Sunday, June 2, 2013

This Way to the Revolution---


                Last night, we were coming home from an eventful day on Taksim Square. Just to wind down, we’d gone for Turkish coffee at a street cafe in Kadıköy and were trying to catch a taxi home—it was 1 AM and no public transport was available. Four taxi drivers refused to pick us up—they either sped away immediately or else stopped and said our group was too big. There were four of us—me, my wife, her sister, and her diminutive friend. It was hardly a large or threatening group. Finally a young man picked us up and told us there had been ‘incidents’ on Acibadem Boulevard and that the taxi drivers were cautious. We weren’t buying this exactly since what kind of incidents might come from 3 tiny Kurdish girls and a middle aged foreign man? ‘He doesn’t like our type,’ the girls complained.
Marchers in front of Dolmabahçe

Marcher's from Beşiktaş Wharf

Marchers coming up through the park


At a corner near the Acibadem ‘Karakol’ bus stop, some hooligans with Turkish flags had formed a human roadblock and stopped a PTT truck (the Turkish postal service—a government official and I guess therefore a target). Except for these riled young men, the rest of the road was empty. Boys with flags chanted about being soldiers of Ataturk while others forced the man out of the truck. I did not like the look of the frenzied ‘patriots’ as the poor old man stepped into their midst. Our taxi driver sped up and made a hurried, but whispered phone call.  To the police? To another taxi driver?

I’m starting at the end because of something my 6th grade history teacher taught me—‘Think about the meaning of the word ‘revolution’ she told us. ‘It means, originally, a 360 degree turn. You end where you began.’ In other words, the popular uprising against the dictator often results in a the popular appointing of a similar dictator.

The background is this:

For several days now, protesters have occupied a park here in Istanbul called ‘Gezi Park’. The park was approved for leveling by the government. In it’s place some kind of mall/mosque combination has been planned—the latest in a series of mega malls and mosques across this sprawling, traffic choked mega city of Istanbul. Gezi was the last green space in that part of the city and people decided to take a stand. The government’s response was what it always is--police attacks with gas, tanks, and water cannons. But instead of dying out, the protests grew. Sırrı Surreya Önder, a BDP parliamentarian, joined the protesters and stood in front of a bulldozer to protect one of the trees. The police ‘intervened’ and he was hospitalized—but he had already become one of the galvanizing symbols of the protests. As did the poor Moroccan girl who was rushed to the hospital after being attacked by police. Protests have spread to Ankara, Diyarbekir, Edirne, Konya, Antep, Kütahya, Aydın, Bodrum, Bursa, Eskişehir and Izmir—and internationally. I just saw a picture on Facebook of a solidarity protest in Bangkok.

The park was a neutral issue in a way, not tied to any one party or ideology, and in a country where each group is diametrically opposed to every other, that is critical. It meant everyone could rally around this cause. And of course, it grew beyond protecting Gezi Park. It was a protest against all the policies the government was pushing through despite opposition. It was a reaction against the third bridge—a project which threatens not only to destroy the region’s last forests, aquifers, and waterways but choke a city whose resources are already taxed by a population three times the size that most city planners deem as sustainable. It was a reaction against the bizarre scheme to build a canal from the Black Sea to the Marmara. To build a giant mosque on Çamlıca (another green space in a city sorely in need of them). To build a mall over the parking lot next to Fenerbahçe stadium. It protests the recent laws enacted against alcohol and the innumerable tax hikes on alcohol put into place this past year. It protests the Uludere massacring of 34 civilians by the military on the Iraqi border and the shady circumstances around the 50+ deaths in Reyhanlı this past month from a car bomb. It protests the way Erdoğan runs his government—like a kingdom where one man can deem a sculpture ‘an eyesore’ and personally command a construction crew to tear it down despite all opposition.  They are protesting the prosecution of Fazil Say and Sevan Nişanyan for ‘insulting Islam’. They are protesting the political official Mustafa Macit who said that ‘atheists should be destroyed’ and Fehmi Kaya the Ministry of Education official who said that autistic children are going to hell because they are ‘natural atheists’. They are protesting the inaction around the abuse of women and torture under police custody. And finally they are protesting the arrests of hundreds of journalists and political activist around the country.

