ISTANBUL – The struggle that exploded on May 31 to fight neoliberal urban renewal — and specifically the demolition of a park in central Istanbul — has surpassed its original goals, and transformed into a full fledged uprising against a democratically elected yet authoritarian regime. Although it began in Gezi Park, which neighbors the central square of Istanbul, Taksim Square, the uprising has quickly spread across the city and to the whole country.
Unrelenting in their determination to stay in the streets, huge crowds have also gathered day after day in Ankara and Izmir as well as in other smaller cities. Three demonstrators have died and four others are currently in critical condition. This is in addition to more than 6000 injured people, including 10 who have lost eyes. The uprising has dominated the national discourse for more than two weeks as the country goes through the largest and longest urban popular revolt it has ever seen. It is now being regarded as a momentous political awakening for a whole generation.
On the ground, there is only one term that is used to describe the greatly heterogeneous crowds protesting in Turkey for weeks: the resistance. Resistance against short-sighted urban development, resistance against the police and resistance against the authoritarian regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP (Justice and Development Party) government, in power for more than ten years. Nearly all the relevant Twitter hashtags follow the command form of resistance, “#Diren,” and multiply depending on what the location or topic is. Shop owners leave notes explaining “I’ve gone to resist, I’ll be right back,” and one of the most common chants is “Everywhere Taksim! Everywhere Resistance!” It feels as if the whole of Taksim, the bohemian cultural center of Istanbul and the site of historically landmark political events, is part of the resistance and almost everyone walks around with goggles and dust masks to protect themselves from the generously dispensed teargas.
Barricades of Transformation
For ten days, between the first and tenth of June, all of the main arteries and smaller side streets leading up to Taksim Square were barricaded in defense against the police. In some avenues such as Gumussuyu, where battles raged at the beginning of the uprising, more than a dozen barricades were present. Some of these reached three meters high, constructed from every kind of urban debris: construction materials, destroyed city buses and rebar cemented to cinder blocks sticking out towards the enemy lines in a surreal medieval fashion. Similar to other popular urban uprisings, the barricades sealed the area from the state and opened a space where a brand new set of previously unimaginable social relations could take shape.
Signs strung up between light poles on the streets leading up to Taksim Square and Gezi Park read “This way to the Taksim Commune.” This might be somewhat of an overstatement but is certainly more true within the park proper where solidarity and mutual aid has become the norm. Person after person speaks of this new existence they have discovered in that beautiful space absent from the state where cooperation, solidarity and struggle have superseded the poisonous society they have left behind. Tense arguments that emerge between individuals of opposing political ideologies, or disruptive drunken people are quickly calmed down to a more sober state of mind. People have seen that social violence was effectively reduced with the absence of the police. This is particularly the case for women participants, who make up at least half if not more of those who occupy Gezi Park. Not only has the cat calling and sexual violence usually common in Taksim been reduced but women and anti-sexist men have claimed an important space to fight patriarchy going as far as intervening in chants, slogans and graffiti that utilize sexist language to attack Erdogan or the AKP.
For almost two weeks now flags of the PKK (the powerful Kurdish guerilla group) have been flying together with flags of the Turkish Republic over Taksim Square. This previously unimaginable situation is only possible because both Kurds and Kemalists have been united against a common enemy, the police and the AKP government. One Kurdish student commented that this was the real peace process as opposed to the opportunistic process put into place by Erdogan over the past year. It is telling of the nature of the conflict with the Kurds that the absence of the state from the streets of Taksim has nurtured the space for people to actually talk and listen to each other.
The first weekend at the barricades saw two mass demonstrations. On Saturday, June 8th, soccer fans from the three major clubs in Istanbul, Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray converged upon the square in a major show of force. These fans, previously at war with each other, now gather under Istanbul United and have provided much needed energy to the street battles. Amongst them shines Carsi, being the most organized, clever and with previous experience intervening in political situations. But they are staunchly apolitical, in the sense that they don’t support any of the political parties, and say that their “rebel spirit” is with the people. In fact they are ideologically confused and alternate between nationalist symbols and singing Bella Ciao, all within a kind of male-dominated left-wing populism. Their participation has been key since they come very well organized, in high numbers and have experience acting together from the stadium. It is no wonder that soccer fans of Istanbul, who represent a great cross section of the urban population would be present for a struggle in defense of the city.
