Biz. Alive at the Gezi Park trial.
Polity of Literature (3/51)

Biz. Alive at the Gezi Park trial.

Turkish courts staged the trial of activist and philanthropist Osman Kavala several times, always returning him to prison despite a variety of outcomes. Simon(e) van Sarloos attended once, and tells us what it’s like when the state scripts our destinies.

At the Gezi Park trials in Turkey, sixteen people are charged with “threatening to overthrow the state” for actions they took in 2013, protesting the proposed closing of Gezi Park, a unique public green space in the heart of Istanbul. They are architects, lawyers, citizen journalists, urban planners, and a businessman and philanthropist named Osman Kavala. They face prison sentences between ten years to life. Dutch writer Simon(e) van Saarloos, who covered the 2016 political trial of the Dutch right-wing populist, Geert Wilders, went to Turkey to see what many expected would be a “show trial.” Simon(e) arrived to find that the differences between “show” and “trial” were hard to parse, and so pursued other strategies of writing and reporting to “stay with the trouble” that was the Gezi Park trial of February, 2020.

God has everything but faith; this is why He so brutally requires ours. He looked around and was so lonely He made Him a world. Rightly, He didn’t believe in himself and, wrongly, He didn’t believe in us. We were neither sempiternal nor parental, just generative and present, like a wave. In His case, (over)seeing was not believing. Faithlessness such as His demands a certain strategic initiative. Ever get the feeling we’re being watched? Well, that’s just God’s property, the police, the ones who proclaim and carry out His strategic essentialism. They have some guns that look just like microphones. Sometimes they write books. They tell us what we need. Often, they are us.

—Stefano Harney & Fred Moten in “Base Faith

Suddenly the court asks us to rise. Everyone does. Biz. The energy in the hall thickens, the anticipation of bad news clouds and compresses. In the two seconds of moving from sitting to standing, nothing in me registers the possibility of refusal. It may be because I don’t speak Turkish and therefore I do not understand the judge’s order; I only see the bodies around me rise. I follow. The expected lifelong sentence is palpable in the room and I wonder whether closing my eyes would forestall the trauma of witnessing this. I stand tall, chin up and shoulders back, we stand. Biz.

I’ve studied the experience of standing intensively, when following the trial of the Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders. In my book about the trial I described the different ways of standing one can choose in the face of authority, the urge to either show respect or impatience or disgust or hope. I prefer to stand with hands folded at the crotch, like soccer players forming a wall to defend against the penalty kick—sturdy and persistent and vulnerable. I choose a sports image because it recalls my earliest experiences of anticipation—hope, excitement, fear—without having any control. Also, court rooms and playing fields are similarly structured: there are rules and roles and expectations related to your physical space. Absolute winning doesn’t exist: the true value of a goal is never interrogated. You win because it’s agreed beforehand what winning the game means. Questioning the rules while playing can obstruct or delay, but it won’t change the game’s outcome. Second chances are granted—next week’s match, a higher appeal—but you will always be judged by what happens on the field, in the courtroom, within the rules of the game. These observed similarities between a sports match and a legal process also apply to theater.

In this trial, known as the “Gezi Park” trial or the “Osman Kavala” trial, I cling to the things I recognize from previous courtrooms. The color-coded lanyards to distinguish journalists from visitors, lawyers, or legal staff; the armed guards falling asleep, their eyelids drooping while trying to appear alert; the long speeches of lawyers; the smell of cigarettes from the smoking area just outside of the court room;  the click of heels underneath long black robes; my back pain from sitting on a chair for hours and my headache from the lack of air circulating in the room; the stingy smell of sweat, sweat without movement, mixing with fabrics that are reasonably heavy, formal looking, because we are in court.

What feels most familiar is also the most confusing: the tension between seeing the theatre of it all, the rules and gestures and language that create the show of a trial, while also feeling the inarguable effect of the show. What happens in a court room doesn’t stay in the court room; it seeps beyond the stage. With each trial that I witness, the contrast between the rules and written protocol and the undeniable effect of the bodies present makes me doubt all the more the assertion of “reality” a court room imposes.

