Report and analysis on the neighbourhood assemblies in Istanbul.
These events could herald a new phase or mark the movements slow demise. Either way a slogan can still be heard in the squares and in the streets of Istanbul, a slogan that encapsulates a common hope that spans the world and the generations: “This is only the beginning, our struggle will continue!”
In the days following the brutal recapture of Gezi Park on Saturday 15 June and the hot nights of barricades and mass mobilisation that followed, something unexpected, though not unprecedented, occurred. Beginning in Istanbul, and quickly spreading across Turkey’s major cities local ‘forum’, or neighbourhood assemblies, were established. Precise figures vary, the most recent available sources state at least 40 are meeting in Istanbul, perhaps a dozen in Ankara and others in İzmir, Eskisehir, Antalya, İzmit, Gebze, and elsewhere1. While global media coverage of the unfolding events in Turkey has waned and that which remains has almost entirely concentrated on the continued demonstrations in and around Taksim Square, these assemblies have flourished, solidifying the resistance in the neighbourhoods in which people live and work and providing a living examples of face-to-face direct democracy.
I have now left Istanbul. However, while I was there I was able to attend a range of forums in different Istanbul neighbourhoods between the 17 and 29 June. During this time I was -with the assistance of friends serving as translators- able to make notes, ask questions to participants and speak to new acquaintances and old comrades who had participated in the forums in other parts of Istanbul and other cities in Turkey. In this post I intend to articulate my experiences and impressions of these forum, provide a little of what I have learnt about their origins and development and put forward an analysis of their potential strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless I must stress that the situation in Istanbul and elsewhere is changing rapidly, that I have been out of the country for over one week and detailed information on current developments in the forums has been difficult to come by. With this in mind I invite anyone currently in Turkey or with a deeper knowledge of developments over the last week to elaborate on my impressions and provide links to recent secondary sources below.
The forums were, of course, prefigured by the open meetings held intermittently at Gezi Park and, in some ways, by the popular tribunes that took place in the Gazi district and elsewhere2. Nevertheless the first forum proper took place at Abbasağa Parkı on the evening of Monday 17 June. Critically, this mass meeting took place on the first day of relative calm following the state seizure of Gezi Park and on the evening of the underwhelming spectacle of the ‘general strike.’ As far as I have been able to gather the catalyst for this first meeting was a call circulated via social media by the Beşiktaş J.K. football ultras group Çarşi to meet at Abbasağa Parkı in Beşiktaş. The call was met with thousands gathering at the parks amphitheatre and the semi-spontaneous formation of a general assembly.
This mass meeting not only proved an inspiration to other neighbourhoods and cities but also laid a basic organisational framework. For, in spite of some variation between the different forums, certain common organisational practices have been generally adopted. Amongst these are an open platform, an agreed time limit for speakers and the use of at least some of the hand gestures popularised by the Indignados and Occupy movement. On this latter point I would like to emphasise that, although the use of these hand gestures appears to have become more consistent and more generalised over time, they are nowhere being used consistently3. The range of hand gestures was almost entirely limited to the now widely recognisably “agree” hand jiggle (I struggle to find a better way of articulating this without invoking jazz dance) and an occasional use of a crossed arm “block” gesture4. These hand signals appeared to be broadly employed as a way of collectively gauging the impressions of the crowd or, in some instances, as a way of voting. Furthermore, there did not appear to be a collective will to enforce these gestures stringently nor did their use totally eclipse applaud, friendly heckling, chanting and/or laughter.
