The Antarctic penguins may not be aware, but they have become a symbol of resistance in Turkey thanks to the creativity of the young demonstrators that continue to take to the country’s streets.
Some of the demonstrators carry toy penguins along with a banner reading, “Look! I am here,” while others have scrawled slogans declaring that “we are all penguins.” The reference to these cuddly, flightless birds pokes fun at CNN-Turk’s coverage of the protests: the news channel chose to run nature documentaries about penguins instead of providing live coverage of the clashes between police and protesters.
Demonstrations that started as a small protest movement in Gezi Park—just off the iconic Taksim Square—to save it from demolition are now entering their third week. The harsh crackdown on protesters, as well as the Turkish media turning a blind eye to police brutality, has unearthed a generation that has surprised everybody by taking to the streets en masse. Turkey’s Generation Y appears to be at the frontline of the throng, and humor has become their weapon of choice.
When Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used the word çapulcu (read cha-poul-ju: marauder in English) to describe the protestors, the demonstrators reclaimed the word and now wear it as a bag of honor. The word has morphed into chapulling, and has spread like wildfire among users of social media—it now means “claiming rights.”
Some graffiti from Taksim square reads: “Everyday, I’m chapulling,” a parody of the dance duo LMFAO’s song “Everyday I’m Shuffling.” “Tear gas is our national drink,” read another, mocking Erdoğan for telling Turks to adopt a non-alcoholic yoghurt drink as the country’s national beverage.
Largely organized through social media, many have participated in demonstrations for the first time in their lives. “We were resisting with our keyboards; now we are out on the street,” asserted one university student in what appears to be a developing pattern among the Generation Y protesters. In a recent online survey designed by Turkish academics at Istanbul Bilgi University, 3,000 Occupy Gezi demonstrators were asked whether they had participated in street protests before—53.7% said ‘No.’
“Honestly, I was not even aware about the issue with the park. But one day, just as I was leaving my office, I got gassed and saw many innocent people suffering from the gas. Ever since that day, I have been in Taksim,” disclosed a young man, who, like many others, preferred to remain anonymous.
In the early days, I came across youngsters wearing flip flops—far from the ideal outfit to face clashes with the police. While there were many that came equipped with diving goggles or ski glasses, one youngster who had nothing to protect himself with remarked, “Why should I come with anything? I am here for peaceful demonstrations.”
This young generation of protesters has proven itself persistent even in the face of a heavy-handed clampdown. On the second day of the protests, one demonstrator displayed little faith in the longevity of their movement: “There is a very small politicized group: the leftists, etc., as well as soccer fans who have experience of street protests who are fighting with the police on the front lines—but the rest of the crowds you see here will disperse once the front line groups stop challenging the cops.” Yet the crowds remain undeterred.
“This is the urban uprising of the young generation: those who are well-educated and in touch with the world, who find the outfit designed by the government too tight for them,” explains Emre Gönen, a scholar based in Istanbul.
Many had dubbed Turkey’s youth the ‘apolitical generation.’ In the same survey conducted by Istanbul Bilgi University, 70% of respondents said that they did not affiliate themselves with any political party. But Esra Bilgiç, a political scientist in her late thirties, disagrees: “We were the apolitical generations, but not this generation. I was five years old when the 1980 military coup took place. I grew up not knowing what we were deprived of. There was only one TV channel; we could not follow the world. This generation is politicized, but they have a different understanding of politics. What they understand about being politicized is to participate in the democratic process. That does not necessarily require political parties; they prefer to participate by becoming mobilized, by raising their voice.”
As Erdoğan’s supporters also take to the streets in a show of solidarity with the prime minister, it is obvious that the Gezi demonstrators are made up of those who did not vote for the ruling Justice and Development Party. They have taken to the streets as part of the mounting frustration felt over what they perceive to be Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule.
These young demonstrators are raising their voices to say that they have had enough of being shunned as ‘the other’ by the government. They are expressing their resentment at being looked down upon by the AKP because they do not endorse all the conservative values of the prime minister. Bilgiç observes that the demonstrators “have a free spirit. They don’t want any interference in their lifestyles. When even their fathers could not scold them, they don’t want to be scolded by the prime minister.”