Occupy And Resist: The New Politics of Turkey
On his return from Istanbul, Kerem Nisancioglu reflects on the similarities and differences between the Occupy movement and recent events in Turkey.
Thousands of hands go up in the air, vigorously shaking. A small group starts cheering and clapping, only to be hushed by the crowd – ‘hand signals, use the hand signals’ the chair insists over a PA system. A young woman, no older than 25, bellows “this movement was built in the street, real democracy is in the street,” inspiring unanimous approval among her peers. The throng exudes an unmistakable air of excitement, galvanised by an involvement and camaraderie that has rarely, if ever, been a part of their ‘normal’ experience of politics. Welcome to the new politics of Turkey – the open, horizontally structured, participatory general assemblies, or ‘forums,’ which have spontaneously and autonomously sprung up in local parks across Istanbul and beyond.
The parallels with Occupy in the UK are striking. Common to the ‘Western’ and Turkish experience is an anger with the alienation of the public from political and economic decision making. There is, as with Occupy, a widespread distrust of ‘old politics’ and their manifestations in mainstream parties. Previously ‘apolitical’ people have formed the overwhelming bulk of participants, with one poll showing 79% are unaffiliated to any party or group. Like Occupy, the Turkish protests began as an attempt to reclaim the right to the city, inhabiting Gezi Park in the centre of Istanbul with a permanent camp. Before its violent eviction, the Gezi commune became a space within which prefigurative practices of mutual aid were developed – food, clothing and cigarette distribution; free libraries, an organic garden and crèche; communal security, cleaning and medical procedures.
But there are numerous complexities in the Turkish case that escape simple comparison. Indeed, the unfortunate translation of Diren Gezi into Occupy Gezi (diren means ‘resist’) obscures the significant differences between the two movements. In the Turkish resistance, multiple political identities co-mingle – alongside revolutionary groups, environmentalists and autonomous activists, football firms, Kurds, Kemalists, Sunnis and Alevis are also present. There is contrary to some reports, a permanent involvement of the labour movement and working class communities frustrated with the erosion of labour rights and mass privatizations. Unlike Occupy, and contrary to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s assertions, there has been mass public participation. This has created the opportunity to confront the multiplicity of problems and grievances that define Turkey’s peculiar political landscape.
Therefore it would be a mistake to suggest Turkey has slavishly followed precedents set in the West. Experiences and symbols of Occupy have been appropriated where necessary while other elements have been pushed in new and altogether original directions. The cultural flourishing that has accompanied the movement has a distinctively Turkish personality and sense of humour. Gatherings in Gezi Park were almost permanently festive, with music, dancing, chanting and marching more prominent than the ‘teach-ins’ typical of UK occupations. Some of the traditions of Occupy have been altogether ignored or discarded. For example, Diren Gezi has shown none of the hesitancy towards developing concrete political demands, forming a new party or participating in electoral politics.
What can explain this divergence? One of the main factors is the contrasting levels of authoritarianism and state violence. In the UK, Occupy London was partly able to continue for so long because it could be largely tolerated by the government, who largely avoided direct confrontation and instead engaged in a drawn out legal war of attrition. Similarly at Sussex, a recent two month long student occupation was, to some degree, ‘normalised’ by the University management, who paid lip service to the legitimacy of protest, while using the occupation as symbolic capital to attract new students (and with them, £9k a year in tuition fees). This demonstrates a remarkable ability of the British ruling class to effectively ‘detoxify’ dissent by reconciling and co-opting it into pre-established parameters of ‘acceptable’ political activity. British occupations, rather than being met with the ‘pure force’ of the state, were instead undermined by a culture of hegemonic consent tied up in public relations battles, ideological assaults, high court injunctions and eviction notices.
The repetition of such methods is not possible in Turkey. Despite ruling since 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been unable to sustain the sort of hegemony typical of Western neoliberalism. The AKP’s first election was marked by a broad coalition of political forces alongside its Anatolian new-bourgeois core, featuring right of centre nationalists, EU oriented liberals, Kurds and leftists supportive of the dismantling of the ‘deep state’.
Yet from 2006 onwards, the AKP has progressively replicated the authoritarian practices of the old guard and turned away from EU membership as the totem of their foreign policy. Combined with the uneven development of the economy under the increasing velocity of neoliberal restructuring, the inherently loose ties of the AKP coalition have dissolved. In a recent poll, 49.9 per cent of respondents said the government is moving towards authoritarianism, while only 35.3 per cent said they would vote for an AKP party that had polled 49.8 per cent in the 2011 general elections.
In the context of this eroding hegemony, Diren Gezi is inherently toxic for the AKP. It cannot be appropriated, it cannot be co-opted, it cannot be tolerated. It can, in the eyes of Erdoğan only be crushed, violently. This goes some way to conceptualising why the AKP have deployed over 100,000 canisters of teargas in 20 days; why makeshift hospitals have been attacked by the police; why the press has been so persistently controlled and threatened; and why Turkish justice has been so profoundly undermined.
The levels of state repression experienced by protesters raise serious challenges for the movement, in particular how people continue to voice their dissent under a permanent barrage of teargas, water cannon and rubber bullets. However it also raises new opportunities. The authoritarianism of the state has united otherwise disparate, sometimes hostile groups, giving the movement a broader level of mass participation than the original Gezi protests, and indeed similar movements such as Occupy London. It has also necessitated the development of new local forms of organisation that go beyond the limits, both spatially and politically of a single, permanent central space typical of Occupy. The popular but now localised peculiarity of the movement is most evident in the forums. By Thursday, there were thirty eight forums across Istanbul, with some such as Yoğurtçu Park attracting up to 3,000 participants– the equivalent of Occupy London at its peak.
As @zeynep noted on twitter, the hasty and violent eviction from Gezi Park prevented the occupation from withering away in the manner of other Occupy movements. It was until its last breath a well-run, safe, celebratory space. The Gezi Commune thus retains an air of mythical mystique, a utopia snatched from the Çapulcu’s grasp, a paradise to be regained. Even after the loss of Gezi, the dynamism and motivation among participants to continue and expand the resistance remains. With the growth of the forums, they may also now potentially have the means.
 A big thanks to Burak Tansel for his help on this point.