Generation Y in Gezi Park

by Marcie J. Patton
published in MER268

Generation Y has figured large in the global pattern of protest beginning at the tail end of the 2000s. In marches against the fraudulent presidential election in Iran, against austerity in southern Europe, against autocracy in places from Morocco to Bahrain, and against greed and corruption in the United States, people born between 1980 and the late 1990s, aged 15-30, have been a driving force. Generation Y, also known as the millennials or the We Generation, is more than 2 billion people, roughly a third of the world’s total population.

In May and June, Turkey as well was shaken by demonstrations composed largely of youths, most of them middle-class urbanites. The protests, prompted by the uprooting of trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, quickly morphed into a nationwide movement calling broadly for more participatory politics in the country. The Gezi Park protests represented the largest political sighting of a Generation Y segment in Turkey to date. Estimates put millennials at 35 percent of the population, meaning they account for most of the youth bulge visible in Turkey as elsewhere in the Middle East. Generation Y’s sheer size compounds its weight in politics and the economy. To be sure, the segment in Gezi Park occupies a small niche within the age group, in that, for the most part, its members are highly educated, skilled with digital technology and hooked on social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. But, its minority status notwithstanding, this coterie is a likely agent of change.

The Gezi protesters are distinguished first by their pluralism. Among the organizations flying their flags in the Turkish streets were feminist, LGBT and human rights groups, environmentalists and trade unions. There were Alevis, self-described “anti-capitalist Muslims,” students, soccer fans, professionals, academics, artists, nationalists, liberals, left-wing revolutionaries, Kurds and “white Turks” -- as the Western-oriented city elites are known. The coalition was highly diverse ideologically, its constituent elements pursuing wildly disparate agendas. It was united, nonetheless, by deep distaste for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s majoritarian understanding of democracy -- do as I say because I have an electoral mandate -- and the harshness of the initial police response to the demonstrators. All of the member groups included millennials in their ranks. In fact, a majority of the protesters belonged to Generation Y, and more than half of the participants had never before joined a mass protest.

Millennials

Market research firms have conducted numerous surveys of Generation Y to ascertain its consumption habits, and corporations are funding studies to determine best practices for managing Generation Yers in the workplace. The politics of this cohort are not as well understood, in part because those questions are easier answered in retrospect. Gender, race, class and education are better predictors of political behavior than generation. Nevertheless, belonging to a generation, as German sociologist Karl Mannheim pointed out, is at some level to be conscious of a generational identity derived from a combination of shared temporal, historical and socio-cultural location. Two recent portraits of Generation Y are Viacom’s “The Next Normal Millennial Study,” which surveyed 15,000 people aged 9-30, spanning 24 countries, and the Telefonica-Financial Times “Global Millennial Survey,” which commissioned 12,000 online interviews with 18-30 year-olds across 27 countries. Viacom unveiled its findings in November 2012 and Telefonica released its results the following June. Turkey was included in both studies.

Disputing the notion that generations simply emerge every 30 years, Mannheim contended that generations are the product of social, cultural and historical forces. The Viacom study argues that the 2008 global recession and the attendant job insecurity is the number-one factor crystallizing the millennials’ identity -- 68 percent of respondents felt personally touched by the economic crisis. The Telefonica survey similarly reveals widespread concern with the financial meltdown and shared perception of an economic opportunity gap. Sixty-three percent of respondents said it was difficult for their generation to move from school to the workplace. This sentiment was counterbalanced by a strong faith in one’s ability to chart one’s own destiny and an overwhelming (87 percent) sense of happiness, which Generation Yers associate with success. Telefonica further finds that Generation Y is very concerned with social inequality.

Generation Y is frequently characterized as being apolitical, but it is better understood as being cynical about politics. “First off,” as Paul Hudson asks in the online magazine Elite Daily, “is it really such a surprise that our generation prefers to stay as far away from politics as possible? All the lies that are fed to us by government bodies and the media are now public knowledge. If we want to look into a once top-secret military operation we can via the Internet.” Generation Y, in fact, has a political identity -- what has been termed second-wave libertarianism -- which combines insistence upon negative freedom from state intrusion with positive freedom to make personal choices. Millennials consider freedom a basic need and believe that personal freedom should be unlimited. The Telefonica survey affirms that Generation Yers are strong advocates of social tolerance and pluralism, as well as rebels against hierarchy, including in the family.