“Gezi Park” refers to the protests in the spring and the summer of 2013 against the Turkish government’s threatened closure of the eponymous urban park in Istanbul. The protests brought over 100,000 people into the streets in Istanbul and spread to 78 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, as the beginning of a broader resistance movement. Police responded violently, using tear gas and water jets against the crowds, injuring eight thousand people and arresting five thousand. Twenty-two people were killed. The “Gezi Park trials” put sixteen of the protesters on trial for charges of “plotting to overthrow the state,” with sentences ranging up to life in prison.

The Gezi Park trial is often called a “show trial” because of the many purposeful mistakes made by the tribunal (such as hearing witnesses without the presence of the defendant’s lawyers, obscuring the tapes of these interviews, as well as changing the team of judges mid-trial, possibly because of their moderate approach towards Osman Kavala). But the term “show trial” is redundant. Every trial is based on elements of show and the search for something “real” within the show doesn’t help us find a path toward justice.

I grew up white and female among the intellectual bourgeoisie of the Netherlands, surrounded by a naturalized, cozy trust in institutional “good intentions,” a caring government, and the expectation that justice and human rights would prevail—  based on the questionable assumption that “human” has a single shape. As someone who tries to live queer—drawn towards what “is not yet here” (Muñoz)—with a hypersensitivity to bodily affect and the performativity of language (when you say something, you do something), I wonder whether our focus on juridical truth might distract us from the trial’s actuality, its formal and symbolic functions. A court hearing is a ritual response to harm. I’m moved by the attempts called Transformative Justice and Restorative Justice to un-learn the rituals that are common in the so-called “developed world”, where the inclusion/exclusion model that establishes the nation state, also plays out in the adversarial justice system. I believe that prisons have no place in society and justice is a community responsibility.

three sketches of the same man, one in plain clothes, one in a suit and tie, and one in handcuffs wearing prison coveralls

On Tuesday, we meet at 7 AM in the center of Istanbul to board a bus to Silivri Prison, where the trial will be held. I’m joined by Gözde who works with the organization that’s sponsoring my visit to Turkey. Gözde will help me follow the court process by translating and staying close.  Instead of my usual notebook, I’ve brought my dream diary, which I normally keep beside my bed. Phones, audio and video recording are not allowed inside the court room; so, fearing confiscation, I figure it’s safest to bring a notebook that won’t set me back weeks’ worth of work. They can have my dreams. I’ll have new ones. Beyond that, I don’t know. I don’t know and I don’t know how to know.

The bus is stopped outside the Silivri Prison campus. A guard asks for our passports and takes the documents while his colleagues search the boot of the bus. They find nothing and soon we’ve arrived at the court. Shivering, cold, and tired, we wait in line. The rose pink sky slowly turns bright blue. Twenty at a time are allowed to enter. Phones and IDs are left behind in exchange for color-coded lanyards.  Yellow is for press, red for lawyers, purple and green for some kind of privilege I can’t make sense of, and mine is blue; Gözde’s too—we are insignificant guests.

The court room is huge, the size of a basketball gym, with seats rising along three sides. On the fourth, the front, a towering desk is reserved for the judges, embraced by two bright red, Turkish flags. A pair of massive video screens hang above the judges, necessary if you want to see what’s happening. Someone tells me this is better than last time, when family, friends, activists, visitors, and press were all crammed into a tiny space. The message then: you are not important here.

The group I came with sits at the far short end. In the middle, at ground level, an empty area is reserved for the defendants and lawyers for both sides. A row of soldiers forms a fence between this arena and the audience on all three sides. On each flank I count thirty-three men, buzz cut or trimmed, seated facing front in a single row, polonaise style. On our side, the soldiers all face us, like stewards at a soccer match. Their principal function is as a warning to us, against us.

