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Turkey's 'Standing Man': Can a lone protester change history?
One man's silent vigil energizes a movement in need of a hero
Erdem Gunduz's singular action has inspired a silent resistance.
Erdem Gunduz's singular action has inspired a silent resistance. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
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ou've surely seen the iconic image of an unidentified man who stared down a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, and inspired pro-democracy demonstrators in China. Well, now Turkey's anti-government protesters have their own symbolic hero — Erdem Gunduz, also known as the "Standing Man."

Gunduz set out to stage a solo protest in Istanbul's Taksim Square, the birthplace of a nationwide movement opposing what activists see as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian, pro-Islamist rule. Gunduz's plan was to simply stand silently, facing a giant portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey's secular democracy. "I'm nothing... The idea is important: Why people resist the government," Gunduz told BBC News. "This is really silent resistance. I hope people stop and think 'what happened there?'"

The gesture went viral on Twitter. Hundreds of copycat protesters joined Gunduz on the square on Tuesday before being dispersed by police. Will the Standing Man help keep the protests alive, despite Erdogan's vow to keep Taksim Square, which police have cleared, a protest-free zone?

"It's too early to tell," writes Robert H. Reid at The Associated Press. "But singular actions, captured in images distributed around the world, have sometimes influenced the course of history and transformed obscure figures into symbols of their era." Standing Man's influence, Reid suggests, could therefore prove critical.

Gunduz has unleashed what Turkey's Hurriyet Daily newspaper has called a new kind of protest — one that seeks nothing more than the right to stage a protest. Similar protests, inspired by Gunduz, are popping up across Turkey.

Gunduz was briefly detained in the police sweep of Taksim Square, but others are continuing to filter into the square to follow his example when they can. And Gunduz has been replaced by a mannequin on Taksim Square, a shameful reminder that the government won't even let him stand silently and stare at the image of Turkey's founding father.

Thanks to social media, Gunduz — a performance artist — has instantly become a national hero. As Richard Seymour puts it at The Guardian, "Gunduz is a legend." And, Seymour adds, his "moving, motionless protest, is a symbol of great peril for the Turkish regime."

The "Standing Man" exemplifies some features of the tradition of passive resistance. First, the ability to meet overpowering physical force with a determined, but passive, feat of defiance has sometimes been the death knell of recalcitrant regimes, whether it is the Shah or Marcos — because it points to resources that the protesters have which can overwhelm the state's repressive capacities. Second, passive resistance is not merely symbolic; it confuses and derails the calculations of the rulers. When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, part of the resistance involved painting over street signs and mysteriously shutting off infrastructure.

Gunduz's protest was both an affront and a question for the authorities: beat him? Why? He's just standing there. Leave him alone? Then he wins, doesn't he? [Guardian]

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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