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  • Published in International

Volkan Aran traces the growth of Turkey's massive protest movement in response to excessive police violence and the increasingly authoritarian rule of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Young protestors march near Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, on June 3, 2013.Turkey is experiencing the most widespread civil uprisings in its modern history. The unrest involves a variety of political groups including Kemalists, Kurdish groups, Alevi people, middle-class Turks, environmentalists, socialists and LGBT groups, and even those who consider themselves as religious.

Roots of the uprising

Let’s define what triggered the act in the first instance and how this echoed throughout Turkey, in order to understand the spirit of this huge movement. Just before the last general elections in 2011, Erdogan announced plans for splitting the European side of İstanbul into two by constructing a second canal connecting the Marmara Sea to the Black Sea. Some say that this announcement marked the beginning of his series of 'crazy', 'visionary' projects, which are always delivered as a surprise and without consulting the community or civil organisations.

Erdogan's confidence increased so much that his authoritarian policies left no voice for critics. He has overseen the building of shopping malls and gentrifying of inner city slums, or culturally known public spaces, by replacing them with big construction projects. A recent example is the demolition of Emek Sineması, a 90 year old movie theatre to clear space for a new shopping venue.

During the protests, just off the İstiklal Street, the police attacked peaceful demonstrators. This happened just a few weeks before the Gezi Park events.

One week before the Gezi Park unrest, Erdogan announced that the third bridge spanning the Bosphorus strait, which would be the biggest construction project of his AKP (Justice and Development party) government in the next decade, will be named ‘Yavuz Sultan Selim’. This refers to a sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who is known as 'Selim the Grim' especially due to his brutal policies towards Alevis, who still constitute around 15% of Turkey's population.

Erdogan's decisions on the future of city spaces would not have created such a strong reaction if it weren’t also for his other construction projects embodying his ideal of a new 'AK youth' and of a new regime. While praising the conservative and religious but technologically well-equipped youth as the ideal of the state, he condemned those who do not fit this profile. Using the term 'alcoholic' for people who consume alcoholic drinks and condemning street children, while comparing them with his ideal of a 'religious generation', were among the many examples of this kind of language. Erdogan’s claim to omnipotence is now embodied in his demands for establishing a Presidential system within Turkey's parliamentary democracy.

Police violence

Excessive police force, against even the most peaceful demonstrations, has been a trademark in Turkey, especially regarding the Kurdish issue. However, the last few years witnessed the spread of the use of excessive force to a wide variety of social groups.

One recent example occurred when the police attacked university students, who were protesting the Prime Minister's visit to their campus to launch the military observation satellite at METU (Middle East Technical University) in April. Excessive use of tear gas has been a hot topic ever since.

But the condemnation of the police’s use of tear gas has even become popular among so called 'apolitical' groups of football fans, when in and around the stadiums police tear-gassed fans, including very young children. This led to the football clubs’ fans – for instance the Carsi group of Besiktas, with an ‘A’ for Anarchism in their logo and flags - to take up a significant place in the current protests.

Erdogan replied to criticisms by saying that the police had carried out their duty. This was his response when a protestor was killed when tear-gas triggered a heart attack last year in Hopa, a small town in the eastern Black Sea region, and after a pregnant young woman protestor was kicked by a police officer in Istanbul and had to have her baby aborted due to abdomen injury.

Taksim Square and the spread of occupations

Thursday 30 May in Gezi Park in Taksim Square, which has been the place of conflict between the state and the leftists since 70's, became the flashpoint. The protesters did not leave the stage this time. Backed up by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputy Sırrı Sureyya Onder, the people resisted and the number of protestors increased rapidly after the police force increased.

While the majority of the protestors expected an apology or an opening for dialogue, Erdogan branded them a few ‘looters’ or ‘usurpers’ (‘capulcu’ - the name which has become a trademark for the protests) as he flew out of the country, just before the fighting between protestors and police left three dead and thousands wounded. The occupy tactic spread to more than 50 cities of Turkey, as culturally famous public squares and streets suddenly became places of resistance for thousands of people.

