Turkey's Protest Hero The Standing Man Says More Must Be Done

With his silent demonstration, Erdem Gündüz became the face of the protest movement against the Turkish government. But since then, demonstrators have achieved little. The fight must go on, Gündüz says.

Hasnain Kazim

By in Istanbul


Erdem Gündüz feels somewhat uncomfortable as he stands in front of the Atatürk statue once again, worried that it might be too contrived. But he doesn't need convincing. "I know the power of photos and what you journalists want," he says with a smile.

He sets his backpack down to keep it out of the picture, then poses, turning to the left and right for variety. Gündüz, a short, wiry man, is a dancer and actor. Born in the Turkish capital of Ankara and raised in Izmir, on the Mediterranean coast, he has been back in Istanbul studying dance and performing for a couple of years.

The 34-year-old has no party affiliation, nor does he oppose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government or support the opposition. But, like thousands of others, he has been drawn to demonstrations at Gezi Park, where people are protesting the authoritarian leadership of the country. The state has come to fear people like him.

"Aren't you…?" asks a young waitress in a cafe. "Yes, that's me," he answers before she can remember his name. Gündüz. Sometimes he writes it Gunduz, on Facebook for example, because people abroad struggle with the "Ü." He smiles, and she beams back at him. "Cool!" she says, walking away shyly.

Gündüz has become an icon of the peaceful resistance movement in Turkey. Or rather, he is being made into one. Protest movements need a face, preferably one that is young and memorable. Gündüz, with his long, curly hair, is aware of this. But his newfound fame seems at once uncomfortable and flattering to him. Does he want to be the face of the protest? On Thursday, Gündüz will be accepting a media prize in the German city of Potsdam, just outside of Berlin. But by the time of our meeting, he didn't yet know what he was going to say.

The Standing Man

The Istanbul protests began in late May because one of the city's few green spaces, Gezi Park, was set to be razed for a controversial construction project. Police went after the peaceful demonstrators with tear gas and batons -- a response that sparked a national protest movement that became about far more than just the park.

On June 17, the government issued a ban on demonstrations in Istanbul, a move intended to smother the movement. That's when Gündüz decided he would find his own manner of protest. "I drove to Taksim Square around 6 p.m. and stood there," he says. In a white shirt and dark pants, with his backpack in front of him, he just stood there. And stood, and stood.

At first, hardly anyone noticed him. After 15 minutes, the first people began taking photos. And then word of his silent protest began making the rounds on Twitter. Hundreds of people joined him.

"I'm not the type to talk about politics," he says. "I'm an artist. I prefer to talk about dance." But he also wants to achieve something with his art, and he has managed that with the protest. He is now known as "duran adam," the standing man. He stood there for eight hours, until 2 a.m. when the police arrived. The officers weren't quite sure what to do with him. Was it a protest, or was he crazy? Should they really go after a young man who was simply standing there?

"It was important that I protest alone, as an individual," he says. "When one does this in a group, it is immediately considered a terrorist organization."

After finding nothing in his backpack, they made it clear that he should get lost or expect the use of force. "I took three steps back," Gündüz says. "But this didn't make an impression on them and I ended my campaign. I didn't want any further violence."

Concerned with Physicality

He has since had many imitators, and some claim they chose this form of protest before Gündüz. Many are in awe of him, but he is also hated. "There are photos of me with a bull's-eye on them," he says, but adds that he is not afraid. "We will have to keep going." It won't be enough, even if Erdogan yields, he says. "Then a new government leader will come in and do similar things." Instead, the authoritarian system must be eliminated to make room for more democracy and freedom, he says.

"As a dancer, I am concerned with physicality. What am I supposed to think when a theologian says publicly that pregnant women should no longer show themselves in public because the sight of them is unsavory? When women are encouraged to have at least three, or better yet, five, children? What kind of social concept is that? What kind of understanding of freedom?"

A couple of years ago, Gündüz protested the headscarf ban at Turkish universities. "We tied headscarves on and sat in the lecture halls," he says. But back then, his protest was one likely to have been supported by the Erdogan government. This time around, instead of reaching out to its critics and searching for solutions, Ankara brutally put down the protest movement and marginalized it.

It appears as though Erdogan's ruling conservative-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) itself is divided over the right approach. This fall it could face a crucial test if fresh protests begin as expected. Politicians are concerned about the university cities, where protests are likely as the semester begins. Security forces are ready "to give the right answers and show those who don't know their limits their proper place," Erdogan said recently.

For Gündüz, there will be no more silent protest. He isn't planning a repeat performance. "One does something like that once, and that's it," he says. Perhaps he'll come up with something new, he says, adding that the fight against authoritarian governance and the lack of freedom are not over.

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