Photo Credit: Hilal Özbaşak - istanbul banker

Cables from a Turkish Uprising

I spoke with several supporters of the Turkish uprising in Istanbul, Ankara, and outside of Turkey. Here is what they want the world to know. 

COPENHAGEN, 2 June 2013 at 5:30 am CET for Distilled Magazine

What began as Turkey’s #OccupyGezi has become something much more representative of a decade of political tension. I gathered the stories of several Turkish citizens on the ground in Istanbul and Ankara over the past twelve hours. They help shed light on what is rapidly becoming one of the most violent events in recent Turkish history, on what could well become a watershed moment for the country. 

Since 2002 Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development (AKP) has governed Turkey. They have ruled over a country with deep divisions in almost every aspect of its society. Through a combination of international support, pandering to religious groups, and a programme that promised economic growth they have managed to maintain power though. However, this week a pretty unimportant plan to increase tourism and consumer spending in the capital has seen the mosaic of Turkish society unite against the AKP. 

Gezi Park, a relatively small green space in Istanbul, was slated for development into a shopping mall to be housed in a newly built replica of the Ottoman era Taksim Military Barracks. Environmental protesters subsequently occupied the site and sent #occupygeziparki to the top trending spot on Twitter. Police responded severely; burning tents that were housing protesters, launching tear gas, rubber bullets, and using water cannons — non-lethal tactics that have since become lethal.


The public response to the government’s violence though far eclipsed what they thought they were dealing with. After all, Gezi was a relatively small and innocuous park. It began 24 hours later with the arrival of a bus of full of “Çarşı” the fanatics of the Beşiktaş football team who began defending the peaceful environmental protesters against against police to secure the square. Today not only Gezi Park, but also Taksim Square and İstiklal Avenue have been fully overrun by opponents of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan governing AKP party. Tens of thousands have marched across the Bosphorus from Asia to Europe to swell the number of occupants. 

Taksim Square has a lineage of violence and demonstrations and including clashes between Turkey’s right and left in 1969 and 1977. Now though, for probably the first time in Turkey’s history, the right and left are side by side. As are the supporters of Turkey’s football clubs, otherwise famous for killing each other in Taksim. In Ankara also, our source from Guvenpark in the Kizilay neighbourhood reported shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity between activists from all alignments. Banner-waving members of the Islamist and right-wing National Movement Party (CKMP) and the socialist Workers’ Party are protesting side by side. 

Supporters of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, and Galastasaray side by side in Taksim, Istanbul

Back in Istanbul, Sırrı Süreyya Önder, a film director and politician for the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) with wide socialist and Kurdish support has joined the protesters. Originally elected as an independent, before joining BDP, he is well-liked by many in attendance. The same cannot be said of the larger opposition parties (CHP and MHP). In the eyes of the demonstrators, and the words of at least one “they just come to Taksim for votes, not change.”

The police has attempted to clear the square this afternoon, but were forced to relent eventually. Nonetheless, emergency rooms in the vicinity of Taksim were and still are at capacity and not everyone in need is currently receiving treatment. Local businesses have stepped in to help with the overflow however. One protester I spoke to had been at the Marmara Hotel on Taksim square, which had opened its doors and rooms to victims of tear gas and the injured. Another source reported that the Hilton, Continental, and Divan were equally accommodating.

The violence was worse still in Ankara. I talked to one man who had been sent into a vomiting and coughing fit when canisters of orange gas, were dropped onto the crowd by helicopter, fracturing the shoulder of his friend and fellow occupant. He also witnessed this attack of a man being run over by a TOMA (Toplumsal Olaylara Müdahale Aracı — an anti-riot tank). That man is reportedly in critical condition, although there are reports of others killed in the same manner. Just one of countless examples of the increasingly violent tactics of the Turkish police.

Other actors

The military is an extremely important actor in Turkish politics. Traditionally, there has been a faustian pact between Turkish society and its armed forces to ensure the government could not endanger Turkey’s sacrosanct secularism. But over the past decade, the military has been unprecedentedly co-opted into supporting the AKP party. A series of high-profile sackings of generals set the stage for a neutered military leadership, despite the fact that many below top level may feel differently. 

Over the course of the past day though, they have been quietly supporting the protesters. They have refused to cooperate with Police requests to use military zones for transportation. At a military hospital in Istanbul they refused to treat police officers, instead handing out gas masks to dissidents. As this exchange between a policeman and soldier attests, relations between the two armed groups are indeed frosty at present. Part of the dialogue translates as:

Policeman: “Next time we should also throw gas bombs here [a military zone].”

Soldier: “If you do it, we will find something to throw to you as well, rest assured.”

Another important factor to keep an eye on are the Turkish media. According to the International Press Institute, Turkey has more imprisoned journalists than Eritrea, China, or Iran. Amnesty International explains this was accomplished through the government’s wide-ranging definition of terrorism used in anti-terror legislation. As a side note, this is why many of those I spoke with wish to remain anonymous.

That’s probably why only one channel — Canli TV — has been reporting fully the events of the clashes. All other media, often accused of being government propagandists, have avoided completely showing images of the violence. Earlier today, when the police finally relented their pressure on the Taksim occupants, as soon as the violence stopped, cameras began rolling. At that point they began showing the crowd’s positive demeanor as if nothing was wrong. In reality they were celebrating, for they perceived themselves to have successfully withstood a police offensive.

With no mainstream media contradicting his claims, Prime Minister Erdogan has been able to distance himself from the police’s actions, claiming the use of tear gas was excessive. This is internationally expedient as well as Amnesty has called for the immediate end to its deployment in the conflict, condemning it as a violation of human rights against peaceful protestors. Nevertheless, Erdogan’s claims remain unchallenged domestically.

He has also remained rigid on the increasingly marginalised origins of the protests saying that “The Ottoman Barracks will be built and there will be a shopping mall here instead of those trees, which we’ll plant somewhere else.”

And now?

Tonight, many of the protesters are not sleeping. Instead, they are defending Taksim erecting barriers of bricks and crowd-control fencing in Beşiktaş, the scene of some of Istanbul’s heaviest fighting earlier in the night. Multiple sources in Istanbul speculated this had been seen as a favourable tactical location by police attempting to retake Taksim, although it now appears they have withdrawn from there as well for the moment. The chants in that video translate as “tayyip resign”.

Many are unsure of what will happen next. Turkey’s myriad of political, social, religious, ethnic and indeed athletic factions have never been so united in recent history, as evidenced by the hundreds of groups represented today. They are finding a deep sense of strength in the peace between what was formerly a series of divisions continually simmering below a thin veil of national unity. They are working together as well to ensure theirs is seen as a peaceful movement, preventing demonstrators from responding violently to police - for now. 

Several solidarity events are planned across the globe in the coming days as well including one in New York’s Zuccotti Park — the site of the original #occupiers. They are hoping that the government will begin to feel the pressure from the events of the last and coming days. Whether that will result in wider calls for early elections or increased international pressure remains to be seen. As the sun is rising right now over Istanbul, the tension is palpable across the country, and the world is watching.

As one young citizen of the Turkish Republic put it: “The truth is, it’s not about the trees anymore.”

Editorial notes:
An earlier version of this article claimed the orange gas was agent orange, which was not confirmed by a source but rather by this CNN iReport. As that report has been corrected as has this one.

It also said that the TOMA victim was dead. This has turned out not to be true in that case in Ankara, although another protester was killed by a TOMA in Istanbul.

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