[This article is part of the Roundtable Discussion: “Remembering Gezi—Beyond Nostalgia Ten Years On" produced by Jadaliyya’s Turkey Page Editors. Read the roundtable introduction by guest editors Birgan Gökmenoğlu and Derya Özkaya and see the other articles of this roundtable here. Bu metnin Türkçe çevirisini burada bulabilirsiniz.]
A comprehensive assessment of the afterlives of the Gezi Park uprising is like fighting three battles at once. The first of these battles has to do with “remembering what happened” at the park and other spaces to which its “spirit” spread. Given the complexity of concerns, resentments, and expectations that brought thousands of individuals to streets, squares, parks, neighborhoods, and others all over the country, not to mention the rich palette of activism that emerged from these spaces, it is a true challenge to piece together the many different versions of Gezi’s memory as they oscillate between despair and hope, success and failure, and other widely polarized recollections. The second battle concerns intellectual and scholarly efforts to tackle Gezi as a social phenomenon. While one may argue that attempts for “explaining what happened” in Gezi Park and beyond may have reached a saturation point by now, there is hardly any agreement on whether what we witnessed was a rupture or continuity in Turkish politics, or whether it should be analyzed as a unique event or an unfinished process, or whether it unleashed something new and unexpected or was the culmination of slowly brewing conditions. The third and final battle, “cultivating politics from what happened” poses yet another challenge for utilizing Gezi’s reservoir of political experience to pursue radical social change. This became all the more difficult under an increasingly authoritarian political regime which has ruthlessly criminalized and persecuted even the slightest connection to the uprising. In such an environment “defending Gezi’s legacy” remained as the only realistic political option, whereas the anticipation for a radical reorganization of the society – the sound of which once rang out powerfully in Gezi park and beyond – feels like a drifting dream.
In order to tackle this daunting task of offering a sober assessment of the tenth (or any) anniversary of one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in modern Turkish history, I believe a different approach can be adopted – one that sees the Gezi uprising not as a mere revolt of the masses against the increasingly authoritarian rule but as a political expression of deeper transformation to reconstitute the social that has been disintegrating under the assault of neoliberalism. Put differently, I believe Gezi can be interpreted as an attempt to build a new and more democratic political community in the face of what Wendy Brown calls “dismantling the social” and “dethroning the political” by neoliberalism. In that respect, Gezi was hardly different from her global sisters – the pro-democracy and anti-austerity movements of the early 2010s whose politics went beyond a mere “system update.” These movements did not conceptualize or experiment with new democratic norms and practices simply to innovate in democratic participation and deliberation, or repair existing political institutions, or bring social injustices to a bearable level. Rather, by turning community into a rebellion and a radical vision for the future, they became “life in rehearsal” through prefiguring and gradually building a different collective existence.
In my forthcoming book Gezi: Making of a New Political Community in Turkey I demonstrate that the unique political mobilization during what I call the “Gezi Episode” – the period stretching from street clashes to the occupation of Gezi Park, from park forums to neighborhood solidarities, squat house experiences and cooperatives – was shepherded by such vision. Through constant, globally-connected activism that centered direct, inclusive, horizontal, and deliberative radical practices in different spaces of Istanbul, Gezi activists were in fact building a new political community on the basis of a new “we.” I trace this world-making character of the Gezi Episode through the unfolding of three distinct yet connected dynamics. The first of these dynamics can be summarized as follows:
It is well known that nowhere did the social movements of the early twenty-first century take place in isolation but belonged to a global wave of social unrest in response to the extremities of neoliberalism. As such they shared what I call a mobilizational dynamic that conditioned activists’ political identity as well as the democratic practices and prefigurative politics they carried out. Regardless of the national context or particular trigger that instigated these protests, globally-linked activists and organizers (“rooted cosmopolitans,” as Sydney Tarrow calls them) were continuously engaging in various forms of contentious politics such as fighting the police in streets, occupying squares, forming assemblies in parks, and squatting in abandoned buildings, all the while inspiring and being inspired by other struggles around the world. For instance, during the early period of the Gezi Episode activists in Caferağa and Yeldeğirmeni squat houses hosted groups from other squats in Europe, strengthening their relationship that pre-dated the Gezi Episode. Even more importantly, every tweet or Facebook message that urged individuals to join each other on the street (or square, park, or squat house) fueled an unceasing mobilization, turning activism in these spaces into an act of everyday life and thus giving it a new meaning. Constant action paved the way for the “normalization of politics” in the street (and later other spaces), reinforced a unique collective identity and solidarity that emerged from these interactions, and eventually steered people into a political community of “insurgent/militant citizens.”
