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How #OccupyGezi could transform Turkish society

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

Protesters build a barricade in Istanbul.
Protesters build a barricade in Istanbul, near the office of the prime minister. (Photo: Getty Images.)

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