The official demands of the Taksim Solidarity Platform, who are occupying Gezi Park – or, more truthfully, have made Gezi their home - include: leaving Gezi Park as a park, resignation of the governors and police officers who ordered or carried out the violence towards the activists, release of citizens detained during the events, prohibition of teargas bombs, and scrapping the meeting and demonstration bans which are currently in force.

While the platform still waits for the response from the government and the Prime Minister, the reply came - not surprisingly - from the counter demonstrations organised by the AK Party and police attacks attempting to break the occupation.

Erdogan’s response

Erdogan rejected dialogue. He chose to deal with the protests by gathering his supporters in quickly organised meetings in and around the airports of the big cities of Turkey, following his return from Tunisia. As has been traditional for the Turkish state, he tried to depict the events as organised and encouraged by foreign forces, including the 'lobby of usury', which Sharia forbids.

This refers to the action of international funds and investors which increased the interest rates of Turkey's bonds and brought down the İstanbul stock exchange. He declared war with this ‘lobby of usury’ and claimed that he would not let them steal the sweat of the people's brow. He also asked the people to transfer their accounts to the state banks instead of privately owned banks of Turkey and asked for a boycott of the domestic companies that supported the movement.

Erdogan also depicted the protestors as vandals, violent and illegal. He even claimed that the protestors entered a mosque wearing shoes and drinking beer, as if they were humiliating the mosque or attacking the people inside, whereas reports and video footage showed the group was running away from police teargas and sheltered in the mosque seeking first aid, without anyone drinking beer inside. One would think that Erdogan had started a jihad with the anti-islamist movement whereas the demands of the protestors had nothing to do with either the religion or the interest rates.

If the first tactic is to show the opposition as ‘traitors’ supported by ‘foreign forces’ the second one, when they recognised an unstoppable mass enthusiasm or excitement, is to pretend that they share the same excitement and enthusiasm as their opponents. ‘If this is about environmentalism, they should come and consult with their prime minister', Erdoğan says, as if to show his kindness. The Governor of Istanbul who is also a target of the protestors, is now sharing tweets, that he would like to be with them and listen to the buzzing of the bees together in Gezi Park.

Now the third step is their effort to divide the protestors artificially into ‘apolitical’ ordinary people and ‘illegal’ marginal groups, which we observed during yesterday’s Taksim events (11th June) when the police and the Governor said that the reason behind the police’s sudden attack on 35,000 people in Taksim Square with water cannons, plastic bullets and tear gas is the provocation of the marginal groups.

A movement at the crossroads

Even though this will provoke the protestors, the support base of the AKP may find these manipulations sufficient to continue backing their leader. With decreasing support and popularity, Erdogan will most likely fall short in his plans to be the President of Turkey, but he would love to call the general elections as early as possible before this mass movement becomes organised as a political actor.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP) is the biggest opposition party, claiming itself to be the keeper of secularism and the nationalism of Ataturk's republican principles. Erdogan attempts to deal with any opposition coming from that direction using the usual ‘secular’ versus ‘muslim’ and ‘old state’ versus ‘common people’ binaries.

However, rather than an offshoot of a political party like the CHP, this street-based protest movement now resembles Turkey in a moment of mass civil resistance and disobedience, and one which is not limited to the Kurdish population. The movement is likely to continue to resist and to fight for occupying the urban spaces it has taken. Looking at the spread of the protests and the reasons behind it, any police attack may only strengthen it. Erdogan's plan to convert all these events into an election campaign has every chance of failing.

The movement has already had two big political results: making Erdogan's presidency less likely and converting some of the media – excluding the pro-government media outlets - into a voice of the people, rather than a tool of secrecy and manipulation under a regime of state-censorship and self-censorship. This has been supplemented by social media: Turkey, having one of the largest number of social media users worldwide, has seen social media turned into a medium of live coverage of the revolts and police violence. The protesters tweeted non-stop to describe what is going on in the squares and even created interactive maps showing the police movements throughout the big cities.

The defining characteristics of the movement are its youthfulness, gender heterogeneity, and its strong sense of humour and solidarity. It would be a sad waste if this spirit, or the space it has opened, were reduced to the realm of parliamentary democracy, not only for Turkey but for all peoples of the world.

Facebook page: International Solidarity with Occupy Gezi

Twitter: @Resist_Gezi

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