The Gezi events showed that new social movements have a significant potential to act as a forum for dialogue and unite different segments of the society under the commons; demonstrating how a conflict itself may actually be a means for transcending societal divides and moving towards social cohesion.
By Derya Yuksek
Speaking about the new societal awareness that have risen with Gezi events, we should first note that the Resistance provided a brand-new potential for dialogue in the long-term Kurdish conflict, which resulted in hundreds and thousands of deaths, countless unsolved casualties and displaced persons on both sides, and heavy societal wounds in Turkey in the last 30 years.
Emrah Ucar from Otekilerin Postasi (Mail from the ‘Other’), an emerging alternative media platform, explains this transformation process by giving an example from GeziPark during its occupation by citizens. He draws attention that during the 18 days of civilian occupation, the group representing BDP, Kurdish Democrat Party officially existing in Turkey, hanged a poster of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of PKK, who has been regarded as the chief of terrorists in Turkey, at their stand at the entrance of the park. Though many people and groups raised their discomfort and made warnings about this poster (mainly the nationalist groups and other groups that wanted to maintain the peaceful atmosphere in the park), this did not evolve into a major problem that could divide the protestors.
Ucar gives this example to emphasize how the people living in the park, as well as those supporting them by actively joining in the protests or solely visiting the park, learnt the importance of welcoming and co-existing with differences and viewing these differences as a plurality of views. For Ucar, these all point at the empathy and new ethics having emerged out of the Resistance, which is providing for a major transformation not only in the minds, but also in practice. This also holds true for religious and non-religious groups, which had become more distant, almost fragmented due to recent official policies. This is as well true for oppressed or marginal groups in the society; Alevis, non-Muslims, artists, gays and transsexuals, vegans and so on. In addition, although the core group of protestors was comprised of non-political activists, the political groups’ sharing of their experiences of protest, of police attacks, of organization and actions methods has many times been vital and brought different groups much closer. Ucar stresses that the result is the potential for a real societal peace, where consensus emerges from the streets, from real world encounters rather than negotiations made at official meetings; making a reference to the recent Peace Process undertaken by government with Kurdish officials, and the resulting Wise Men Council which was widely contested and proved to be meaningless after the real peace process initiated by citizens themselves during Gezi events.
In this regard, Lice protests were also a turning point. Following the civil protests in Lice, Diyarbakir on June 28 initiated by Kurdish villagers against a planned construction of a new military guard post, which was brutally attacked by gendarmerie with the use of arms and resulted in one death, several protests were organized in many cities across Turkey, where people from all societal segments provided their solidarity with Kurds and raised their voice against the killing. This event, which could stay as a minor event with a manipulated coverage in media one month before, has become a source of a nationwide discomfort and a symbolic solidarity with Kurdish people. This newly attained sensitivity towards the situation of Kurds, followed by the solidarity protests and campaigns for Rojava in northern Syria, where Syria’s civilian Kurds are becoming the targets of mass crimes by Al-Nusra Front, hint at important transformations in the peace process between Turkish and Kurdish communities.
In their statements, the Kurdish side also report that they welcome Gezi movement with hope and trust, noting that the process started with Gezi events opened a space for democratic discourse and contributed to the solution process for all the communities living in Turkey, which requires a joint struggle for democracy.
Certainly, no protest can or is meant to last forever. So how to maintain this hardly won spirit? The public forums, which initially started in Gezi Park and then spread to local parks in central districts of many cities, act as one of the major tools in nurturing this process of social cohesion. In fact, the forums well represent the bottom-up, participatory, pluralist and decentralized approach of the movement. As one of the representatives of Abbasaga Forum in Istanbul notes, the open dialogue environment in forums enables the practice of direct democracy and healthy discussions, where the established mindsets go under deep transformations.
Pointing that enabling dialogue among the previously fragmented even antagonized segments of society –in particular the ultra-nationalists and Kurds, the nationalists and socialists, Islamists and secularists- was not easy at the start, forum representatives state that after a process of self-expression, empathy and self-criticization, it was possible to transcend the old misperceptions for a large part of these people. They emphasize that citizens became aware of the realities as well as the ‘constructed realities’ through communication. As the resistance grew out of commons and of acting together despite diverse backgrounds, those continuing their presence at the forums are now thinking and discussing how they can grow the resistance, how they can construct the future, and how they can act jointly on common aims in order to create the common life they desire for, where their demands are visible, voiceable and equally treated, instead of the life provided to them. Here, the emphasis is not on the result but the process, and how this movement may contribute to societal peace in a tangible manner would become evident in practice, in the long term.