The most discussed feature of Generation Y is that, far more than its predecessors, it embraces the digital era, depending on social media to build and sustain relationships with friends and family. In May Time magazine christened the millennials the “Me Me Me Generation” because they “are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.” Others prefer the term “We Generation” as it better captures the millennials’ yen for self-expression, which they say should not be confused with individualism or egoism. Brand marketing studies, in particular, emphasize the “we-ness” trait, coining the label “communal consumers” to indicate the tight peer bonds of youths who fear being considered non-conformist and “live with their parents” in part because they are so close to them.

To many the Gezi Park protests closely resembled the 2011 Arab uprisings in their articulation of anger at authoritarian styles of governance. There are indeed parallels but also key differences. Turkey is far more democratic than any Arab state. Its Generation Y does not want to overthrow the entire regime, merely to improve the behavior of the politicians in charge -- at present, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Second, the protests in Turkey tended to focus on the political realm. The Turkish economy is not in crisis. Over the past decade, in fact, the country has seen relatively high growth rates of 6-8 percent per annum. That is not to intimate that job prospects for Turkish youth are bright. Like their Middle Eastern counterparts, they face high unemployment, no matter what their level of education, a serious problem even before the late 2000s recession hit. And each year, an uptick in the number graduating from university widens the pool of the jobless and underemployed. Nonetheless, it was two issues unrelated to the economy that brought Turkey’s Generation Y into the streets.

Occupy Gezi

What first provoked the protests was the appearance of bulldozers in Gezi Park, which abuts a large open space, Taksim Square, at the heart of Istanbul’s busiest pedestrian district. The bulldozers were razing trees as part of a plan to build a replica of military barracks that had stood on the spot in the Ottoman era. The new building was to house luxury condominium units atop a shopping mall. A group of 50 environmentalists held a sit-in on May 28 to save the centrally located green. They festooned the park with signs and banners, such as, “Long live our ecological revolution!” The protesters were peaceful, relaxed and light-hearted, their slogans and songs conveying a gentle satire. In one corner a dog sported a sign, “If there’s no park here, I’ll have to pee on the shopping center.”

Under Erdoğan, who was once mayor, urban development in Istanbul has proceeded with no real planning or consultation with non-governmental organizations. Gezi was not the first casualty. Already destroyed by the wrecking ball was the nearly century-old Emek theater, a key site for the Istanbul international film festival. Ahead on the chopping block are hundreds of thousands more trees in order to build a third bridge over the Bosphorus, construction of which will likely contaminate drinking water reservoirs, plus as many as 2.5 million trees in order to make way for a third Istanbul airport. Lastly, there is Erdoğan’s mega-project -- a 50-kilometer canal that would function as a second strait connecting the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea. The bridge, airport and canal plans are moving forward with utter disregard for the ecological cost. Meanwhile, poor neighborhoods in plum locations are being flattened in favor of real estate schemes that are lucrative for AKP cronies.

The aggressive development is emblematic of Erdoğan’s insistence that his 50 percent of the tally in the 2011 elections entitles him to pursue whatever policies he wishes -- even those that are anathema to the 50 percent that did not vote for him. He has relied on instruments of fear to discipline dissenters, including lawsuits against personal critics, prosecutions of military officers and Kurdish sympathizers for purported crimes against the state, and blackmail of media bosses who face financial retribution or loss of state contracts if their outlets portray the government unfavorably. Journalists engage in self-censorship to avert dismissal or arrest for coverage critical of the government.

After the police first deployed tear gas and water cannons and set fire to tents to remove the non-violent band of Gezi occupiers, the number of demonstrators swelled to fill the park. Early on May 31, three days later, the police entered the park to evict the enlarged encampment, as in Zuccotti Park of Occupy Wall Street fame. The youthful demonstrators erected barricades but ultimately failed in that endeavor. The park itself was cordoned off, and the focal point of the Gezi resistance shifted to Taksim Square.

What had tipped the scales was Erdoğan’s defense of the brutality of police actions, and the absence of mainstream media coverage in the first days of the crackdown. The most common villains on protest signs were Erdoğan and the police, along with the judiciary and various fat cats who stand to profit from the construction boom. Demonstrations cascaded across 79 of the country’s 81 provinces, as did the chant, “Taksim is everywhere. Resist everywhere.” By this time, youths of high school and college age comprised a clear majority of the protesters.

