Protest and the Limits of the Body

Even the most fleeting visitor to the occupied Gezi Park between May 28 and June 15, 2013, could tell that those three weeks of commune-like existence were sustained in part due to the existence of the barricades erected by the protestors to bar the entry of the police and their infamous TOMA.[1] If the barricade points to one of the key paradoxes of resistance—the erection of certain physical borders in order to transgress political ones—another set of paradoxes pertains, by contrast, to the denial of the physical borders of the body. Before proceeding with that exploration, however, let me mark the borders of this essay itself: tracing the question of the body in and through the space and time of the Gezi occupation reproduces the privilege of visibility that has been accorded to the park, when, in fact, protests raged across other neighborhoods historically marked by far greater structural violence.

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Photo by Emrah Gokdemir.

Throughout the protests, the body was imagined, represented, and celebrated as if it had no limits. Let us recall some of the visual symbols that came to epitomize the resistance through images whose circulation became global. The woman in black, who stood in front of the TOMA, arms wide open, one leg crossing the other in a classic tango cross, with a serenely defiant smile as pressurized water poured down her resolutely poised body. Or the man who not only stood but went so far to lean against the TOMA, tapping its armor-clad front with his walking sticks in rage and fury. The image of the woman in black circulated as the best representation of the aesthetics of resistance and the man with walking sticks was renamed the "un-handicapped citizen." Both images attested to and reinforced further the protestors' faith in their invincibility even in the face of brutal police violence. And while such faith was precisely what was needed for the protests to continue as they did, they did so by denying the fragility of the body against the armored surface of the police vehicle, which would have crushed the un-handicapped citizen if it had moved even an inch, and which could fire plastic bullets that might have left permanent scars on the woman in black—indeed, hundreds of others lost their eyesight for good during the summer of 2013.

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Photo by Emrah Gokdemir.

"Thought is essentially spectatorial, a matter of watching rather than doing."[2] How true is the spirit of protest if it only resides in thought and does not dare pay a (bodily) price? But conversely, does the proof of revolutionary spirit only reside in the courage to risk your own body? What is a reasonable price to pay? The bodily costs of the protests were problematically elided in certain analyses that celebrated the body with ample reference to the power of the "multitude," à la Hardt and Negri, but without any reference to permanent injuries and fatalities. Acknowledgement of bodily harm was a mixed matter on social media. Graphic images of burnt skin, bloody gashes, or broken body parts that were circulated sometimes met with disapproval from other ardent supporters: was the posting of such graphic images detrimental to the resolve to take to the streets? Others thus strategically held at bay the potential risks in their calls on Facebook, pleas that ranged from ardent invites to "Come join; it looks less scary up close than it does from afar," to more incriminating posts that declared, "If you are not in Taksim today, you are no different from the regime."

Some of the most memorable slogans of the protest, too, embodied that tension between achieving effective popularity and being fraught with discriminating innuendos. An extremely popular one that foregrounded virility and macho bravado was the already existing chant of the fans of the football team Besiktas: "Bring on the spray,/ Take off your helmet / Let go of your club / Then we'll see who's the real man." Another equally popular chant, less explicit in its discrimination, was uniquely created for Gezi: “Jump up / up / who does not / [gets] to be Tayyip." But are all bodies capable of jumping?[3] What if my sister's body is less able and needs a wheelchair? What if my friend's body is prone to panic attacks, and the moment he gets a whiff of the pepper gas his chest tightens and the world starts to spin around him? What if my body is sheltering a three-month-old fetus? What if that clapping onlooker's body is responsible for a toddler too vulnerable to take care of herself? Can the capability and responsibility to respond to the call of the Taksim Solidarity Group, to the call of Facebook posts, or to the chant of the marching crowd, be the same for all bodies? How acceptable is fear, panic, or anxiety in an uprising? "I am afraid there is not much room to say ‘I am afraid,’" confided a friend, swearing she would never go to the park again after she thought she would die during two of the worst attacks.

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Photo by Emrah Gokdemir.

And yet, and yet. The fewer the bodies, the less effective the protests, and the more brutal the police violence, as we have been witnessing since the end of June, with protests continuing but with a marked decrease in the number of people taking to the streets. As Hazal Halavut captured the dangerously amorphous but nonetheless necessary power of the crowd, "It was precisely because we were crowded that we could stay together, and after retreating two steps back, could launch forward again." I thus take to task the bracketing of the limits of the body not to dismiss or discredit it. Rather, I do so to recognize yet another paradox that inheres, perhaps, in all collective action: the suspension, sometimes spontaneous, sometimes deliberate, of an awareness of the vulnerability of individual bodies in order to cross that threshold of fear, or, as specified by yet another memorable graffiti printed across the pavement steps that leads to the entrance of the park, to cross the remaining "19 steps to the threshold of fear."

Notes

[1] TOMA is the acronym for Toplumsal Olaylara Müdahale Arac─▒, literally translated as “Vehicle of Intervention in Social Incidents.” It is a mobile, armored water cannon designed for riot control, and it can spray different combinations of water, dye, gas and foam mixtures.

[2] Peter E. Firschow, W. H. Auden: Contexts of Poetry, London: Rosemont, 2003, 49.

[3] Thanks to Zeyno Pekunlu for her insight into this slogan, which inspired me to pursue my line of thinking here.