The Community Houses, which have been actively involved in Gezi movement, also share these views. Representatives note that the process initiated in Gezi Park has gone far beyond the park and spread to the neighborhoods, local parks and houses all around the country, which brought about a genuine transformation in the mindsets, causing deep changes in the culture of thinking and living, where the differences have started to disappear.
‘The key to social cohesion and peace is to avoid ‘othering’ the populaces and organize actions to address the common grievances of public, where people from all social segments come and act together without bringing political or institutional identities to the forefront’, says the spokesperson of Anti-Capitalist Muslims, one of the leading constituents of Gezi. ‘The identity of the oppressed is not important. We do not discriminate people according to identity, language, religion, colour, culture, or personal choices. We are interested in social justice and would step in when there is a violation of rights’. According to him, Gezi spirit has 5 main concepts: love, freedom, respect, pluralism and solidarity. The Lgbt movement, another important constituent of Gezi, also emphasize that they act against all kinds of discrimination and violence without any exceptions: ‘Democracy is for all, not for a specific segment of public’.
In summary, the opportunity of democratic participation and the experience of direct democracy in Gezi Park and in the forums thereafter presented brand new avenues for dialogue and a bottom-up peace process in the society, and showed that a broad scale citizen consensus and social cohesion could be realized by these kinds of movements, instead of peacebuilding attempts that are carried out behind the scenes, failing to include the citizens themselves.
So, how all these are related to new media?
First of all, without new media this kind of a nationwide organization of citizens would not be possible to attain or maintain, at least in the context of Turkey as it was experienced in previous revolutionary movements of 70s and 80s. In consideration of various examples and statistics provided throughout this case study, the power of new media in informing, organizing and bringing together people is quite evident. While Facebook posts, groups, events help to spread the word in one’s own social network.
Second, the new media have been, and seemingly, continue to be the major means of communication and information in Gezi movement. The protestors showed their independence from traditional media and the capability of forming their own information channels, not only through social media but also through alternative media sites, and perhaps more importantly, through internet livestreams that continue to cover public forums going on in the parks and other city spots.
Not only the protestors, but many people both from inside and outside the country –even the mainstream media- increasingly started to rely on new media channels for getting information and news. This hints at the breakdown of the traditional hegemonies over information and signifies a more democratic information flow, where new media may act as a watchdog of not only the right violations but also the process of social cohesion. The role of new media in enabling free and continuous communication among different societal segments, about their peculiar issues and grieves may not be disregarded.
Third, the new media contribute to the maintenance and sustainability of encounters made and relationships built during the protests and forums, whereby supporting the progress made towards social cohesion. Network connections have largely extended with the integration of various social media and face-to-face contacts (i.e. new encounters were added to social network contacts, Facebook users included twitter contacts in their network and many people started using twitter as well). It is also possible for forum participants and non-participants to follow the discussions and decisions from internet, at the general forum web site. In the future, these may even evolve into local sites for each forum, meaning a communication medium for each local community in a larger network structure. Any case, citizens continue to receive updates and information, post comments and enter in discussions on new media channels. This largely free and participatory environment provides yet another platform for promoting dialogue and understanding.
Considering the social media, the members of each related Facebook event, announcement or group, the followers of Twitter accounts of movement constituents, alternative media organizations, citizen journalists, activist groups and other participants -though they may not know each other personally- acknowledge that they are acting together on commons. This makes spontaneous re-organization quite easier.
The ease of organization would any case have political consequences as our information sources suggest: henceforward, when there is a protest, a meeting, a supporting event, a solidarity event or another type of action, people will join without much hesitation acknowledging their common aims and knowing that others would join. Latest experiences also confirm this point. In the case of Turkey, the protests started in late August, 2013 at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara to contest the construction of a highway passing through the forestland of this public university, have triggered nationwide protests as of September 6, which was continuing at the time of presentation of this study.
These all suggest that new social movements and new media are embedded in each other not only as a result of the ineffectiveness of traditional channels of communication, but also due to their inherent characteristics as participatory, pluralist and decentralized networks. While new media act as the basic medium of communication within and among social movements, the social movements fill the gap between online and face-to-face communication, eliminating the perceived dichotomies by bridging the social media and ‘the streets’. All the groups involved in Gezi protests agree on the benefits of using social media as an organizing field for real world events that would facilitate face-to-face interactions.
In general, what the Gezi events showed is that new social movements, fostered by new and alternative media channels and networks, has a significant potential to act as a forum for dialogue and unite different segments of the society under the commons. It has demonstrated how a conflict itself, may actually be a means for transcending the societal divides and moving towards social cohesion.
Derya Yuksek is a researcher and peace activist from Turkey. This is an excerpt from her study titled ‘Media as a Forum for Dialogue in Conflicts and Peacebuilding: New Media, Social Movements and EU Policies: with a focus on Gezi Movement in Turkey’.