The ‘Gezi Protest’ initially kicked off as an occupation of the Gezi Park on Taksim Square in an attempt to revoke the decision to demolish the park and to stop the building of yet another shopping mall in its place. Waiting for the press to have their share of the cake and remove its gaising eye, the police moved in at 5.00AM on 29th May with heavy usage of tear gas, beating up the protesters at the park and setting fire to the tents.
This heavy handed approach egged many into supporting the green activists and resulted in masses flooding into Taksim Square. What ensued was a weekend of clashes between the police and protesters which grew rapidly, resulting in a full scale riot. The protest started on Istiklal Street – the main shopping street in Taksim – where the police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds. In response, the protestors threw molotov cocktails and stones at the police, withdrew to side allies and came back to hold their ground. Eventually, the government decided to allow – in other words could do nothing about – protestors to stay at Taksim Square/ Gezi Park and to temporarily freeze the demolition of the park. 11 days later, the protest are ongoing..
The solidarity of the protesting crowds can only be described as euphoric. Whilst people with gas masks and DIY protective gear face off with police on numerous fronts, others strip paving stones, signposts, railings, fences and anything that can be stripped from construction sites to build barriers. People create long lines, passing bricks from hand to hand, all the way to the front in order to aid in buildings defences. Truck drivers block off streets, doctors and lawyers are at hand with phone numbers on twitter to handle constant emergencies. An infirmary, provisions depo and a library has been set up at the park. The park is regularly cleaned up by the protesters. The whole district around the park – Taksim is on a hill with a number of roads leading up to it- have been blocked off by overturned buses and knocked over lamp posts so that police vans and TOMA water tanks can not enter.
One becomes hardened and accustomed rather quickly after experiencing the level of tear gas used by the Turkish police. After a couple of days in solidarity, you realise that an alternative to the gas mask is a piece of cloth over the mouth and nose, dabbed in vinegar and Vicks ointment. Once the tear gas is too much and your eyes start burning, a spray of milk in the eyes and dozen flutters makes things bearable once again. In case you have inhaled too much tear gas and feel nauseous, a big gulp of half water/half antacid mixture is what you require.
Taksim Square has been ceded to the public but all other districts and streets are strictly off limits, meaning that any attempt at a peaceful protest has been met with unprovoked responses from the police with flash grenades, water cannons and copious amounts of tear gas. In fact, so much tear gas has been used that the police have been running out of stocks and having to use what smells distinctly different and has been referred to as ‘Orange Gas’. Similarly, the cat and mouse chase between the police and protestors are quite often concluded when the TOMA water cannon tanks run out of water – and the fire brigade refuse the replenish their stocks – which result in a loss of ground on the part of the police force.
Whilst statements made by Prime Minister Erdoğan in particular but also by other cabinet ministers have treated the protests strictly in terms of the Gezi Park on Taksim square and the demands of the environmentalists, the fact that the protests have spread well outside the borders of Istanbul to include Ankara, Izmir, Eskisehir, Adana, Antakya, Rize and many other cities is a testimony to the fact that there is a lot more at stake.
This protest movement is truly a people’s movement that has brought together Kemalists, Ataturkists, Kurdish nationalists, Alevis and numerous other uncatagorised citizens such as myself who do not necessarily associate themselves with one category of ‘ists’ but are opposed to all attempts at social engineering and authoritarian governance. The recent laws that restrict the use and advertisement of alcohol can be deemed to be another recent excuse for the current reaction – on top of the Taksim Square project. Having said this, as the protests rage on, social divisions amongst protesters have started to appear. The heavily Ataturkist chants of “we are all Mustafa Kemal’s (Ataturk) soldiers” are understandably alienating large segments of the protesting whole. If the unity is lost, social divisions become further engrained and one social division hijacks the protests as a platform to promote its own ideology, then the movement runs the risk of fizzling out as a result. On this point, we shall have to wait and see.
Root causes run far deeper and centre around restrictions placed on the freedom of expression and the freedom of speech. The reality is that the AKP’s 3rd term in government has been markedly more authoritarian where PM Erdogan has grown accustomed to relying on his almost 2/3 majority in Parliament to not plead with the opposition party, to brand all dissenting voices as ‘radicals’ and ‘extremists’, to force controversial bills through parliament without informing the public or not allowing for any meaningful public debate.
