Over a month has passed since police first attacked peaceful protestors in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in June 2013. Already analysts are trying to explain, predict, and measure the protests that were triggered across Turkey by that moment. The international press suggested that this may be Turkey’s ‘Arab Spring’ moment. But to the people who were in Gezi Park and Taksim Square this is a different kind of uprising: thousands of protesting people who had no previous interest in politics. Now, conversations buzz about Taksim or Prime Minister Erdoğan and in the same breath about police violence and government arrogance. Through the protests, many people are discovering the incremental changes that have made the Turkish state increasingly repressive.
In the past weeks Gezi Park and Taksim has seen socialists, feminists, conservative Kemalists, anarchists, students, families, voyeurs, and tourists, all with different grievances. People chanted for the downfall of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Erdoğan’s AKP). Men took photographs of their girlfriends posing against burnt-out city buses. The buildings around Taksim square were draped with the banners of political parties. On the Atatütk Cultural Centre hung the six-storey high face of a young man, in black and white. I learned who he was from a girl nearby, calling herself Imre.
‘Deniz Gezmiş,’ Imre said. Gezmiş, a student, was hanged in 1972 along with two others by the state. An anarchist and guerrilla, he has become a symbol of resistance against state brutality – and particularly of youth resistance. I tried to find out more later, but the only web site I could find on Gezmiş that originated in Turkey had been blocked.
The media blackout helped turn a small protest against the destruction of Gezi Park – to make way for a shopping mall and apartments – into a nationwide uprising. As police attacked Taksim and Gezi Park, the national broadcaster screened a beauty pageant and CCN Turkey screened a documentary on penguins (which, ironically, protestors have adopted as their symbol for protest).
Social media contributed to some confusion since it is difficult to verify the exact number of injuries, deaths and arrests. Also, the media blackout – and its subsequent turnaround – made statistics released by the state seem untrustworthy. ‘How are we meant to view these numbers that are being given to us by a government that lies?’ asked Emre, a chef who lives near Taksim and has been at the protests ‘since the beginning’.
Police violence has caused suspicion. Ayşe, a member of the leftist and predominantly Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), finds none of this surprising: ‘Erdoğan is behaving as expected. He feeds on violence and blood. His statements are beyond logic and reason. All authorities are playing the game, the rules of which have been set by the policies of the government.’
Gezi Park under ‘occupation’ is like nothing I’ve seen before. Everywhere groups of people sit playing cards, drinking tea, eating, sleeping, reading. There is music and dancing. It is loud and crowded. At the far end of the park – the opposite end from Taksim Square – women from a free kitchen served food from donations to hundreds of people each day. Nearby is the library, continuously emptied and continuously restocked. Representatives from socialist, anarchist, feminist, environmental, LGBTI and student groups passed out fliers and answer questions. Under the Taksim Solidarity banner, some 78 groups voice their support for the protest and their rejection of government plans for the ‘regeneration’ of the park, or what protestors call ‘destruction’.
The atmosphere in Taksim itself was different. Erdogan’s government recently passed a law banning the sale of alcohol after 10pm, and banning drinking on the street. But after the first weekend of police attacks (31 May to 2 June), the police left Taksim alone and vendors began selling alcohol from makeshift stands. Each night there were people making speeches, setting off fireworks and flares, and drinking and smoking.
‘The people were not interested in politics. If you are young and rich, you know, you live well in Turkey. The uneducated will not question the AKP,’ said Imre, who studied in Paris. I asked her what had changed. ‘[The AKP is] here for ten years, lying all the time, saying “we want democracy and peace with the Kurds”, but they want it to be like Iran. We didn’t see it this clearly but now they are really powerful. They start to limit not only minorities but all the [people]. Now even housewives became protestors.’
She is speaking of a generation of young Turks who have grown up in a secular, prosperous state where the Internet is their source of information. Others are here to protest deeper, older problems that many are only now beginning to see. BDP member Ayşe explained: ‘I am a socialist. I joined the protests in order to demonstrate that I was a part of the common stance against the attacks of the AKP government, which is a part of the imperialistic-capitalist system, in matters such as basic rights and freedoms, identity issues and gender issues.’
Kamile, a member of the Socialist Feminist Collective (SFC), described a state increasingly hostile to women’s emancipation. Current abortion laws, she said, limit terminations to the first eight weeks of pregnancy, and there is fear of an outright ban. ‘[The AKP] have fundamental rules, Islamic rules,’ she said. ‘This is about human rights.’
I ask Kamile if she agrees with the crowds chanting for the downfall of the AKP.
‘Of course. But it’s impossible. No one knows what’s going to happen. We’re all surprised and happy about it. This never happened in 70 years in the Turkish Republic.’
Many people share her sentiment: they want change, even radical change, but do not know what it will look like. The chant heard most often in the protesting crowds is, ‘Erdoğan resign’, ‘government resign!’ Erdoğan and the AKP have only themselves to thank for this. The violent police response turned the Gezi Park demonstration into one that now demands accountability for a host of grievances.
‘Demands are varied: workers are there to be against exploitation based on class structures, LGBTI individuals are there because of their sexual orientation and gender identities, a new generation of middle-class youth demand freedom, Kurds are losing their homes in Beyoğlu, near Taksim, and are protesting against AKP.’
In Turkish politics, the BDP is seen as the legitimate representative of Kurdish rights – which have been ignored for decades. It has a strong support base, and after the protests, the Kurds would wave Turkish flags, chanting, ‘We are all Turks, we are all Atatürk.’
‘I don’t want to walk with these people’, she said. ‘These people’ are conservative, secular Kemalists who mistrust the AKP, but for reasons that are different from those of leftist groups. Erdoğan’s increasingly Islamist changes undermine the secularism that has been a fundamental part of the Turkish Republic since Atatürk. But there is a nationalist edge to some of these protests that many find disturbing.
There is fear that the government has succeeded in dividing the movement, drawing lines between nationalists and socialists, Kurds and Turks, the youth and the older generations. Workers viewed the general strike on 5 June by KESK, the Confederation of Public Workers’ Union, as a symbol of solidarity. However, following the police arrests on the weekend of 15 and 16 June, the KESK and DISK (the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions) held another solidarity strike which was quickly dispersed by police.
‘They are trying to separate us,’ Ayşe says as we walk through Gezi Park.
I asked Ayşe if the movement will be able to remain cohesive. ‘As long as there is no provocation coming from the government’s side, different groups will remain alongside each other. The state has been the main actor weakening the web of solidarity. As long as we do not allow that to happen, we can transform this spontaneous movement into an organized force.’
This solidarity has been exactly what the state has tried to prevent. The AKP and Taksim Solidarity reached an agreement on 13 June: the state will appeal a court order halting construction in Gezi Park. If the appeal is rejected the park will be left alone. If it is upheld, the government will hold a referendum. It seemed to be a compromise that would diffuse tensions and buy time. Then, on 15 June, the police were back in Gezi Park and emptied it within an hour. Attacks continued, hundreds of journalists and activists were arrested and their homes and offices searched. Erdoğan held elaborate rallies in Ankara and Istanbul; to thousands of his ‘soldiers’ he denounced protestors as ‘terrorists’.
This is not an Arab Spring-style uprising: it is a movement of people who already have all the trappings of a supposed democracy. What they want is a leadership structure that necessitates dialogue and public debate around any decision, not simply at election time. For a moment this seemed a possibility. Now it is less certain.
Olivia Walton is a freelance writer and editor currently living in Turkey.
She studied at the University of Cape Town