Be Quiet and Don’t Move So You Can Be Heard

Be Quiet and Don’t Move So You Can Be Heard Blog Image

Last Saturday, one day after I left Istanbul following an intense week of interviews with more than 100 Gezi Park protest participants, Turkish police forcefully cleared out the park, which had been occupied by protesters for the last three weeks trying to halt the construction of a replica Ottoman Barracks and a shopping mall in Taksim Square's only park. It was a sad, violent end to a joyful, eventful occupation that had a Woodstock meets Paris Commune vibe, where drum circles got interrupted by tear gas volleys, and diverse groups ranging from soccer fans to anti-capitalist Muslims to LGBT organizations had co-existed in a colorful environment.

Just a few days before, it had seemed that it all might have ended in peace. Representatives of the protesters had met with Prime Minister Erdogan last Thursday night and presented their demands, which were focused on preserving the park and punishing officials responsible for the police actions that had killed four protesters and injured more than 7,000. The premier had signaled some agreement, though not all, to their demands.

On Friday, the protesters started to meet in small groups, which culminated in a large group discussion and a decision by two thirds of the groups that constituted the “Taksim Solidarity” platform, the committee that had coordinated the occupation of the Park, to consolidate the occupation into a single “observer” tent. Significantly, the government had promised to obey an existing court order halting the construction of an Ottoman military barracks replica where the park stood and promised to let the city of Istanbul decide the fate of the Park by a referendum.

The protesters I spoke to weren’t thrilled by these developments but felt like they had made their point. “Obeying court orders as a concession tells you how bad things are,” one protester told me. That the fate of a Park in one Istanbul neighborhood had become a personalized battle between the Prime Minister and the protesters spoke to the heart of the problem—something that should at most be a local issue had become a symbol of a government trying to legislate too much and micro-manage processes that many had felt should be about local choices and freedoms.

I had started telling people that I thought that this was it—that Gezi Park protesters would declare victory and go home, and the government would also declare victory by having ended the occupation. However, just a few hours after “Taksim Solidarity” announced that many would be packing up their tents, premier Erdogan gave a very harsh speech at a rally in Ankara, where he accused the protesters of many inflammatory actions, including  “drinking in mosques.” This claim, repeated by Erdogan on multiple occasions, had been refuted by the Imam of the mosque, which actually had become a make-shift clinic for people injured by tear gas and rubber bullets. There was ample video showing wounded, bleeding people being frantically treated on the floor of the mosque by doctors who had respectfully taken off their shoes inside the mosque.

In that speech and in his subsequent rally in Istanbul, Erdogan continued, at times, to refer to the protesters as terrorists and vandals and used strong, polarizing language. Befuddled by the Prime Minister’s apparent choice to re-escalate the tensions, I watched protesters get angry about yet another dismissal of their concerns and more put-downs (He had initially called them capulcu–a rough combination of looters and riffraff, and that term became the unifying identity of the diverse universe of protesters. We're all capulcu, many said, and started referring to themselves as the riff-raff).

As these developments unfolded, I tweeted that since the beginning of the protests about 19 days ago, I was afraid that tensions, which seemed on the verge of resolution, were about to escalate.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t wrong.

Mere hours after Erdogan’s Istanbul Rally speech, the police moved into the park in an enormous show of force. Journalists were not allowed in for the most part, but video shows police using massive amounts of tear gas, tearing down tents, and people fleeing in fear, many of them to the nearby luxury hotel Divan. A night of intense clashes followed.

Harrowing footage from inside the five-star hotel shows tear gas (or CS gas) being thrown inside confined spaces in the hotel and people choking and crying. In fact, the hotel was gassed for most of the night. Parliamentarians who showed up to resolve the crisis seemed unable to persuade police to stand down or to stop using tear gas.