Applause breaks out. Osman Kavala has entered through an underground stairway at the center of the arena, surrounded by guards in red and blue uniforms. Without slowing the guards, Kavala turns and waves on the way to his seat. People get up and wave back, applauding, but without exuberance or much excitement. It’s strangely quiet. Support without enthusiasm: something like love.

Osman Kavala’s imprisonment, now approaching two-and-a-half years, has given the Gezi Park trials an added international urgency. Kavala is known for his many cross-cultural collaborations, bringing Kurdish and Turkish and Armenian communities and political views together, supporting LGBTQ artists and activists, and keeping close ties with EU organizers and institutions. Locally, many Istanbul-based artists were welcome to use his properties for rehearsals and public events. (When I express my suspicion of the descriptors “philanthropist and businessman” to Turkish friends, I’m not met with any agreement. A shrug says that it’s perfectly normal. In Turkey, private investors keep art institutions running. It must be my own Dutch, colonial heritage that casts doubt on the word “philanthropist.”)

Returning from a business trip in November 2017, Kavala was arrested at Istanbul Airport and taken into custody, accused of “financially and ideologically” organizing the Gezi Park protests. The Turkish government claims he paid people to perform as protesters, which Kavala denies. He openly supported the park’s occupation and regularly visited during his lunch breaks. But there is no law against that. Kavala is represented by Turgut Kazan, who has decades of experience working in Turkey’s countless civil rights cases. Kazan, now eighty years old, has 68,000 Twitter followers updated on the case, #FreeOsmanKavala.

Including Kavala, sixteen people were charged with “attempting to overthrow the government” and now face prison terms of ten to twenty years, to life. Seven have fled the country. Architect Mücella Yapıcı remained in Turkey and is facing the same life sentence as Kavala, though she hasn’t been imprisoned while awaiting trial. Çiğdem Mater, film producer and coordinator of the Armenia Turkey Cinema Platform, and lawyer Can Atalay face ten to twenty years in prison. Many are linked as colleagues and friends of Taksim Solidarity, a coalition of organizations and professionals who used their skills as urban planners, architects, and lawyers to help formulate the demands of the Gezi Park protests: to protect the park against commercial building; to claim the right to free assembly; to stop the sale of public land; to allow a free and professional press; and to express their shared “needs and complaints without experiencing fear, arrest, or torture.”

A sketch of two people wearing blue badges and masks: one happy and one sad.

The clerks enter, three together in casual clothes. Their desk is close to the defendant’s area, with three computer screens and a printer. Of all the court staff, they’re positioned closest to Kavala, who sits alone up front with ten soldiers beside him. Kavala turns in his chair and raises his hand in greeting. Maybe his family is here with us, too. He turns and nods to his legal team and the lawyers for his co-defendants. Near me, at the back, a young man with a blue lanyard holds his hand in the air for a few minutes, until Kavala sees him and raises his hand in return.

Wikipedia tells me that the judicial system of Turkey is similar to what I know in the Netherlands, in that there’s no civil jury involved, only judges. While the Dutch system is Napoleonic, the Turkish Code of Law draws heavily on the Swiss Civil Code and the German Commercial Code. The current system is based on the 1982 constitution, which was installed by popular referendum during the military junta of 1980 to 1983 (the origin of Turkey’s secular democracy). However, in 2014, then-Prime Minister Erdogan reassigned 120 judges and prosecutors, accusing them of corruption, and in July 2016, following the coup attempt by the Turkish military, 2,745 more judges were dismissed. The judges first assigned to the Gezi Park trial were replaced last summer, and some speculate that they were considering acquittal. I don’t know all of the effects of these technical differences in courtroom trials, but what matters to me today is not judicial code so much as human practice. The Wikipedia page on the Turkish judicial system does not mention the presence of clerks.