This rather ad hoc appropriation appeared to me to be rather practical, providing a visual barometer of collective feeling, limiting the disturbance to sleeping neighbours that consistent applaud might entail and also, critically, avoiding the pit-falls of burn-out and the fetishisation of form over content to which consensus decision making is susceptible. As far as I have been able to ascertain the use of these gestures filtered through the emergent forums via the young activist fixtures of Gezi Park present at the first forum in Beşiktaş. These activists had, I gather, witnessed these organisational methods being used by other recent social movements, either first hand or via alternative media coverage. This process of the filtration of techniques and experiences from other struggles was articulated to me by a young man in Fatih in the following way: “some of them [participants in other social movements] have come to Turkey […] some of us from Turkey have been there […] people have written about it, they [government supporters] may have control of the media, but we have alternative ways of learning about what is going on, we watched on Twitter, on Facebook, we watched what was happening in Egypt, in [Occupy] Wall Street, we watch what is happening in Brazil now, what is happening everywhere, we see what they did and we are learning from them, and of course they are learning from us”. Following this first assembly, neighbourhood assemblies have mushroomed across Turkey’s major cities. The forums gather in different locations, ranging from parks, to squares to mere open spaces of pavement. Some, such as those I attended at Kocamustafapaşa draw hundreds, others such as those at Abbasağa Parkı and at Yoğurtçu Parkı, Kadiköy attract thousands. Furthermore, at least until I left the country, these meetings were taking place in all these locations not intermittently, but every night of the week, from 9 p.m. until the early hours.
Of the forums I attended two features strike me as particularly important to emphasise from the outset. First, the lack of any party political or institutional infrastructure. Second, the predominate emphasis, in words as well of deeds, on inclusion. This autonomy from any particular party or organisation has of course allowed the movement to gather and discuss in an open manner. This marks a clear difference from proceedings at Gezi Park, which whilst dominated numerically by non-organisationally aligned individuals, was nevertheless shaped by the presence of different leftist or nationalist parties and unions and, of course, the largely unaccountable spokesman-ship of the Taksim Solidarity coalition. I do not however wish to suggest that members of political parties are not present at the forums, far from it, of those I spoke to several mentioned that they were members of Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist or Trotskyist groups. Furthermore, I witnessed one instance, at the Abbasağa Parkı, in which a representative of the establishment bourgeois Kemalist CHP party spoke; his comments (which were admittedly vague and veered between empty congratulatory rhetoric and some waffle about democracy) being met with agreement by a small but not negligible section of participants. Nevertheless, these organisationally aligned individuals clearly constituted a small if vocal minority. Furthermore, I did not get the impression that these party members were effectively employing tactics capable of hijacking proceedings. Indeed, those leftists with whom I spoke gave the impression of participating in an individual capacity, though this is difficult to solidly establish.
On the second point, a common theme amongst speakers, particularly in the early meetings, was on the need to achieve a proportional balance of female and male speakers and the need to include different ethnic groups. This inclusive atmosphere was made manifest in the broadly balanced ratio of female and male speakers and participants. Furthermore, several speakers identified themselves as either coming from a Kurdish or Alevi background whilst others identified themselves as part of the LGBT community. The presence of obviously religiously devout participants was fairly small, though not entirely negligible. At least one speaker at Kadıköy clearly identified herself as a practicing Muslim commenting “they say that the left is immoral, but I know that you are people of very high morality, I pray to Allah that this movement will grow bigger and bigger.” Furthermore various proposals were raised to improve the participation of the devoutly religious, including proposals for those taking part in the Ramadan fasts to hand out leaflets about the forums at sun down5. This emphasis on broad pluralistic inclusion can be seen as a logical extension of the composition and slogans of the movement on the streets, a continuation of the so-called “Gezi ruhu” or “spirit of Gezi”6. This unprecedented coalescence has been made clear following the shootings of those gathered to protest the building of a new military outpost in Lice, Turkish Kurdistan, shootings that resulted in the murder of 18 year old Medeni Yýldýrým and the injury of nine others7. In the aftermath of these attacks forums mobilised support for solidarity demonstrations on the 29 June, with residents of traditionally Turkish nationalist neighbourhoods marching with Turkish flags and chanting “long live the brotherhood of the people!”, “Lice, Istanbul is with you!” and “the murderer state will pay!”8 This spirit of solidarity was made further manifest by the mass participation by the neighbourhood forums in the 30 June LGBT pride march along İstiklal Caddasi9.