These clashes in multiple neighborhoods continued for maybe 24 hours. People marched from Kadıköy–on the Asian side–to the Bosphorus bridge, where they clashed with police barricading the bridge, managed to get past, and continued to march over to the European side to go to Taksim. Thousands of people from the primarily Alevite Gazi neighborhood blocked the main TEM highway. Tear gas seemed to be everywhere. It's hard to describe how unprecedented such intense clashes are for Turkey, at least since the 1980 coup era.

The protests continued until last Sunday evening, when mobs, reportedly sometimes armed with sticks and knives, started showing up in the streets, shouting pro-Erdogan, anti-protester slogans. Scared of where things were headed, some protesters started a “#evedon” hashtag—a call to go home, so as not to start a round of civil violence that may steer the country towards an even worse situation. Police repression and fear of escalating violence, it seemed, left the largely non-violent protesters with few avenues.

As large numbers of police closed off Taksim, some ferry trips across the strait were canceled by the Governor. And, as many streets near Taksim became engulfed in the familiar fog of gas which burns the eyes and sears the lungs, the protests seemed at a roadblock. Even the water in the water cannons was laced with pepper spray, causing first degree burns in some protesters.

The largely peaceful occupation of the park had ended and the street actions had been met with police or mobs whose responses threatened to trigger a descent into uncontrolled violence. The movement that had begun with the Gezi Park occupation to be at a standstill.

That is, until, one man decided to stand still.

Around 6pm Sunday, in Istanbul, a man in his early thirties, wearing a white shirt and carrying a backpack with some water and food in it, started standing still in Taksim Square, facing the old, abandoned Ataturk Opera House (AKM) that the government had shut down about five years ago with the promise of a restoration that had never taken place. Many had seen the closing of AKM as yet another step by the government to choke “unapproved” arts—opera, ballet, music and such. During the Gezi protests, the AKM had become covered with a multitude of banners. Mid-way through the protests, the government had taken all of them down in a show of force and instead put up two large flags and one Ataturk banner (the initial Ataturk banner was replaced by an even bigger Ataturk banner).

This lone man, dubbed “the standing man” or “duran adam” online, stood there staring at AKM, where the colorful mosaic of the protest banners had been replaced by two large, somber Turkish flags and an Ataturk banner. Not much happened at first. The police questioned him at some point and let him stand as it didn’t seem like he was doing anything...but standing.

He continued to stand, very still, not talking, not moving, just standing.

Soon, people on my Twitter timeline started discussing this man. A hashtag “#standingman or #duranadam” emerged.

Did you notice this guy standing still, staring at the flag, people asked? What’s he about? Who is he? Anyone know what’s up? People circulated photos and pondered.

After the third hour, it became clear that this was a protest. Kicked out of Gezi park, stifled by a controlled media that had aired penguin documentaries during the country’s biggest clashes in Istanbul since 1980, and disappointed by an ineffective opposition party–people around Turkey started to talk about the lone, quiet, mysterious standing man. (The incompetence of the main opposition party, the CHP, provided a key agreement point between the protesters and the premier when, at some point during the process, Erdogan declared that the CHP was so incompetent that it was hurting Turkey’s democracy–many protesters I talked with agreed wholeheartedly. They laughed when Erdogan blamed the protests on the CHP—if CHP could organize this, they chuckled, maybe we wouldn’t have to be out in the streets).

Within three hours of the start of the standing man’s lone, unannounced, quiet protest, around 9pm Sunday in Turkey, #duranadam had surged to the top of Twitter in Turkey, replacing the other ever-present global social media force (#turkeybeliebersmissyoujustin) as the top trending topic. But it also became a top trending topic globally since Turkey has massive social media participation and a large population (half the population is online and both protesters and AKP supporters tend to be heavy social media users).

I watched as one woman and two more men joined the standing man in his vigil. A fifth person came a few minutes later and, after taking a picture of the four and tweeting it, joined them. A woman in Ankara said she would go to the spot where Erdem Sarısuluk had been shot and killed by police during the protests and stand there. People in other neighborhoods starting “standing”—others took pictures and posted them online. Soon, there were hundreds “standing” quietly in Taksim. Three people went to the spot where Armenian journalist Hrant Dink had been murdered in 2007 and stood there, quietly. Others went and stood quietly at the site of the Madımak hotel in Sivas, where, in 1993, a religious mob massacred 37 artists and intellectuals, mostly Alevites, by setting fire to the hotel.