                But this movement is disorganized and all encompassing and includes everyone opposed to the policies of the current government. Everyone. Which means there are also those protesting the compromise with the Kurds, the admission of the Kurdish language as a legitimate tongue, the relaxation on discussion of taboos such as talking about the Armenian Genocide or the Dersim Massacre or the Madımak hotel massacres or the disappearances of the 90s. It means there are those  protesting the relaxation of laws against ‘insulting Turkishness’ and the weakening of the army to prevent the endless coups—all the hallmarks of the previous dictatorship.

                So it’s a volatile mix.
Media van--it reads 'Media has sold out.'

A police van in Gezi Park

                My wife and I went down with a Brazilian friend around 10:00PM on Friday night to join the protests—this was May 31st. We walked up from Karaköy wharf and then took the tramway—surprised all to hell that all public transportation to Taksim was working just fine since on May 1st they closed down the whole city to prevent people from going there. When we arrived in Tunel—the far end of İstiklal Boulevard from Gezi Park and Taksim Square—it was Friday night business as usual with foreign tourists and young Turks filling the clubs and cafes. Just past Galatasaray High School things began to change—we ran into a wall of protesters chanting ‘The Government Must Resign’ and joined in.

‘Hükümet Istifa! Hükümet İstifa!’

It was cathartic at first—hundreds of us chanting in unison. I looked over the heads of the crowds toward Taksim Square and saw a sea of people that ended in billowing white clouds. Tear gas—for hours the police had been shooting cannister after cannister at protesters and we smelled it all the way from the ferry a couple of miles away. There was a riot tank with a spotlight that cut through the gas and every once in a while it would move forward and the crowd would panic and charge backward.

                One thing about this first night, the 31st, that struck me was the absence of flags—at least where we were. And I mean flags of any kind—almost no Turkish flags, union flags or party flags. It was almost like there was an unspoken agreement—this was a movement springing out of the whole society and we’re not going to play politics. I know the BDP made an active decision not to get involved officially for fear that it would look like they were using the protests to further their own political ends and thus be divisive. It looked as if the decision was mutual on all sides.

The crowd invading the construction site
People lowering themselves down into the construction site
The end result was electrifying—I felt at least empowered. We had all found a common ground and were united at last against the man we regarded as a dictator. From a personal point of view, in addition to all of the other issues, we were united against the man whose government had ordered the arrest of my father in law and thousands of others and turned our lives upside down.
The crowd after taking Gezi Park back from the police 

Then the police attacked in force. Gas cannisters fell all around us-we were wrapped in an yellowish cloud and I saw police beating down people with billy clubs. We ran down a sidestreet and there were people waiting to give us milk which would help against the burning effects of the gas. I put a bit on my face and eyes and it only made it worse. I stumbled through the street choking and blinded. There was something sticky all over my face and people said this was different from the usual gas attacks. We heard later that the police were using a new kind of gas called ‘portakal gazı’ that the usual methods were powerless against—no water or milk or lemon juice. There were people milling through the crowd with bottles of vinegar and a liquid made from stomach antacids. A young woman sprayed my face with the stuff and the sting immediately began to fade.

This woman was only one of hundreds. I was impressed with the solidarity everyone was showing. It was about one in the morning at this point and tatooed men came out of bars to pass out napkins and water to those fleeing the police. An old woman was handing out milk from her window (before we knew it would only make things worse) and shouting at us to ‘keep resisting’. A young man was giving people gas masks and all along the streets taxi driver and minivans and busses were honking their horns in support. Back in Kadıköy things were just getting started. At 2am people were pouring into the streets with pots and pans and banging them together chanting ‘We are all Taksim’. At 3am, from our balcony at our house in Üsküdar, we heard another pots-and-pans protest moving through our quiet, conservative neighborhood. There were reports coming in from all over of similar protests around the city. By dawn, thousands of marchers had blocked the Bosphorous Bridge on their way to Taksim.

And police attacks continued.

I woke up the next day around 12 and immediately got on Facebook and Twitter simultaneously following the news and getting the word out.

Rumors and fear and hearsay—people seemed to be Tweeting in a panic. The police were using Agent Orange, they said (not true). 3 people have lost their eyes and four are dead. Haberturk announced  the government was going to cut the Internet. Indeed at around 3 o’clock I could no longer access Facebook or Twitter and text messages from friends confirmed they were having the same problem. Was this because the government was blocking it or because the net was choked with traffic? In a speech, Erdoğan said ‘You can bring a hundred thousand but we will bring a million against you!’ The TV showed the police were retreating from the park in defeat. Apparently a group of BDP parliament members including Sebahattin Tüncel (Rep. Kadıköy) Sırrı Surreya Önder, as well as officials from labor unions, the socialist party and the Freedom and Democracy Party—had again marched on Taksim to be with the protesters. ‘I’ve decide to let them be!’ Erdoğan announced. But text messages from friends said they were still being attacked. ‘They’re spraying us with red water!’ my friend wrote. ‘What does that mean?’ ‘Simple,’ I told him. ‘They’re marking you to find you later.’ But the TV continued to show police retreating from the square. Was it a concession? Or a trick?

We didn’t wait around to find out. We left the house and caught a bus for Taksim—again, running freely despite the violent crackdowns. The roads were spookily empty. Only once we crossed the bridge and pulled into Beşiktaş did traffic come to a halt from the protesters filling the streets.

                We were forced to get off the bus. We couldn’t get any farther. Now the distance from Beşiktaş wharf where we got off to Taksim square is, I would say, around two miles. The entire two mile length of road was jammed shoulder to shoulder with protesters. Tens of thousands of people marching on Taksim Square—but this crowd was different from the one we had marched with the day before. Everyone was carrying Turkish flags, most with pictures of Atatürk in his classic Cossack hat. They were chanting ‘We are all soldiers of Mustafa Kemal’ and singing military marches. Vendors were hawking Atatürk figurines, banners, buttons and scarves. There had been a CHP (The venerable Republican People’s Party) meeting in Kadıköy and officials had canceled the meeting and redirected their people here.
The construction trucks


                I don’t know quite how to explain the CHP. I am only a five year resident of Istanbul but I have been here long enough to form a very negative impression. They seem a milder version of the rabidly fascist MHP nationalist party—violently secular and Turkish in the way the Iran is violently Islamic. As a Kurdish inlaw I felt very uncomfortable marching among them. For years, they had insisted Kurds didn’t exist. They were mountain Turks and terrorists. One of their politicians had recently proclaimed that the ‘Kurdish minority could never be equal with the Turkish nation.’ Still, we decided to focus on our collective cause. ‘Olsun! Olsun!’ Delal said. ‘There must be representatives from all segments of society.’

When we hit the turn off toward Beşiktaş station a couple of police vans came barreling down the hill. The CHP marchers jumped to attack—throwing everything they could find, rocks, water bottles, sticks, sandwiches. The response of the police wagon was to floor it, knocking several men in front of the car sideways into the street. The crowd leapt on the van in what looked like a scene from Night of the Living Dead—completely enraged.

                Instead of taking the road that wound around past the stadium, people swarmed up through the park like ants in a beeline toward the square.  We converged on Taksim with tens of thousands of others only to find everything in disarray. A police van sat near a side street completely gutted. People were still yanking off parts and smashing stray bits of window. Media vans sat abandoned in a sea of people—their antennas painted with black graffitti that read ‘Medya Satılmış!’ The medya has sold out. My friend who was somewhere in the square said that Channel 8 had been attacked by a mob. I wasn’t surprised—the main Turkish news had been either ignoring the protests (one channel broadcast a piece on liposuction as Taksim burned) or presented things as the beleaguered police defending themselves from what Erdoğan called ‘extremists groups’.

                We located our friends on the far edge of the square at the entrance to Gezi Park and were dismayed to see them with Turkish flags. We had been marching among Kemalists for about an hour and half at this point--trying not to feel threatened or anxious and only then, I think, as we emerged out of their midst did we allow ourselves to feel the tension. Of course, my American friends thought we were overreacting—and understandably so. For an American it is hard to realize what the political symbols here mean. For a Turk even. When I first got here, I bought a Turkish flag to take to national football game and it made Delal extremely uncomfortable. I didn’t get it—I had bought it for a football game after all, not a political rally. I was fully aware of the extremities of Turkish nationalism and had spoken out against it. The flag didn’t mean the same thing to me as it meant to the nationalists. But what did wielding such a symbol here, today mean? After most protesters in previous days had foregone bringing any such symbols with them? And in recent days who has been brandishing the flag and Atatürk’s picture?
The monument on Taksim Square with LGBT, BDP, and TKP flags

Protesters on side streets--the expats join in

                In Kadıköy it has been the ‘Genç Türkler’ whose brochures rail against the ‘blood sucking, baby killer’ Öcalan and assert that any compromise with Kurds is treason and part of a plot to divide the country. It was pinned to the lapel of the woman at work who told me in no uncertain terms that my wife was Turkish first and the Kurds were not really a different people. It is on the cover of the textbook that proclaims the need to fight Turkey’s ‘secret internal enemies’, the textbook that teaches my sixth grade students to want to jail anyone who speaks out against Ataturk and to say things like ‘you should never have married a Kurd’. On the news, a woman speaking to an IMC reporter said that she had seen a gang of men with these flags in Kadıköy shouting slogans against Armenians, Kurds,a nd Alevis—the nationalists are angry that anyone even mentions these minorities. The same woman claims she saw a head scarfed woman cornered by another group of flag bearers in Üsküdar and nearly attacked.( I don’t completely believe that she was an eye witness, but it’s impossible to be sure.  Rumor and hearsay have become pervasive. At the same time another woman tweeted from Taksim—‘Don’t listen to them! I am a covered woman and have been in Taksim for hours. No one bothered me at all!’)
It says--Look what a few trees can do.

All together or not at all

They had set up a make shift bar/pepper gas first aid in the street.

                We entered Gezi park and walked past a burning building, more demolished peace vehicles and then sat down under some shady sycamores among thousands of others to savor the trees we’d helped save. The police were long gone but the sting of tear gas lingered—I doubt it will leave for a long time to come. The police supposedly exhausted their supplies. Suddenly, everyone around us stood and started singing the national anthem, some of them holding up giant portraits of Atatürk. (Who brings this stuff?) Where were the non-nationalists? And what did these people want—a return to the days when you get prosecute Elif Şafak and Orhan Pamuk for insulting Turkishness? More assassinations of ‘traitors’ like Hrant Dink? More disappearances of Kurdish dissidents like happened in the 90s? More army coups where thousands of people are tortured in prisons? It was this mentality that set up the dictatorship that Erdoğan has so neatly stepped into.

                A walk down İstiklal was just as worrisome—a mob mentality seemed to have set in among some. Young men were spray painting buildings with curses. ‘Suck my dick, Tayyip’. ‘You’re a son of a whore!’ Some boys were smashing a window only to be stopped by some older men pleading with them to calm down. ‘Provocateurs’ someone said. ‘They’ve been planted.’ Possible, but then just as possible that they were just stupid angry young men. The ATMs of Akbank were smashed and spray painted with the words ‘Chemical Tayyıp’. Windows everywhere were broken. We heard about some businesses helping the protesters and some helping the police. Protesters, for example, were given refuge in Starbucks, but turned out of Burger King who instead sheltered the police. There was rubble and broken glass and grafitti everywhere. All I could think of was this would give all the people who claimed that the protests were mainly the work of drunks and extremist groups ammunition.

