In the early morning of June 11th, police entered Istanbul’s Taksim Square with the aim of clearing the area, removing the flags and banners of various political parties from the Taksim Republic Monument and the AKM building that faced the square, and ordering protesters to continue their activities only within Gezi Park, the initial site of demonstrations that broke out in late May.
Amid all this, watching clashes between police and defiant protesters, watching rocks and firebombs thrown some demonstrators and tear gas and water cannons unleashed by the police, watching the burning vehicles and the remaining two flags waving atop the AKM building (a large Turkish Flag and a flag with the portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of Kemalism and the now long deceased dictator of Turkey), I asked my husband: “why?”
He was as surprised as I was by the unfolding events. Protesters had not clashed with police for days, during which there had been no police interventions in Gezi and Taksim. The whole square had turned into a spring festival, but people were also starting to get tired. Differences of political opinion were causing much internal debate and polarization, and problems with deciding who would represent the movement had not yet been resolved.
I had thought that in a few days things would organically dissolve. Let’s be honest, after all: a crowd that formed almost spontaneously against police brutality, that contained groups from the far-left to the far-right, as well as many apolitical people who had never participated in any activism before, that was disorganized and had no proper representation, that did not have a well-defined political agenda and goals … such a movement could not be maintained for a long time within the same space.
So why? Why would police attack now? It was obvious that such violence was surely unjustified, cruel, and meaningless. It would only prolong the protests and cause a divided group to unite once again. So, why? Just, why?
After police finally pushed protesters back into the park, a few calm days passed. A court order was issued, putting the park’s demolition on-hold. The government confirmed it would hold a plebiscite on Gezi Park’s future even if the court’s final decision approved demolition. Though there were of course different opinions in the crowd, the movement was also signaling a preference for maintaining only a symbolic presence in Taksim and continuing the long-term struggle in other ways.
Again, I thought, a couple of days and most of the crowd in the park and Taksim would dissolve more or less for the same reasons mentioned above. But, then, police attacked again, on the night of June 15.
This time the attack was even more fierce. Many were taken into custody, and tear gas was everywhere. The police prevented some protesters from the Asian side of the city from moving into the European side through the Boğaziçi Bridge over the Bosphorus. As more people tried to move into Taksim in an act of solidarity, the government strengthened the security presence by deploying the gendarmarie, which is responsible for policing smaller towns and rural areas and is technically part of the military.
Photographs quickly emerged of the injured, of police forces throwing tear gas into hotel lobbies as protesters took shelter. The next morning, people who lived in upper floor apartments in the Taksim area posted as clashes continued.
Why was this happening?
On Sunday June 16, Prime Minister Erdoğan held his own rally. The turnout was huge, with public transportation outlets commandeered to assist people in attending the rally. The Istanbul municipality later stated they were officially rented for the event, and posted some receipts.
The event was a show of numbers. AKP party members claimed a crowd of approximately 1.3 million people attended. While protesters estimated lower numbers, photographs show how huge the crowd was regardless of the exact number.
For about a day or so, a fight continued over the rally’s exact size, which I must admit I found rather pointless. It is well known that the AKP will always win the numbers game in this country. After all, were the protesters not arguing that the AKP was not representing minority groups in Turkey? Why, bother with attendee numbers then?
This singular focus reflects the protesters’ general inability to connect with the public at large.
Police brutality is a problem in Turkey. It has always been a fact of life in Turkey, and is much less common now than it was ten years ago. This may be hard to understand for a citizen who experienced tear gas for the first time in Istanbul, but ask Kurdish residents in Diyarbakır who have had to endure tear gas for years and they will tell a different story. This does not mean police brutality does not disturb the general population. It does suggest, however, that its shock value has unfortunately diminished.
And what about the park and green spaces? Typically, urban redevelopment is a problem for the lower classes only when it involves gentrification. Most people are too busy rushing to their minimum-wage jobs to sympathize with those who can spend days occupying a park to save trees.
Problems with democratic representation? In a country that has only recently turned a new page after a long period of military coups, when even the majority were denied political representation and where women with hijab (Islamic headscarves) are still not allowed into parliament despite their large numbers, the problem of representation is a systematic injustice everybody has gotten used to.
And what of the government’s authoritarian tone and actions, which seem to constitute state intervention in people’s personal lives? Let’s just say that in a country where Kurds have only recently obtained official recognition for their ethnic identity, where Muslim hijabi women still cannot work in the public sector (nor in much of the private sector), systematic discrimination is unfortunately something with which most of the population is already very familiar.
