Real-time Radicalization

IMG_3850  gri

On Sunday, the day after the relatively intense anti-censorship protests in my neighborhood, I noticed that the row of four ATMs up the street from my house, which I usually make use of, was violently demolished. Their consoles were smashed in, the facades spray-painted and graffitied with Hırsız Tayyip (“Thief Tayyip,” referring to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan). The radical members of the demonstration had vandalized and defaced them in the night, before they were all dispersed by water cannon, tear gas, and plastic bullet.

At first I felt a wave of disappointment: destructive acts like this quickly cause a nonviolent resistance movement to lose sympathy from its vital base of mainstream members, and give the enemies of the movement an easy way to tear down and delegitimize the protesters and their demands. PM Erdoğan last year called the peaceful demonstrators “looters” (çapulcu); this was a joke to everyone else at the time but now it seemed to be almost true.

Then I looked at a wall across the street. It was a plain, bald wall, only it had incongruous blocks of opaque grey paint splayed across it. Clearly the night before, some of the more benignly destructive protesters had spray-painted slogans on the wall–against which municipal workers immediately deployed their infamous grey paint, covering up the words in the wee hours of the morning before anyone else awoke and could be affected by their seditious message.

After I thought of all these grey walls in Istanbul, I thought of Gezi Park in its heyday with its harmlessly resistant tents which the authorities first burned, then gassed, then sanitized out of existence. I thought of the peaceful masses who simply tried to gather and shout cheers together and were suppressed and silenced. I thought of a well-known band I saw a few weeks ago in Taksim, which requested the crowd not photograph or video tape them, out of fear of being found out and persecuted for their anti-authoritarian lyrics. I thought of the harsh Internet censorship bill imminently to be signed into law by the president.

I do not advocate destruction of private property, and I have no illusions contrary to the fact that some or most of the youth who threw rocks and painted graffiti that night were out for a subversive thrill, but all the same… When all forms of legitimate expression are being gradually whittled away, can you entirely blame people for trying to express themselves in some more permanent manner that might not be covered up in a few hours?

And in the end, the Hırsız Tayyip graffiti was painted over with grey paint by Monday–though the machines themselves remained shattered, the sole remaining testament to the past night’s events.

Photo: ATM machine with “Thief Tayyip,” and a grey wall with the words “Grey, grey, grey, you bore me.”

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