I feel it is important to convey a sense of the atmosphere at the forums I attended. I was routinely struck by the fact that, despite the serious repressions underway and the genuine danger faced by those attending, people appeared to be positively enjoying themselves. Whole families attended, particularly at the larger forums of Abbasağa Parkı and Yoğurtçu Parkı, with people bringing food and drinks and picnic rugs. A certain celebratory spirit permeated proceedings and the same sense of humour that characterised the witty slogans of the earlier demonstrations abounded. I can provide at least two illustrative examples of this that I witnessed first hand. At one forum an middle-aged man drew laughs by humourously inverting the lyrics of Erdoğan’s campaign song, at another a speaker whipped the crowd into hysterics with essentially amounted to a stand-up comedy routine about his plan to dress a million protestors as police officers so that the police would have to attack themselves.
During the earlier forums, discussion and disagreement over technical questions of self organisation abounded. Various different propositions were floated, with some arguing for the continuation of daily meetings, others for meetings on alternating days, others for weekly meeting. Speakers varyingly proposed the election of organisational positions, the rotation of roles, the drawing of lots and the creation of sub-committees. These technical questions seemed to take less of a central role towards the end of my stay in Istanbul, a consensus on the best technique for self-organisation did not seem to have been established, yet certain procedures appeared to have become reflex, namely the election of a chair person, an open mic for speakers with a 5 minute limit and the use of “agree” and “block” hand gestures. At Kocamustafapaşa forum participants agreed at a meeting to elect participants to travel around the locale on alternating days talking to residents about the local forum and inviting them to participate. As one elderly woman put it “our main purpose at the moment is not just to build links between the forums but to get people out of their homes in this community, to get them to this forum, to get them out of their homes when actions occur.” Similar sentiments were echoed by a woman at a Kadıköy forum who stated “we must build up resistance in the neighbourhoods, in every neighbourhood, we must coordinate in every part of the city, we must be self-confident about our numbers.”
In a manner echoing that of the general assemblies of other recent social movements many of the larger forums have developed working groups to provide focus on particular issues. The Abbasağa Parkı forum having, for instance, a working group on areas ranging from labour and unemployment to animal rights. In the final forums I witnessed before my departure reports from these working groups appeared to be taking a larger role, providing more detailed proposals and more refined short term objectives. At the Abbasağa Parkı forum the engineers working group announced plans underway to organise opposition to the privatisation of the Beşiktaş ferry port and the removal of a widely used bus-stop. The science working group and education working group announced plans for open talks by local academics and a summer school for children emphasising science, art and contemporary history, proposing that the forum organise demonstrations at the municipal council to demand the use of a local neglected youth centre.
Along with the role played by the neighbourhood forums in the organisation and mobilisation of participants for the large demonstrations in and around Taksim Square the forums have also begun to organise smaller, more spontaneous mobilisations. At the Beşiktaş forum on Thursday 27 June for instance, a decision was collectively made to march to the headquarters of a Sabah newspaper, a widely read publication responsible for a viscous smear campaign against the protest movement. This was not an agreement to convene in several days or weeks, no consideration was given toward applying for legal permission, rather general agreement to march was taken and they were off. The march proceeded through the side streets of Beşiktaş with families and the elderly banging together pots and pans and cheering from their balconies. The demonstration grew to at least several thousand on route and marched across the busy motorway, slowing the flow of traffic. The drivers nevertheless near unanimously met the demonstration with applaud, ‘v’ hand signs, honking horns and raised fists. The spirit of this spontaneity, this willingness to illegally block arterial traffic flows was made clear in the various forum feeder marches to the larger protests. With the Kocamustafapaşa forum for instance marching through the neighbourhoods of Fatih on route to the 25 June protest at Taksim. A protest over the release of the police officer responsible for the shooting and killing of the 26-year-old worker Ethem Sarısülük10.
Nevertheless, profound disagreements over the best tactics for political struggle have emerged amongst the forum participants. These disagreements cover such critical issues as the role of elections and issue of violent resistance. At Yoğurtçu Parkı a man identifying himself as a school teacher and independent socialist proposed that the forums should “form a political movement and contest the municipal elections.” This position was articulated at other forums and appeared to have a certain level of traction amongst those present. Other speakers called for the endorsement of existing political party formations, ranging from the small leftist parties to the CHP. At Abbasağa Parkı a young man articulated clearly the underlying logic of this tendency when he stated “we must work with the parliamentary opposition […] we must work with the politicians, they are more experienced than us.” These sentiments appeared to be common though not universally held, as one speaker in a Fatih forum put it “if voting did anything they would ban it, I think elections are a distraction” a sentiment echoed by a young woman at Abbasağa Parkı “we should not form a party, or vote for the CHP, we should continue to build alternative structures.”