United Against Erdoğan

Anger ballooned among Generation Yers at the prime minister personally -- for his defense of disproportionate force, his polarizing discourse and his paternalistic meddling in personal lifestyles. Over the preceding year, Erdoğan tried to restrict abortion, saying it amounts to murder, and called for Turkish families to have at least three children in order to boost the population. He was critical of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the secular founder of the republic, and his chosen successor İsmet İnönü for their drinking, calling each, and anyone else who drinks, a drunkard. He oversaw the passage of legislation banning the sale of alcohol from 10 pm to 6 am and advertisements for alcohol-related products. He urged Turks to consume less white bread, and ordered changes in bread production decreasing the salt content and increasing the amount of bran. He justifies such interference, like the proverbial father who knows best, by saying that the government must protect the young -- the nation’s future -- from unhealthy decisions. Youth resentment was visible in numerous Gezi posters that made reference to family size and alcohol use. One sarcastic response to Erdoğan’s assault on personal freedoms was displayed on a t-shirt that showed two foamy beer steins clinking together above the caption, “Cheers to Tayyip!” This refrain was heard at watering holes across Turkey.

True to his majoritarian view of democracy, Erdoğan framed the Gezi youth as “them,” a rambunctious minority bucking most of “us.” By contrast the protesters viewed their actions through the lens of the We Generation. From the start, the prime minister dismissed the protesters, calling them alcoholics, looters and hoodlums (çapulcular), if not extremists complicit in a conspiracy of an interest rate lobby and foreign media to undermine Turkey’s economic success. Young people responded by turning his derogatory term çapulcu into a witty noun meaning “someone who resists,” with the verb form “to resist.” They chanted, “I çapul every day.” At June graduation ceremonies, thousands of university students carried protest signs, a number of which included variations on the word çapulcu to symbolize solidarity with the Gezi Park protesters. Graduates at Namık Kemal University, 84 miles west of Istanbul, held aloft a banner reading, “The çapulcular are graduating; the struggle begins anew.”

Erdoğan continued to insist that his supporters outnumbered the provocateurs. Throughout June, in AKP strongholds across the country, he said, “May God preserve our fraternity and unity! We have nothing to do with fighting and vandalism.” In turn, the protesters accused Erdoğan of attempting to divide the population, whether along ethnic lines into Turks and Kurds or religious lines into Sunnis and Alevis. They retorted by pointing to the diversity and solidarity of the protest movement. For the Gezi youth, democracy is not just election results but also a system of checks and balances to guarantee constitutional rights and protect individuals from the tyranny of the majority.

Clashes during the Occupy Gezi events left four protesters and one police officer dead and over 8,000 injured. The extreme police tactics -- targeting individual protesters with tear gas canisters and water cannons, vicious beatings of detainees being dragged away -- were captured on camera and video and publicized via social media. The international media also broadcast graphic footage of the crackdown. Five days in, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Erinç apologized for the “excessive violence,” only to get a tongue lashing from Erdoğan, who worried that any concession to the demonstrators would weaken his authority. The premier’s intransigence also contrasted with the tone of President Abdullah Gül, who called for moderation and sensitivity. Gül phoned Erdoğan, as well as the governor of Istanbul and the interior minister, to urge restraint and dialogue. He rebuffed Erdoğan’s majoritarianism, observing, “Democracy does not mean elections alone.” Although Erdoğan did meet briefly with a small Gezi delegation, mainly actors and artists, he never issued an apology for the police brutality, not even for the civilian deaths. Instead, he riposted, “Our security forces put up a successful and extremely patient struggle against the acts of violence, by remaining within the limits set by democracy and the law.” The protesters, for their part, decried the heavy-handed reaction of the police and scornfully nicknamed the prime minister “Chemical Tayyip,” a reference to the notorious “Chemical ‘Ali” who ordered the Halabja massacre in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

On the weekend of June 15-16, the police widened the crackdown. After pelting protesters in the streets with tear gas, they entered hospitals to arrest medical staff treating the injured. They chased women and children into shops and hotel lobbies adjacent to Taksim Square, all the while lobbing still more canisters of tear gas. The protesters answered this outburst with creative civil disobedience, in keeping with their commitment to non-violence. First came the “standing man” protests that began on June 18, in which silent demonstrators stood still facing straight ahead, for hours on end, either in Taksim Square or on city sidewalks. Using social media, protesters called for an evening vigil at Taksim Square on June 22 at which participants were to carry carnations to commemorate those who had died at the hands of the police. “We want justice, not tear gas,” read one banner at the vigil.