Democratisation has become the catchphrase of Turkish politics. Amidst a party program that talks of an envisioned pluralist society, PM Erdogan’s speeches that attest to his desire to socially engineer a conservative generation rubs a mass of crowds the wrong way. Many of us are disenchanted with the tutelary tradition of politics in Turkey that goes as far back as the inception of the state, but the AKP offer us another route to the same destination. This is the feeling that urges hundreds of thousands all across Turkey to take to the streets in protest.
While the people have taken to the streets asking for the government to remove its authoritarian grip over the private choices of its citizens and for a truly democratic way of life, PM Erdogan has adamantly refused to register the true nature of the protest movement. It is true that the initial protest was about the park, but now the unifying chant is the request for Erdogan’s resignation. Not only is the government refusing to register and respond to public grievances and the protest’s true nature, PM Erdogan is hellbent on not conceding even an inch, still stating that constructions will go ahead as planned.
The way the government has handled the fallout in the wake of the protests have been abysmal. Every statement made by the PM and his cabinet have merely fanned the flames. To give one example, the media has been torn to pieces – rightfully- for their part in acting as if the protests were non existent: Many channels were showing nature documentaries and cooking programs as the police were brutally oppressing peacefully protesting citizens. In a statement however, Deputy PM stated that “the media is going through a test”. I would personally like to hear their verdict on which channel got how many points! It is ludicrous to make such a statement when it has been so blatantly obvious to everyone that the media has been playing the ‘3 monkeys’. It is a well known FACT that people in Turkey have been following foreign news agencies such as CNN, RT and Al-Jazeera to stay up to date with the protests that have been taking place in Turkey.
Amidst media censorship, activists are communicating via twitter. Posts of pictures where protestors have been hospitalised as a result of tear gas canisters shot to the face are uploaded daily. Sadly, Turkish police do not fire tear gas canisters into the air but straight at the protestors from distances as short as 20 metres – as opposed to 130 – causing grievous bodily damage. Somehow, Deputy PM Bulent Arinc informs us that 300 people are injured, out of which 244 are police officers…
In response to the use of Twitter, Erdogan has branded social communication networks as a “curse on society”, showing his contempt in usual fashion. Not surprisingly, we have witnessed a total of 34 arrests thus far for “using social media to call for protests and spreading untrue information”.
Until this very day, Erdogan sees and refers to a group of extremists and marginals that are provoked into action at the behest of the opposition party, the CHP. Whereas President Gul noted on Monday 3rd June that “the message was taken” and that democracy was more than just going to the ballot box, Erdogan overruled this statement by insisting that he did not agree with the President and that democracy was indeed all about the ballot box. He stated, “we are a democratically elected party. We won at the ballot box. Democracy begins and ends at the ballot box… if you can bring out 200,000 people to protest, I can bring out 1,000,000 but I choose to reign them in”. Thus, it would seem that he wants a pat on the back for not releasing ‘his constituents’ upon those that did not vote for him at the polls. This point requires a clarification also since neighborhoods that have predominantly voted for the AKP have also joined in the protests, suggesting that many who voted for Erdogan are also angry at the dictatorial attitude of the Prime Minister.
Today, Erdogan reiterated that the constructions in Taksim would go ahead as planned, provoking the stocks to plummet as his speech was yet in progress. Not surprisingly, Taksim is packed with hundreds of thousands of protesters as usual and reportedly over 150,000 are currently rallying in Ankara as has been the case for days on end yet again. The police have yet again unleashed tear gas on peaceful protesters.
Sadly, the current catch-22 is that the Turkish state is using oppressive means to quell protests against the authoritarian nature of the AKP government in the first place. The suspension given to the popular game show on Bloomberg TV for undermining the censorship of protests in one clear cut example. One recent development has been for the police to back off from the protesters in Istanbul as a result of intense international backlash. Nevertheless, the rampant police brutality in smaller cities where there isn’t as much new coverage betrays the fake intentions of the government.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that the protest movement is picking up speed and growing like a downhill snowball. If Erdogan does not change his attitude, there does not seem to be an end in sight.
Finally, the relevance of anti-democratic conduct on the part of Turkey is also relevant in the international context. Following the occupation of Tahrir square, Erdogan had addressed Mubarak saying that a regime that turns against its people with tanks, panzers and bombs was a regime that had lost its legitimacy. Erdogan has been making similar remarks against the Assad regime in Syria. The current predicament Erdogan finds himself in has given the Syrian regime a chance to retort in a similar fashion. Under such circumstances, Turkey no longer seems like a credible ally for any future military intervention by Western forces into Syria.
Written on the 6th of June