The use of force against mass protests in Turkey has created an even stronger opposition than Erdogan could have imagined. This spark may yet turn into a massive fire, writes Sait Akgul
The sky in the city of Istanbul is normally blue, filled with fresh air, but not if you were to take trip there these days. The effect of pepper and tear gas is still very much felt by anyone who walks the streets there now. Tons of pepper gas have been sprayed on demonstrators, passing pedestrians, pets, trees, balcony plants, cars and buildings.
The famous Divan Hotel, right next to the Gezi Park, opened its doors immediately to the demonstrators who took shelter there as soon as the bloody onslaught began at 8pm on 15 June. Its lobby and some parts of the upper floors, where make-shift medical rooms were set up by voluntary doctors and medical students, were wrecked by attacking police.
The whole thing started when the police broke up a peaceful demonstration at Taksim Gezi Park in opposition to the government project to build an Artillery Barracks where Gezi Park stands now. There was a barracks there in the last century, which was knocked down in 1939. The government was also planning a shopping mall adjacent to the barracks. This was announced in June 2012 and met instant opposition from protest group Taksim Dayanismasi (Taksim Solidarity). Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was adamant that it should be built there. The fact that the original barracks was built during the Ottoman Empire and was knocked down after the current republic was born is seen as one of the main reasons behind Erdogan’s desire to rebuild it, and score points against secularists. This was seen by the dissenting public as no different from the attitude that he has been taking when he advises families to have three children or legislates against the sale of alcohol in most places. Members of Taksim Solidarity began a campaign of petitioning in Taksim Square, next to Gezi Park, and set up a tent there too. This was all to save Gezi Park at this stage.
On 28 May at 1pm, bulldozers started to dismantle a wall in the park and commenced removing trees. The opposition to this was instantaneous. The next day an MP from the pro-kurdish Peace and Democracy Party BDP, Sirri Sureyya Onder, was arguing with the officials to stop this madness and leave the park alone. These pleas were turned down by the officials although the MP and the campaigners managed to bring it to the attention of the general public in Turkey. Eyebrows were already raised by dissidents as they could see that Erdogan’s heavy-handed rule was stepping up into a new gear. He was to be stopped now, or maybe never.
On 31 May the same MP was lying on a stretcher, hit by a tear gas canister whilst an MP from another opposition party was suffering a heart attack caused by the smoke and scuffles with riot police. The events by then attracted attention nationwide, and especially among the population of Istanbul, who crossed the Bosphorus Bridge on foot, marching approximately 10 miles.
With the campaign growing stronger and Erdogan becoming ever more aggressive and uncompromising, a meeting was arranged with the Prime Minister at his office in Ankara on 14 June, which included some members of Taksim Solidarity. Despite the outcome of the meeting that the government was to wait for the result of a judicial review against the project (lodged by the Taksim Solidarity) and the promise of a referendum, he did not wait long before unleashing thousands of riot police in the park, where people were happily drawing pictures, having picnics and chilling out. They had already dismantled many of the small tents as they had decided, as a result of the seven forums they held openly in the park, that they would maintain their presence and stay in one big tent instead. Their declaration was seen as declaration of defiance by the PM and the park was raided, ending in the early hours of the morning with hundreds injured with dozens in serious condition. At least 700 people were detained.
Public defiance on the other hand was immense. The use of social media was the only way of receiving up-to-date news, and it was a vital source for organising dissent. Taksim Solidarity, which looked to be the focal point of the struggle, was also getting its news and directions from the activists filming, photographing and posting short notes on Facebook and Twitter. The agitation of the general public was at its highest point at 10pm, two hours after the raid on the park. Residents were on the streets in their neighbourhoods banging pots and pans with spoons. The police were also all out and 1,000 extra policeman were brought in by planes to Istanbul.
The main trade unions DISK (Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions) and KESK (Confederation of Public Sector Workers) decided to meet the next day and call a general strike for 17 June. 700,000 workers took part, condemning the police violence and Erdogan. Their marches were stopped by the same riot police when they wanted to go to Taksim Square to make a press statement. Everyone of the appropriate age in Turkey knows that Taksim Square is also called May Day Square. It is the place where 34 people died as a result of an onslaught by the dark forces of the state on a crowd of 500,000 during the May Day celebrations in 1977. No one was ever charged with the crime and the working class movement has never been able to use the square fully freely ever since. Its symbolism as a centre of working class organisation is the reason for successive governments all being extremely nervous about the place.
The term 'fascism' has come back into the vocabulary of newspapers and activists after a long time. The Prime Minister himself constantly complained that the military regime that preceded him was fascist. The public, however, now views Erdogan as a greater threat than the military, with his undertones of an Ottoman Sultan. The secularism that has taken root in Turkey in last 90 years is the common denominator of the opposing public who do not wish to go back to the old days of the veil and sharia laws.
Public opinion is also against the central involvement of Erdogan in the war with Syria. His sponsorship of the Free Syrian Army has so far produced nothing but trouble for him, as incidents of bombing in border towns have been blamed as Assad’s revenge. FSA members trained in Turkey have not been able to get through the northern parts of Syria, which are controlled by the Syrian Kurds. Erdogan is very much squeezed between his responsibilities to the club over which the US presides, and his own ambition to become the new leader of the Islamic world.
Taksim Solidarity and the larger circle around it draws its support from youngsters in higher education or professional jobs. They are rebellious and anti-capitalist and, as seen elsewhere, not linked to any political party, not even the ones with ML (Marxist-Leninist or Maoist) prefixed to their names. They openly refuse to be linked to any of these organisations although they worked with them in a very comradely manner. The very stark difference between these non-aligned new age revolutionaries and the old lefties are the fact that they are very open-minded about gender, ethnic origin and differences in religious and non-religious beliefs. This was in fact a revolution within a revolution. Members of the LBGT community, Kurds, Alevites and Armenians could openly have a place in this makeshift coalition of resistance.
The brutal nature of the police raids on Gezi Park, in different parts of Istanbul and even in many cities where people simply rebelled without any leadership, resulted in four protesters being killed and one 14-year-old fighting for his life in an Istanbul hospital. The total number of injured stands at 7,882, some with serious injuries and loss of eyes and limbs. The chemicals sprayed on people were openly called pepper gas, which caused havoc. The affected people are still suffering with skin problems a few days after they were attacked.
It may seem that Erdogan has won a short-term gain against the dissenters by using excessive force. But one thing is clear: he has in fact created his real opposition. The passive opposition he had in the parliament against his holding 50 per cent of seats, is no longer what he will be wary of. The public outcry following the spark lit by a bunch of youngsters is likely to turn this into a massive fire which can warm up the revolutionary vein of the people in the rest of Turkey.
These events caught everyone by surprise. People felt that it is about time that they rebelled against their rulers in this way. Many commentators noted that perhaps the Kurds, who have been rebelling for the last 30 years, have the experience of dealing with state oppression. With this treatment of his own people Erdogan certainly will not be lecturing other rulers in the Middle East so easily for a while, it seems.