Tommy Gavin reported from Istanbul during the Gezi Park protests in June. With protests having been rekindled at the start of September, a new wave of mass action has begun but with the same underlying motivations.
The sharp sting of tear gas has returned to the cities of Turkey. Widespread popular protests have resumed after the relative lull since the mass popular protests in June. The rallying factor then was the planned demolition of Gezi Park in Istanbul, and civil unrest has been rekindled now with the recent deaths of protesters at remembrance marches along with plans to build a motorway through the Middle East Technical University (METU) and surrounding neighbourhoods in Ankara, and discrimination against the Alevi religion.
Ahmet Atakan (23) died at a protest in Ankara on September 10th, held in commemoration of Abdullah Comert (22) and Ali Ihsan Korkmaz (19) both killed by police in June. Early reports indicated that Atakan was struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police, though it has now emerged that he also fell from a three story building. This is an incidental technicality for protesters though, for whom Atakan represented the sixth death since protests started, with a total death toll now of at least seven. Comert died after being struck in the head with a tear gas canister, and Korkmaz was beaten to death by a group which later emerged to include police. Most recently, Serdar Kadakal (35) died in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district from a heart attack which is thought to have been caused by intense tear gas use by the police.
Police brutality has been the most consistent motivating factor in fuelling the protests. Amnesty International has called for a suspension of tear gas shipments to Turkey as police used 130,000 tear gas canisters in the first 20 days of the protests, depleting the 150,000 budgeted for the year. The Turkish Medical Association has reported that over 8,000 people have been injured by police who have been aiming with tear gas grenades at the heads of protesters.
Additionally, there is widespread anger over a project for a joint mosque-cemevi (place of worship for Alevis) in Tuzlucayir in Ankara. Alevism is a form of moderate Islam native to Turkey that fuses Anatolian folk traditions with Shia Islam, and cemevis are more akin to community centres than exclusively religious buildings like mosques and churches. The project was proposed by Fetullah Gülen, a former Imam and Turkish religious leader with strong ties to the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party and is a central player in the Turkish Sunni establishment. Turkey is 99% Muslim, but that statistic encompasses the predominant Sunni majority, along with more marginal Shiite and Alevi populations. Taxes go to funding Sunni clerics and mosques, but not to Alevi or Shiite groups, and cemevis aren’t recognised as places of worship by the Turkish state. Alevis represent 15% to 20% and have suffered a history of persecution. Tuzlucayir is an 80% Alevi area, and the project is seen as an attempt to ‘sunnify’ Alevis. It recalls an old Ottoman tactic of arresting agitators and forcing them to move near the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul so they could be easier monitored and controlled. In June, there was controversy over the new bridge linking the European continent to the Asian, which was named after Yayuz Sultan Selim, who expanded the borders of the Ottoman empire. Also known as Selim the grim, he earned his nickname for his relentless slaughter of 40,000 Alevis.
“One recent development has been the use of fireworks against the police. Trinity News has learned that one of the main groups to employ this tactic is the Patriotic Revolutionist Youth Movement (YDG-H), a disciplined and well organised militant youth wing of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is an armed Kurdish paramilitary group that has engaged in political terrorism.”
The protest Atakan died at was also held in solidarity with METU students and local residents who are campaigning against the construction of a motorway through university land as well as adjoining neighbourhoods, which would cut the college campus in two and displace resident locals. The university is a centre of leftist politics and student activism, but for the most part the demonstrators are local. The METU road protests and the mosque-cemevi project have provided a new impetus for mobilizing protesters, protests suffered from lack of direction following the removal of demonstrators from Gezi park and Taksim square.
The protests trace their genesis to November 2012 when business owners organised the Taksim Platform to protest the demolition of Gezi Park in Istanbul, which is comparable to Stephens Green Park in Dublin; the adjoining Istiklal avenue being uncannily similar in appearance to Grafton Street, both being their cities main shopping streets. Gezi Park sits on Taksim Square, which was to be pedestrianized and the park was to be replaced with a shopping mall designed as a replica of Ottoman-era barracks which used to occupy the site. The park was occupied by a small group of activists from Greenpeace to resist any attempts to demolish the park, and in May, Prime Minister Erdogan reiterated the government’s intention to demolish the park. Hundreds of Istanbulites occupied the park in response, but it wasn’t until the police attempted to clear those protesters from Gezi Park that huge countrywide protests erupted. What began as environmental concerns quickly morphed into remonstrations about the privatisation of public space and discontentment at a government seen as being increasingly authoritarian. When police attempted to clear protesters from the park on May 31st in a brutal crackdown in the middle of the city’s commercial district during the middle of trading hours, public outrage was unanimous. Over 100 canisters of tear gas were fired, choking homes and businesses, and protesters were herded into an underground metro station in Taksim, before filling it with tear gas and locking the doors. It was to be the final straw; catalysing huge public action that would see Gezi park being occupied by protesters for the next three weeks and barricades going up around surrounding roads.
