18 June 2013

Standing Man in Occupy Istanbul

As you know, the protests that started out as a minor display of environmental discontent turned into an epic yet peaceful confrontation with the authorities. Last week, I wrote that this was something completely new in Turkey and it signaled the birth of a civil society.

I also suggested that the Prime Minister was likely to separate the environmental element of the protest from the political discontent and act generously regarding the former. And he would use fiery rhetoric to whip up more support from his base.

He did both but he was much less generous about the environmental demands than I thought and his rhetoric to his constituency was much more belligerent and polarizing.

When he ordered the police to take back the Square there were skirmishes all around the area. Initially, I was dismayed that the demonstrators abandoned their non-violent civil disobedience and began confronting the riot police. But it quickly became clear that the groups that responded in kind belonged to some traditional left wing organizations and had little to do with the original demonstrators.

Those young people were using a different tactic. They were moving to an area and waiting for the police to attack them. Then, instead of standing there and taking a beating, they were quickly dispersing only to pop up somewhere else. It was a cat-and-mouse game that really unnerved the riot police. Social media sites had cell phone clips of police officers really in tears begging the protesters to stop doing that.

A young man said that in the past, there were two kinds of resistance: active or passive. This is a new one, he said and we invented it. It is neither active (we are non-violent) nor passive (we refuse to be pepper sprayed silently). And we are the video game generation, our goal is not to win or quit when we loose. We will play for as long as we want.

Everyday they came up with a new expression of civil disobedience. Now that the Taksim Square is open to pedestrians, yesterday a young man stood in a corner and stayed there for eight hours. People quickly realized that he came up with a new way of communicating their anger.
His protest quickly captured the imagination of the protest movement. The hash tag "duranadam" ("standing man") dominated Turkish-language Twitter on Tuesday morning.
Then others started standing up in different areas of the Square. The original protester was a performance artist by the name of Erdem Gunduz. This is him in the center and behind him are the people who later joined his silent and immobile protest. They are looking at a large picture of Ataturk that is hanging from the Opera building in one corner of the Square.

Apparently, this unnerved the police and they detained ten people. According to social media, these detainees were charged with resisting police by not making a statement and by not moving. You can see how perversely funny this new mode of demonstration: try making those charges stick in a court of law.

This is what I meant when I suggested that these events looked like the birth of a civil society. These people did not need some kind of leader to tell them what to do. They got together spontaneously, organized themselves, quickly adopted an inclusionary and non-violent posture and they resisted traditional organized groups trying to take over the movement by re-introducing violent methods.

More importantly, their demands were not material benefits to be bargained down, as they were revendicating more freedom in a better society. And how they formulated these demands was as important as their content.

In contrast, Erdogan's response could not have been more traditional.

He copied to old state over society blueprint: He organized rallies in conservative neighborhoods, he bussed in his supporters, he called these young people terrorists and threatened to use the full power of the state against anyone and everyone who helped them.

In other words, we are the state and we are in charge and you the society should know your place and shut up when we tell you to.

Kenan Evren, the general who led the last coup in 1980, would have been proud.

It is indeed ironic that a party whose actions helped the emergence of a civil society is completely unequipped and unable to deal with that society.

No comments:

Post a Comment