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FOR THOSE WHO TRY AND MONOPOLIZE FREEDOM—EMANCIPATION THROUGH FREEDOM OF SPEECH

Süreyyya Evren »


Translated from the Turkish by Berin Gölönü

It is no secret that freedom of speech and freedom of expression is limited in Turkey, that such freedoms are increasingly stifled every day, and that the attempt to practice objective journalism has become an impossible task. There is much to write on this topic. What I wish to focus on is the fact that each and every one of the words of dissent voiced during the Gezi Park occupation and nation-wide protests have an emancipatory value. I would deem the Gezi protests to be the first grass roots uprising in Turkey that arose not from affiliates of certain political groups but from the masses. It is an uprising that sounded a death knell for the hierarchies of representative democracy within the political establishment, and did so with a great sense of urgency. It is worth considering the Gezi resistance in contrast to the establishment of the political left in Turkey to understand how it might be possible to defend freedom of speech and expression from those who wish to monopolize what freedom is. First, let me offer a sampling of the many voices of dissent that were heard over the course of the uprising.

POLITICAL DISOBEDIENCE

The diverse voices of civil disobedience taking part in the Gezi resistance not only left their marks on the cultural and political landscape of Turkey, but also displayed a powerful political disobedience. Political disobedience, according to political economist Bernard Harcourt, is the “rejection of ideologies that dominate our collective imaginary.”[1] The Gezi protests weren’t led by charismatic leaders and this yielded two benefits. Firstly, there was no organized hierarchy within the resistance, and no ideologies being disseminated from the top down. Second, because there was no leader representing the movement who could be disparaged, the movement as a whole could not be disparaged. Gezi also rejected conventional partisan politics, its strategies and its rhetoric. A new language developed outside of this rhetoric, surprising not only the ruling party in Turkey, but also its adversaries. When I say its adversaries, I don’t just mean its main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi or CHP in Turkish), but all other socialist movements, labor unions and radical leftist groups in Turkey. Humor and curse words came together on graffiti slogans to create a new visual vocabulary that expressed this political disobedience. Wall graffiti that read: “survive and resist, iPhone battery” was another way of saying “I reject the impulse to write ‘We are right, we will win’ on this wall.” In the same manner, to write: “Damn certain things,” on the wall was another way of saying “I refuse to write ‘Damn the fascist government’”.

THE FREEDOM TO NARRATE THE STORY OF THE UPRISING

Right after the emergence of the Gezi protests there also arose a power struggle to narrate the tale of the uprising. This is not a struggle between the ruling party and its main opposition parties, but one involving many other actors. It gives us as individuals the opportunity to show those political groups we feel the closest to, whose political perspectives we most agree with, our political disobedience. Actors who want to name and impose themselves as the agents of social change are claiming to be the representatives of the new paradigm shift that emerged from the Gezi protests. They try to prove that the very same goals that they themselves had been trying to articulate for years was articulated by the participants of Gezi in a more youthful, upbeat and apolitical manner, even if these participants didn’t exactly know what they were asking for at the time. As though the public can be taught just what it is that it was asking for by forming an allegiance with these political groups; as though it is going to relinquish its power to these groups so it can sit by and wait for instructions on what to do next.

GEZI AND POLITICAL DISOBEDIENCE

What made Gezi so unique was its resistance to a particular political rhetoric and its channels of representation. To say “Damn certain things” refused the declarative tone of a phrase such as “Damn the fascist government” and practiced a mode of political disobedience that countered even those political groups who posed themselves as the antidote to the authoritarian nature of Turkey’s ruling regime. Dissenters are apolitical, not because they are not political but because they do not make a career out of politics. They do not instrumentalize their activities for political gain. Neither do they attempt to usurp or control the demands of others to meet their own political goals and needs. Even if they win, they don’t make declarations. The chevalier makes declarations of power; the slave speaks up in rebellion.[2]

GOVERNMENT AND REVOLUTION

Anarchist theorist Gustav Landauer believed that the state was a condition, a certain relationship among human beings, a model of behavior. His belief was that there is only one way to overcome the power of the state, and it is not by taking it over, it is by changing the way we relate to one another in society, by behaving differently toward one another.