This sentiment, of building alternative directly democratic structures in opposition to the government was widely articulated in different ways at the forums I attended. This is of course an encouraging development, it presents the possibility of building a self-organised mass movement resistant to party political manipulation. Nevertheless opinion seemed very widely divided on what the creation of these alternative structures would mean in practice, what their exact role and long term aim would be. An illustrative quotation on this comes from the young man in Fatih that I cited earlier. This young man explained “I think this is a different way of doing democracy, different from modern democracies and better […] we can rule, this [forum] can rule this place, this district can rule its own district, we can do this.” His apparent enthusiasm for self-organisation and control from below was nonetheless tempered with an expectation in the capabilities in the opposition political parties, as he put it “political parties have to come here, they have to come.” When I asked him about whether he thought this participation might not lead to the political parties usurping control over the forums he was unmoved stating “they were in Gezi Park, but they did not control it, we controlled it.” He went on to make a comment that I felt encapsulated something in the common motivation of the forum participants “you know I don’t want to have to come to the streets, but I can’t do anything else, I sit, I think, I vote, but nothing changes.” In this way one can see the forums as an answer to a collective recognition that a parliamentary solution to the current situation is not forthcoming, rather than a wholesale rejection of parliamentary politics and the state. Such a situation at least in part echoes that of the neighbourhood assemblies of Argentina in 2001 and their fracture along party political lines and eventual dissolution with the election of the populist president Néstor Kirchner11.
More alarmingly, some vocal speakers at the forums have sought to garner consensus around exclusively pacifist tactics. This in spite of the continued use of state violence to disperse peaceful protests and the important and widespread role of more confrontational tactics during the earlier mobilisations, both in Taksim and in Istanbul’s Gazi district1213. Provisionally devised sets of principles such as those put forward at Abbasağa Parkı nonetheless provide scope for a more flexible tactical approach stating: “we will not provoke violence, but we reserve the right to legitimate self defence14.” Nevertheless, these pacifist tendencies within the forum present a real danger, both in the sense that they leave the movement defenceless from state violence and in the sense that they provide a point of fracture on which the government can attempt to divide the protesters. Such divisive tactics have proved disastrous in other contexts such as the US Occupy movement and the Greek Syntagma Sqare assemblies, contexts in which, critically, the level and intensity of state violence was far below that currently underway in Turkey.
There is a critical difference between the Turkish uprising and those that have occurred in recent years, in southern Europe, the Magreb and, most recently, in Brazil. This difference lies in the lack of centrally articulated class demands. Such demands were always implicitly at play in the very nature of the uprising, in the collective rage against the violence of the police, the indignation against ruling class corruption and environmental destruction. That is not to say that clearly articulated class demands have not appeared amongst the slogans of the protesters, slogans such as ‘Saturdays should be holidays’ and ‘the right to strike’ have emerged, though they have not predominated. The blame for this can in part be situated with those who, at least until the events of the 17 June, maintained a strong sway over the public image of the protesters and the clear articulation of its demands, I am referring in particular to the Taksim Solidarity Platform. In their statements Taksim Solidarity distilled the diverse and spontaneous slogans of the masses to a concise set of essentially political demands; protection of freedom of expression and assembly, opposition to the redevelopment of Gezi park, the dismissal of the police chiefs, cessation of the use of tear gas and the immediate release of detained protestors.
