Friday, June 21, 2013

Standing Man

In the midst of protests, unrest, and violence in Turkey, a new iconic image of nonviolence emerged this week. Performance artist Erdem Gunduz, now nicknamed "standing man," started a silent protest that powerfully communicates. Late last month, some protesters gathered in Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul (one of the few green spaces in its area) to demonstrate their opposition to plans to destroy the park and build military barracks and perhaps even a shopping mall. After the protesters were violently removed from the park in a storm of tear gas, pepper spray, and water cannons, protests sprung up across Turkey to oppose this and other changes made by the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. With the park barricaded and police aggressively arresting protesters, Gunduz went Monday night to Taksim Square (which is near the park). After placing his backpack on the ground, he put his hands in his pocket and then stood still looking ahead at a large portrait of the founder of modern Turkey. He stood there for hours, silent and still. Police seemed confused. He did not do anything deserving arrest, and yet they did not like him standing there as a steady presence against the government. Soon, his image and protest erupted on Twitter and sparked copycats across the nation. In Ankara, a woman following Gunduz's method stood at the place where a protester had been killed. Standing still there adds to the significance of the message. Silently standing still in the face of violent governmental actions gives the protesters a powerfully symbolic way to nonviolently challenge governmental abuses. The image of the "standing man" should join the list of iconic nonviolent protest moments. These moments challenge us to reject using violence to confront violence, and inspire to explore ways to create an alternative vision of how things should be. Perhaps, then, we should look to performance artists - and not preachers - to rediscover the prophetic tradition. As Walter Brueggemann argues in his wonderful book The Prophetic Imagination, the Old Testament prophets creatively critiqued the dominant, powerful perspective in hopes of creating an alternative consciousness and community. We need more imaginative prophetic efforts like the "standing man."

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