By Oya AktaşOn the fourth anniversary of the start of the Gezi protests, the Gezi movement appears to have failed in achieving its political aims. Erdogan is well on his way to consolidating power over the country. State of emergency rule has been in place for nearly a year, and the April 16 constitutional referendum has awarded the president with significant power over all three branches of government. Meanwhile, Selahattin Demirtas, the opposition leader that perhaps best embodies the vibrancy of the Gezi movement, has been in jail since November. However, Gerçek Gündem’s report that the AKP government closed off Gezi Park and Taksim Square on the anniversary of the protests suggests that the government continues to fear the movement that took root during Gezi.
To outside observers, the Gezi protests were a jarring indicator of instability. For the preceding decade, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been the West’s poster child for incorporating moderate Islam into politics and creating a uniquely Middle Eastern brand of democracy. But that summer, through their protests, broad swaths of discontented citizens exposed the government’s increasingly selective representation of Turkish society. They were galvanized by a simple catalyst: the government’s attempt to raze trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park to make room for a shopping mall. As the government responded to peaceful protesters with disproportionate violence, the West was confronted with the limits of Erdogan’s commitment to democracy. Meanwhile, millions in Turkey–including many who had voted for Erdogan–were inspired by the opposition’s ability to mobilize and unite under symbols of peaceful resistance.
For many, the communities that emerged through sharing books, music, art, and food were the defining tenets of Gezi. City Lab explored the mini-city that emerged in Gezi Park, with its libraries, free food, and free hugs. Bogazici University’s choir poked fun at Erdogan’s declaration that the protestors were nothing but “capulcu” [looters] by performing their own reworked version of a Turkish folksong. Standing Man, the silent protester renowned for his unshakeable stoicism, inspired many to partake in his pacifist form of protest. Fanclubs of Turkey’s three competing sports teams, Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, and Galatasaray–sworn enemies in any other context–came together to join the protests. For these groups, Gezi was a time of unification and solidarity.
Protesters were also to co-opt the government’s resources and language to create a satirical environment that undermined the dominance of the ruling party. One group captured the police’s water cannons and posted a for-sale ad for the vehicle. After Erdogan labeled Gezi as “capulcu,” another group in the movement edited Erdogan and the AKP’s faces onto LMFAO’s “Every Day I’m Shuffling” music video singing “Every Day I’m Chappuling” instead. The government also did its own part to contribute to this absurdity. As the protests took hold across Turkey, many mainstream news channels, under editorial pressure from the government, rather than covering Gezi instead broadcast a penguin documentary. In response, the movement was quick to create penguin memes to function as anti-government symbols. Throughout these absurd events, the government irrevocably lost power and legitimacy in the eyes of many of the protesters.
Beyond this pacifism and satire, there was also violence. Protesters became experts in counteracting the effects of the police’s tear gas and pepper spray, buying gas masks and concocting basic solutions to neutralize the chemicals. Massive barricades were set up in Taksim using destroyed vehicles and miscellaneous materials. And most tragically, lives were lost due to the police’s indiscriminate use of force. These lives will be mourned for decades to come.
Over time, the fervor of the movement died down, the government gained control of Taksim’s public spaces, and protesters returned home. Nevertheless, Gezi was a formative moment for Turkey’s millennials. Gezi has become the name of this generation, and Gezi defines the political consciousness that Turkish youth acquired in the summer of 2013. The grassroots efforts of the Gezi Generation contributed to the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a party that fielded the first openly gay candidate for parliament, becoming the first pro-Kurdish party to be elected to Turkey’s Parliament, overcoming the highest election bar (10%) in the world. The organizational skills that the Gezi Generation acquired helped create better election monitoring infrastructures in civil society, such as the election watchdog Oy ve Ötesi, which was created in the aftermath of Gezi. Although Gezi did not enact any immediate sweeping reforms, such as the regime changes that the Arab Spring prompted, it still created societal shifts that remain in effect in Turkey.
Though the branches of democracy are being pruned and whittled away, the democratic responsibility and political ownership that took root during Gezi remains an anchoring force in the Gezi Generation. This resiliency in the Gezi Generation continues to cultivate hope, making it impossible to give up on Turkish democracy.