The video cameras turn and we get a close-up of Kavala. He takes out a handkerchief and blows his nose. Do such physical details matter in a courtroom trial? In my account of the Geert Wilders trial, I focused on bodily details such as smell and sound, or the clerk’s behaviors. Other journalists produced short accounts full of facts that they believed would help their readers understand the case. I’m skeptical of their belief. A common understanding rests on shared assumptions—for instance, that if a belief is popular it’s probably true; that some things naturally matter and others don’t; that we can know what’s real or important or serious, and what isn’t (the latter often gendered as female). I try to resist those assumptions; for instance, by ignoring agreed-upon measures of importance in my courtroom reporting. I don’t claim that my descriptions are more valuable than the “factual” accounts, because I’m not ready to accept the orthodoxies that defend such a claim. Instead, I try “staying with the trouble,” never looking for a solution or the truth. I won’t argue that bodily descriptions and seemingly banal details are important to convey, but I stick to it because I know it’s real—my body is here and it registers the effects of a show of military uniform, the slow security screenings, or the constant press of others nearby. My body is in this courtroom, sitting still for hours, and these are the things it is telling me. Kavala blows his nose a second time. The judges and prosecutors enter, but no one’s asked to rise.

The prosecutor reads the charges and the proposed sentencing. It goes quickly and without show. Kavala rises to speak. He’s too tall for the microphone, so he stoops. The posture accentuates his age (sixty-two), or maybe more so, the lack of exercise in prison. Kazan, his lawyer, interrupts and Gözde whispers a translation in my ear: Kazan is demanding more time for the defense. Kavala sits. The other defendants are seated too, filling the middle-ground. Can Atalay, Tayfun Kahraman, Yiğit Ekmekçi, Çiğdem Mater, and Mine Ozerden, all facing ten to twenty years in prison. Yiğit Aksakoğlu and Mücella Yapıcı face life sentences, but only Yapıcı is present. They haven’t been jailed yet, so they can walk around and sit without guards. Yapıcı, in a dark green sweater with a loose turtleneck, hugs Çiğdem Mater, who is wearing a green leather jacket, with sunglasses resting in her hair. Their hug highlights Kavala’s aching isolation, the cordon of soldiers closing around him, the surround of aftershave and musk cologne.

The lawyers keep speaking, cataloging what was wrong and illegal in the prosecutor’s case. Gödze whispers her translation in my right ear: They demand to hear the tapes of the prosecutor’s secret interrogations; they speak of phone tappings, and plead for the right to bring their own witnesses forward, including international journalists who’ve investigated the case. I hear knocking on the door behind us. People are trying to get into the hall, but it’s too full; the soldiers block them. Angry bursts of noise erupt, impatient talking back and forth. A soldier counts the empty spots, and visitors collaborate by signaling chairs that are free. Someone wakes a sleeping soldier and he looks annoyed, as if the uniform should protect him from such approaches. He points to the guard in blue and red: go to him if you need a chair.  

The woman beside Gözde has followed the trial since the first hearing in June. She points to a woman one row in front of us, greying hair, a grey sweater. “That’s Gülsüm Elvan, the one who lost her fifteen-year-old son, Berkin.” A canister of police teargas struck his head. I have no way to search online for more facts, so I just sit with this, staring at her, at the two bobby-pins she uses to keep her face free of hair. I don’t need more facts to imagine her pain. The pain just sits with us. I don’t mean that she herself has become the pain. She is she. The pain is its own entity. The room is full of it.

Kavala’s lawyer continues speaking. You can tell that it’s Turgut Kazan without ever having seen him: his confident manner shows that he’s famous. A dissatisfied murmur fills the hall, I ask Gözde what happened. “Kazan says that there are still lawyers outside trying to get in, but that they are barred. He implies that the guards intentionally filled the seats with visitors so that there is no space left for the lawyers.”

Kazan moves his hands to his chest, or towards the tribunal, or up, signaling the different parties involved (the defendants, the judges, the European Court of Human Rights, Gezi Park supporters). Sometimes he raises and shakes an index finger, validating arguments I cannot differentiate. He lifts his glasses and lays them down, then puts them on again. In my dream diary, I draw the rhythm of his speech: spiky waves, rapid peaks, and steep declines. He pleads without notes, but when he reads from the pages of the book of law, it’s like he’s reciting Shakespeare. No one interrupts him.

