The diverse revolt of Turkish youth and the production of the political

Some of the banners read “we are not a political party, we are the people”, “we claim religion without AKP, Atatürk without CHP, motherland without MHP, Kurdish rights without BDP, we are the people”.

Burce Celik
6 June 2013
Day 6 of the protests in Turkey. A crowd protests in the Starbucks shop in Kanyon mall for closing their doors to the injured protesters in Istanbul.

A crowd protests in the Starbucks shop in Kanyon mall for closing their doors to the injured protesters in Istanbul. Image: www.showdiscontent.com

Millions are in revolt in Turkey. Although the revolt is called the Gezi Park Resistance, it is no longer about saving trees and parks from the neoliberal capitalist governmental plan of urban renewal. Instead, it is a cry of millions of young people for more freedom and democracy. This is a historic protest of young people, belonging to different social classes, holding different sociocultural and political stands that have no political agenda other than the collective will to end state authoritarianism. It is also momentous due to its politicizing effect on millions of middle class urbanite young people who are often criticized as an apolitical digital generation by their elders. Although this uprising is mobilized and mainly consists of young people of different demographic traits, it is also supported and participated by people from all walks of life and different political stripes across the country.

This youth uses two platforms to produce the political: the streets and the social media.  Both of these platforms function concomitantly for the production of the political in two ways. On the one hand, the streets and the social media become sites for a very diverse group to act together as a resisting crowd, raising their voices, asserting their agency to make their own decisions about their lives, their environment and public spaces and calling for freedom in their lifetimes. On the other hand, these platforms open up as sites for negotiation, encounter and dialogue between unfamiliar groups of Turkish youth. In other words, young protesters appropriate both the streets and the social media to bring forth a change to the political landscape of Turkey where their voices matter and where they also hear, see and speak with each other beyond the usual encounters trapped within the social boundaries of identities. 

The digital youth of Turkey

The average age of the Turkish population is 29; half of the population is under 25 and the majority of young people are urban. These people engage with mobile and digital technologies; they read, communicate and entertain themselves within a digital and mobile mediascape. The penetration of mobile phones and the Internet is very high in Turkey due to the relentless appetite of this young population for technological novelties. Protesters of this revolt are mostly digital natives, born into the digital mobile ecology: they appropriate these media technologies for their own wills, desires, purposes and inclinations. Despite the generalized and routinized technological surveillance of the state; most of the digital natives feel freer in the virtual worlds. They do their self-design on these platforms, get free information and free entertainment and know how to ‘get around’ the filtering systems. They have a consciousness of a “user” who is not passive any more but active in the production of medial messages.


Day 6 of the protests in Turkey. Image: www.showdiscontent.com

Other than the already politicized groups such as the Kurds and the leftists, the majority of this population has not been in online or offline activism as part of the masses at large. The youth, just like Turkish society as a whole, is fragmented into enclaves of identity groups; however values such as individualism, freedom and liberty seem to constitute the commonality among these groups.

This revolt, whose most obvious demand seems to be based on the collective will for freedom, liberty and termination of state authoritarianism which effects not only public life but also individual daily experiences politicizes the ones who were not previously political and aligns them with other groups who have discontent with the ruling ideology of the conservative neoliberal AKP. Leftists, football fans, nationalists, Kemalists, anti-capitalist Muslims, Alevis, gays, lesbians, transsexuals and Kurds all act together and produce the political in the streets and in the social media.

The streets: “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism”

From the second day of the protests until now, protesters insisted on demands from the streets in all the cities in revolt, despite the brutal attack of police forces who used record amounts of tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets against the demonstrating crowd. A combination of gas masks, homemade medicines to protect protestors from gas effects and smart phones to create the citizen journalism from the ground of demonstrations become the protestor’s kit. Flags, t-shirts (football team shirts) and banners are supplementary on-site-media that show who the protesters are and what they want. Some of the banners read “we are not a political party, we are the people”, “we claim religion without AKP, Atatürk without CHP, motherland without MHP, Kurdish rights without BDP, we are the people”.

Once the thousands come together to generate the demonstrating crowd in the streets, they find their own rhythm and flow. The frontal line before the police barricades and the “Mass Incident Intervention Vehicle” is taken by the experienced demonstrators who are there to fight by throwing the gas pellets back to the police barricades to keep the crowd behind standing steady. Once the air is filled with tear gas and water, the most affected ones in the crowd spread to nearby streets, restaurants, shops and hotels where they get first-aid, often from workers and shop-owners. The undeclared aim of the crowd is not to leave the streets to the riot police. Thus, throughout a day and a night, the consumed and injured bodies withdraw as the fresh bodies pour into the demonstration areas. It goes on and on. Neither the police nor the demonstrators yield in most of these rebellions in the cities. No political party or organization sponsors this and yet the crowd becomes united with boos, slogans such as, “shoulder to shoulder against fascism”, “it is only the beginning, our struggle will continue” although the understanding of fascism and the imagination of the future of the struggle most probably vary across different groups of the protesters. Nevertheless, the leftists and liberals sing the Kemalists marches; the Kurds, Alevis, gays, lesbians, transsexuals join the football fans as they sing their march written against the police brutality. In those moments, they become one unified body.

