Turkey: from Occupy Gezi to War Zone
As the mainstream media remains quiet, the state violence in Turkey since the Gezi Park occupation is escalating. Kerem Nisancioglu sends us this report from Istanbul.
Istanbul has been turned into a war zone. People have defiantly stood up to the brutality of state repression, seeking to reclaim Taksim Square and Gezi Park. Although cleared ahead of Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan’s rally in Istanbul today, the latest uprising suggests that the AKPs attempt to end the resistance may have backfired.
Up until yesterday, Friday 14 June, Gezi Park was flourishing as a social space, having been spared police attacks for the preceding three days. Thousands of individuals and families from all walks of life mixed with students, revolutionary groups, environmentalists and football firms, enjoying music, food and each other’s company. Dancing and chanting would spontaneously erupt among crowds, while a concert pianist serenaded the extended space in Taksim Square. Strangers would approach each other offering food and drink, and then strike up conservation. Children painted murals in the kindergarten. Mothers of participants formed a human chain and marched through the park at regular intervals to fervent applause.The break from state violence had also afforded participants the chance to establish ‘forums’ – participatory political meetings. On both Friday and Saturday, seven were held simultaneously across the park, attracting between 50-300 people, to discuss next steps in the movement. This was, without wishing to over exaggerate, a utopian atmosphere, where people undifferentiated by wealth intermingled in a heady mix of politics and celebration.
This utopia was brutally brought to an end last night. At around 6pm in Ankara, Erdoğan delivered an incendiary speech at an AKP rally, giving his ‘last warning’ to the protesters and calling for their forcible removal. Within two hours police in Istanbul ordered people in Gezi Park and Taksim Square to disperse (incidentally in a country where the freedom of assembly is a constitutional right). Shortly afterwards, the order was given and TOMA police vehicles drove through the square into the park, spraying the public with water laced with an unknown chemical irritant.
Teargas was fired across Gezi, pushing crowds back out of the northern exit through Harbiye towards Osmanbey around 3km away, where crowds started to disperse into side streets. Others found shelter in the neighbouring Divan Hotel, where a makeshift hospital was set up to help those heavily affected by the chemical attack. The police were ruthless, gassing the lobby, and spraying protesters that had formed a human line protecting the hotel. The attack was indiscriminate; the streets were full of children and elderly people struggling to breathe in tears.
As news of the attacks spread across the city thousands upon thousands of people left their homes to march on Istanbul. Many from Gezi Park clashed with police around nearby İstiklal Street. A huge group of around five thousand congregated in Kadıköy on the Anatolian side and marched towards the Bosporus Bridge. The Gazi area – home to a large Kurdish and Alevi community that had protested regularly over the course of the last two weeks – also marched on Taksim, eventually being blockaded in Harbiye.
Barricades were erected and crowds gathered in Beşiktaş, Osmanbey, Nişantaşı, and Mecidiyeköy. Protests were not restricted to Istanbul. Into the early morning, people came out on the streets across the country, most notably the thousands that gathered in Izmir and Ankara, who had experienced the most extensive and persistent brutality at the hands of the police. Everywhere people chanted loudly – ‘bu daha başlangıç mücadeleye devam’ – ‘this is only the beginning, continue the struggle’.
The state responded as expected, with teargas, water cannons, (according to some reports) rubber bullets, and even slingshots from undercover police. Military police vehicles – Jendarma – joined the fray in and around Taksim, the first signs of official military participation. Police conducted raids on members of football firms that had participated in actions. Hundreds of activists were arrested and detained at undisclosed police stations to prevent access to legal help.
This suppression was buttressed, typically, through propaganda via the media and state. State TV TGRT reported events as a ‘minor incident’ in which Gezi Park was ‘cleaned’. Istanbul governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu insisted that the eviction of Gezi was peaceful, and that only ‘marginals’ were forcibly cleared. EU minister for Turkey warned that anyone who entered Taksim would be considered a terrorist.
Owing to the speed of events, this is an incomplete report; currently all the roads to Taksim are blocked; Harbiye resembles a war zone; Jendarma military police are deployed in Mecidiyeköy; Divan Hotel remains occupied; there is talk of a general strike. Today Erdoğan holds his rally in Istanbul, and people will be out again in opposition. As I write this (1pm local time, Sunday 16 June), miles from Taksim, I can hear pots and pans banging, whistles and car horns, people chanting ‘her yer Taksim her yer direniş’ – ‘everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance’.
What is certain is that Istanbul, indeed the nation, is angry, perhaps irrevocably so long as Erdoğan continues to rule. The protests started with opposition to the redevelopment of Gezi Park into a shopping centre, before expanding into a nationwide movement against the AKPs authoritarian neoliberalism. The aggressive policing has been coupled with a series of false promises and attempts to normalise the resistance.
In effect, this latest crackdown occurred just 42 hours after the AKP promised to wait for and respect the court judgement on Gezi, following a meeting with representatives of Taksim Solidarity. It comes just three days after Erdoğan proposed a referendum on the issue. The inability of the government to de-escalate has led to the radicalisation and participation of masses of previously ‘apolitical’ people, who no longer trust the AKP.