The next day, on June 9th, there was a much larger gathering in Taksim. According to some estimates almost a million people were present and it was much more leftist in character. Many people claim that this might have been the largest crowd Taksim Square has ever seen, including the legendary workers rallies of the 70s.
Erdogan and Cheap Propaganda Tactics
The words coming from Erdogan have been getting more and more absurdly false as he is clearly in the middle of his government’s biggest crisis. Defending his police force and trying to downplay his extreme repression, he claimed that 17 people were killed by the US police during the Occupy movement. Naturally the US embassy quickly rejected this. He even stated that the many injured who flooded into a nearby mosque on the third day of the uprising were actually getting drunk inside. The imam of the mosque quickly denied this. His rhetoric, while filled with lies and just as rabid as always, has in fact shifted as his administration is clearly trying to manage this crisis. At first, he thought he could just insult those in the park by claiming they were “marauders” (capulcu) and “drunks,” implicitly pitting them against those who were good, practicing Muslims. Once again those in the park showed their wit and disarmed the government by owning this term and everyone started to call themselves a capulcu. In addition, the positive vibe within the park with it’s kitchens, libraries, urban farms etc. started to be shown across social media and even amongst the mainstream Turkish media who at first had outright ignored the protests. This successfully combated the government sponsored propaganda that the encampment was a urine smelling cesspool and it became clear that there were much more than “drunks” at Gezi Park. This initial tactic had backfired.
The next strategy employed by the AKP government was to foment an already creeping division between what they have labelled as “provocateurs” (read: those who fight back when the police attack) or more generally “marginal groups” (read: small militant leftist groups) and so-called “environmentalist youth trying to save trees” (imagine: a clueless, naive environmentalist teenager). This is a completely artificial division. Many different kinds of people have been fighting the police. It’s not exactly clear who these “marginal groups” are but many small leftist groups are part of the Taksim Solidarity Platform (those who organized the initial encampment of the park). And no such well-intentioned yet naive environmentalist youth can be found in the park. In addition, the initial movement to save the park was much more than an innocent effort to save trees and was, in fact, a struggle for public space and against enclosure. Despite it being an artificial division, this tactic has been somewhat more successful for the government since there is not exactly a consensus on how to deal with police violence.
Those who have been active in social movements in the past have surely seen both these tactics previously deployed as they are part and parcel of the playbook used by the state. First there is an attempt to discredit those in the streets or in the occupations. But if the movement is too popular the next step is to try and split them by furthering divisions and labeling some of them as extremists and others as naive and being used merely as cover. Marginality becomes an ever receding horizon that is never extinguished until there is no one left to resist.
Taking Back the Square for the Final Attack
On Tuesday June 11th the police made their move to take back Taksim Square. Clearly this was the necessary step before any attempt was made to take back the neighboring park from those occupying it. At 7am, the police entered the square. The barricades were insufficient without people behind them to defend their position at that early hour. Despite this, some from the park and the square fought against the police to the best of their abilities throughout the day. The square was lost within the hour and most of the clashes took place on the main avenue (now one of the construction sites that are part of Erdogan’s development of the square) alongside Gezi Park.
The police repeatedly launched teargas into the park despite many promises given that the park would be left alone from police attack. The incredible self-organization of the park had already outdone itself and those resisting improved their method of dealing with the gas canisters. Realizing that all of Taksim was the site of resistance it became apparent that throwing the canisters back to the police had little effect in getting rid of the gas that filled the neighborhood. Instead, buckets of water, sand and wet blankets were distributed around the encampment and canisters were quickly extinguished as soon as they fell.