In their introduction to the anthology What We Are Fighting For, A Radical Collective Manifesto, editors Federico Campagna and Emanuele Campiglio write about the global nature of protests across the world in the 21st century: “Simply put, it is no longer a politics of flags, but one of direct action… What we are facing then, is a movement that attempts to escape the traps of identity, in favour of an approach based on practice.”[3]

Let me frame my discussion with a little memory trigger from the first weeks of June 2013. Taksim Square has been barricaded off and designated an autonomous zone by the protestors who are occupying it. Overturned cars and municipal buses are everywhere. People are decorating the vehicles with all sorts of graffiti. Some have been strung with little pieces of paper and turned into a Yoko Ono type wish tree/art installation. Everyone is photographing everything like mad, and people are posing for one another’s photos on top of these collaborative installations. Photographers affiliated with the well-known Atlas magazine are there too. A scene I want to focus on arises at that moment. In a photograph by Sinan Çakmak, a group of people are sitting inside a graffitied municipal bus, as though they are about to travel from point A to point B.[4] The bus is full. There are people looking out of the window as if in a state of reverie; some are drinking from their water bottles. People are sitting in a bus that is going nowhere. It has been turned away from its original path and set on a platform for experimentation. It is as though the people inside this bus are not trying to get from point A to point B, but are trying to imagine a way to arrive at a dream, an idea. It is as if they are undertaking an internal journey, coming together during the Gezi occupation to discover something new. Had those people sitting next to one another inside that bus already arrived at the place they wanted to be? Is that bus going anywhere now? If so, where? Or is this bus still immobile, the passengers inside still on their internal journeys?

The Gezi occupation measured the effectiveness of modes of thinking, working, being, existing, that had, up until then, been considered marginal at best. Seemingly overnight, the anti-militarism of a small handful of people, standing behind slogans such as “we don’t want to kill, we don’t want to get killed,” and “we are not going to be anyone’s soldiers” was adopted by a large segment of the population. Whereas before, we thought that only those who were marginalized could think like us, we realized that these sentiments were starting to be embraced by a larger segment of society. In order for these types of seemingly insignificant values to emerge and become manifest, it is important for all marginal cultural forms and perspectives to continue and be kept alive. In another example, it may be as important to engage in a simple activity such as raising homegrown pink tomatoes as it is to stage a series of protests for social change.

“TOGETHER AS ONE, LIKE TREES IN A FOREST”

For the first time, we were together as one, like trees in a forest. People used to use that expression “together as one, like trees in a forest” but no one told us that there was actually no central committee of trees in the forest or no tree with the title “Head of the Forest.” There was no sapling with the title “Head of Young Saplings.” We found out that mediators and representatives didn’t exist within the conditions of genuine equality and coexistence where you could feel “together as one, like trees in a forest”. Apparently, in a forest, every tree feels like a physical extension of the whole, and we felt that way at Gezi too. We found out that the head of the forestry department taught us the wrong rules about the forest—the forest doesn’t have a center, nor does it have a leader. The real rules of the forest are more just than what we encountered on the streets of the city, as we faced the police.

“SURVIVE AND RESIST, IPHONE BATTERY”

The meaning of the word “Diren” in Turkish can translate into two meanings in English, to “last” or “survive” as well as to “resist.” Graffiti that appeared during the Gezi protests writing “Diren, iPhone Şarji,” or “Survive, iPhone Battery,” also took on the double meaning of “Survive and Resist… iPhone Battery”. It was an urgent need because to have one’s iPhone Battery die during the protests meant an end to the photos and videos you could post of your first-hand experiences on the streets. Within leftist movements and leftist rhetoric, the word “resist” as well as the word “resistance” had had a very special status up until then. They weren’t words to use jokingly. They had evolved out of painful, hard won struggles. So when we saw the words “Survive and Resist, iPhone Battery” scrawled on the wall, we were taken aback. Then we saw a protest taking place outside of a steak restaurant with a group of people holding up signs that said “survive and resist, tenderloin.” But we couldn’t say to these people, “how dare you trivialize the struggles of those risking their lives on the streets,” because these were the same people who had written “survive and resist, iPhone battery.” They were poking fun at themselves, making light of their own struggles to lift their spirits, so as to be able to “survive and resist” the authorities. The resistance had become a part of everyday life. The walls weren’t covered with pre-defined slogans written by pre-established political groups and parties, they expressed the thoughts, words and decisions of ordinary individuals who happened to be on the street right there, then.