Through it all, there was little to no TV coverage. A cartoonist photoshopped a “standing penguin” into the middle of Taksim Square, an ongoing joke that has come to symbolize media censorship in Turkey. I started getting pictures from around the world. Someone ‘stood’ in NYC, wearing the same white shirt, jeans and a backpack positioned in the same angle. Someone stood in Las Vegas. International media started covering the standing man as Turkish media, reluctantly as always, started joining in. Someone started a live feed from Taksim from their phone. Soon, more than a 10,000 people were watching the live feed and Turkish social media became dominated by this discussion.

AKP supporters, too, were watching this online. Many dismissed it as a joke. Some saw something more sinister. Turkey’s finance minister retweeted a pro-government journalist who declared “standing” was “item number 137 in [the] CIA manual for non-violence.” “Don’t you get it?” he asked, provocatively.

Meanwhile, "standing man" became a meme, as jokes, art and captions flew online just as many more people started taking to the streets and standing. At some point, enough was enough and the Turkish police moved in and started detaining some of the standers, though it was completely unclear what their crime was.

As the police moved in, the original standing man stopped his own protest, slipping away without being detained; he said later, he did not want to endanger others. The police took away some of the detainees via a police bus and ordered the rest to scatter. The police formed a human barricade around Taksim Square, which, as many others noted, required them “to stand still” in the same manner as the original protesters.

The next day, the ministry of Interior was asked if “standing” was illegal—the question itself shows the absurdity of the situation. No, he declared, as long as it’s peaceful; however, sporadic reports of people being arrested for “standing” continued to trickle in. It seems that the government and the police were unclear about how to handle the throngs of people who were doing nothing but silently standing. “Standings” quickly multiplied. Lawyers went to Caglayan court, where dozens of lawyers had been beaten and arrested a few days ago and started “standing.” “Standings” multiplied to many other cities. International media took notice and stories about standing appeared on BBC, in The Guardian and in many other news outlets in other countries.

What started, unannounced, with a single person, had become a phenomenon thanks to a fed up public and the power of social media.

Meanwhile, the police completely shut down Gezi Park in Taksim to civilians and started planting flowers in the now deserted park. Unable to get into the park, the Gezi platform announced a call “to stand” in parks throughout Istanbul Monday evening.

In many ways, #duranadam represents much of what’s been going on in Turkey during the tumultuous last three weeks. Stifled by an increasingly authoritarian government, shut out of the mass media public sphere, unrepresented by spectacularly incompetent opposition parties, people in Turkey who are increasingly worried about the country’s direction and their own lives are trying to find ways to express their discontent and to draw a line in the sand. Lacking representation in the censored media sphere, they are turning to social media to organize, to coordinate, and to create their own narrative structures.

I’ve described this as a “listen to us” uprising—it’s not aimed at toppling the elected government (people I interviewed rarely expressed such a wish and even those who wish the prime minister would resign quickly add that it probably isn’t realistic to expect this). The most common demands I heard during my interviews were a call for the government to back off legislating lifestyle choices; to stop demolishing neighborhoods and parks to construct shopping malls and new, shiny, soulless buildings that enrich contractors at the expense of people who live in the area; to stop using massive police force to quash even the most non-violent protest; and last, but not least, to have a mass media that at least pretends to report the news more often and serve as a watchdog over the growing power of a government.

Gezi Park became a symbol of much of that discontent, rising especially from the younger, pluralistic, more creative generation who most deeply feels stifled and blocked. They have tried to be heard through humor, through song, through protest and through a three week occupation of a park. They keep being met with harsh rhetoric, tear gas, and walls of police. In desperation, they have started to be as quiet, and as still as they can be, in hopes that they can finally be heard.

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Graphic credit: Kaan Eryilmaz