The ratio of women to men lawyers seems about equal. The men are old, past their sixties, some well into their eighties, and the women are young. All lawyers wear the same black robes, with a silky-looking emerald green cuff and a deep red collar. The robes are left to hang open, so everyday clothes are visible underneath. All the men wear ties; the women are more various. The men plead longer. They’re angry and fierce, but they lean back. The women speak quickly (hoping to avoid interruption?), leaning forward, almost biting the microphone. When the younger, female lawyer speaks, the judge interrupts swiftly. “Can you summarize?” he interjects. “It’s my job to be detailed,” she replies.

I consider this my job as well. Not because an accumulation of details results in understanding the truth, but because I believe there isn’t a single complete image, only a scattered reality. Searching for understanding is a suspicious act, based on gain and grip, often based on the assumption of linear growth, selection, and de-selection. Elaborate descriptions of detail help us access the everyday practices that seem insignificant. Accumulation prepares us for an abundant understanding, an excessive attention to be with the trouble of scattered reality, instead of resisting it.

I don’t understand Turkish and I know nothing of the judicial system of Turkey. I doubt my own entitlement to speak as I judge the celebration of ignorance as a way to avoid accountability and I’m weary of appropriative gain. But isn’t there something especially right and apt about sending an illiterate reporter with only a dream journal for keeping notes? I “know” nothing, I don’t want to be protected by a professional understanding.

In the Geert Wilders trial, in a room full of white people, one of the lawyers quoted a racist slur, including the N-word, but there was no change of energy in the room. No one seemed to really notice the violence of this word’s presence. The clerk was the only person of color in the room. It was then that the role of the clerk really first struck me: the clerk writes down every single word uttered in court. The clerk produces the memory of the hearing. Thereby, the clerk also shapes a trial’s future, because their documents are used as the authoritative record. Sometimes the clerk is even in charge of writing the final verdict. The clerk is expected to show no personal reaction to anything they record, while they are also required to pay the closest attention to all of it.

In the Gezi Park trial there are three clerks and none of them are typing. One of them keeps going to the middle judge to deliver notes, or to whisper in his ear. At times, this clerk disappears backstage. The two others remain at the desk but I can’t see what they’re doing. Instead, I watch the interpreters who work for the foreign press. They lean close to their employers’ ears, whispering non-stop. Gözde only sporadically turns to me to translate some highlights, but that’s all I’ve asked of her. All of the interpreters are women. Like the clerks, they’re not held accountable for the messages they convey. But to see them as mere ventriloquists, human translating machines, would oversimplify their actual influence.

The clerks and interpreters remind me of the secretary described by Katherine Hayles. In her book How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, Hayles focused on the famous Macy Conferences in New York City. Between 1941 and 1960, a hundred and sixty conferences were organized to discuss the future of science and to promote international and interdisciplinary collaborations. Hayles describes Janet Freed, who was working there as a secretary. The secretary is assumed to be neutral, a mechanical mediator, purely transmitting the communication of others. She herself is not a site of meaning. But Freed had to decide what to include in her transcription, and exclusion creates meaning. Her exclusions weren’t just a matter of will and intent, they were motivated by a technical limit: it was simply impossible to transcribe everything that was discussed. Freed’s engagement with the materiality of words stretches our understanding of their performative effect (you say something, you do something) into a more contextual, entangled relationality, in which to “say something” doesn’t only produce materiality, it also requires it.

Hayles shifts our attention from what is often called the real meaning of an exchange (the part journalists help us “understand”) to the contextual necessities that allow words to appear at all, to interact and travel. The materiality of discourse is as meaningful as the discussion itself. What Hayles conveys about the secretary, also counts for clerks and interpreters in the court room: “Embedded in context,” Hayles writes of Freed, “she knows that words never make things happen by themselves—or rather, that the only things they can make happen are other abstractions, like getting married or  opening meetings. They can’t put marks onto paper. They can’t get letters in the mail. They can’t bring twenty-five people together at the right time and in the right place, at the Beekman Hotel in New York City, where white tablecloths and black chalkboards await them. For that, material and embodied processes must be used—processes that exist never in isolation but always in contexts where the relevant boundaries are permeable, negotiable, instantiated.

“On a level beyond words, beyond theories and equations, in her body and her arms and her fingers and her aching back, Janet Freed knows that information is never disembodied, that messages don’t flow by themselves, and that epistemology isn’t a word floating through the thin, thin air until it is connected up with incorporating practices.” (Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 83.)

It’s sweaty and cramped in the courtroom. Twenty-six degrees Celsius, according to the red digital numbers on the big clock, which also shows a two minute time-difference from the clocks on the video screens. The time gap exposes the difference between the trial and its representation, reminding me that we can always structure the record differently.

A sketch of a woman in profile smoking a cigarette. The smoke spells "fuck you", and three judges sit in the background.

Mücella Yapıcı, the architect who faces a life sentence, starts walking from the defendant’s area through the low gate at its side, passing her supporters. With some, she shakes hands. A second low gate leads to the corridor, across from which is a smoking room. Mücella craves a cigarette. She waves to some people; others reach over the stands to hug her. There is a catwalk energy here, the focusing of eyes creating a collective stare: there goes Mücella…. A catwalk with gates: one more to get to the exit. You can almost smell the smoking across the hall. Yapıcı will repeat this catwalk several times throughout the day, each time passing more than fifty guards on her way out, each time receiving handshakes, hugs, and shoulder pats. Never in a rush. Yapıcı supported the legal battle to protect Taksim Square and Gezi Park from further commercial building and gentrification. For that she is accused of “attempting to overthrow the government” and may spend her life in prison, possibly starting today. Yapıcı follows her craving out the door, to comfort her physical need. Her walks are also small shows: her patient mobility a kind of symbolic “fuck you” to the imprisoning powers.

Around 12:30, a lunch break is announced. The judges leave quickly. The clerks stay. Kavala is escorted to the underground stairs. He wears a simple dark jacket and a light blue shirt. He carries a blue plastic bag. People start to clap again, and wave, their greetings crossing and exposing an unbridgeable distance, the prohibition of touch. This mixture of sorrow and happiness is overwhelming. Nothing has happened, and everything is happening.

God is so powerful in this procession that he cannot exist. Not because he is everywhere in the procession but because we are. We are the moving, blackened, blackening earth. We turn each other over, dig each other up, float each other off, sink down with each other and fall for each other.

—Stefano Harney and Fred Moten in “Base Faith”

After lunch each defendant has a chance to speak. Can Atalay, especially, speaks passionately. Atalay is a human rights lawyer and representative of the Taksim Solidarity group. I draw his rhythm of speech as a circle with occasional arrows marking moments of acceleration. He cups his hand in front of his nose and mouth. I read that as “gasmask,” the activist’s response to police teargas. Next to me, Gözde sighs, “This is a historical speech.” Biz, I hear. Biz, again. “We Gezi,” Gözde explains, “if we say something, we do something. If we do something, we stand behind it. We are open and honest about supporting the Gezi Park protest, but Gezi was not a coup attempt. It was an attempt of resistance.” Biz, I hear again. I ask Gözde what it means. “It means us. Or we. It means both us and we.”

Suddenly a shift, a wave of energy sweeping the crowd. I feel it without knowing its source. “What?” I implore Gözde. “The judge has called for the last words.” Lawyers shout, asking for more time. The judge waves them off. More shouting, more lawyers stand: we are not finished with our defense! Around me, people start clapping. An armed guard is getting ready to escort a lawyer out by force. The camera turns towards them, as if the person directing it wants everyone to see the uproar. Today it’s not only the clerks and interpreters who silently make the permanent record, but also the person behind the camera (assuming there is a person involved).

