Thursday, June 13, 2013

Gezi Protests in Turkey: A War of Narratives?

For a while, it seemed to me like there was a war of narratives over how the Gezi protests should be interpreted. Prime Minister Erdoğan and others from his government tried to portray the protesters in a certain way and the protesters offered an alternative narrative. I will talk more about these narratives, later on this post. However, I now think that the protesters were not interested in this war of narratives as much as the government was: The protesters wanted to deflect the government's unfounded claims. Besides that, they did not show any interest in putting a certain spin on their protests. I strongly believe that  this stance reflects a genuine approach to politics in Turkey: Politics as principled action.

The government's narrative shifted over time. Erdoğan started with identifying the protesters as "a few marauders" ("birkaç çapulcu" in Turkish) during the initial days of the protests, before he left for a trip to Africa. There were no nuances in this initial identification, i.e. all the protesters were marauders, drunkards, and marginals. While Erdoğan was away, police brutality resulted in an increased number of protesters at Taksim Square. The protests also spread to other parts of Istanbul and to many other cities in Turkey. To end the mayhem, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç accepted a delegation of the Gezi protesters and publicly apologized for police brutality on June 4. It was during Arınç's apology when we heard the glimpses of a new narrative on Gezi protesters for the first time. Arınç made a clear distinction between "peaceful demonstrations held by environmentalists and the violent protests held by marginal groups."

When Erdoğan came back from his trip, very early in the morning on June 7, he abandoned Arınç's conciliatory tone for a much more belligerent one. I was in front of the TV stunned at 2:30am that morning, when he let his supporters chant "Let us go! We'll crush Taksim Square." In spite of his defiant stance however, Erdoğan's narration of the protesters was in line with Arınç's. Over the next few days, he also made a clear distinction between "our environmentalist youth" and "marginal protesters". On June 11, Erdoğan called on "the youth protesting with candid feelings to end this business [of protesting]" so that they are not used by those who want to harm Turkey.

This narrative has become crystal clear with Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu's press briefing on June 11. Governor Mutlu called on the parents of the youth at Gezi Park to pull their kids out. He claimed that "marginal groups" put the lives of these kids in danger. It was quite impossible to miss Mutlu's main point when he used the phrase "marginal groups" in every other sentence. The government eventually settled on this narrative that separated between "our environmentalist youth who are protesting with candid feelings" and "the marginal groups who are protesting violently to harm Turkey". This narrative achieves three things: 1) Infantalizing the youth (and consequently undermining the broader political implications of the protests); 2) Limiting the protest with environmental concerns (and, again, undermining the broader political implications of the protests); 3) Drawing a clear distinction between peaceful protesters and violent protesters, (a distinction that cannot so easily be drawn in reality due to police baiting through disproportionate use of violence,) and legitimizing violent suppression of any protests outside Gezi Park borders.

What was the Gezi protesters narrative then? How did they try to put a spin on their identity so that they gain an advantage over the state? First of all, it is hard to talk about the protesters as a single group. It is a conglomeration of different age groups and political views. There is not a hierarchical leadership that commands the entire protest movement. Over the past two weeks, "Taksim Solidarity" emerged as the leading entity, but from what I understand, this is quite a horizontal body and the decisions are taken after long and open deliberations. They are truly democratic. Second, Gezi protesters reject violence. On June 11, after the police took control of Taksim Square and forced the protesters back into Gezi Park, NTV correspondent on the ground reported that one of the protesters threw a stone to the police. He was eventually chased by the other protesters and he had to take refuge with the cops, who subsequently took him into custody. It has become more and more clear over time that the protesters put more emphasis on the non-violent character of the resistance. See the pictures below for the iconic girl in the red dress, and another example of peaceful protests at Gezi.




Respect for plurality has been another important characteristic of Gezi protesters. If you told me two weeks ago that Kemalist groups and Kurdish activists could be in close proximity with each other, I'd just laugh back at you. However, when I was at Gezi, I saw how Kemalists were just fine with a Kurdish activist group marching and praising imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan. I have read accounts of tensions between these groups rising occasionally and how others intervene to sustain peace in the park. Check out this picture below for a perfect example:

Girl with a Turkish flag, holding hands with a guy with BDP (the main Kurdish party) banner.
Another example of the respect for plurality within Gezi Park is how the protesters were warning each other to avoid exclusionary discourses. For example, the initial graffiti and chants included "O.Ç. Tayyip", i.e. calling the Prime Minister "son of a bitch", and "ibne", i.e. "faggot", a widely used insult in daily talk. This was very problematic because many sex workers and LGBT individuals have been an integral part of the protest movement at Gezi. It is quite remarkable that such graffiti and chanting eventually stopped and people seem to be very self-conscious about it now. An LGBT Gezi graffiti below:

Revolutionary homosexuals everywhere!

The last important characteristic of Gezi protesters that I want to underline is their anti-capitalist stance. The protesters shared their resources since the very beginning. Especially with increased support from outside, the protesters set up special tents for food, infirmary, and books. Instructors have been offering many open classes, such as yoga, music and arts. See the pictures below for some examples:




To sum up, Gezi protesters are democratic, peaceful, pluralistic, and anti-capitalist. Is this their spin on who they are? Here comes the important point for me. Unlike the government's narrative, which portrays Gezi protesters in a certain incorrect way, the protesters' own narrative is completely genuine with no spin on it. Their identity is derived from their collective principled actions. The protesters' own narrative is not manufactured in order to subdue a certain political opponent, it is a reflection of their worldviews - their politics. This is why these youth just stupefied the AKP government. The government could neither comprehend nor reply to such politics. The government has been used to the old politics game where they exchanged blows with the weak opposition over how to interpret certain events. They have become masters of writing narratives that almost always won against CHP's or MHP's. They reacted the same way towards these youth, and tried to identify them as naive environmentalists who were being manipulated by marginal groups, which wanted to harm Turkey. However, when the gas cloud was blown away, what we saw was democratic, peaceful, pluralistic, and anti-capitalist young people resisting for more democratic participation in policy-making and less government intervention in lifestyles. Their story won against the government's because it simply was the plain reality.

Back in the 1970s, such principled youth action also played an important role in shaping politics. The 1970s youth was also anti-capitalist, but they were not democratic, pluralistic, or peaceful. I believe that the Gezi protesters represent a genuine approach to politics in Turkey because their political demands correspond perfectly with how they live. Their political demands are simply a reflection of their life choices. These young people have not only been asking for police violence to stop, they also have been arguing that democracy does not just consist of elections - the rights of the minorities should be respected as well. Their call for democracy, pluralism and peace is reflected in their lives at Gezi. That is what I call principled action and that is why I believe this is a genuine approach to politics in Turkey. In the midst of a political world of lies and spins, the Gezi protesters stand firm - their lives powered by their ideas and nothing else. It is a breath-taking view. I strongly believe that these protesters are offering us the blueprints of how the left can aspire to be successful in this brave neo-liberal world.





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