08 June 2013

Images from Occupy Istanbul

I am sure you must have seen many headlines comparing Occupy Istanbul (or Gezi Direnis as they call themselves) to the Arab Spring.

I am here to assert that they have nothing in common.

I will provide a theoretical framework tomorrow but first let me enumerate in lay terms all the points that make those events in Istanbul quite unique.

1) The starting point was about urban spaces and environmental concerns.

Roughly 100 well meaning environmental activists attempted a peaceful sit-in protests to protect a dozen trees.

Nothing earth shattering.

Then they were attacked by the police copying the NYPD's Occupy movement handbook. The police moved in around 5 a.m. burned their tents, used pepper spray on them and dispersed them with water cannons.

2) The reaction to police brutality was spontaneous.

As the activists hit the social media, thousands of people began pouring to the park. When they were attacked by the police, first tens of thousands then hundreds of thousands of people joined in.

People walked all night (Istanbul is vast city) to get there.

Perhaps for the first time in Turkey's history, participation had nothing to do with trade unions or political parties bussing in their supporters.

3) People from all walks of life joined the protest.

Just to provide an extreme example, in a macho and largely homophobic country like Turkey, there was a group of openly gay people with banners about their sexual identity and no one seemed to be bothered. (The banner on the right reads, "So what if we are queer")

Ultra-nationalists walked side-by-side with Kurdish separatists.

Soccer fans, who routinely beat each other up before or after soccer matches, entered the square as a united front.

Affluent housewives from posh neighborhood, who wouldn't be caught dead in such a crowd were chanting with women wearing the Islamic headscarf.

One woman with an Islamic turban had a banner that said "It is hard to take the AKP when you are sober."

Think about that. This is the woman in the picture on the left.

The one on her right reads "shoulder to shoulder against fascism."

These are people who most likely voted for the AKP in the past.

There is also this on the right. A Turkish Björk impersonator with a dove in her hand and her new found Islamist BFF.

4) The protesters received unexpected help from a large variety of people.

Shopkeepers in the area offered shelter, lemons (against pepper spray), water and anything else they needed.

Nearby five start hotels (like Divan) opened their doors to them, gave them food and shelter.

People offered their apartments as temporary shelter and put it on Twitter and post it on their buildings for passersby.

Interestingly, Starbucks refused and the following day there was a national boycott. They relented just in time.

5) The protesters organized themselves quickly and efficiently without the assistance of any Brotherhood or a political apparatus.

Within hours, they had the cell phones of pro bono lawyers on Twitter for people who were arrested (in terms of Smart Phone, Internet, Twitter and Facebook penetration Turkey leads Europe in most categories).

They set up Food Stands where people could phone in delivery of foods and put that on Twitter and Facebook.

They had a temporary field hospitals with physicians providing first aid to injured people.

They even had a field hospital for stray dogs who were affected by the pepper gas staffed by volunteer veterinarians. (image on the left)

Some protesters delivered first aid to stray dogs who live in the park.

And those dogs seem to have joined in the protests with banners of their own.

Here is a large clickable picture that shows all the facilities the protesters created after the first day.

Besides organizing themselves quickly, they did something very difficult to achieve: they took control of the message. After the disarray of the first day and violent confrontations with the police, they began stopping people from throwing stones or from swearing at the police.

Facebook and Twitter was full of short and informative "how to conduct ourselves" manuals.

They convinced the demonstrators that it is far better to be on the receiving end of excessive police force than to be shown on TV as angry people throwing stones.

And the woman in red became the iconic representation of that idea. Take a look at how she does not even move while being sprayed.

Perhaps their most unique gesture was to clean up the square after the first day of violent confrontations.

It seems to have touched a lot of indifferent people and convinced them that the demonstrators were responsible and serious individuals.

They still continue with daily clean-ups.

6) They rapidly got the message out.

After the first day, compiled videos began to appear on You Tube. Some with hauntingly beautiful background music.

Others (like "Everyday I am çapulling" using LMFAO's "Everyday I am shuffling") with a decidedly more mischievous take.

(Çapulling refers to Erdogan calling the protesters "Çapulcu" (pronounced chapooljoo but they simplified it as chapulcu in English posters and videos). It roughly means riffraff.

The protesters created a verb out of it as chapulling and there is a Wikipedia entry for it already.)


They managed to get an international solidarity movement with demonstrations in many countries and people claiming the label "capulcu."

They shamed Turkey's co-opted corporate media with very a effective image campaign on Twitter.

This one on the right shows CNN international live in Taksim and at the same moment CNN-Turkey broadcasting a documentary on penguins.

Another cable news channel NTV also ignored the events. The following day, some protesters went to their headquarters to denounce their dubious journalistic priorities. The company's CEO had to apologize.

The protesters than visited the HQ of Garanti Bankasi, another company owned by the same company that owns NTV and its CEO met with the protesters and declared himself a Capulcu.

Not to shabby for a bunch of Chapulcus!

7) Maintained a sense of humor

Their slogans and posters are very funny. And they are all over the place in Turkish social media.

But even the BBC took note. Their latest on Istanbul is entitled "Will Istanbul's Protesters Have the Last Laugh?"


As of tonight at 7 p.m. Istanbul time, here is where they are. It looks like nobody is going anywhere. And no organization has asked for this.

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