Once upon a time there were a park…
Turkey had a stable AKP government for 11 years. Picturing themselves as primary victims of an almost century old Turkish state mechanism, the Islamist party came to power with the promise of democratization and the help of central-right voters in 2002. As a byproduct of an economical progress project in place after the 2001 crisis, their first term in government was a period of progress seemingly aiming at European Union membership. However a more solid Parliament presence signifying their second term in government brought about a severe blow to human rights as their policies changed gear towards the freedom of speech, minorities, (namely against the vast Kurdish population of Turkey) and the press. Several journalists were jailed on terrorism charges, press was silenced by heavy fines on other occupations of media bosses. During the final days of 2011, the state went so far as to massacre civilians in Kurdish region via air strikes. All and every dissident of the system became a target of state oppression one way or another.
In May 2013 Istanbul municipality decided that a park at the epicenter of the city, Taksim is to be no longer. Instead an old army barracks should stand in its place. On May 28th work machines started to destroy trees. A small group of environmentalists said they could not allow that to happen. Starting to put their bodies between the dozers and the trees including one BDP MP, Sirri Sureyya Onder. The machines stopped. A camp rose among the trees of Gezi Park in Istanbul. Protesters occupied Gezi Park and started a communal life there where they shared their supplies as well as their hope for a better country. A modest beginning of huge social change in Turkey.
Only the same evening Taksim Square, one of the rare big plazas of the city, was filled with tens of thousands of people protesting the demolishing of Gezi Park. This initial gathering was raided by the police to cause the protests go viral all around the major metropoles of the country. And normality ceased to exist in Turkey.
So much so that the mainstream media ignored the protests for many days and later only broadcasting official statements as told by AKP mouthpieces meanwhile, protesters started to boycott government-oriented media and become volunteer reporters.
Harsh crackdown of Taksim rally ignited a popular resistance not seen in big cities of Turkey since the seventies. Immediately demonstrations sparked up in Izmir, Ankara, Adana among others where people took over the streets, lighting up big fires, setting up roadblocks. On 1 June,thousands of people streamed towards Taksim square across the Bosphorus Bridge. Solidarity protests spread in 78 Turkish towns or cities and public sector trade unions staged a strike.
Those demonstrations met with very violent police raids. In several neighborhoods of Istanbul as well as Ankara and Izmir police attacked the protesters with teargas and water cannons not aimed to clear an area but aimed at the people’s bodies resulting in severe injuries and terror. This act in our story is highlighted by two periods: The first dominated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit abroad, during which the clashes concentrated around government and AKP premises and a second period after his return in which he flamed the protests by continuous insults in his never-ending speeches, calling them plunderers, vandals and terrorists among others.
The number of people taking the streets increased exponentially and the protests engulfed the whole country. Especially during weekends whole social life boiled down to some kind of protest in which people visited their homes only when they were exhausted by mere action, gas, beating or some other mode of oppression.
Despite talks between the Prime Minister and some so-called representatives of the Occupy Gezi resistance that he picked (on the last day including the representatives of Taksim Solidarity Group) the protesters decided that the movement is no longer about a park but on democratic rights of people at large and refused to give up the occupation of the park. Increased tensions because of the speeches and disregard of an imbalanced Prime Minister and a rally in Ankara by the AKP ended in a total crackdown of Gezi Park protesters in a blitzkrieg evening around Taksim. Police attacked and gassed several neighborhoods around Taksim, forcing the campers at Gezi to run for their lives. Protesters seeking refuge in various public buildings around were pursued and gassed and beaten up in hotels and hospitals alike. Whoever escaped that violence had to spend the evening in an enclosed area filled with gas and havoc. Total death toll of Occupy Gezi rose to 4 and almost 7000 people injured, a few dozen in life threatening condition. Several Turkish and European ministers were attacked by the police. Government reported 600 policemen wounded.
Government forces closed down the square to public access that night. Gezi Park is still under police occupation as this article is being written. Erdogan said they would take the park from the occupiers to make it available to the public. However the only people who can enter it now are the policemen. Even press is not allowed since the beginning of the raid.
By June 16th, Prime Minister was jubilant in his Istanbul rally bragging about his immense victory against “foreign conspirators, interest rate lobby, vandals and terrorists” aka Turkish people. In the meantime International public opinion, western governments and International human rights organizations condemned Turkish government for violent actions against its people.
The crackdown of Gezi and immediate vacuum created by its clearing of the population inflamed a series of protests and calls for strike nationwide. Police started to raid protests with the same might in Ankara, Eskisehir and other cities. They also started mass detentions of the members of socialist parties, journalists and soccer fan groups actively involved in Occupy Gezi protests. At one point in Ankara, citizens faces 17 days of continuous violence by security forces in all main arteries of the city. AKP government even peruse military forces where their might fell short. Citizen forums have sparked in all major parks of Istanbul, later in Ankara.
Then a professional dancer reinvented protest. He went to Taksim Square and started standing there motionless dubbed as “duran adam”, Turkish for “standing man.” “Duran adam” stood still facing through one of the most important buildings of Taksim: AKM, which used to be Istanbul’s hearth of culture. Many people joined him there only to be detained by the police soon. Maybe they were the first people taken in for doing nothing. Now most of public spaces around Turkey are full of people standing, doing nothing or reading books or magazines as a passive protest against the government.
People still fill the squares and streets regularly for protests, citizens bang pots and pans and make noise every night on 9pm. One message is clear: the troubles of the government is far from being over.
Turkish people were turned apolitical during the 1980’s junta. Until 1990’s most political activity were deemed immoral and reserved to only mainstream status quo right wing views. One might consider the latest purge of political activism, which in fact was not led by any political view but a collective action by all against AKP government, a final upheaval by a people who were oppressed about their individuality, their way of life. Latest legislation by the government restricting alcohol sales and emphasis on Islamic law vs secular seems to have served as the last drop of water in a full glass.
It is still too early to analyze the dynamics that have led to the demonstrations and possible consequences. However one might easily say that the ignorance and the lies told by mainstream Turkish media created a wave of awareness among blue-blood Turks about the state’s atrocities of the past years against Kurds. Until recently state oppression and violence was geared towards ethnic or political minorities which media always turned a blind eye. For the first time since the 80’s, state was targeting the majority of population in metropolitan areas with its indiscriminate wrath that aims all civil liberties and rights while the press played three monkeys. So far at least one might hope that the uninformed majority of Turkey will have a better understanding for their inapt and puppet media and the way they cover current affairs.
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