From March 2022 through July 2022 Kellogg Doctoral Affiliate Şehrazat Gulsum Mart (peace studies and sociology) traveled to Turkey (Istanbul), on a Kellogg Institute Graduate Research Grant to conduct research for her project, “Leftist Brothers vs. Powerpuff Girls: Intergenerational Differences in Protest Against Authoritarian Regimes”. Upon her return, she sent the following summary of her work.
Two years ago, thousands of students from Bogazici University–one of Turkey’s top universities–took to the streets despite strict nationwide pandemic regulations when Turkish President Erdogan disregarded the institution’s internal electoral process and appointed a regime-aligned rector to the university. Despite continuous police brutality and arrests, the protests quickly grew into a sweeping movement for democracy and social justice. In response to the forceful repression, two diverging strategies emerged and found resonance with students who iteratively coalesced into two groups that eventually became the divided but primary organizers of the movement: Bogazici Solidarity and Bogazici Watch. Solidarity valorized risk-taking and sacrifice in anti-authoritarian struggle, believing they must pay the necessary price to enact social change. Watch, however, saw risk-taking and sacrifice as neither a strategic nor a moral component of political struggle. Instead, they valued community building and the expression of joy and creativity.
My dissertation examines how young activists evaluate the strategic and moral worth of putting themselves at risk of state violence and prosecution for sociopolitical change and choose between creative and playful tactics versus confrontational and bold ones. My goal for 2022 was to collect the primary data for my dissertation. The Kellogg research grant contributed greatly to the success of my fieldwork. Between April and November 2022, I conducted 78 semi-structured interviews with student activists and their family members and countless hours of participant observation of protest events, student meetings, and family conversations in six cities in Turkey and in an autonomous territory, Northern Cyprus.
I was mainly based in Istanbul where I interviewed student activists and observed protest events. The family member interviews and family observations required me to travel to Kayseri, Bursa, Nevsehir, Izmir, and Duzce as well as to Northern Cyprus. I used the Kellogg research grant to cover lodging costs in Istanbul; this contributed tremendously to my ability to stay in the field as long as I did. I also used the Kellogg grant to cover traveling expenses both within Istanbul, in Turkey, and to Cyprus. Traveling across Turkey and to Cyprus allowed me to talk to family members with rich and diverging political experiences and to get a unique insight into the family histories of the activists.
My research expands on the scholarship on political opportunities (McAdam 1999; McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001; Meyer and Minkoff 2004; Tarrow 2011) and mobilization under repression (Almeida 2003; Chang 2008; Davenport 2007; Earl, Soule, and McCarthy 2003) to draw attention to how tactical choices become more challenging in situations of regime hybridity and democratic backsliding. I argue that the uncertain and turbulent characteristics of the Turkish political context facilitate diverging assessments of risk, resulting in distinct mobilization strategies. The Bogazici movement mobilizes in an ambiguous context, facing the ever-present threat of prosecution and violence, while still finding room for dissent through tactical innovation (Fu 2018; McAdam 1983; Wang and Soule 2016). As organizers struggle to assess the risks and opportunities of protest under such murky conditions, ethical considerations around whether to urge people to put themselves on the line or to try to shelter them from repression become critical. Through my fieldwork, I traced the processes through which activists’ individual and collective considerations are shaped to explain why and how Solidarity and Watch countered repression in different ways.
My findings show that Solidarity and Watch’s strategic and ethical considerations are shaped by how their members interpret narratives of past political struggles divergingly as political and/or moral wins or losses. I identify three important meaning-making processes through which these narratives are adopted by organizers and participants: (1) the activists’ familial histories, including the experiences of relatives who lived through previous periods of heightened mobilization and state repression; (2) the history of protests in Turkey as framed through the lens of the social movements, political parties, and democracy and social justice-oriented organizations they are currently affiliated with; and (3) intellectual and cultural consumption of global social movements and uprisings through books, magazines, audiovisual media, and music.