Being constantly primed for mobilization with the help of social media bridged otherwise fragmented, isolated, individualized resentments, potentials and actions in tandem with other global movements. As a result, activists became progressively well-informed based on the political experiences and interactions since the very first days of the Gezi Episode. Even at the height of street clashes against the police, they were becoming more conscious and “enlightened” about the ways the AKP was relentlessly and brutally destroying the city in service of neoliberalism. Later, park forums and neighborhood solidarities across the country became spaces where knowledge about many different issues (mostly local but also broader) were produced, discussed and collectively acted upon by the very occupants, participants and residents. All this instigated a political awakening when Gezi activists began to realize that they could be in command of their own political destiny. They were no longer “calendar activists” who would attend a protest or an event organized on certain, symbolic days, such as May Day or Pride Walk. Being out in the streets, then utilizing parks and other spaces for political activism to transform the conditions of their lives was a source of self-confidence, self-realization and harmony with others in collectively building something new.
What reveals Gezi’s and her global sisters’ world-making character is the very transformative experiences – animated partly by this mobilizational dynamic – through which activists perceived their activism and the very movement in which they were taking part. By normalizing locally-, nationally- and globally-connected activism as a way of life Gezi conferred on activists a nomadic and fluid subjectivity. Activists who could simultaneously take part in more than one group and network were able to maintain multiple political subjectivities. In this way, they were able to carry out politics and establish relations of solidarity with others at different levels. Individuals and groups who became politicized together and experienced an alternative politicization in a variety of spaces ranging from streets to squares, parks, and squats turned this into a common way of life, a novel way of existing.
The second dynamic that reveals the world-making character of the movements of the early twenty-first century can be observed in their spatial characteristics. It is well known that one of the defining characteristics of new and new-er social movements is that they have often taken place in urban spaces (with unique possibilities or restrictions, and often improvised) where everyday life is experienced. This is why the radical political experience that emerged from these movements has been deeply conditioned, if not triggered, by the effects of neoliberal urbanization on the city. In this process, different urban sites are exposed to different aspects of the same neoliberal attack in the form of gentrification, commodification of the commons, deepening exclusion and inequality, and the like, all of which prompted various social groups in the city to mobilize simultaneously, even if not always in coordination. Although the objections raised from these places seem to be different in focus (maybe an increase in bus fare, the murder of a person of color by the police, or the demolition of a public park) or style, they actually became different fronts in the same struggle.
During the Gezi Episode, too, activism took place in different hyper-politicized sites in Istanbul and across the country which conditioned, through their unique physical infrastructure and historical/cultural baggage, the diversity and complexity of the participants as well as their strategies and horizons. Balconies, movie theaters, subway stations, and of course, squares, parks, and many other spaces in and beyond Istanbul became a site of dissent. It was in these spaces that the Gezi Episode became a multi-faceted political mobilization in forums, neighborhood solidarities, and squat houses, bringing under its fold many groups such as urban outcasts, environmentalists, white-collar precariat, and all other concerned residents. It was in these spaces that the different wounds inflicted by neoliberal urbanization brought people closer, while the fragmented structure of the city simultaneously united and divided their political activism and democratic imagination, giving the Gezi Episode a fluid spatiality. Constantly mobilizing activists with loose and nomadic political subjectivities could easily flow from one urban space to another under the inspiration of similar movements around the world. Meanwhile, they would be both shaping the politics of the particular space they inhabited and adjusting their own identities and subjectivities with the political potential that very space offered.
In this increasingly flexible politicization process, an activist could be a part of different forms of action and mechanisms that took place in more than one place at the same time and in different capacities. On the other hand, this increased fluidity of the activist improved the political capacity of the urban spaces in which she mobilized, for these spaces now had to accommodate diverse identities and subjectivities ready and willing to collectively mobilize with other individuals and groups in different roles. For example, the same political subject could engage in politics as a protester on the street, a watchman at the barricade, a tweeter on social media, a volunteer in the occupied park, a treasurer in the forum, a cook in the squat, or a representative of her neighborhood at a meeting of a newly formed political organization. In other words, as Gezi activists moved from one space to another, from one form of activism to another, they did not necessarily do this in a chronological order or within a hierarchical structure, but emerged (and then dissolved) in unique “space-activism-subjectivity/identity” matrices at any given moment.
In short, political activism during the Gezi Episode, ranging from street clashes in Taksim and Beşiktaş to the commune life experienced during the two-week occupation of Gezi Park, from forums and solidarities in neighborhoods to squat houses and even to the buildings where more formal meetings took place, shaped activists’ capacity to produce alternative political imaginations and forms of social solidarity that could emerge from these imaginations. Perhaps more importantly, the Gezi movement’s spatiality conditioned the emergence of a new political community, nurtured by these struggles and paving the way for a completely different world in their particular microcosm.
The third dynamic in contemporary social movements that informs the latter’s world-making character is probably the most obvious: the radical democratic vision materialized in the everyday actions of the activists. What I mean by radical democratic practices, or by activism shaped by radical democratic vision, are the efforts to fundamentally transform the conventional understanding of politics in society, and establish in its place a new modality of politics that goes beyond rights-based and representative mechanisms of liberal/bourgeois democracy. It is with this motivation that activists could formulate and implement a set of inclusive, direct, participatory, non-hierarchical and consensus-based practices as a guiding principle for an alternative way of collective existence: a new political community that defies the oppressive and exclusionary mechanisms of neoliberal urbanization and dares to claim sovereignty over its own future.