The clapping dies down as the drowsy soldiers all stand, half-sleeping boys turned into guards. The fence of them rises, staring at us, waiting for an order. Some of us stand to look over them. I see some chaos among the lawyers but can’t tell what it means. “They say: ‘Don’t touch, don’t touch,’ and, ‘We have so much more to say’,” Gözde explains of their shouting. The judges have left the room. The clerks are still here, standing by their desk, arms folded, watching. More armed guards climb over the railing into the lawyer’s section.

For a while the uproar in the middle continues while guards try to clear the court, yelling. Two rows in front of me, a man is talking back. Friends urge him to calm down. A hand on his shoulder, a hand on his knee. “He says, ‘my relatives are up there, I have a right to see their trial,’” Gözde translates. “The guards answer him: ‘You want to see your family? Visit prison.’” Can Atalay walks toward us, waving both arms for attention: “Lütfen!” he shouts, to bridge the distance: “Please don’t clap, be silent. So we can be here together!” Biz. Someone else approaches. “It’s Canan Kaftancıoğlu,” Gözde whispers. Kaftancıoğlu is from CHP, the opposition party that beat Erdogan’s AKP in the last Istanbul election. She too begs us to stay quiet.

The trial is ordered to continue. Guards return to their places. The clerks sit down and the judges return. The defendants move forward one by one, asked to give their last words. Some ask for justice and release. Others just leave a remark: this trial is a scam. Kavala expresses refusal: he won’t give last words to a hearing that was never designed to listen to him.

Suddenly, the court asks us to rise. Everyone does. Biz. Gülsem Elvan, Berkin’s mother, cries out: “Free Our Children!” The woman next to her hugs her tightly, holding her upright. The only ones sitting are the guards, the judges, the clerks and the prosecutor. There are more people standing side by side than there are people sitting. We are standing. Biz. We are so heavy and dense together, we could be sinking or rising.

The judge starts reading. Two rows down I see a woman turning to her neighbor. Her eyes are widening, her hands move up. It’s like she is getting ready for midnight on New Year’s Eve. The person beside her gestures down—do not cheer too early. Then the room erupts. Gözde hugs me. “He is free, he is free, he is free!” she translates. I felt it, but I needed to hear her speak it to believe it. Around us, people start crying, trying to quiet each other. The verdict isn’t finished—the other defendants. My eyeballs dart back and forth making it impossible to focus. I literally cannot see straight. It feels like an ectasy trip, but with the physical effects only lasting seconds. The judge continues. The cheering continues. Everyone has been acquitted of all charges. Biz.

I’ve never felt this way before, this collective disbelief and joy.  Biz, here and beyond, “generative and present, like a wave.” A happiness in which my body, our bodies, connect humanity to the historical. Even my ignorance, my outsiderness—the bus ride, the nerves, the security checks, all the waving from afar, the crushed hopes—seem to contribute to this happiness: my bodily relief is fully disconnected from any personal gain. For me, a visitor, nothing will change with Kavala’s release. Nothing and everything.

Kavala departs, still surrounded by guards, and we clap and wave. He smiles, gives a modest wave, and disappears through the staircase. The defendants who were already free walk the aisle towards the exit, greeted with love. We watch for a moment, then exit the court hall, still without a phone. Historical. The guards are lined up, directing us out. They seem to be smiling, sharing in the collective joy. Maybe they are happy that they don’t have to force us out with violence, or maybe they are glad that the mass of people is crying with joy, not anger? Maybe they too felt the trial was a scam, a waste of their time, an abuse of their service, having to get up so early and sit and stand for hours, ordered around by a man in casual jeans. Maybe.

A sketch of 4 happy people embracing, surrounded by expressionless police.

