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.)
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Whatever Arlene Foster did, at least no one died

After all, Northern Irish voters forgave Martin McGuiness his spell in the IRA. Plus: why did Boris Johnson get a pass on Brexit bungling?

What was Sir Ivan Rogers trying to tell us when he referred to “ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” in his letter of resignation from the EU ambassadorship? According to “friends” quoted in the Times – which almost certainly means Rogers himself – he thinks that Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, and David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, were guilty of a “failure to understand briefings”. Put more crudely, he thinks the two Brexiteers are a bit thick.

I do not like the political positions of either Fox or Davis. But I note that both have science-based first degrees from universities other than Oxbridge (Fox studied medicine at Glasgow; Davis took molecular and computer sciences at Warwick). Both were also brought up in council houses. The third leading cabinet Brexiteer, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian raised on a large family farm on Exmoor, is, like Rogers, a Balliol arts graduate. He is apparently excluded from complaints about brain capacity. I wonder why.

 

The Cummings man

Rogers is not the first to question Fox’s grasp of the issues. Vince Cable said in September: “He doesn’t understand what a customs union is.” If so, he is not alone, according to Dominic Cummings, the director of the Vote Leave campaign. In a 20,000-word blog that purports to explain the referendum result, Cummings states: “I am not aware of a single MP or political journalist who understands the single market – its history, its nature, its dynamics, its legal system . . . Cameron, Osborne and Clegg certainly don’t. Neither does Bill Cash [the veteran Tory Eurosceptic]. Neither does any head of the CBI. Neither do Jon Snow, Robert Peston, Evan Davis or John Humphreys [sic] so they do a rubbish job of exposing politicians’ ignorance.”

Cummings, a former special adviser to Michael Gove, offers no evidence of his own grasp of the subject. But since his rambling screed cites, among others, the 19th-century German chancellor Bismarck, the American-Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the 18th-century English statistician Thomas Bayes, I suppose we must take his erudition on all matters for granted.

 

Cash for ash

After the First World War, Winston Churchill observed, “The whole map of Europe has been changed . . . but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” Now, as we grapple with Brexit, Northern Ireland’s troubles return in the contemporary form of renewable heating subsidies overpaid to businesses and farms, some of them no doubt in Fermanagh and Tyrone, and nearly all (one guesses) to members of the Loyalist community. The subsidies, overseen in an earlier ministerial position by Arlene Foster, the Unionist first minister, have led Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, Foster’s deputy in the power-sharing executive, to resign, threatening the survival of the province’s eternally uneasy peace.

McGuinness argues that Foster should stand down pending an inquiry. Perhaps he is right. But whatever Foster did or didn’t do, nobody died. Which is more than can be said of McGuinness’s spell as an IRA commander, into which no inquiry was held.

 

Firm smack of regulation

The trouble with trying to create a sensible system of press regulation, which ministers are still struggling to do, is that somebody must finance it. In my view, neither government nor newspapers can be trusted as paymasters likely to respect the regulator’s independence.

Perhaps some charitable foundation or private individual with no axes to grind could be persuaded to step into the breach. But, no, the only available source of finance is Max Mosley, the ex-head of Formula One motor racing. Through family charities, he bankrolls Impress, the sole regulator recognised under legislation passed after the hacking scandal.

It is hard to imagine a less suitable paymaster. He is the younger son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader in whose Union Movement he was once actively involved. More recently, he sued the now-defunct News of the World for breach of privacy in reporting his involvement in a sadomasochistic sex orgy. Whether he was right or wrong to do so is beside the point. By no stretch of the imagination can he be described as a disinterested party. Following the News of the World case, Mosley tried to persuade the European Court of Human Rights that the law should require newspapers to give advance notification of their intention to expose private matters. The “victims” could then, if so minded, seek pre-publication injunctions.

This form of censorship was denounced by Milton in the 17th century. Mosley has no grasp of the most fundamental principles of press freedom and fair regulation.

 

A poor prognosis

A bad Christmas and New Year for the Wilby family, with all of us suffering colds/chest infections/flu/bronchitis/pneumonia (delete according to dramatic preference). But at least we didn’t have to risk treatment in an NHS hospital, encountering what the British Red Cross rather fancifully calls “a humanitarian crisis”. Of our two nearest hospitals, one is in special measures, while the other didn’t have a single spare bed from Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve.

The Labour Party came to office in 1997 determined that the NHS should provide standards of choice and personal attention as good as in the private sector. Only thus, its leaders reckoned, could middle-class support for the service and willingness to pay the necessary taxes be maintained. The Conservatives’ goal is the opposite: to reduce the NHS to a condition in which the middle classes abandon it, leaving a rump service for the poor. Taxes can then be cut, with the affluent needing the money for private insurance. The Tories are well on the way to success.

 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge