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Turkey's Diverse Resistance

Masked statues stand sentinel over the proceedings in Abbasaga Park. (Photo: Kirsten O'Regan)

In Besiktas, Istanbul—a neighborhood near Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Istanbul offices—Abbasaga Park provides a leafy green space from which to escape the city's summer heat. In the park's center is an amphitheater, at the top of which stand statues of prominent Turkish politicians. Currently, each of the statues wears a gasmask. A small tent nearby hosts a "resistance" gallery, displaying photographs from the Gezi Park occupation, while the park entrance bears stencils of gasmasks and the word diren (resist). At the back of the stage, a piece of installation art is in progress: an inhabitable wire-mesh cocoon being torn apart by papier-mâché hands. A female trio plays classical music while a crowd slowly accumulates.

After 18 days of occupation and periodic clashes with police, Gezi Park has been "evacuated," and tear gas is no longer a key component of Istanbul's evening breeze. But evenings here are far from quiet. At 9 p.m. each night, householders and restaurant staff bang pots and pans from balconies and side-streets in solidarity with the protests against Erdogan's AKP government, while people stream into parks across the city to attend public forums. On Monday in Abbasaga, Gokçe Çoskun, 24, wore a denim waistcoat and a long red skirt to play the violin. Having finished her studies in violin and musical theater last year, Çoskun has since struggled to find a job. "I play here tonight for the future, for the trees, for everything. But mostly, to say that we are here," she said.

As the locus of dissent is squeezed from central Istanbul into green spaces in other neighborhoods, the protesters—a diverse group whose concerns vary from environmentally ruinous urban development to the encroaching Islamization of a modern state founded on a rigidly secularist philosophy, to governmental authoritarianism, lack of viable opposition parties and police brutality—are seeing the dramatic realization of their favored slogan: Her yer Taksim, her yer Direnis! Taksim is everywhere, resistance is everywhere!

In a society split along religious, ideological and class lines, where places of public assembly are increasingly policed, these forums provide a platform for disparate participants to reflect on their Gezi Park experiences and to brainstorm strategies for future resistance. Askin Batir, 42, an art director at Özyegin University attending his third forum, considers the forum's respect for difference to be its most important element. Having been to Gezi several times, he sees the same tolerance and freedom of expression in Abbasaga. "Democratic countries need to see this," he said. "We need this. I am here, and I am happy to be here."

Each evening, the moderator calls the assembled crowd to attention and announcements are made regarding developments related to the protests: the condition of hospitalised protesters, say, or the panicked concerns of the tourism industry. Crowd members are then invited to stand and talk individually. Despite the cacophonous resistance to Erdogan's government heard during clashes in Taksim, and the discordant percussion that echoes across the city every night, Abbasaga's evening forums are harmonious affairs. The audience expresses their opinion not with clapping or booing, which might irritate local residents, but by waving their hands in the air in agreement or crossing their forearms in disagreement. A rolling motion exhorts the speaker to hurry up.

Each gesture is used frequently because, despite its youthful basis—the average age in Gezi was just 28—Istanbul's resistance is a far from homogenous movement. Seventy-nine percent of protesters reported that they were not affiliated with any political party, and the movement incorporated a multitude of identity groups: Kurds, members of the LGBTQ community, feminists, workers, students, Kemalists, football fans, nationalists and religious conservatives.

The people who address Abbasaga's amphitheater are testament to this diversity. Over the course of two evenings, among the lawyers, journalists, engineers and academics who spoke, members of the Alevi minority (an unorthodox branch of Shiite Islam), and the LGTBQ and deaf communities, stood to air their concerns. At one point, a middle-aged woman in a red headscarf took to the stage. "I'm leftist, I'm Kemalist and I do have a voice!" she announced, to much silent applause. "I do not want the government to take away my rights. I support this struggle!"

Although the movement's heterogeneity might draw comparisons to the Occupy movement, this sort of diverse coalition is especially groundbreaking in a country where dissent and difference have historically been brutally repressed and certain social groups have typically viewed one another with suspicion. The resistance, driven as it arguably is by a youthful crowd of urban sophisticates, is united by a playful irreverence for power—erudite jokes, chants and street art—and a common desire for freedom. For Deniz Topkak, a 24-year-old law graduate, the last few weeks have been eye opening. "I never knew Turkish people were so funny and so nice and so united," she said in wonder. "I never knew that."

The movement's diversity is both its greatest strength and its biggest potential weakness. While it expands participation (encouraging a paradigm shift away from alienated identity groups into a common mode of resistance), it precludes a coherent political agenda or even a shared political language. Fascism, for instance, might mean something completely different to a Kurd and a Turkish nationalist, or a Kemalist and a religious conservative. As such, much of the forum's time is spent on linguistic negotiations and exhortations to unite.

Tolga Yalur, a 28-year-old magazine editor and former economics student, finds such circularity frustrating. "We must accept that we are different," he said, "and start to talk now about something else." Yalur is convinced that the economy is the protesters' greatest weapon, and that only by seriously threatening the country's economic climate by discouraging FDI and tourism will they extract concessions from the business-minded AKP government.

Although discussions at Abbasaga tend to coagulate around certain key issues—the need for continued acts of resistance in Taksim, the establishment of a free press, how best to utilise social media, the pros and cons of putting forward an independent candidate for local body elections, electoral-system reform to ensure minority-party representation—these ideas are unaccompanied by any concrete plan of action. "There are so many different ideas just flying in the air," grumbled Soner Ozbuga, 28, a chemical engineer. "It feels like we are stuck in a place, asking the same question: What's going to happen next?"

Another obstacle to a clear way forward is the resistance's self-conception as an egalitarian, leaderless and unaffiliated movement. Perhaps the organization most heavily involved in the Abbasaga forum is Çarsi, the influential fan club of the Besiktas football team and traditionally a bastion of working-class egalitarianism, veering arguably into anarchism (as the "A" symbol in their name indicates). Although Çarsi members, in trademark black and white, mill through the crowd and occasionally moderate the meetings, those I spoke to were unwilling to represent the group or to define its stance. "Çarsi has no political ideologies," Mehmet Emin Özbey told me, "but the main idea we share is universal human rights. We are against all inequalities."

This is such a binding tenet of the group that one of its most prominent members, known as Autobahn Ahmet, has explicitly steered clear of the forums to avoid influencing the opinions of the crowd. "While I am walking, I do not want people in front of me, or behind me, only beside me," he said, with a gentle smile that reveals a missing front tooth. Even during Gezi's occupation, he refused to wear his Besiktas colors as a means of showing respect to the disparate identity groups involved. But despite his reticence, Autobahn has hope for the park discussions.

"The main emphasis is first that these people must listen to each other and understand each other. Solidarity comes after that." He grinned mischievously. "Really no-one has been able to bring people together like this in a hundred years. … My thanks to Erdogan! He made this possible." And certainly the prime minister's relentless attempts to discredit the movement, by (among other things) dismissing them as drunkards and hinting at an international conspiracy, have mostly served to strengthen the protesters' resolve.

In the next few weeks, Istanbul residents with summerhouses will trickle out of the city, potentially weakening the resistance movement and throwing its future further into doubt. One young female speaker, who identified herself as previously apolitical and wore a slouchy blue dress and scuffed Chuck Taylors, asked the crowd not to judge those who choose to take a vacation. "When you go on holiday to the villages, you can talk to them," she suggested—pointing to the poor mainstream media coverage of the protester's philosophy, and the need to expand the resistance beyond its urban base.

Despite the challenges the movement faces, Burçe Çelik, an assistant professor at Baçesehir University, is confident that it has bridged insidious historical divisions and corroded the legitimacy of the AKP regime. "This is a very interesting and fragile coalition," she admitted, "but if Erdogan does not manage to divide them, this will shape the future of politics in Turkey."

Kirsten O'Regan is a freelance writer and NYU graduate student. Born in England and raised in South Africa and New Zealand, she is now reporting from Turkey.

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