In the adversarial criminal justice system, one person is held accountable. Even if a crime is committed by an organized group, each member of that group will have an individual trial. There were nine defendants present in this court room, and sixteen were on trial. While their charges overlap, they must be approached as individuals. A case begins by identifying and naming the accused, then isolating them and their actions so they can be “held responsible.” The adversarial court that prevails in the “developed world” always and only begins with this individual extraction, so that blame can be laid and punishment meted out.

“Biz,” and my experience of it, raised a fundamental question: how can we participate in a system that separates the individual from the collective, and why do we accept such a divisive understanding of responsibility? Biz isn’t just a hopeful awareness of the power we might have together. It is a refusal of the rules of adversarial justice. Restorative Justice and Transformative Justice assert that the collective body cannot be broken. Harm never hits one person only; the injuries caused by crimes hurt the whole collective body. As Harney and Moten write, “We turn each other over, dig each other up, float each other off, sink down with each other and fall for each other.”  Justice can only be found when all those involved remain within the collective, and when they’re able to express their communal needs and abilities. When anyone is lost, severed, or cast out, it is not justice, but another harm to us, to we, the collective.

I roam the hallway to find the restroom and smile at everyone. It’s truly a little bit like dancing in a club with strangers. The drugs again. To collect our phones and IDs we crowd the entrance. Bodies shove and rub, no one is annoyed. Outside, the guards are still in formation, a straight line of men holding guns and wearing reflective sunglasses. A guard and a visitor discuss the last step of the outside stairs: it’s dangerously high. They agree it should be fixed. A small crowd awaits the defendants. It’s sunny, the sky is bright blue. A drone is hovering above us. Strange, but I want to trust it. Everything is good now. Mücella Yapıcı comes out and the press takes pictures. Historical. The acquitted and their community block the road, bodies press together, Biz. A group picture is taken.

That night, Twitter is first. Then the broadcast news: Kavala never got out. He was re-arrested before leaving prison. New charges were filed just hours after his so-called “release.” Now he’s accused of plotting the military coup against the government, on July 15, 2016, a year after the Gezi Park protests. Online, some activists are shocked but not surprised: welcome to Turkey’s rollercoaster life, they write. From outside of Turkey, some friends write: “well something like that was to be expected. #Turkey.” Can anyone who doesn’t consider #Turkey their home or their heritage make such a claim? We witness rollercoasters from afar all day, every day. Ignorance is our safety measure against these loops of bad news. Knowing nothing, we expect the worst. Imagining “the worst” helps us feel like we have some control, like we’re one step ahead of all the power abuses and injustice. It’s a position dependent on distance and ignorance, because if you are in it, if you are bodily with it, you cannot jump beyond the chaos in front of you to imagine the clarity of “the worst.” You could describe the rollercoaster’s next turn, but your body will still be riding the current one.

I’ve been replaying the day in my head over and over again. Did the judges know their verdict beforehand? Does that explain their sudden call for last words, their impatience with the show, when the result was already clear to them? Mostly, I remember the guards and the shine on their faces, the smiles when we exited the court hall. Did they know? Was it all just a show? And why am I searching for a “real” part in all of it? What would the putative “real” contribute? The only real I can account for were our bodies in a shared space, locked in the same events, participating in the same ritual. This is, of course, the domain of theater and performance art. Our collective relief —the wave of physical ecstasy—that was real. But with a continuous flux of new reals to arise, the search for a real is of little help. Could we search, instead, for a different ritual? A less homogeneous and less real-presenting ritual that might remind us that the quest for justice is pursued through an aesthetic, a form, the rules of the game. What other games could we play?

He wants to convict this thief. We want to take him home. We want to take him out ‘cause out is home. We’re at home in the prophetic churning of the earth on the move, the round run of the fugitive, visitation in our eyes, refuge on our tongues. Our unholy commune with those who keep moving and stay there, who keep out before they can be kept out.

—Stefano Harney and Fred Moten in “Base Faith”

Signup for the ArtsEverywhere newsletter

icon-angle icon-bars icon-times