Five Years After the Gezi Protests, the Legacy Lives On

To my eternal regret, I missed Gezi. I didn’t move to Turkey until six months after the largest protests in Turkish history fizzled out. But over the course of four years living there I had countless conversations about those days, five years ago this month, with people who participated, and they were always tinged with a kind of wistful, sentimental longing. There’s one description of the blissful atmosphere experienced in Gezi park during the 18-day occupation that’s always stuck out the most for me.

While catching up over drinks one night (a typical setting for a conversation about Gezi) with a philosophy graduate student friend of mine, she told me that during the brief period after police withdrew, she would just wander around the park in a sort of euphoric trance. “It was like being in love,” she said, staring into the distance.

The demonstrations started in central Istanbul’s modest Gezi park, a very rare central haven hosting 606 sycamore trees, when police tear-gassed and torched the tents of a small group of environmentalists protesting the removal of the trees in preparation for building yet another mall, to be built in place of the park. A deluge of citizens incensed at the unnecessary use of violence soon flooded the park, kicking off the largest protests in the country’s history. Over 3.5 million participated in 4,725 events in all but one of Turkey’s 81 provinces, according to government estimates.

The protests, like others around the world at that time, were Turkey’s first mass demonstrations not dominated by any particular political group or ideology. Though they all came from the half of the population that opposed then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), at least one study illustrated the diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds of the protestors.

The occupation of the park soon took on a carnival-like atmosphere, with yoga and tango sessions, and a pop-up library, tattoo parlor, theatre, art workshop, veterinarian clinic, mosque, food center, bathrooms, and musical stage.

“It was like being at camp,” 33-year-old Selçuk Aslan cheerfully told me. “It wasn’t just a protest. It was about coming together, being together […] It was like a dream world. People were sharing everything.”

“You could trust anyone on the streets, in the crowd,” said 49-year-old Yonca, a white collar worker who didn’t want her surname published. “It was like a big family party.” Gezi was a haven for many who’d always struggled to fit into an often rigidly conformist society.

48-year old graphic designer Umut Var (a pseudonym) suffered through major traumas in her life that had made her feel alone and isolated, even from her family. Joining the Gezi protestors was the first time she felt part of a community that accepted her.

“I was just waiting for this miserable life to end when one day everybody stood up,” she wrote to me in a heartfelt email. “What I saw and experienced in the park was utopia. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel alone.”

Police eventually broke the protests, killing eight people and injuring over 8,000 in the process, and the outcome was the exact opposite of what the participants had wanted — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who praised the police for their “legendary” behavior and later encouraged a crowd to boo the grieving family of a slain 14-year-old — “He died and it’s over!” — spun ever further into paranoid authoritarianism and stoked polarization in Turkey. Society shattered into bitter pro- and anti-Erdoğan factions.

There are those who would dismiss the protests as a failure, but this ignores the enormous, yet often subtle impact they had upon Turkish society. One study showed that 56 percent of the demonstrators in Istanbul had never participated in a protest before. Countless politically dormant office workers experienced a life-changing awakening.

“After Gezi lots of people started changing their lives,” Aslan said. He himself quit his job as an investment and planning engineer, moved back to his small hometown, and opened an association teaching people to live more sustainable lives.

“I felt like my mind was opened by the kick of Gezi,” Yonca told me.

She went from being “a white collar white Turkish lady from Ankara” who’d never been politically active, to losing her job for staging a viral “standing woman” protest. She later found herself being painted with special forces laser gunsights while staging a protest in a village in Turkey’s Kurdish region for a teenager killed by police soon after Gezi. Five years later Yonca is well-known by the authorities in Ankara for her regular involvement in women’s protests there.

“I have fans in the Ankara police. Sometimes I change my haircut and I hear them saying, ‘Oh she changed her hair,’” she laughs. “They say, ‘You’re my momma’s age, why are you kicking me? I say, ‘If I’m your mom’s age, why are you hitting me?’”

Yonca says she’d do it all over again if given the chance. “My sister says, ‘You’re unemployed because you were at the protest.’ I know that, but I had to do it. If I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t be me. I developed into a different person.”

The protests also stirred something deep in my own fiancé, an office worker for a phone company at the time. She described to me her disgust at her colleagues’ reaction to a video of a burly protestor tossed through the air like a piece of tissue paper by a water cannon at close range.

“They laughed; they really laughed. I can’t forget that,” she said. “I hated them so much. I think at that moment I decided, ‘I hate my job, I hate these people. They’re fake.’” She later resigned and started working at an environmental NGO.

Gezi also forced many to confront hard truths about their country, their history, and themselves.

Dilek Gençer is a 55-year-old retired office worker who lives in Bakırköy, a secular neighborhood in Istanbul. “I’m from this group they call the White Turks – well educated, believing everything about [Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk’s state, Kemalist,” she told me. After interacting with people from such diverse backgrounds at Gezi, Gençer’s eyes were opened.