It would however be misrepresentative to see the articulation of essentially political demands by Taksim Solidarity as straightforwardly imposed upon the movement. For, despite the anti-Erdoğan movement being numerically dominated by the proletariat, namely wage-workers, unemployed, surplus population and students, the upheavals dynamic has not to date been that of a self-consciously class unified movement. From it’s beginning the movements unity centred on an opposition to the rule of Erdoğan and the AKP. As such the movement included amongst its supporters not only sections of the petty bourgeoisie, such as shop keepers and sections of the managerial class but also certain bourgeois elements aligned with the parliamentary opposition, for example Ali Koc, ownerof the Divan Hotel15. This cross-class composition has been maintained by two factors. First the maintenance by the AKP of a strong support base within part of the working class, and their success in maintaining a polarised division within the class through an appeal to religion and to fears foreign agents. Second through the perseverance of a nationalist ideological framework. This framework, largely unchallenged by the movement, has enabled the maintenance of a cross-class alliance through an appeal to civic legitimacy. Large swathes of protestors, whatever their relationship to the means of production, are able to find a common identity as the defenders of the values of the Turkish Republic, as, in short, the legitimate voice of the Turkish national community.
This situation stands to change however, as broad sections of the anti-Erdoğan movement are able to find a voice within the forum, as one speaker put it at a recent forum in Kocamustafapaşa “we need to take this to where we work, the centre should be here [the forum], but we must take it to our schools, our workplaces, to our housing, if we don’t take this [process] to our everyday lives it will have no effect.” This point was reinforced by a spokesperson from the labour and unemployed working group at the Abbasağa Parkı. The speaker implored the forum to recognise their relationship to the means of production, to recognise their common class identity. “Do those of you not employed in factories think you are not workers?” the speaker cried, “hands up if you have to sell your labour to survive” the challenge was met with a sea of hands “then you are a worker.” The speaker went on to emphasise the necessity of expanding the struggle to the workplace stating “we must make the workplace a place of resistance, if the çapulcu do not do this then who will?” Other speakers emphasised the necessity for the movement to engage with existing workplace struggles, citing amongst other examples the Intercontinental Hotel at Taksim where workers are resisting cuts to wages and conditions justified by management by a dip in profits caused by the upheaval. Others put forward a range of proposals for the expansion of the movement centred around an engagement with the working class supporters of the AKP based on declining living standards, working hours and conditions.
Furthermore, encouraging examples of rifts in the nationalist framework and the localisation of the upheaval to the boundaries of the Turkish State has appeared in the recognition, articulated via slogans, banners and the spirit of inclusion, of a shared struggle with Brazil, with the Kurds and with recent upheavals in the world at large. Nevertheless such moves are far from universal, various speakers across the forums articulated a need to build bridges between the movement and small business owners, a tactic emphasised most recently by a Diren Gezi Parkı Twitter and Facebook campaign16. Furthermore, at least one speaker I saw at the Cihangir Parkı forum betrayed a level of patronising class prejudice. The speaker proposed the establishment of çapuler committees to educate rural Anatolian workers on the necessity to refrain from moving to Istanbul unless they were willing to integrate fully with secular republican norms of dress and behaviour.
Despite the potential inherent in the emergent forums, the prospects for the movement at large remain far from rosy. Large scale mobilisations in Istanbul and elsewhere continue, every time faced with the same violence at the hands of the police. At the most recent demonstration at Taksim Square on Monday 8 July demonstrators were forcibly dispersed with tear gas and water cannons, leaving a 17-year-old boy severely injured17. Arrests continue and the transportation ministry have announced plans to form a special unit to monitor social media for ‘crimes’ committed online18. The movement in Turkey remains highly active and energised, yet it is clear that, in terms of its most direct aim encapsulated in the slogan Tayyip ĺstifa (Tayyip Resign), the current tactics being employed are not set to succeed. Nevertheless the forums hold out the clear potential for the movement to grow, for clearer class demands to emerge and for a generalised resistance to become embedded within neighbourhoods, workplaces and schools. They herald a fundamental shift in the political culture of the Republic of Turkey, establishing new norms of face-to-face direct democracy and direct action, that could prove to have regional and global repercussions. The çapulcu movement may not hold the upper hand at the present moment but there is no reason to see this state of affairs as permanent. It is clear that the movement needs new tactics, new participants and new sites of struggle, only the self-organisation of proletarians, through forum or whatever other models this or future struggles throw up can make these changes a reality.