One Istanbul resident described the atmosphere of the park as being “like a radical carnival,” and each day it grew more sophisticated and developed. Shelves filled with books grew to become a library of over 6000 books with librarians working in shifts, and by the end there was an infirmary, a free food distribution area funded by donations that flowed in, and even a crèche. Different areas of the park were populated by different groupings. There was a rainbow-flag adorned LGBT/feminist area, a Turkish nationalist area with Turkish flags, a Kurdish area with Kurdish flags, a communist/socialist area, and more between. Even the marginal left is aggressively sectarian in Turkey, but to have Turkish nationalists and Kurds peacefully in the same area represents a huge turning point in and of itself, as hard-line Turkish nationalists tend to be prejudiced against Kurds. Before the protests it was unthinkable for Kurds to be able to fly Kurdish flags in the middle of Istanbul, Kurds have been arrested just for wearing Kurdish colours. To have them flying beside the flags of Turkish nationalists without trouble became a trope for explaining how strong the shared sense of purpose was. Even now, in the forum in Kadiköy in Istanbul; nationalists have been heard chanting Kurdish slogans, marking a tangible perception breakthrough.
At the centre of the protests was the Taksim Platform, the same group founded by local businesses, environmentalists, and leftists. They had daily public forums in the park in which anyone could participate and contribute to the decision making. It was affiliated with Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group of organisations and unions, and the day to day organisation of the park was managed by volunteers calling themselves the Gezi Park Association. With the new wave of protests though, the Taksim Platform has faded from visibility and have lost their sense of relevance.
Speaking to Trinity News, one activist in Istanbul described the demographics of the protests now as being “more marginal and militant than they were in June. It’s not like it was in Gezi, you don’t have mothers and fathers banging pots and pans in the street as much anymore.” One recent development has been the use of fireworks against the police. Trinity News has learned that one of the main groups to employ this tactic is the Patriotic Revolutionist Youth Movement (YDG-H), a disciplined and well organised militant youth wing of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is an armed Kurdish paramilitary group that has engaged in political terrorism, and in March entered a ceasefire with the Turkish government, though talks are now stalling. They have announced that they will not be the first to attack but the YDG-H has been active in the protests since June. They have not been directly visible though, as Kurds generally don’t want the peace talks to break down.
The most visible groups during the protests in June were university students and militant soccer fans from Turkey’s notorious football supporters clubs. The government feared that with the resumption of football season and the beginning of the academic year, campuses and stadiums would become major protest venues. In an effort to curb the possibility, the Turkish government has announced that private security on campuses and stadiums is to be replaced with police forces, plainclothes police will mingle with fans during football games, and scholarships of students who participate in anti-government protests will be withdrawn. The militant football fans, or Ultras, have receded in visibility amid worries that they will be treated legally as gangs, but they are still active individually.
“Police brutality has been the most consistent motivating factor in fuelling the protests. Amnesty International has called for a suspension of tear gas shipments to Turkey as police used 130,000 tear gas canisters in the first 20 days of the protests, depleting the 150,000 budgeted for the year. The Turkish Medical Association has reported that over 8,000 people have been injured by police who have been aiming with tear gas grenades at the heads of protesters.”
During and after the Gezi Park protests, public forums spread out in other parks across Turkey. One local Kurdish councillor we spoke to in Gazi Mahalessi in Istanbul from the Peace and Democratic Party (BDP) in June expressed hope that they would function as a way of spreading and entrenching the protests. Speaking to activists in Istanbul now, we were told that “nobody knew what would happen with the forums. Some forums are stronger than others, but in Gezi it was different. Nobody expected anything big, so there was no hierarchy because of the shock. Now, some political groups are trying to build hierarchy but it doesn’t work. The people who aren’t already political will think ‘its not OUR movement.’ Political people are in danger of marginalising themselves, potentially excluding non-political people. The protests have opened up a crack, not the door, but a little light through this crack to potentially build up a politics.” The mechanics and politics of forums varies. In Gazi Mahalessi, known as a ‘police free zone’ and colloquially in leftist circles as ‘first of May street,’ the paramilitary Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKPC) who control part of the area and have engaged in political terrorism didn’t allow a forum which they couldn’t control. Larger forums tend to be more democratic though, such as in Besiktas and Kadiköy in Istanbul. Carsi, the football support club for Besikta FC are very active in the Besiktas forum.
Ultimately, the underlying motives behind the protests haven’t changed. Dissatisfaction with authoritarian state power and issues of privatisation and gentrification, coupled with issues of prejudice and discrimination are what fuelled the Gezi Park protests, and that’s what’s fuelling the protests now. Even before the protests started, there was widespread outrage at ‘Urban Renewal’ projects that sought and seek to dislodge people already disadvantaged in the interests of elites. Tarlabası, a predominantly migrant area, just north of Taksim is one such example. The contract for the destruction of low income housing to be replaced with high-rises and hotels went to a construction company owned by a holding company whose CEO is the Prime Minister’s son in law.
Although Turkish growth was not significantly impeded by the economic crisis, 30% of the Turkish economy depends on construction, and it is hard to believe that is sustainable, and that Turkey is not heading for an economic crisis of its own. Therein lies the reasoning behind the METU road, the reconstruction of Gezi park and the urban renewal of Tarlabası.
Local elections in March are looming, and if popular dissentient can be translated into votes against the AKP, there is the potential for political change. The People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is a new party set up by civil society organisations and leftist groups including the BDP and they expect to get 600,000 votes in Istanbul. If the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) selects a candidate that the HDP can live with for the mayor of Istanbul in March, they have the potential to mount a challenge to the AKP.
During the early days of the Gezi protests, no one dared make predictions because it seemed incredulous that they were happening in the first place. Uncertainties and dangers aside, not least from Syria collapsing on Turkey’s doorstep, this is a very important moment in Turkish political history and has long term implications for Europe and the middle east.