Erasing the place of dissent: democratic authoritarianism and the inscription and elimination of Gezi Park graffiti

By Kyle T. Evered
Submitted to Session P4640 (The Contemporary State in Turkey, 2016 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Cultural Studies; Democratization; Human Rights; Middle East/Near East Studies; Modern; Urban Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
From late May to July 2013, Istanbul was a constant focal point for global media due to both protests centered on Gezi Park and the state’s severe reaction. During these events and since, analyses have surveyed the broader experience with regard to civil society and social mobilization, struggles over public space and social media, urban politics and neoliberalism, civil liberties and human rights, and the politics of repression and resistance in an ostensibly democratic system, among other themes. Also conveying protesters’ diverse concerns—oftentimes inventively with sundry caricatures, biting satire, and vulgar yet trenchant humor, however, there was a ubiquitous array of graffiti inscribed by activists in concert with ongoing demonstrations. References to the graffiti have appeared oftentimes amid colorful accounts of wider dynamics and settings of the protests, though some studies have focused on these messages and others in terms of humor as a mode and tool of resistance. This paper employs the concept of democratic authoritarianism to analyze the Gezi Park experience and evaluate how graffiti functioned as a contested marker over both public space and collective memory. Though it situates the graffiti as both an act and an account of resistance—with relevant examples, it interrogates specifically state efforts to purge from public view and from subsequent discourse those ideas that politicians identified as disparaging and even seditious. In pursuing their agenda, the republic’s leaders revealed profound continuities between their physical and their discursive tactics to deal with opposition; engaging simultaneously in practices to police, brutally confront, and scatter open assemblies of activists, on the one hand, and to eradicate actual narratives of dissent from public view and subsequent recollection, on the other hand. Seeking to cleanse public space, media, and memories of objectionable ideas during and since 2013, leaders conveyed dubious political and personal distress regarding criminal and treasonous motives, foreign conspirators, and insults to nation, office, and individuals. Through the concept of democratic authoritarianism, this fieldwork-based paper thus scrutinizes dimensions of how this mode of governance is manifest and enacted by focusing on the spatialities of graffiti and its erasure. While much of the graffiti itself was obliterated physically from public view almost immediately amid the protests, its political substance endures today as officials selectively prosecute continued disseminations of it (e.g. in photographs) and reiterations of its content (i.e. through quotations) in Turkey’s national media.