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Talking about a revolution

They gather at dusk — in squares, in parks, on slithers of cement sandwiched between roads bustling with traffic. Some bring food and drinks, others just their voices; men and women, young and old, bound by a common indignation, an indignation that can no longer be silenced.

In Yoğurtçu Parkı in the district of Kadıköy, Istanbul, a young woman steps onto an improvised platform. “We must build up resistance in every neighborhood. We must coordinate and march in every part of the city. We must be self-confident about our numbers,” she declares.

She does not do so lightly. With the brutal recapture of Gezi Park on Saturday June 15 and the hot nights of barricades and gas that followed, something unexpected occurred. Across Istanbul, out of sight of the global media, people began spontaneously to assemble and talk.

These açık forum (people’s assemblies) have mushroomed from distinct to district, from city to city. Precise figures vary — 35 were meeting at the last count in Istanbul, perhaps a dozen in Ankara and others in İzmir, Eskisehir, Antalya, İzmit, Gebze and elsewhere. In some places people meet in the dozens, elsewhere — as in Yoğurtçu Parkı and Abbasağa Parkı, Beşiktaş — they congregate in the thousands. In all these places, people gather not intermittently, but every night of the week.

In their spontaneity, in their horizontality, these forums echo the neighborhood assemblies that have characterised the major social upheavals of the last decade, from Spain to Greece, from Argentina to Egypt. But Turkey stands out from all of these examples. In attempting to analyze the açık forum, an understanding of these movements provides an insight into the potential strengths and weaknesses of this, the latest phase in the Turkish revolt.

The composition of people brought together and the views expressed in these meetings vary dramatically, but certain common themes and debates proliferate everywhere. Across the forums, technical questions on self-organization predominate. Certain common practices have arisen: Circular gatherings, a 5-minute speaking limit, even, curiously, the hand gestures popularised by the Indignados and Occupy movement.

More complex organizational questions remain a topic of fervent debate — should there be weekly or daily meetings, elections or rotating roles? This chaotic process presents a very worrying potential for deadlock; yet, in attending the forums, one can’t help but feel a shared sense of exhilaration as ordinary men and women map out for themselves new models of collective decision making, new ways of interacting with one another. An emphasis on inclusion is widely articulated, and the ratio of female to male speakers has been remarkably balanced in the forums I have witnessed.

Furthermore, the same sense of good humour that characterized the slogans of the Taksim Square mobilizations can be found throughout. At one forum, an older gentleman drew laughs by humorously inverting the lyrics of Erdoğan’s campaign song. At another, a speaker whipped the crowd into hysterics with a routine about his plan to dress a million protesters as police officers so that the police would have to attack themselves.

Echoing Greece and Spain, many of the larger forums have developed working groups to provide focus on particular issues. The Abbasağa Parkı forum, for instance, has working groups on areas ranging from labor and unemployment to animal rights. Others have organized feeder marches to the larger mobilizations at Taksim Square. In the working class neighborhood of Kocamustafapaşa, the forum agreed by consensus to march to Taksim to denounce the release of the police officer accused of shooting and killing the 26-year-old worker Ethem Sarısülük.

Nevertheless, profound disagreements over the best tactics for political struggle have emerged amongst the forum participants. These disagreements cover such critical issues as the role of elections and issues of violent versus passive resistance. At Yoğurtçu Parkı, a man identifying himself as a school teacher and independent socialist proposed that the forums should “form a political movement and contest the municipal elections.” At Abbasağa Parkı, a young man asserted that “we must work with the parliamentary opposition […] we must work with the politicians, they are more experienced than us.” Neither of these sentiments appeared universally held, however, with a speaker in a Fatih forum asserting, “If voting did anything, they would ban it. I think elections are a distraction.” This sentiment was echoed by a young woman at Abbasağa Parkı, who said, “We should not form a party, or vote for the CHP; we should continue to build alternative structures.”

Despite the great potential inherent in these emerging forums, the prospects for the anti-Erdoğan movement at large remain far from rosy. The level of state repression has reached new levels of depravity since June 15, with at least four protesters killed, more than 7,500 wounded — many seriously so — and thousands detained and subjected to torture. This wave of terror shows no signs of abating, with doctors and lawyers being targeted for their role in treating the injured and supporting the imprisoned, and Erdoğan issuing yet more chilling warnings, most recently: “Everyone should know their place.”

The revolt has lost its centrifugal focus with the loss of Gezi Park and recent demonstrations being forcefully dispersed. At the recent memorial demonstration for those killed during the revolt, police deployed water cannons and rubber bullets against tens of thousands of demonstrators armed with nothing more than red carnations. As the government reprisals expand, many speakers at the forums have sought to garner consensus around exclusively pacifist tactics. This in spite of the important and widespread role of more confrontational tactics during the earlier mobilizations, both in Taksim and in Istanbul’s working class Gazi district. Provisionally devised sets of principles such as those put forward at Abbasağa Parkı nonetheless provide scope for a more flexible tactical approach: “We will not provoke violence, but we reserve the right to legitimate self-defence.”

Nevertheless, these pacifist tendencies within the forum present a real danger, in the sense that they provide a point of fracture with which the government could attempt to divide the protesters. Such divisive tactics have proved disastrous in other contexts, such as the Occupy movement in the United States and the Greek Syntagma Square assemblies. In these contexts, critically, the level and intensity of state violence was far below that currently underway in Turkey.

Until the present moment, the protesters have largely confined their demands to the political sphere, epitomized by the slogan Tayyip Istifa (Tayyip Resign). This situation stands to change, however, as broad sections of the anti-Erdoğan movement are able to find a voice within the forum. As one speaker put it in Kocamustafapaşa, “We need to take this everywhere, to our schools, our workplaces, to our streets. If we don’t take this [process] to our everyday lives, it will have no effect.” 

The incorporation of broader social demands into the movement could prove crucial to its continued expansion. This potential lies in both the democratic inclusivity of the forums and their current independence from the opposition political parties, an independence threatened by the encroachment of the CHP and other political forces. The threat was made palpable by the example of the Argentine neighborhood assemblies, whose destruction owed much to their internalization into mainstream politics.

The forums hold out the potential for a much more deeply rooted, tactically diverse and radical opposition. Nevertheless, with this comes a danger of fracturing into isolated networks and incorporation into the discredited politics of the parliamentary opposition. Could this be the last gasp of the movement that has shaken Tayyip Erdoğan’s political establishment and sent ripples around the world, or is this in fact only the beginning? The question is waiting to be answered.

Dominic Mealy is a freelance journalist and blogger.

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Dominic Mealy