Respect Existence or Expect Resistence

“Get up stand up, stand up for your rights”, a song made famous many years ago by Bob Marley is being brought to life by the “Standing Man” and many others who followed him in a fresh and new wave of protests this week, all around Turkey. I had the chance to join some of them at Taksim square in Istanbul, which seemed to be the centre of action and where it all seemed to have started.

Taksim square has been a popular place for protests in Istanbul.

By 17th June, Police was all around Taksim square with tear gas and weapons on display. They had declared the adjoining Gezi park off limits after violently driving away protesters who had gathered there since end of May, initially to protest against the proposed destruction of the park to build a shopping mall, and then subsequently against the violent and undemocratic conduct of the Police and the government.

It was after this that one man went to Taksim square, on 17th June evening and just stood and stared silently for between 6-8 hours. It was his own way of showing disapproval of the Police’s violent dispersal of protesters. He had gone alone, and not asked anyone else to join him. But news about his protest spread quickly, especially through social media. And he came to be known as the “Standing Man”.

And many decided to follow him. There was  no leaders, no organizers and no conveners. Several people I talked to had come alone. But there were also those who had come with friends and family, including children.

When I went one evening around 6pm to Taksim square, there were hundreds of “Standing Men, Women and Children”. Later in the night, many more came. Amongst those I chatted with were men, women, children, youth, university students, elderly, anarchists, members of small political parties, trade unionists, bank employees, cyclists.

Many had hands in their pockets and just stared. They looked very serious and I didn’t feel like talking to them. Some stood and read books and newspapers. A few people held placards, banners, photos while they stood. Two young girls stood and stared, having sealed their lips with black tape. There were those who were also sitting. The square was mostly silent. Those who talked, did so in hushed tones, apparently not to disturb those doing the silent standing and the general atmosphere.

Most people I spoke to pointed out that they were standing to take a stand on things that they thought important – rights, freedoms and participation in matters that affect their lives. And to show their opposition and disagreement to all the things that was going wrong in Turkey. One placard read “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance”

Everyone I spoke to stressed that they were just standing and staring, without destroying, damaging and obstructing anything or anyone.

Amongst my striking impressions was that of a young woman who went around quietly collecting left over garbage on the Taksim square. Like the Standing Man, her silent action inspired many others, who started to help her.

Protesters had also created a memorial space for protesters who had been killed in last few weeks, with name boards, lighted candles and scattered flower petals. Two protesters have been killed due to direct Police attacks. At least four others have also died in relation to the protests, including one Policeman who fell off a bridge while chasing protesters during a Police charge.

No one I talked to knew when the standing – staring protests will end. The key demand that gave rise to this new form of protests – saving the destruction of Gezi park – has been achieved to some extent, at great cost though. The Prime Minister has agreed to put it on hold pending a referendum or court ruling. But demands have now diversified to include democratic freedoms and ensure the secular nature of Turkish state.

But most striking to me was the spirit of standing up instead of taking things lying down.

There were also some shoes left in the middle of the square. A young woman told me that these shoes had been left by people to symbolize the continuing resistance even after some individual left the square. Just before I left around midnight, she insisted that resistance continues in different forms across the country and that they may spread far and wide, perhaps even beyond Turkey.