During the early 2000s, for instance, worker councils and cooperatives in countries like Argentina and Venezuela, or practices like participatory budgeting in Brazil, began to appear as concrete achievements of global urban uprisings. Daily, even instantaneous forms of action were also enriching the repertoires of radical democratic action in different corners of the city. The wide range of horizontal, direct, and local experimentations in square occupations, park forums, and squat houses were in fact heralding a metamorphosis of the political sphere beyond conventional interpretations of democracy. The “assembly” emerged as a uniting element within these diverse radical practices. Assemblies were not merely physical spaces – let alone formal institutions – where decisions about a better and inhabitable world were taken and enacted. Despite their inherent contradictions and mixed record in terms of achieving what they aspired, assemblies were also an expression through prefigurative actions (communication protocols, division of labor to meet the needs of the collective, criteria for participation and representation, and the like) of the collective will to build a better world.
Elements of a similar political horizon could be found in the radical democratic experience that emerged from assembly politics in parks, neighborhoods, and squat houses during the Gezi Episode. Radical activism entered a new stage following the forced evacuation of the Gezi park occupation and the relocation of the activists, first in big public parks such as Abbasağa and Yoğurtçu, then in smaller neighborhood parks all over Istanbul and other parts of the country. The movement was no longer defined primarily by a handful of brave street fighters and occupiers but expanded to broader sectors of the society, and as such became more democratized. During this period, park forums replicated and fine-tuned Gezi’s political practices, including long assembly meetings in which special communication protocols and moderation methods were utilized to ensure the broadest participation, even when this was not always possible in practice. Still, assemblies became sites where participants could not only discuss heated topics, pour their hearts out, and hear others in a safe space, but also collectively work out solutions, make decisions, and actually carry out political action. In addition to hosting experts, artists, intellectuals, and politicians to discuss various issues and “big politics” in Turkey, these park forums produced thematic sub-groups and workshops on topics ranging from women, gender, refuges, the environment, and so forth. In smaller parks, the pendulum of politics swung strongly towards the local, and as such began to be determined by the needs, problems, and potentials of the neighborhood these parks were situated in. The conversion of a public elementary school to a religious school (imam-hatip), the rehabilitation of a brook, or the possible opening of a grove to construction would mobilize residents to join each other to discuss and act upon these issues. No matter how narrowly or broadly these actions were formulated and enacted, they were all expressions of solidarity and a will to collectively tackle shared problems.
Maybe most important of all, the underlying intent of the activism during the Gezi Episode – spanning from the creation of barter-tables, free kitchens, community gardens, libraries, and infirmaries during the occupation of Gezi Park to all forms of political mobilization in park forums, neighborhood solidarities, squat houses, and cooperatives – was to protect the city’s common resources, spaces, meanings, and symbols from neoliberalism and to share them with broader segments of the society. While internal contradictions and numerous other issues circumscribed and crippled its world-making potential, radical politics during the Gezi Episode still attempted to move beyond a social model which placed private property and a narrowly defined national identity at its core, and to rebuild the city, with its inhabitants and common resources, under a new social contract.
It is important not to reduce this vision of the contemporary social movements simply to collective and fair use of economic resources available to the residents of the city. Rather, it should be interpreted as a political project aimed at creating a new social fabric to meet individuals’ most fundamental needs such as employment, sustenance, housing, healthcare, education and others, all of which have been plundered by neoliberal capitalism. At the core of this activism lies a radical democratic vision to rebuild the economic (through pooling resources to meet the fundamental needs of all), the political (through radically democratizing decision-making and participation mechanisms), and the social (through broadening the definition of community to the largest extent possible) pillars of an alternative world and a “common” way of living.
When looking back from the tenth-year mark to remember what happened at Gezi Park, understand how it happened, and unleash its political potential, the three interrelated dynamics seen in Gezi and her global sisters paint a different picture than the one that often constrains our political imagination within such binaries as failure/success, defeat/victory, loss/win, or others. This new breed of social movements neither simply offered discursive openings to rethink the worsening levels of inequality, exclusion, and other forms of injustice, nor did they offer quick fixes to get “back to normal.” Rather, they emboldened masses to dream about the possibility of a different world. Looking at how these three dynamics have played out over time enables us to remember and understand Gezi not through the prism of unproductive conversations, inter-organization conflicts, personal animosities, failure to institutionalize, lack of leadership, or relying too much on technology, but instead can help us see the possibilities and limitations of Gezi for building an alternative political community defined by a fundamentally different set of criteria, expressed with a new lexicon. Without naively dismissing its limits and contradictions as well as the significant challenges that prevent its full realization, recognizing the world-making character of radical democratic practices ranging from street clashes to park forums, assembly meetings, occupations, cooperatives, and mutual aid networks can expand our political horizon beyond merely resisting market relations or oppressive state apparatuses, and encourage us to reject a narrow political vision in favor of one which is still in the making.
 I am indebted to Derya Özkaya for numerous conversations on this topic and for kindly allowing me to mention it in this piece.