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10:27 PM June 20th, 2013

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By: Michael L. Tan, June 20th, 2013 10:27 PM

The term “last man standing” has been used to describe heroic battles where people defending a place resist to the very end, until the last defender is taken away or killed. Because of recent incidents in Turkey, we just might hear a new interpretation of “standing man,” in this case, a man who expressed his political views by standing still for eight hours, inspiring more people to join him in taking a, well, standing stand.

Last month people began to rally to protest government plans to cut down trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Protest actions were launched in nearby Taksim Park, with more rallies following in three other cities.  The police responded forcefully, including the use of water cannons and tear gas.  Western press reports say four people have been killed and more than 7,000 injured in these rallies.

The Turkish government banned further rallies and ordered the dispersal of protesters. But last Monday, Erdem Gunduz began standing in Taksim Park at about 6 p.m., and did not leave until 2 a.m. the next morning. He was resisting the calls to disperse, and yet could not be arrested or evicted because by standing motionless, he was not breaking any law.

News about Gunduz’s stand went viral on the Internet and other people followed Gunduz’s silent standing protest in public squares in Turkey’s cities. Gunduz is now being referred to as “duran adam”—the Standing Man.

Moving, motionless

Again, the police could not act against the now large numbers of standing protesters. I suspect that, like in the Philippines, Turkey has antivagrancy laws, which can be used against anyone loitering, or sleeping in public spaces. But standing is not loitering or vagrancy.

Go into the National Public Radio (npr.org) site to read a comprehensive report that includes videos of the moving motionless protest actions, including a photo of a phalanx of police deployed to monitor the protesters. Because they were standing by, in effect they became part of the standing protests. Even Turkey’s deputy prime minister has been reported to say the standing protests were “pleasing to the eye.”

There you have it: one man’s lone stand drawing more people to stand with him. Gunduz is a performance artist, so he has trained himself to stand, motionless, for long periods, but even short standing periods, especially with many other people, has had great impact.

I was reminded of the “Tank Man” who, in June 1989, stood his ground in Tiananmen Square in Beijing the morning after the Chinese government’s crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators. For years I would see Internet photographs of a man in a white shirt standing alone carrying what looked like a grocery bag, as a huge tank advanced toward him. The still photographs conveyed resistance mainly as a standing man.

Only while researching for today’s column did I find video footage capturing the full drama. (Google for “Petapixel” and “Tank Man.”) There was not just one tank but a whole column advancing toward this man.

When the first tank got very close to him, the man raised his right arm, still holding the grocery bag, almost like he was directing the tank to go away. The tank veered to the right but the man moved as well, still blocking the tank. The tank then swerved to the left, but the man again moved to block it. A few seconds later, he climbed up the tank, pounded on its hatch, and seemed to speak to the soldiers. He then jumped back down to the street and seemed to be waving to the tanks, “ordering” them to move back. Instead, the first tank moved forward and again, he jumped back in front of the advancing tank and was able to stop it.

At this point, a man on a bike moved toward the Tank Man, clearly trying to urge him to get out of the square. Several more men followed and finally, two men ran up to grab him and hustle him away from the tanks. No one has since heard about the Tank Man, and all kinds of rumors have spread around about him being executed, escaping to Taiwan, or, simply, fading back into private life.

Three years before Tiananmen and the Tank Man, the world was also riveted by news reports and footages of resistance to tanks, this time by Filipinos massed on Edsa and determined to bring down the Marcos dictatorship. There were many more photos taken of revolution, Filipino-style, perhaps the most iconic ones showing large crowds that included nuns holding up their rosaries.

I couldn’t help but think of the cultural element here, wondering if Filipinos can ever use motionless standing as protest. We’re raised to be constantly in motion; I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen store clerks breaking out in dance, sometimes even singing along to some catchy background music. Culture clearly shaped the form of the Edsa Revolt as fiesta and street party.

Passive resistance

What’s more important, though, is to recognize how, in Manila in 1986, in Tiananmen in 1989, and in Istanbul today, we saw and are seeing the power of passive resistance.

The cynical will say that passive resistance does not result in lasting change: The Edsa Revolt has been betrayed, or the Tiananmen Square protests were a failure, or that the Turkish standing protests are far from bringing about political change.

That’s losing sight of what passive resistance is all about: moral force. It’s maintaining a high moral ground, which can be confusing to those in power, or those who use force to get their way. So even as the oppressor is thrown off guard, passive resistance draws support from people who witness the resistance. In today’s world, because of the Internet, these images rapidly reach hundreds, then thousands, even millions, of people, who then dare to imagine the unimaginable, and to act.

These images and messages endure across time, by word of mouth and, today, through the Internet. Almost 25 years after Tiananmen, the mysterious Tank Man comes up whenever you google “Tiananmen.”

Passive resistance isn’t just about politics and protest actions. In work places and in homes, there are times, too, when extremely oppressive and unjust situations require passive resistance. We all know there are times when we have to speak up, forcefully and loudly. But many times, a more appropriate and more powerful response to an impasse brought about by people’s irrational behavior is to stand up quietly and walk away.

(It helps, as well, to say “Excuse me,” and I leave it to you to imagine the tone to use.)

Passive resistance is not just protest; it is also taking a stand marked by dignity and integrity, its passivity stirring fear within the enemy because it reflects confidence that in the end, right wins out against might.

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E-mail: mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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