The five protesters who died, along with many of the injured (data is badly incomplete), belonged to Generation Y. The youthful face of Occupy Gezi also showed up in tweets with the phone numbers of doctors willing to provide medical attention and lawyers offering legal services. These cyber-activists were arrested on charges of “incitement to commit a crime and disobey the law.” Revenge roundups began in July going after members of youth organizations for “orchestrating” the protests. University students were arrested in pre-dawn raids on dormitories and detained under anti-terrorism laws.

No One Speaks for Us

The high youth participation in the Gezi demonstrations contradicts the notion that Generation Y is apolitical. Studies of Turkish youth indicate that they vote but rarely voice their opinions to public officials or support a political party. How to explain these anomalies?

In the two decades following the 1980 military coup, the state worked hard to depoliticize the population. The 1982 constitution made it difficult to form a political party, assemble freely or express ideas. Those born in this period were socialized to think that the citizen’s role in politics was merely to perform the duty of voting. Those coming of age in the 2000s began to change their minds, as Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union boosted support for human rights concepts. But the AKP government, relying on the provisions of the 1982 constitution, has suppressed and punished any effort to act on this expanded consciousness. Over the past few years, the police have jailed more than 700 students for demonstrating against rising tuition and “Islamic” education reforms, hydroelectric plant construction, violations of Kurdish citizens’ human rights, and the unjust detention of fellow demonstrators. The young people were charged with “terrorist propaganda” or membership in a terrorist group. A poll conducted by Bilgi University in Istanbul in the early stages of the Gezi protests found that over 90 percent of participants did not vote for the AKP. That result did not, however, mean they were drawn to the opposition parties in Parliament. Seventy percent said they did not feel close to or even belong to a political party.

Indeed, vis-à-vis the rights that most concern Generation Y, the two largest opposition parties in Parliament have a poor record. In January 2013, both of these parties, the traditional Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), stridently opposed a bill permitting use of the Kurdish language in courts. (The bill passed into law.) Both parties said that Erdoğan handled the Gezi protests poorly, yet neither showed any interest in finding a remedy for the protesters’ frustrations. The CHP had even endorsed Erdoğan’s development plan. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which campaigns for Kurdish rights, said little about Occupy Gezi so as to safeguard their negotiations with the AKP over a Kurdish peace process. Perhaps more telling is that none of the three opposition parties promote a libertarian stance, when just over 80 percent of the Bilgi survey respondents identify themselves as libertarian. The CHP and MHP fall squarely in the statist camp, quite acquiescent in government intervention in personal lives. The BDP is more concerned with communal rights than the individual.

The media, like the political opposition, can be a powerful institution of checks and balances in a democracy. But the five conglomerates that own Turkey’s major TV channels and newspapers subvert freedom of the press. They censor editorial content and quash investigative journalism. They intimidate their reporters into toeing the line, firing or forcing the resignation of those who refuse. In late July, the Journalists Union of Turkey reported that 59 journalists had been laid off or forced to quit during the Gezi protests. The media moguls reap their profits in several businesses and thus are vulnerable to government pressure at many points. Some tycoons have lucrative state contracts they do not want to jeopardize; others are cowed into submission by their dependence on government licenses. Not content to silence critics, the AKP also nurtures a pro-government media, notably the Sabah newspaper and the ATV television channel acquired by Çalık, a holding company headed by the prime minister’s son-in-law.

The mainstream media were decried for their failure to cover the Gezi demonstrations early on and for self-censorship as events unfolded. On May 31, as police fired tear gas and water cannons in Gezi Park, CNN-Turk showed a documentary on penguins. The other big channels opted for a news blackout as well. Infuriated, demonstrators turned the penguin into a motif for what they viewed as a media war on the citizenry. One poster depicted an army of the polar birds carrying AK-47s and rounds of ammunition with the caption, “Penguins, the problem isn’t melting ice.” A sign in the window of Penguen Dry Cleaners read, “Compatriots, we had nothing to do with the two-hour documentary shown on CNN-Turk.’’ Eighty-four percent of the Bilgi poll respondents in Istanbul mentioned the lack of media coverage among their reasons for joining the protests.

As press freedoms erode under AKP rule, young people turn to smaller news outlets and social media in search of objective reporting. One of the most popular alternative news sites is TV24 found on the Internet. Today at least 45 percent of Turkey’s population is online. The country ranks fourth in the world in number of Facebook users and eighth in users of Twitter. Through these means the Gezi protesters circulated news of police movements, as well as the emergency numbers for medical and legal aid volunteers. The interior minister warned that social media sites were “on the government’s radar.” Sure enough, in the wake of Gezi, the Ministry of Justice began drafting legislation against “cyber-crime,” a term widely understood as a euphemism for social media use the government dislikes. Despite President Gül’s cautions against a “witch hunt,” Erdoğan branded Twitter a “menace” to society.

What Impact?

The Gezi protests supplied a month of gripping drama. By applauding indiscriminate force, Erdoğan gave the lie to his sharp condemnations of Arab dictators in 2011. He undermined the persuasiveness of the Turkish political model and the country’s soft power in the region. In Turkey, however, Occupy Gezi left neither a cohesive political movement nor the hint of a new political party. There is no shift in the balance of power. Polls indicate that Erdoğan and the AKP suffered only a 6 percent loss of support. Some believe that Gül’s hand is strengthened as he contemplates running against Erdoğan for the presidency in August 2014. (He was indirectly elected by parliamentary vote the first time around.) Working in Gül’s favor is that during the Gezi events he stood above the fray, emphasizing his preference for diplomacy over force. Working against the president is that he refused to endorse the protests. The protests deepened the rift between Erdoğan and Gül, and exposed splits within the AKP, but few believe that Erdoğan has lost his ability to keep his supporters under one roof.

The impact of the Gezi occupiers will be felt in less obvious ways. This slice of Generation Y is a new voice in Turkish politics -- a voice that is secular, in the main, but does not insist upon the rigid state secularism that is Kemal’s legacy. Rather, and encouragingly for the future of democracy in Turkey, Generation Y demands that neither religious nor non-religious values be imposed on the people. The millennials are pluralist. Generation Y staunchly backs civil liberties, which could be critical for removing the illiberal features of the constitution. Moreover, with the fourth estate effectively transformed from watchdog into lapdog, Generation Y’s social media activism offers a way to hold officials accountable and counter disinformation.

Second, the Generation Yers in Gezi practiced a new kind of politics. Following the protests, evening forums have popped up in neighborhood parks across Turkey. Locals wait in line to express their thoughts and aspirations, which are transmitted to other forums via social media. The only requisite is that everyone be respectful of everyone else. In this way Turks are reclaiming parks as open debating grounds for the public. One common demand that has emerged is to lower the electoral threshold so as to better represent minority views in Parliament. Built on the scaffolding of deliberative democracy, these forums stand in contradistinction to Erdo?an’s majoritarian views. At the outset of the Gezi conflict the prime minister offered to call a referendum on development of the park -- as if going to the polls would negate the protesters’ objections. In the hierarchical world of Turkish politicians, authentic deliberation and consensus building are missing.

Third, the mass civil disobedience at Gezi drew world attention to the feebleness of Turkish democracy and reinvigorated EU pressure to proceed with reform.

Fourth, the protest was formative. The majority of the Generation Y demonstrators at Gezi were engaging in politics for the first time, creating a strong sense of comradeship. That bond, forged in the act of civil disobedience, and in jail, transcended differences of outlook and lifestyle, an amazing accomplishment in a country as polarized as Turkey. Social science surveys show that Turks rank extremely low in tolerance. The World Values survey revealed that only 5 percent of Turks believe that “most people can be trusted” (the average score among 54 countries was 25 percent). The political culture emerging from Gezi places tremendous importance on mutual respect, something Turkey clearly has in short supply. As Erdoğan and the AKP imagine the political future of Turkey, they would do well to pay attention to one graffito in particular -- an arrow pointing toward Gezi Park and emblazoned with the words, “Democracy this way.”

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