With every uprising comes the media blackout. When thousands of anti-Erdogan regime protestors marched into Istanbul’s Taksim Square last week, Turkish television was broadcasting penguins. Shortly, #OccupyGezi updates rippled across the internet. Citizen social media channels exploded with photos of police dousing unarmed protestors with pepper spray. An ocean away, Turkish-Americans watched helplessly — alone by their computer screens. It wasn’t enough.
Yesterday at 3pm, amidst the hashtagged updates, there was a tweet from 319 Scholes, a Brooklyn space known for current, digital media exhibits and collaborative tech events. The tweet was an invitation to a private “hackathon” for #OccupyGezi. By 7pm, what was intended as a 20-people tech-support group turned into a large, mobilized, grassroots gathering. They’ll be there tomorrow night. They’ll be there the next night too.
“It took us three hours to decide on the most relevant tasks and break down into six working groups,” Istanbul-born programmer and artist Igal Nassima explained. “There were 40 people at a time here, throughout the evening. I’m surprised at the turn-out.” When I made it to Scholes by 11pm, the space was still full of people and laptops, buzzing in mostly Turkish. English words like “SMS,” “fact checker,” “chat room,” and “Facebook” jutted out. A Russian and a Turkish programmer animatedly compared their regimes. An NYU ITP new media grad student, an architect and an arts writer entered names of arrestees into a database. A Tumblr engineer and a designer watched streaming protest footage. Since the uprising began, Nassima started gathering #OccupyGezi tweets, images, Vines and memes at GeziParki.me — by midnight, there were 3.5 million aggregated tweets. There was 15 gigs of data. What’s next?
Currently, there are six main projects being mobilized at the gallery. The first is a “Gezipedia” — a wiki of clear, crucial information. “Thirty-six people were arrested today for social media, for ‘causing civil unrest,'” Nassima explains. “It’s intimidation.” They can’t be legally tried under these circumstances, but they can be dragged out of their homes by the police at 4am. The wiki will provide principle pamphlets and resources from Turkey’s Bar Association, showing that “…these are actually your rights. People just don’t know.”
Another group is updating a database of arrested protestors and missing persons. It’s intended for alerts from witnesses on-site. Most people in Turkey don’t have smartphone access to the internet so a third, coding-oriented group is working on an SMS data-exchange system. Ideally, someone in Turkey could text a name of a missing friend and the location where they were last seen and the alert would become part of the database, a part of the greater goal.
“We’re also creating a fact checker layer,” Nassima continues. “There will be a community invite-based group for all the data coming in from SMS and Twitter feeds, tagged ’emergency,’ ‘medical help,’ ‘police,’ ‘barricades,’ etc. People are going to say, ‘This is true’ and ‘That is incorrect.'” In a flood of freely-accessed citizen journalism, there are errors. There are Photoshopped images and trolls. There are police brutality reports from China lumped under that same hashtag. Verification is vital.
Many designers are in the room. They’re working on an honor board of sorts, a brochure print-out highlighting Istanbul’s companies and organizations’ that helped — the malls that gave out gas masks, even the Starbucks that sheltered protestors fleeing police — and encouraging further “underground” efforts from others. The last is composition of all that data into a visual history; a guide; a way to inform the Turkish people of what is happening.
It is not a mass, one-sided revolution, Nassima explains. It’s a half-way split of Prime Minister Erdogan’s supporters and his varied opposition. There are shouting matches in the streets, shouting matches in protest live-stream chats. Over recent years, as the Justice and Development Party (AKP) slowly bend the laws towards their conservative, Right Wing Islamist interests: “The judicial system has been dismantled. Theaters and historic cinemas have been closed. Journalists are being arrested. Parks are plowed down and replaced with shopping centers.” Until 500 people tried to stop uprooting of trees in Gezi Park and met the wrath of the police. The sheer absurdity and viral, visual proof of that brutality echoed through Istanbul, united all sorts of Erdogan opposition. Hundreds grew into thousands. Sit-ins grew into marches. Make-shift camps grew into international communities.
“Because of the oppression, this is the first time a dialogue is happening, the first time people are making public statements,” Nassima says. “Tomorrow will be very big. Tomorrow is a general strike. We’re hoping Erdogan will stop ignoring the protestors; that there won’t be a clash between the army police and the people; that maybe Turkey gets back the rights it had ten years ago.” All he can really do from Brooklyn is watch and aggregate, but at a time when protestors are lining up outside of Turkish television studios, jeering their media’s lack of coverage of the uprising at their window, this group of well-mobilized volunteers is, at least, trying.
“Word spread through the Turkish community and the number of participants trickled up,” he says. The night-long event is growing into the next few days. “I also have to work, so we’ll see.” Nassima is 319 Scholes’ founding director. I don’t realize that until it’s late. Very late. It’s way past 3am. There are three of us here. It’s quiet and a voice echoes urgently from YouTube. A domain provider’s hold music crinkles audibly from a cellphone. The clock TICKS.
Earlier, I asked Nassima whether it was comforting to be here, in the flesh, in a big group; whether it reconciled with the fact that his tumultuous Turkey is far and he can’t be there. “It helps,” he says. “Definitely.”