How #OccupyGezi could transform Turkish society

Through protesting together, people from different backgrounds are discovering a new power.

There is a fantastic youtube clip which shows anticapitalist youths - men and women - and football ultras building a barricade in the centre of Besiktas, Istanbul. As they form chains to pass rocks from one person to another the camera swings toward the barricade. Atop one sees a young man motivating and inspiring them to increase their pace as police lines seem to advance. The camera re-focuses on the tedious labour of lifting rocks and passing them to the front. These youths are fighting to defend their neighbourhood against riot police. At one and the same time, they are engaged in both a learning process and the production of knowledge. This knowledge will serve future generations and movements to come.

Across the country, in Ankara, my friend Cavidan lectures at a university faculty. She wrote me a Facebook message on Tuesday evening after the first days of university strikes and walkouts. She reports that students chanted many sexist slogans when they walked out. Even worse, clouds of teargas dispersed these upper-class kids. They didn’t succeed to re-assemble for the rest of the day. Her message was one of despair - only a few days into the struggle. While the activists and organisers are worn down physically and psychologically the sexism that Cavidan described hadn’t worn down whatsoever. Yet, Wednesday was another day and the tone of her message was a very different one. Just like the barricade-builders on the Bosphorous, the university students and Cavidan: this mass movement is a learning process for Turkish society as a whole. 

There are various reasons these individuals have joined the ascendant movement. A study by Bilgi University surveyed 3,000 #OccupyGezi protesters in a matter of 20 hours. The study concluded that 70 per cent of the protesters have no party affiliation. Similar percentages are first time protesters and the main reason people have taken to the streets is disproportionate policing. "Authoritarianism" and "respect for individual freedoms" feature as well. Why did people take to the streets this time? What is different?

Mass movements grow when individual grievances, such as personal freedom, attain a collective dimension. As the movement continues Cavidan’s sexist students will be forced to depend on their collective skills of deliberation, decision-making, strategy and tactics just like the men and women building barricades. Through collective resistance, these individuals have discovered their power.

The difference between Cavidan’s students and the barricade-builders in Besiktas highlights the movement’s dynamic, complex and organic nature. Movements are not single celled creatures. Different actors move at different times and pace. While one part carries the lessons of past struggles into the movement others carry the past (sexism, homophobia, sectarianism, etc) into it. But through working together, new knowledge is created - and new alliances can be built.

Another youtube clip, of a Turkish Airlines cabin crew on strike, underlines this process of cross-pollination. With their faces hidden behind the Guy Fawkes/Anonymous masks - the symbol of the new wave of anti-capitalist protest since Occupy – they are lined up in a dance-formation in front of the Turkish Airlines headquarters in Galatar. Rather than performing a dance routine the female strikers subvert the usual safety announcement conducted at the beginning of each flight. They condemn the media for not covering their dispute and go through a list of grievances before fastening their seatbelts – to their necks creating a noose to hang themselves. This is culturejamming at its finest, coming from a group of workers who traditionally vote Erdogan's for AKP.

The parameters of Turkish politics have changed. The previous secular/Islamist divide which dominated Turkish politics for decades is being re-negotiated on the movement's terms. From now on, different classes will articulate their political strategies through – or, in relation to – the movement. On the holy day, Mirac Kandili, the prominent Anticapitalist Muslim leader Ihsan Eliacçık requested that protesters be respectful to one another. The OccupyGezi camp agreed that there wouldn’t be any drinking or singing at the park as in previous nights. The leftist groups won’t be organising their concert. Instead, they organised a prayer and will distribute "simit" (a traditional speciality for this holy day).

By appropriating the language, symbols and discourses of its opponents #OccupyGezi is revealing the fragile nature of Erdogan's power. On Sunday evening, the television station NTV didn’t broadcast anything about the demonstrations across in towns and cities across Turkey. Instead they showed a documentary about penguins. Since, protesters have used penguins as a symbol of their resistance. One image floating on facebook shows an army of penguins with the text: "Tayyip – Winter is coming". This Game of Thrones reference comes after Erdogan said: "We already have a spring in Turkey . . . but there are those who want to turn this spring into winter . . . Be calm, these will all pass." When Erdogan equated protesters to looters (çapulcu), people started to make videos and jokes about his statement or add "çapulcu" as an adjective in front of their names on facebook and twitter. Now people are conjugating this word into other languages like French and English. Facebook statuses have turned into placards at the protests. They attempt to connect with like-minded movements across the world, in the face of a silent domestic media.

Back on the streets of Besiktas, protesters hijacked an excavator to break through police lines. Movements will make use of whatever tools are at their disposal. The direct experience of self-organisation, collective action, and human solidarity lays the foundation for a new society. The parameters of Turkish politics have changed - the question is whether the parameters will be changed once and for all.

Follow Mark Bergfeld on Twitter @mdbergfeld

Protesters build a barricade in Istanbul, near the office of the prime minister. (Photo: Getty Images.)
Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit