Ankara’s Hidden Resistance
While the international media has focussed on Istanbul, Ankara’s month long street war with the police reveals a different side to Turkey’s protest movement. This geographical unevenness must be recognized, taken seriously and included in any visions for the future, argues Felix Brecht.
Every time an international media outlet declared Turkey to be “all quiet tonight” Ankara’s citizens released a collective sigh in despair, decrying the lack of international attention in the face of a continuous brutal crackdown on peaceful protests. Despite Ankara’s remarkable stamina, Istanbul’s Taksim and Gezi Park naturally remained at the centre of international media attention. Events tend to be more dramatic in the European Beyoğlu district, known for its vibrant nightlife and rich urban culture, and Istanbul’s historic legacy as a truly global city constitutes much more of a natural world stage for protest than Ankara’s Anatolian hinterland.
Unlike the scattered spaces of resistance in Ankara’s city centre, stretching from Kızılay to Kennedy Avenue over Tunali Himli Caddesi to the protest camp at ‘Swan’ Kuğulo Park, Taksim’s concentrated political symbolism moulds the Turkish national consciousness. It is precisely this symbolism that explains the government’s violent determination to capture the space with road tunnels and shopping malls as demonstrated during the May 1st lock down of the square. Ankara, despite being the capital and despite its central Kızılay district probably being more political than Taksim on an everyday basis, lacks this political radiance.
Istanbulites, along with the rest of the world, agree. They tend to see Ankara as a boring bureaucratic hub with little if any urban life in it. No doubt its cultural, historic attractions and nightlife are dwarfed by the much richer, more cosmopolitan Bosporus metropolis. Scenically located at a major maritime juncture with its dramatic well lit bridges connecting two continents, Istanbul is built on thousands of years of history. It has become the urban and economic centre of a “Rising Power”, yet unlike Shanghai or Sao Paolo, it has always been a world mega city since its Roman and Byzantine times.
The republican capital, by contrast, barely sees the limelight of international attention. Lacking the suave architectural style of Niemeyer’s Brasilia (incidentally subject to similar social forces at the moment), Ankara seems gracelessly squeezed into the central Anatolian mountains by German, Austrian city planners and Italian architects, creating a small but still disjointed city centre. Built as a fortress of a capital, its urban geography was dictated by the geopolitical relations of the early republic. Easy to defend against future foreign invasions, it was this topography that swung the vote for the Republic’s capital in Ankara’s favour over the more centrally located Konya.
Needless to say this reputation as the pale administrative capital of an otherwise colourful and diverse country is entirely undeserved. Ankara’s nightlife is vibrant, friendly, young and in many places the city centre is green rather than grey. Or at least it used to be until recently. For unlike Istanbul, Ankara has not seen its çapulling ‘Summer of Love’ living a peaceful protest within a highly heterogeneous movement, swelled by tourists and international solidarity envoys visiting the Gezi Park utopia until that too was crushed by a brutal police intervention. Joining the çapullers in Ankara always took a different, at times more heightened determination and a risk taking attitude.
Away from the highly secured government institutions along the Ismet Inönü and Eskişehir Roads, the city centre’s streets had become unsafe to walk on. Rather than preventing outside invasion, Ankara’s topography turned into a trap, keeping clouds of teargas firmly on the ground while limiting escape routes. Replenished by nightly (and sometimes daytime) raids on protests, unionists, funeral processions of those who died as a result of police violence, bars, cafes, parks and more recently even the Alevi residential neighbourhood of Dikmen, Ankara has become a place of carnage rather than security, a city under siege by armoured vehicles blocking (‘securing’) streets in broad daylight, washing out signs of unrest (or whoever is considered as such) by night.
So it seems the government itself doesn’t agree too much with the global media perception of Ankara’s relative insignificance. Paradoxically, this happens in the light of its own dislike of the Kemalist capital. Frequently celebrating Istanbul’s status as an Islamic world city, or Dersaadet (در سعادت ‘Gate of Felicity’), along with Turkey’s Ottoman past, the AKP would prefer to leave Ankara out of the focus of attention. And yet, it is arguably Turkey’s most persistently protested and ‘secured’ city. In contrast to Brasilia, however, citizens never came close to government institutions, thus removing the predictable police excuse of ‘securing’ vital state functions. So what makes Ankara a host of unabated police violence and persistent resistance?
The answer is that Ankara, the whole of Ankara, despite its lack of international appeal and symbolism for resistance, is the state the AKP is trying to capture. So when the protests over Gezi Park escalated into a nation-wide mass rally, Ankara’s historic politicisation, usually manifested in the streets of Kızılay, clashed head on with a government keen to maintain its power without making any meaningful concessions. On May 31st, protesters started walking towards the gardens of the Grand National Assembly, a key republican institution, from their base at the central Kuğulu Park. While nothing new for the hardcore of political activism made up of leftist parties and trade unions, this quickly turned into the first encounter for many of Ankara’s good republican citizens with the excessive police violence usually on their side. Endemic for a long time in the south-eastern parts of the country and indeed the capital itself (see below), the state has shifted its tools of oppression westwards with many water cannon vehicles clearly signifying their origin as ‘Van’ or ‘Diyarbakir’.
Since then constant police interventions crack down on even the most passive forms of resistance leading to at least one dead, Ethem Sarısülük, thousands injured and countless and ongoing arrests. Seizing public spaces did not start on May 31, 2012. Erdoğan’s loyal and similarly provocative Ankara proconsul Melih Gökçek (internationally known by now for his fateful addiction to twitter) has run the city through a regime of crony capitalism, expanding highways, real estate and retail at the expense of sensible urban planning. Signs of resistance are targeted through different channels, but happily by police force if the target is deemed appropriate. On December 18, 2012 a massive police force of 6000 officers entered the campus of Middle East Technical University (METU) claiming to secure a visit by the Prime Minister. The excessive use of force that ensured included the tear gassing of seminar rooms, libraries and academic’s offices with many students injured, detained and eventually charged. Then as now, the initial reaction was one of initial disbelief over the disproportionate use of force followed by expectations for some kind of apology. Instead, Gökçek and the Prime Minister came out with a barrage of public attacks, not only against METU students but also its academics and its overall leadership, after the university’s rector had taken the unusual step of publicly backing his students.
Needless to say an apology never happened and then as now no mistakes were admitted. The brutal crackdown and the ensuing escalation were programmed. METU students, well known for their high degree of politicisation, are natural ‘first’ targets for authoritarianism. Similarly, the streets of Kızılay are ripe for a crackdown with their remarkable history of political activism by trade unions, activists and the city’s large student population. Though usually this politicisation is by and large restricted to METU and Ankara universities, the current protests recruited students from Hacettepe, Başkent, Gazi and even Bilkent University, Turkey’s first private university founded to de-politicise academia and the young after the 1980 coup. With great effect – until recently. However, despite Ankara’s concentration of academia and a long history of urban politicisation, the intellectual and creative inspiration of the ‘movement’ (if that’s what we want to call it), such as the park forums, originated in Istanbul.
There are, however, also more localized reasons for Ankara’s shadow existence in the protests. What is celebrated as the unity of highly heterogeneous groups in Istanbul remains physically separated in Ankara’s relatively small city centre. Neither is owed to a shortage of intellectual, creative, young and engaged spirits. After all, apart from its student population, Ankara’s many employers, including, paradoxically, the government’s own low and middle ranking bureaucracy, engender a large body of young middle class, well-educated urban professionals turned çappulers too. There is, however, an observable politico-physical separation reflecting the diverse political, social and demographic make-up of the protests.
The central Kuğulu Park forms something like the equivalent to Gezi, populated by diverse but mostly very young environmentally minded citizens trying to appeal to an inclusive form of protest akin to Istanbul. This includes not only criticising the current government but also the state as a whole including many references to the Kurdish conflict. This island of “Gezi Spirit” is immediately surrounded by a more old-school Kemalist neighbourhood, whose inhabitants carry the state founder’s portrait up and down Tunalı Hilmi Avenue, chanting “we are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal”. Some of these protesters, it seems, ask for its state back from the Islamists, rather than looking for genuine social change. Güvenpark, the scene of Ethem’s murder at the heart of Kızılay, has traditionally been the domain of well-organized politicised leftwing parties and unionists. Ethem’s own working class background is exemplary of the groups forming the front lines of police attacks while the middle class components are more likely to flee the excessive force at greater pace, revealing different levels of experience in challenging the state’s violent authority.
Kızılay has now become more of a place for a silent vigil after having seen the fiercest police brutality. Connecting these spaces, Kennedy Avenue and Bestekar Streets are filled with young night revellers keeping helmets, gasmasks and goggles along with constantly tweeting smart phones handy, reflecting the more or less persistent police violence there. As in Istanbul, Park Forums have sprung up, attempting to channel the momentum of the Gezi Park protests into productive and progressive forms of resistance. Though some have described the forums as ‘therapeutic’, there is momentum is these forums. The central Çaldıran Park, for example was renamed Ethem Sarısülük Parks and forums are held in many of the suburban middle class neighbourhoods such as Cayyolu too, though some continue to be targeted by the police.
The uneven urban political geography of Ankara and the contrasts to Istanbul’s could easily be read as a sign of disunity and weakness spelling the futility of political change across Turkey. Such pessimistic voices sometimes compare the Gezi Park protests to the 1878 Paris Commune’s lack of internal consolidation, its exclusively urban composition and its progressive character detached from the rest of the country. This is not what this article is trying to argue.
There are plenty of examples for unified action across the variety of social and urban spaces. Protests are not just unified in their anger against the government but also by their taste for wider social change and political activism beyond formal elections. The difficulty is not to unify the people against AKP authoritarianism, or even to convince the wider layers of society uneasy with the Gezi protests. In many ways, however, the spatial separation described here serves as a useful reminder of Ankara’s, Turkey’s and the protest movement’s social diversity. Different urban geographies shape this movement in uneven and locally specific ways. Despite enthusiasm, optimism and a progressive spirit, a sustainable movement requires awareness about these uneven geographies beyond the highly symbolic space at the heart of Istanbul.