As I write news is circulating via social media that Gezi Park (which has been cautiously opened once more to the public) has once more been filled with people and a forum is underway. What the future holds for the struggle in Turkey I do not know. These events could herald a new phase or mark the movements slow demise. Either way a slogan can still be heard in the squares and in the streets of Istanbul, a slogan that encapsulates a common hope that spans the world and the generations: “This is only the beginning, our struggle will continue!”
It’s This Way:
I stand in the advancing light,
my hands hungry, the world beautiful.
My eyes can’t get enough of the trees-
they’re so hopeful, so green.
A sunny road runs through the mulberries,
I’m at the window of the prison infirmary.
I can’t smell the medicines-
carnations must be blooming nearby.
It’s this way:
being captured is beside the point,
the point is not to surrender.
Other “Sleepless in Istanbul” articles
Brief notes, quotes and interviews from inside the current uprising in the Republic of Turkey. All names have been changed to protect the anonymity of those involved. The views expressed by individuals and groups within these blog posts are not necessarily the views of the author.
1 Anon, ‘Other parks and Public forums’ in 2013 protests in Turkey,
Anon, ‘Lista de asambeas’, in Spanish Revolution Blog, 20 June 2013,
2 I have been informed by comrades that popular ‘tribunes’ took place in some of the insurgent working class neighbourhoods in which the illegal Marxist-Leninist parties hold an influence prior to the events of the evening of the 17 June. I currently do not have any more developed information on this.
3 A point of clarification: By ‘consistently’ I mean only that these hand gestures are not employed in a manner fully consistent with the established formalities of consensus decision making. That is, they are not used in exactly the manner for which they were developed, i.e. in the ‘spokes-councils’ of the alter-globalisation summit meetings, the Indignados squares movement or the global Occupy movement of 2011-12. I state this only as a clarification not as a criticism.
4 For those unfamiliar with these consensus decision making hand gestures please see: http://www.metamute.org/sites/www.metamute.org/files/occupy-hand-signals-trim.jpg
5 I should note that two leftist Muslim groups Revolutionary Muslims and the Anti-Capitalist Muslims are participating in the forums and have been organising anti-government night time Ramadan feasts.
6 Zeynep Tufekci, ‘“Come, Come, Whoever You Are.” As a Pluralist Movement Emerges from Gezi Park in Turkey’, in Technosociology, 30 June 2013,
7Amnesty International, ‘Turkey: Fatal shooting of protester in Lice must be investigated’, Amnesty International, 2 July 2013,
8 Russia Today, ‘Kurdish protester’s killing fuels anti-government marches in Istanbul’, Russia Today, 29 June 2013,
9 Hürriyet Daily News, ‘Taksim stages exhuberant gay pride march joined by Gezi protesters’, Hürriyet Daily News, 30 June 2013,
10 Hürriyet Daily News, ‘Extreme police measures mark protest of court ruling on Sarısülük killing’, in Hürriyet Daily News, 25 June 2013,
11 Mariah Thompson, The Disappearance of the Neighbourhood Assembly Movement in Buenos Aires, Argentina 2001-2004: A Phase of Demobilisation?, February 2010,
12 Bulut Emiroglu, Suzan Fraser, ‘Turkish police withdraw from Taksim Square and allow Istanbul protesters to continue demonstration after days of tension’, in The Independent, 1 June 2013,
13 Hürriyet Daily News, ‘Istanbul’s Gazi stages fiery clashes despite Gezi Park detente’, in Hürriyet Daily News, 10 June 2013,
14 Anon, ‘Abbasağa Park Meclisi Çağrısı’, in Parklar Bizim Blog, 21 June 2013,
15 ICC Turkish section, ‘Turkey: The cure for state terror isn’t democracy’, 27 June 2013,
17 Hürriyet Daily News, ‘Harsh police crackdown empties Istambul’s Gezi Park, Taksim Square’, in Hürriyet Daily News, 8 July 2013, 18 Sebnem Arsu, ‘After Protests, Forums Sprout in Turkey’s Parks’, in New York Times