The individual counts in this struggle and isn’t considered inferior to an organization or an institution. The affinity group, or the group of friends each individual happens to join spontaneously can be considered a unit within the greater mass; it doesn’t need to be a crowded unit. If there are five friends together in the protest, this group of five is a unit. Its decision making power doesn’t have to be inferior to that of a larger political group or organization. New channels for taking back our power and making a big impact have opened up, and we are going after them. Actually, in the beginning of the Gezi resistance, our confusion about what exactly we wanted might have stemmed from the fact that we didn’t know what to do with all of our new found freedom. What were we going to do with our newfound power? What were we going to devote our lives to? We have been trying to find answers to these questions since the beginning of the Gezi uprising. On the night of May 30, 2013, as musical acts replaced one another on stage, I heard one young woman ask her cohort: “how do we make the decisions here?” She had meant, “how do we decide which musical act gets the stage next?” But it’s possible to deduct a much broader meaning out of her question.

THE NOTION THAT WE HAVE BEEN HERE FOR YEARS AND YOU ARE A NEWCOMER

It’s a utopian moment. To use a metaphor of the cooperative farm, some leftist groups believed that people suddenly got interested in acquiring the rotting supplies left in the storage depot out back. In fact, there wasn’t a new demand for old supplies. Rather, a new cooperative spirit and drive emerged from the arrival of need seeds at the farm. In other words, we haven’t finally understood and agreed with what leftist groups had been saying for the past forty years. Instead, we are finally understanding how to approach the work that had been done wrong for the past forty years.

The generation of youth who sparked the Gezi resistance, who had been called “apolitical” up until the protests, hadn’t decided, all of a sudden, to agree with what the preceding generations had been saying. On the contrary, they discovered new political tactics through their own means. For the first time, they played a part in imagining and constructing their own political reality. This was new and exciting, and it gave the underdogs a chance to make their voices heard. Being apolitical isn’t about refusing to take a political stance; it’s about rejecting preexisting systems of government and using tactics of political disobedience to express the desire to invent new definitions of politics. When anarchists in Turkey launched a new theory magazine years ago, they gave it the name Apolitika. It may be because the most essential thing that revolution brings about is a disruption of our pre-existent definitions of politics.[5]

The beauty of Gezi has to do with the fact that it did not develop out of a political election. Neither did it grow out of partisan politics. Gezi was not an occurrence that was generated by the elected party, by any of the opposition parties, by the left or by any entrenched socialist groups who are vying for the public’s support. The more egalitarian, horizontally structured and network-based affiliations and groups that grew out of Gezi eclipsed the entire preexistent political ecology of Turkey, all of the parties and groups and the hierarchical structures of power that they inevitably adhere to and represent. Going back to the beginning of the essay, as much as freedom of speech thumbs its nose at power structures, it also stands as a reminder that we need to question those entities who try and present themselves as the agents of social change, who try and present themselves as the experts on revolution, as well as those who claim to be the agents of our freedom. The knowledge and experience we gained at Gezi in a grass roots manner, holds an emancipatory potential that our politicians, government institutions and the leftist establishment is trying to make us forget.

Footnotes:

[1]Bernard E. Harcourt, “Political Disobedience,” Occupy, Three Inquiries in Disobedience, W.J.T Mitchell, Bernard E. Harcourt and Michael Taussig, eds., (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
[2] Here I am thinking about J. C. Scott’s book Domination and the Arts of Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).
[3] Federico Campagna and Emanuele Campiglio, eds., What We Are Fighting For, A Radical Collective Manifesto (London: Pluto Press, 2012) 4.
[4] Atlas, no. 244 (July 2013) 48-49.
[5] David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement (Spiegel and Grau, 2013) 275.



Short bio:

Süreyyya Evren writes on anarchism, contemporary art and literature. He was the editor and founder of the post-anarchist magazine „Siyahi“ (Istanbul 2004-2006). Together with Duane Rousselle, he edited the „Post-Anarchism Reader“ (Pluto, 2011) and founded the post-anarchist journal Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies.




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