The gathering had been organized on Twitter, with Weiwei inviting supporters to simply dine at an average restaurant on an everyday dish. But in the context of the Chinese government's crackdown on collective action surrounding the artist, it was provocative. Technically this was a collective action, yet the authorities couldn't intervene in such ordinary behavior without appearing absurdly oppressive. So the police who were dispatched to the scene, placed in this difficult position, could only awkwardly ask Weiwei when he would be finished. This action by the Chinese artist and other similar ones are documented in the film “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry."
Such events have been termed “dilemma actions.” A dilemma action is a form of protest that can be used against authorities when collective actions have been deemed illegal. It is so-called because it creates a “response dilemma” for authorities by forcing them to either concede some public space to protesters or make themselves look absurd or heavy-handed by acting against the protest. Serbian activist Ivan Marovic offers a popular example from anti-government protests in his country in which protesters place a metal barrel in a public space. Small groups come by and bang on the barrel, creating a disturbance, then leave. Unable to deem the action illegal and detain the protesters, police are eventually forced into the absurd action of “arresting” the barrel and taking it into custody.
Dilemma actions are thought to take their power from forcing authorities to highlight their own excess, often also creating a critical space between those in power and officers on the ground who face the dilemma most directly. Today, social media can be used to organize such actions and amplify their spectacular impact. To me, dilemma actions are potent simply because they introduce the element of deliberation into a context that desperately needs it.
So what does the current dilemma action mean for Turkey's anti-government protests? Like me, you're probably exhausted by the endless premature speculations on the impact of the Gezi events. But the beauty of a dilemma action is that most of its impact is guaranteed. The people who, off and on, have stood still in Taksim since “Standing Man” Erdem Gündüz quietly initiated the action on Monday have already succeeded at introducing a dilemma for security forces, thereby heightening the element of deliberation in police action in Taksim.
This is no small deal. Deliberation -- with its components of thoughtfulness and slowness -- is something widely understood to have been sorely lacking in the police response in İstanbul and elsewhere. The first action against Gezi protesters was condemned from nearly every corner as ill-conceived. More recently, after the June 15 intervention in Taksim, much of the outrage that fueled a night of protests and rioting was spurred by the suddenness of the raid. Witnesses estimated 3-5 minutes between the initial police warning and the firing of tear gas into the crowd, and soon after this, reports went viral of children separated from their families and elderly people unable to flee the square in time.
For protesters, the lack of deliberation in the Taksim Project has largely been addressed by the government's referendum proposal. But the lack of deliberation in police action is still very much an open wound, with both the prime minister and interior minister offering unqualified support to security forces in recent days. I and others have witnessed incidents of considered restraint by police, but such palliative moments are quickly dwarfed as soon as the next report of mass tear gassing or brutality emerges. Gündüz and his fellow standers have created a moment of deliberation for police that is, helpfully, now in the national spotlight.
Yesterday when police took into custody six of the standing protesters -- along with Today's Zaman contributor Rumeysa Kiger -- they were careful to insist that their action was a mere ID check and not “detention” (despite holding the group for hours, according to Kiger). However disingenuous, this is a sign of the dilemma action at work, a sign that police are aware of the absurdity of detaining anyone for standing in a public square. The impact has already been made. And if the prime minister and others don't want to question police action, for the moment, they can't prevent police from questioning it on the ground.