                There were more rumors. Beşiktaş was under attack and police weren’t letting anyone out (Turned out to be true—the attacks are still going on as far as I know). I called a friend to confirm and the conversation was cut short by screams and a sudden cutting of the line. People said tanks were returning to Taksim (this didn’t happen). At the ferry dock in Karaköy people were jumping the turnstyles and shouting ‘Don’t pay! Fuck the government!’ As if suddenly any kind of destruction of public property or flaunting of the rules were supporting the protests. Again, lots of people pleading with them to stop but to no avail.

                And then we witnessed the attack on the mail man.

                I had a dream last night that I was fleeing with my American family from a city under attack and we ended up in another town that was being attacked by a different group with gas bombs. We had fled from one nightmare into another. The symbolism of the dream seemed simple enough. People are now fighting the AKP but to put what in its place? A return to the military dictatorship? Would we replace the pretend democracy of these quasi religious capitalists with the pretend democracy of the secular militarists Kemalists? Is there any real alternative? In Diyarbakir, a friend there told us that police had not intervened at all in protests. ‘They say that with the peace process under way here, the AKP doesn’t dare do something like that. All hell would break loose!’ One of the Kurdish leaders, when asked if he thinks the toppling of the AKP would lead to the end of the peace process and more misery for Kurds said, ‘Democracy is not only for us, but for everyone. If that’s necessary, I say, let it happen.’ I compare that with the kids holding up Ataturk’s giant portrait as another spray painted ‘AKP whores’ on the side of a historical building.

                On Mis Sokak, a bright orange graffitti said ‘Revolution This Way!’ I hope that this little revolution follows a wiser path than others. That we don’t turn in circles. That we actually continue on the way we started instead of falling into mob mentality and looting before setting up another dictator or falling in line with this one all over again.

                In a last bit of historical perspective, IMC news reported today on the history of Gezi park--it used to be an Armenian Cemetery appropriated by the government and then turned into a barracks. Apparently the Armenians had 'abandoned' it. There is something poetic in the fact that we were protesting on top of forgotten Armenian graves.

It reads--Capital OUT! Taksim is ours.


Bill said...

Thank you Jeff, from a big fan of Istanbul. Please post more of what you see for us. Be careful.

jmchugh said...

Be Careful Jeff.

Indeed the motives and goals of the protesters aren't perfect, but could this lead to something better anyway?

I hope so.

"We heard later that the police were using a new kind of gas called ‘portakal gazı’ that the usual methods were powerless against—no water or milk or lemon juice."


Jeff Gibbs said...

It seems like, judging from events today, a lot of the problems I saw yesterday belong to yesterday and maybe the canceled CHP meeting. Today people seem very diverse and unified. Attacks continue by police around the country--Adana apparently is getting it hard. Meanwhile the PM is on TV saying something like 40 buses were burned or destroyed--huh? His numbers are grossly inflated but then what do you expect--a confession?

Jeff Gibbs said...

NOW: Our neighborhood in Istanbul is a conservative neighborhood of religious people--just now the whole place went up with the noise of pots and pans banged in protest! All the buildings around us--from Ataşehir to Bulgurlu are flashing their lights on and off and cars are pouring into the streets honking their horns. The city is alive with noise--these people aren't asleep. Even now chanting coming from two different directions--this is Erdoğan's own backyard. These are the people he called 'marginal groups.'

Maureen said...


I appreciate your thorough and insightful account of what is happening in Istanbul/Turkey and why it is happening. My daughter is studying there this semester and it was extremely helpful to both of us to understand the background.

I wish you well and hope that peace and resolution will come quickly to your beautiful country.

Take good care,

Atlanta, GA, US