And what of the symbols used by protesters? Large Turkish flags, often with icons of Atatürk over them, dotted the demonstrations. This same flag is, however, a symbol of oppression and Atatürk, a dictator who is understandably remembered with anger by many in Turkey.
The banging of pots and pans – known as “cacerolazo” or “shortages” is no more effective. This ritual has, unfortunately, long been a symbol of the coup-loving, nationalist, Islamophobic elite minority in Turkey. It is especially hard to feel sympathy when those who are engaging in these practices are residents of upscale neighborhoods.
I must admit hearing banging pans and pots do not make even me – who supports quite a few of the original demands of the protest movement – feel sympathetic. Instead, it scares me, reminding me of the old times of systematic oppression and harassment.
To be clear, police brutality, urban redevelopment, inadequate democratic representation, the state’s authoritarian tone and tendencies, and limitations on civil rights and liberties are all important problems for me and for many in the country.
But they are not the only problem for the multitude that is able to survive only because of the state’s social safety net. Nor do they resonate in the same way when demanded in a partisan and exclusive way. Protesters, for instance, emphasize democratic representation for issues that matter to secular groups but not other constituencies. Nor does these demands generate sympathy when they are voiced with the symbolism of the country’s old Kemalist elite.
After the first attack in Gezi, even the most adamant conservative AKP supporters I knew were disturbed by the abuse they saw. Some of these people even went to join the protests. This could have been a moment when the people of Turkey came together and stood against police brutality and for better local governance. Concrete, simple, and straightforward demands could have been made and any concessions provided by the government could have been instrumentalized and accepted early on. A better rhetoric and tone, one that was inclusive of all groups but also excluded hate speech, racism, sexism, and Islamophobia could have been underlined and presented. A solid, democratic, pluralistic-representative framework could have been built within the movement that could serve as an example for future civil movements in Turkey. We really needed these things, but we did not get them from the Gezi Park protests.
Nor did we get any productive dialogue from Prime Minister Erdoğan’s provocative and polarizing rhetoric, which blamed one side for the current crisis and mentioned police brutality only as a footnote.
Rumors suggest that the first attack by the police was not ordered by the central government. Once informed about these events, Erdoğan could have asked the police to withdraw immediately, and started investigations against Istanbul’s chief of police and governor. He could have promised, then and there, to hold a plebiscite to determine the future of the area’s urban redevelopment. Instead, he chose to speak in heated and accusatory tones and to hold large rallies to show how widely he is still supported.
More partisanship and polarization were not what we needed, but it seems to me that these are the only things we are left with.
Over the last weeks, I have heard some my secular “feminist” friends reject claims made by hijabi women that they had been assaulted by protesters. Some even suggested that the Prime Minister was to be blame for these incidents because his speeches “provoked” people.
Some of my anti-fascist acquaintances have danced with militant racists under the banners of the country’s long deceased dictator. I have witnessed the streets of my hometown drowned in chants of “We are Soldiers of Mustafa Kemal.” I have seen MPs from the opposition CHP spreading disinformation and committing hate speech against the AKP and its supports. I have seen pictures and videos of children taken by their teachers at protests, singing nationalist anthems, making nationalist salutes. I have seen pious individuals declaring themselves “Soldiers of Erdoğan”. I have witnessed some activist friends remain silent and blind to apparent police brutality. I have seen respected journalists creating fantastic conspiracy theories to avoid criticizing the government. I have witnessed some religious friends trying to manipulate stories of assaults against hijabi Muslim women, to help their pro-AKP agenda.
It has, in short, been rather ugly over the last few weeks in Turkey. The Prime Minister has officially started his campaign for upcoming local municipality elections. His rhetoric will probably move more and more to the right, adopting a more nationalist and conservative tone to acquire votes from conservative-nationalist groups.
The dominant rhetoric from the protest movement is also becoming increasingly elitist, Islamophobic, ultra-secular, and at times ultra-nationalist. Turkey is a country where power relations are finally being strained, class dynamics finally changing as what we call “White Turks” (mostly secular, Kemalist, urban, pro-West, Turkish elites) are losing their socioeconomic hegemony, where more civil rights and liberties are allowing previously unseen and unheard of groups (such as pious conservatives) to make themselves more visible and amplify their views… .These are times when polarization is already inevitable and natural, making any additional divisions very risky and destabilizing.
Still, I cannot help but wonder, “why?,” and as things get calmer a second question pops to mind: “Now, what?”
*This article originally appeared at hkubra.tumblr.com.