Social media: “We are the media”

The social media, on the other hand, is in constant use during the course of the protests. Due to the minimum coverage of demonstrations and police brutality across the mainstream news media, the social media take up the role of traditional forms of news to spread the information from the site of  the demonstrations. Although the Turkish mediascape is diversified and extensive, it has mostly been mute or affirmative of the state operations concerning the representation of oppositional views and protests. Given the number of journalists raising dissident voices were imprisoned or fired due to the governmental pressure on mediascape by the AKP government in the last years, none of the media organizations had the guts to make the news from the ground unless the Prime Minister gave a speech about the protests.

Yet the protesters create their own network by using Twitter, Facebook and U-stream to make live broadcast of protests. Millions of photos, videos, and texts are shared across the social media, email lists and networks of mobile phones. While valid and reliable information are in circulation, lies, rumours and invalid news are also in the flow of communication networks. Occasionally, false information and news created panic among the protesters especially when the protesters on the ground get information about where to walk and where to get help, from social media messages. Protesters have begun to share messages, warning all not to share any news without being sure about its validity.

Social media are used for mobilization of the crowd as well as for the campaigns. A number of different campaigns have started such as sending messages, news, videos to international media organizations in different languages. Yet the most popular ones have been the ones that targeted the Turkish media.  The anger at AKP authoritarianism has bifurcated into two domains: the police forces serving the AKP rather than the people and the media obeying the unofficial blackout rule of the Prime Minister.

The arousal of consciousness about the police brutality, human rights violations of the state against the dissident voices of Turkey and the lack of autonomous media bring some of the young people who follow the news from the mainstream media organizations in online and offline environments to recognize that there were groups who have been victimized in the past in the way that they are being victimized now. For instance, a twitter user writes to Bijwenist-Kurd 2.0, which is one of the most popular digital Kurdish political activist groups in Turkey that, “I am so ashamed of my own fascist attitude towards you. I now understand what you have been through with this corrupted media”, another one writes “I apologize to you my friends, we have been following the Kurdish problem from this media. It’s been our stupidity. A big apology”. In instances as such, this revolt does what many civil right activists, academics and intellectuals have been trying to do: to shatter prejudice against the other, particularly the Kurds.

Diverse motivations for the production of the political

One might claim that each of the individuals and groups participating in the demonstrations have different motivations and even conflicting wills and desires from one another. One might list a series of incursions into basic liberties such as the restrictions on women’s abortion rights; the limitations on alcohol use; the ban of demonstrations on May 1 in the Taksim area; the demolition of historical and cultural landmarks such as the Emek movie theatre within the neoliberal capitalist projects of urban renewal; naming the third bridge across the Bosphorus after an Ottoman Sultan who is known for the massive annihilation of the Alevi population; the arrests and long detention of Kurds, students, journalists and activists on absurd charges; the bombing of Kurdish civilians in Uludere/Roboski; the bomb attacks in the border town of Reyhanlı; the re-design of school curricula imposing religion as a compulsory course for children; the obvious intervention in journalistic representation and in the content of entertainment media; the generalized and routinized state surveillance that has become apparent in the recent major anti-terror cases – all these have contributed to the production of this collective anger, frustration and resentment.

Furthermore one might argue that the discourses of the Prime Minister often with a very aggressive tone and language, naming all drinkers as alcoholics, blaming oppositional journalists, students and activists as terrorists, defining homosexuality as a psychological abnormality, preaching to the citizens about how many children they should have, what media organizations they should follow and never backing down on his plans for the transformation of the Taksim area despite all of these protests gave rise to the emergence of this nationwide rebellion.

Regardless of the particular motivation for this varied group of protesters, there is a display of alignment among the diverse young population of Turkey that wants to be heard and is determined to speak rather than accepting the role of the obedient listener. Even if all these revolts end without a gain of more democratic rights for the people of Turkey now, the political consciousness of the sheer possibility of resistance, dialogue and solidarity with others have arisen among the youth who might have a chance to transgress the social boundaries of the identity-claves. For instance, a young lady as a representative of the anti-capitalist Muslims says, “I don’t have any problems with Kemalists, secularists and others here. The problem is this ruling power that fragments us and divides us into different groups. We are together on this, because we want our rights and demand an end to the dictatorship of this party”.

See Leyla Neyzi (2001), “Object or Subject? The Paradox of “Youth” in Turkey”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 33(3):411-32, for further reading on the Turkish youth. 


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