Stuffing the genie back into the bottle

Friday, June 21

It's been a busy week. Late Tuesday night I flew back to Turkey from Copenhagen, but frankly didn't feel great about it. All weekend long there had been protests, which appeared largely peaceful, but with protesters being attacked repeatedly with tear gas and water cannon. At least five deaths and nine missing people since the protests began in late May, and thousands had been arrested nationwide. Folks on the plane, including myself, were in a grim mood.

Worse yet, deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, apparently wearing his special brown trousers for the occasion, had recently announced that the government was thinking of calling in the military to end the protests. The folks running the show in Ankara--or at least some of them--appeared to be getting panicky. And panicky governments, especially those with an authoritarian bent, can do some very stupid and destructive things.

And then came the standing man (duran adam). The standing man, as I wrote about earlier, is the dude who stood on Taksim Square, staring at the Ataturk banner covering the Ataturk Cultural Center for several hours before being detained by police and setting off a new protesting trend in the process.

'Standing' people in Taksim


It became a feel-good story, with dozens of people joining him the first night and thousands more on subsequent days, standing silently in Taksim and elsewhere with their hands in their pockets. An apparently much smaller group of AKP supporters, meanwhile, has also stood, in the opposite direction with their backs to Ataturk, on at least one occasion in Taksim.
Counter-protesters stand w/backs to Ataturk portrait

The standing protest came as a relief at the right time. The situation was getting out of control and the Prime Minister appeared perfectly content to push this conflict as far as it would go. While a number of his fellow AKPers had tried, at various points in the conflict, to defuse the situation, Erdoğan had only thrown more and more gasoline on the fire, daring protesters on the first weekend of the protests by announcing that he'd be tearing down the Ataturk Cultural Center, too. Then, by calling the protesters 'terrorists' and holding campaign-style rallies on Saturday and Sunday of last weekend, Erdoğan seemed to be priming the pump for conflict between his supporters and opponents. And there was some attempted violence, with counter-protesters, apparently, attacking a group of about 50 protesters in Konya as well as the (opposition) CHP offices in the Istanbul district of Şişhane.

Without question, someone needed to play the role of adult in this situation, and it wasn't going to be the Prime Minister. While Erdoğan's political associates had, as I've mentioned, tried to be conciliatory, this had occurred mainly when Erdoğan was out of the country on his North Africa trip. Upon his return, even Turkey's President, Abdullah Gul, had become reluctant to speak out, going from "message received" (his response to the protests the first day after Erdoğan left on his foreign trip early on in the protests), to "please leave a message after the beep" because he was nowhere to be found.

So yes, the standing protests have helped to reduce tensions considerably. It's way, way better to have protesters and counter-protesters standing silently with their hands in their pockets instead of having counter-protesters attacking protesters physically (or the other way around, of course, but I haven't heard of any credible case in which anti-Erdoğan protesters have used violence). 

But, I can't help thinking: what a state to have fallen into, when standing silently with your hands in your pockets constitutes your only avenue for protest without fear of getting tear gas shot in your face. On the one hand, it's a very poignant statement regarding the state of freedoms pertaining to political expression in Turkey.

On the other hand, it kind of seems like Erdoğan, through tactics of intimidation, is getting what he wanted. After all, once protesters have accepted standing silently as their new form of protest, how are they supposed to go back to making noise?

Meanwhile, the government is most definitely not standing still. The approach of the AKP at this point seems to be twofold. In Istanbul, AKP mayor Kadir Topbaş is promising local participation for all new building projects, pledging that "even a bus stop" will not be relocated without public feedback. In Ankara, meanwhile, fines will be levied against the few television stations in Turkey that reported on the protests (including live streaming, which was/is also available on the JMB), while plans are afoot to (try to) curtail people's access to social media in Turkey. 

In short, what the AKP is trying to do is stuff the genie back into the bottle. The AKP wants to make this all just about the park again while taking new steps to suppress political dissent.

And they're doing it all the way to the point where 'protest' in Turkey now means standing around, in silence, with your hands in your pockets.


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