The Taksim Solidarity Platform put out a call for people to converge at 7pm and tens of thousands of people started marching into the square that evening. Shortly after the square was full, the police decided to disperse the crowd with an incredible amount of teargas and water cannons. Thankfully, this completely unprepared and peaceful crowd kept their calm and another fatal stampede, such as that which took place on Mayday of 1977, was not repeated. People were pushed down various streets off the square and kept advancing towards the police lines only to be pushed back with more tear gas and water cannons. This went on until around four am. At one point the police entered the park with hundreds of riot police and destroyed tents and various infrastructure around the entrance. In response a large barricade was erected at the entrance of the park as a first line of defense against the police.
Laughter against Fear
The government’s regime of fear has been met with an unprecedented public demonstration of humor. The streets surrounding Taksim and the offshoot neighborhood of Beyoglu have been covered in graffiti since the uprising began. The content of this overwhelming amount of graffiti has thrown almost everyone off guard as it shows the incredible wit of those in the streets. The humor of the movement does not take away from its determination and instead gives it the necessary spiritual ammunition to keep going. If not crying from teargas, people are in tears from laughing at the next graffiti around the corner teasing Erdogan.
The particular flavor of this humor comes from a series of weekly satirical magazines which date back to the period marked by the military coups of 1971 and 1980. Faced with the iron fist and gaze of military rule, these magazines developed a way of criticizing power under the cover of satire. This comic tradition has met web 2.0 era memes as well as snippets from popular culture. Also noteworthy is that most of these magazines have their offices in Taksim and are intertwined with the cultural life of those streets. This satirical culture developed itself into the 1990s and 2000s and has now exploded on the streets of Istanbul. Most people following the events are aware of the numerous wordplays and memes constructed on the Turkish word for “marauders” (Capulcu). But “everyday I’m capulling!” is only the tip of the comic iceberg. Unfortunately, a lot of the other examples are nearly impossible to translate.
A Crisis of Representation
At every moment during these past days there seems to be yet another group of artists, intellectuals or actors, who encouraged by Erdogan, see it upon themselves to try to mediate between the spontaneous masses and the government. Despite such a theater of negotiation, the prime minister has continuously moved on to give his next publicly issued threat while emphasizing that his patience is running out.
The frustration of those in power who cannot find a leader or representative to negotiate with and thus extinguish the movement is apparent. The totally spontaneous and leaderless nature of those in the streets, devoid of any decision making structure, has perhaps been its greatest strength. Now that the struggle has surpassed its initial goal to save the park, even the Taksim Solidarity Platform, who arguable are the single group that could attempt to assume a leadership role in the struggle, is being fervently criticized for meeting with the prime minister and accepting a referendum that would not have any legal basis on the future of the park. What those who are negotiating with the prime minister seem to not realize is that this situation has far surpassed the issue of the park and the government is now faced with the will of those in the streets and not a handful of famous people or political organizations.
Preparing for a Final Battle
Now that the square has been lost to the police, those in the park are waiting for the final attack and attempt to take back the park. Each night there is a tense standoff as everybody dons masks and helmets and writes their blood-type on their body. The determination of the thousands keeping watch is amazing. They have been through it before and tear gas is something that they now joke about.
Daily, there are statements from the Istanbul governor that nobody’s safety can be guaranteed, accompanied by Orwellian tweets about how lovely the atmosphere of the occupation is with the scent of linden trees and the sound of birds singing in the early morning. Even further insulting is the infantilizing rhetoric of the authorities who continually call upon the parents of those in the square to ask their children to return home since they will be hurt. In response to these threats, dozens of mothers have publicly joined their children in resistance in recent days. The psychological warfare employed by the government is certainly of high caliber but so are the organic responses.
The resistance appears determined, at the very least, to hold their ground and not leave the park without putting up a fight. And every night, thousands more come from work to join those who are permanently camped out despite being harassed and detained by the police for having respirators and helmets. Being such a young movement with relatively little experience in street-level organization makes it very difficult for the crowds in the park to withstand a full-on police attack. The collective strategy at this point is to make it as politically costly for the government to do that as possible. What happens the day after an eviction is of course another question. But most importantly, the genie is now out of the bottle in Turkey, and a whole new cross-section of youth have found each other and begun to dream of what they can achieve together.
The author can be reached at email@example.com