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Better late than never: What is #OccupyGezi and what does it promise (now)?

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- By Burcu Baykurt

When I wrote a post last Thursday on Occupy Gezi (#occupygezi) I was both terrified by the extent of police violence towards a couple dozens of peaceful activists and excited about Turkey’s own Occupy moment, which, I personally believed, had arrived much belatedly. Over the last weekend, people in Turkey have flexed their political muscles more strongly than ever, both in the streets and on social media, thereby creating, according to some, the biggest civil disobedience movement of the country in history. Last week, I was wondering why Turkey’s Occupy moment has arrived now. Since then, many people on social media have debated whether Occupy Gezi is Turkey’s Occupy Wall Street or Tahrir – which is a question arguably loaded with many value judgments, misinformation, and ignorance, but it is also a genuine attempt to get a grip on the revolt of masses in Turkey: What is #Occupy Gezi?

To an extent, I share sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s insight, who by the way wrote a compelling post on the protest, that Occupy Gezi is neither Tahrir nor OWS but a representation of increasing political polarization in the country.

 

E.P. Thompson long ago argued that every resistance takes on the flavor of its context, therefore Occupy Gezi is constituted by, and constitutive of, the concerns of and the clashes between different political groups in Turkey. But what brings together many people in the park and in the streets is, and should be, fundamentally a demand to protect their rights and freedoms in a democratic society – which should not be undermined within the larger turmoil the country, and protesters, are going through these days.

The occupation of the Gezi Park has started on May 27 with protection of one of the few urban green spaces in Istanbul (planned to be demolished as part of the government’s so-called Taksim renovation project). But behind a handful of people’s protest lay a growing discontent with the recent urban transformation of Istanbul as well as global capitalism. The government’s neoliberal urban planning, which usually has to do with public spaces, proceeds in lockstep with a decision making process that not only leaves out dissent, but also condemns it constantly. David Kenner explains that the Taksim Platform, one of the local citizen initiatives, for example, had long opposed to those “urban renewal” projects but Erdogan’s government moved forward “by decree, with little public discussion of their plans.” Along with the Taksim Platform, many groups have been petitioning the government, but PM Erdogan publicly defied their opposition by saying the government had already made up their mind.

It is Erdogan’s, and his disciples’ in the government, dismissive and authoritarian politics, and the police’s dawn raid on May 30 when they teargassed occupiers and set fire to their tents that have sparked public anger. Extensively reliant on, and organized through, social media, protesters have kept on a diligent and mostly peaceful resistance since last Friday. Occupying not only the Gezi Park, but also Taksim Square as well as other public spaces in big cities such as Ankara, Izmir, and Adana, they have been seeking their right to a peaceful protest, and to the city. Police forces, however, have given a heavy-handed response of teargas firing, pepper spraying, and deploying water cannons, which, as many have reported, usually exceed reasonable levels of public security excuses. As the Financial Times’s Philip Stephens reports, PM Erdogan “has responded to the disturbance with a public rage that more than matches the anger of those who have occupied Istanbul’s Taksim square and staged protests in other big cities.” The mainstream media’s appalling self-censorship has stirred up further unrest, which deserves a post of its own.

The police repression keeps drawing more people in who come out day and night, chanting “against fascism,” and fortifying the barricades. But what, precisely, makes hundreds of thousands of people crazy enough to be in the streets surrounded by police to violently attack them? The political collective from the park, Taksim Dayanismasi, has recently announced their “urgent demands” and one can easily see that people’s first and foremost concern, and demand, is to end brutal police violence and take their right to protest back. Taksim Dayanismasi has listed the dismissal of Taksim Project, the resignation of the Governor of Istanbul and the head of National Police, the prohibition of gas weapons, and the protection of people’s right to protest and peaceful assembly. It is hard to know, and too early to decide, whether Occupy Gezi is a moment or a movement. An important, but fleeting spark of political polarization at worst, an opportunity to organize civil disobedience and sustain it through civic dialogue and participatory democracy at best.

For the moment, however, Occupy Gezi is Turkey’s most recent experimentation with democratic self-governance and public debate.

In defiance of Erdogan’s own definition of democracy, the political legitimacy granted to his government does not solely rest on the majority of votes, and definitely does not mean acquiescence of systematically “marginalized” (both empirically and in his rhetoric) populations to a state that effectively precludes other options for them.

People who come together under Occupy Gezi stand in solidarity with dissenters in, not authoritarian regimes, but ostensibly democratic countries whose elected leaders crush opposition in brutal ways. It is, and should be, a resistance of many colors, including Kurds and conservatives, that demand social justice and freedom for everyone. And it should give us an opportunity to keep on learning to live together, listening and understanding each other, and resisting the political and economic forces that undermine our democratic rights.

Right now, the whole world is watching Occupy Gezi (certainly not on the mainstream Turkish media though!). Things are tense in the streets, and the cracks within the movement are in the making. It is a time for many to decide whether to stand firm and resist or falter. And let’s be honest, ongoing police brutality is not making it easy for anyone to keep on resistance. But at the same time this is a long-awaited opportunity for coming together and defying political polarization that has been long provoked by leaders. Let’s keep building a people’s movement that is foremost committed to everyone’s right to free expression and voicing our grievances, which are all connected no matter what. And let’s take our cities back only to work together to turn them into spaces where a pluralistic and egalitarian democracy could thrive.

*Image from http://occupygezipics.tumblr.com/

- Burcu Baykurt is a a PhD student at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. This article was originally published on her blog, and is republished with permission.

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