“I thought I was multicultural, but I wasn’t,” she said, describing the often highly stratified nature of Turkish society. “You have relations with other people in society, but you always limit it. Like, ‘He’s a villager,’ ‘He’s a garbage collector,’ ‘He’s uneducated.’ I had limited [contact] with them.”

Gençer had never challenged official narratives about thorny subjects such as the Armenian genocide or the Kurdish issue, and had never questioned the sanctity of the state. But that all changed on Saturday, June 15, when she watched with horror as a horde of police unleashed a giant murk of tear gas and retook the park. After that day she was never the same person.

“I personally asked the police commander to give people sufficient time to leave. I told him people in the park couldn’t hear the police announcement, that there were babies, children, and old people who couldn’t leave so fast,” she said.

Needless to say, the commander didn’t listen.

“[After that] I kind of changed from being apolitical to political, and I also changed my mind about the state. I lost my faith,” Gençer said.

She thought that if the state could unleash such brutality against its own peacefully protesting citizens, it could do anything. If the media could ignore the protests raging right outside their offices, what else had they lied about? She began to question Turkey’s official historical narratives.

“You look back over the last 50 years, and you think it was all a big lie, and I’m this supposedly well-educated intellectual person who wasn’t questioning anything. You feel like your whole life was a lie.”

The Gezi protestors were fed up with the increasing authoritarianism of Erdoğan and his AKP, the encroachment upon public spaces, and perhaps most of all, the majoritarian way that Erdoğan and his AKP were ruling Turkey, imposing the religious conservative values of their supporters onto the entire population.

Erdoğan felt the need to act not only act as a governor, but as a moral authority, sternly urging women to have at least three children (one of the banners at Gezi read “Do you really want two more like me?”), referring to birth control as treason, calling anyone who drinks an alcoholic, and pledging to “raise a pious generation” in a country where a large minority lives a secular lifestyle and considers religion a private matter.

Ironically, the AKP’s early economic reforms contributed to a rapid expansion of Turkey’s middle class. A lot of these young people are highly globalized and have adopted values of pluralism and individualism, and many joined the Gezi protests.

Soli Özel, a columnist and professor at Kadir Has University, says the grievances behind Gezi, as well as the divergent secular lifestyles and values of Turkey’s metropolitan classes, didn’t simply disappear with Gezi.

“People who’ve known nothing but this party and this leader all their lives are rebelling, particularly in metropolitan centers. So whatever this famed Gezi spirit is, it’s a specter haunting the power holders,” he said. “This injustice, this unfairness, despite the blackout in the media, is somehow percolating, especially with the urban population.”

Erdoğan has notably lost majority support in Turkey’s largest cities, and his backing is lowest amongst the youth. Two recent polls place his national support at under 50 percent.

However, many people are still disillusioned by the lack of positive political changes after Gezi. “I’m very disappointed in people like me – secularists, Kemalists, the well-educated,” Gençer said. “We have this mentality here that we expect everything from the state or Allah. It’s quite hard for us to take the initiative.”

Jenny White, an anthropologist and professor at the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies who was in Turkey during Gezi, says the protests, like occupy movements elsewhere, rejected the political structure required to produce concrete political change.

“Collective action needs organizational structure,” she told me.

“[The protests] were very spiritually invigorating, but they couldn’t change anything because all of the levers of power are in the hands of an older generation of men who grew up in the autocratic 20th century.”

However, White hardly dismisses the protests as insignificant. She says a new kind of issues-based grievance emerged with Gezi that’s different from the ideologically-driven protests of the past, and that many of these issues, such as environmental concerns or domestic violence, are held by young people across the political spectrum.

“That’s definitely a legacy of Gezi, which itself is a legacy of the social and economic changes since the 1980s,” she said.

White says a globalized, middle class generation has also emerged from the pious Islamic classes of Erdoğan supporters, and while they don’t support the opposition, they do share some values and grievances with young opposition supporters.

Özel also points out that in the years since Gezi, and perhaps as a result of the civil society organizations that Gezi gave birth to, there’s a higher level of political organization amongst the opposition now.

“It’s much better mobilized today than ever before.”

On June 23, presidential and parliamentary elections conducted under a two-year-long state of emergency will permanently endow Turkey’s president with extraordinary, if not quite dictatorial, powers. Experts say there’s a good chance of electoral fraud and express doubts over the likelihood of Erdoğan peacefully giving up power, but the recent level of cooperation and civility between opposition political parties has been uncharacteristically high.

Yonca has lost all faith in the political process, but insists that the “soul of Gezi” can still be felt in Turkey.

“I see on a daily basis that Gezi still goes on. Not in the squares and streets, but mentally and in [people’s] hearts, it still goes on.”

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