacred tens of thousands of Alevis at home who sympathized with the Shah İsmail of Safavids. The symbolism could not have been more provocative. The enraged Alevis rushed to the support of the Gezi protesters, and neighborhoods with Alevi majorities in Istanbul (Gazi, Gülensu, Gülsuyu, Sarıgazi) organized separate demonstrations and revolts.

Kurds: One of the most important interventions in the Gezi crisis came from Sırra Süreyya Önder, a charming member of parliament for the BDP (the party which is associated with Kurdish rights in the country), who stood against the bulldozers that came to uproot the trees in the park. His defiance at the beginning of events and his injury by a shot teargas canister (clearly, there have been police officers who know at whom to aim) prompted masses of people to go to the streets. But his party remained restrained in the following days. The extremely fragile process of negotiation between the government and Kurdish guerrilla resistance (or more concretely, the negotiation between the Turkish intelligence service and Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK who has been in prison for the last 14 years) prevented the party from being too visible at the events, despite the popular support of its sympathizers among the protesters. But the emphasis on the Turkish flags during the revolts and the massive participation of Kemalist hardliners with intolerable anti-Kurdish sentiments were also factors moderating the Kurdish participation. Another reproach coming from the Kurds concerned the metropolitan population’s historic silence and disinterest regarding the decades-long Kurdish suffering and state brutality in the east. On the other hand, the never-ending lies and reactionary and paranoiac introversion of Erdoğan and his team after the revolts raised suspicions about the credibility of the government and the future of the peace process. “The process’” had already seemed like a ransom to secure the Kurdish vote for a reinforced presidential bid. Erdoğan’s dream of self-imposed career promotion seems now to be in tatters and his temper and recklessness might easily produce other destructive results.

Kemalists: One of the most striking results of the Gezi protests was that it brought together political views that have been hostile to each other for decades. Kemalism, the founding ideology of the Republic, which is based on a state-regulated modernism and secularity, and which flirted for a while with the political tone of social democracy, has failed to reform itself and hence become mired in the unitarian principles of the Republic: one nation, one language, one ethnicity. The stance taken in relation to Kurdish ethnicity and rights in the country divided the whole leftist ground and Kemalism drifted into a reactionary position, and with the recently established relations with a couple of far-left socialist parties it led the anti-Kurdish bloc, occasionally appealing to a quite racist rhetoric. Now, masses of people flowing to the streets with their Turkish flags came face to face with pluralist socialists, anarchists and Kurdish protesters. I heard many stories about people with Kemalist predilections being shocked to see the posters of PKK leader Öcalan next to Turkish flags. The split between the Kemalists and other Gezi protesters crystallized in two ways: firstly, Kemalists chanted the slogan “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal”, whereas the others chanted “We will not Kill/ We will not Die / We won’t be the soldier of anyone”. The other difference lies between the strikingly patricidal tone employed by the Gezi protesters and the deification of Atatürk by the Kemalists. But cohabitation can teach a lot. The unexpected encounter with people from other convictions might lead some segments of the Kemalist population to revise their position with respect to Kurdish demands – despite the fact that some of the hardliners have already resumed their efforts to sabotage the peace process. Without this revision, the chances for another governmental constellation seem extremely slim.

Anti-capitalist Muslims: In the nineties, when the Islamic movement was still the opposition, its intellectual power was also at its peak. Muslim students were reading the then contemporary philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Richard Rorty, and others in addition to modern Islamic philosophy; collectively they were well informed on Post-structuralism, the history of political philosophy, and versed themselves with the on-going debates surrounding social theory internationally. We even saw anarcho-Muslim groups emerge. The intellectual monopoly of leftist traditions was openly being challenged, but after AKP came into power, the critical tone in the Islamic movement, and their philosophical pursuits simply evaporated. The depth of their internal discussions became more and more shallow, and figures that had been voicing specific criticism of the movement drifted slowly into soft conformism. One exception to this trend is a group of Anti-capitalist Muslims who have strictly, and consistently criticized the neoliberal policies of the government, and the values of the nouveau rich such policies created. Of course they did not hesitate to join the Gezi revolts, they were there from the start. Their presence at the park was one of the biggest tackles to the government who tried to portray the Gezi crowd as a bunch of marginal infidels, who dare to step into sacred spaces with alcohol in their hands. The mutual respect and solidarity between the Anti-capitalist Muslims, and other groups belied AKP’s black propaganda completely and knocked down walls of prejudice.

Football Supporters: Only a couple of weeks ago, before the football season came to an end, there was a near civil war atmosphere in the Turkish league, it was so tense. But the anger against the government, or more specifically the Prime Minister, managed to bring diehard supporters together. In Istanbul, supporters of the big clubs came shoulder-to-shoulder to the protests; they waved each other’s flags and chanted songs together. The clashes with police in the first days required muscle power and the supporters gave it. They already had a lot of experience in this from previous seasons, and they knew how to react to batons and teargas. And they brought their rich repertoire of chants and slogans and adopted them to the Gezi context, which raised the morale of all protesters. One of the focal points of the clashes was in the Beşiktaş district and hence Çarşı, the main supporter group of Beşiktaş JK, came to the front armed with creative and rebellious skills. The left-wing and politically central supporter groups of Fenerbahçe SK, who have being suffering from a government-led interrogation of match-fixing, provided massive support. Arch-rivals within the city of İzmir came to Istanbul to contribute to the resistance. Supporters of other clubs came individually as well. Football kits of all colours bolstered the festive character of the Gezi crowd and gave a legitimizing twist to the protests. Recent anti-violence measures engineered by the government targeted supporter groups, and the reaction came along with politicization of the football stands. We might expect more to happen in the coming season.

Artists: One of the main motives of my previous text ‘Slippery Grounds’ was the polarization of the contemporary art scene in Turkey between the institutionalized circles and their radical critics. As with the football supporters, artists and art workers have suspended their divisions to concentrate their energies on the resistance. There was no attempt to open up a space for ‘art’ since what was being experienced did not require such a platform. Some of the artists contributed to the organization of the OccupyGezi, some of them held workshops at the park, some helped with the informational flow locally or mobilized their international networks through social media. Interestingly, one of the most striking acts in the whole process came from a young artist, Erdem Gündüz, “the standing man”.

The conflict that had evolved around the art institutions’ entrenchment in commercialism and capital relations is still there, of course. Strangely, Koç family, the main sponsor of the Istanbul Biennial and one of the main targets of the art-activists, gained social credit by sheltering Gezi protesters who had been exposed violently to teargas in their Divan Hotel. Would that hint at constructing a pact between liberals and leftists against the authoritarianism of the government? It will be curious to see how the white bourgeoisie will react to the threads now coming from Erdoğan. As another aspect, Gezi events also increased the credibility of radical activism, which was, in the art context, understood before by some as superficial agit-prop. Anger seems to have produced palpable effects. Overwhelming scenes on the streets (graffiti of every kind; destroyed, overturned and painted buses; painted-over moving billboard screens; videos from the clashes), exploded discussions relating to the notion of the ‘public,’ and the civic energy that has been established in various parks as democratic forums might easily overshadow any artistic attempt for framing what happened. It will be interesting to see how the Istanbul Biennial will respond to the radicality that has emerged from the public space and how this radical energy will keep on defining future creativity.