A week back, my amazing artist friend Amylin in Istanbul asked me to write about the Turkish protests in Gezi. I have worked on this post off and on, struggling with it. The problem is the unfortunate but unavoidable comparison between the inspirational revolution in Egypt which was focused on Tahrir Square, and the Turkish protest unfolding in Taksim Square which houses Gezi Park. Central to this comparison was my belief that the Turkish protests were extremely unlikely to spark a revolution, because popular uprisings rarely disassemble democracies.
Leaders can certainly lose their jobs, but even this seemed unlikely with the relatively high approval ratings Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan was holding. Yesterday, Erdogam issued his “final warning” that protesters had to leave the park within 24 hours. There will be a fight in the next few hours, and in the short terms the police will likely win and the park will be cleared. It is a relatively small space, the police have superior hardware, including tear gas and they have already demonstrated a capacity for violence that the protesters are unwilling to mimic. The police will likely win today’s battle, but unlike a week ago, it seems like the protesters might just win the war.
The first triumph of the protesters is that they were able to get their message out at all. Turkey, like Italy, is a democracy which suffers from a near monopoly on its media. [The Dogan conglomerate controls half the newspapers and three of the main national television stations]. The Turkish media is famous for blacking out stories and as one Turkish blogger wrote.
Mainstream [Turkish] media kept showing Miss Turkey and “the strangest cat of the world”.
Turkish TV stations which did cover the protests were fined by the government for “harming children”. And while there were several clever break-outs from the media black out in Turkey, what is really noticeable to me is the international media coverage this protest has gained. i organize and participate in lots of protests. i watch the media attention on these events. You can easily organize 10K people to march on the Pentagon and get absolutely no media echo at all. So the amount of international press and solidarity actions this occupation inspired is incredible [San Francisco, New York City, Oakland, Brussels just to name a few cities.]
Some of attention has been on the deep soccer rivalries that are being put aside in Turkey to focus on this demonstration. The protest started to save the last park in Istanbul from being converted into a mall, but it has grown from there to encompass the large dissatisfaction of many (but likely not a majority) of Turks with the attack on secularism in that country.
The more i study the clever tactics of these protests, the more i appreciate them. When pepper spray was fired at them, they threw bell peppers back at the police. When the corrupt PM called them “riffraff”, thousands of protesters changed their last names on FB to Riffraff, embracing the title as an honorific.
i also appreciate that they are using the Occupy/Rainbow Gathering model for creating desirable spaces and handling all the needs of those attending. As in Tahrir Square, protesters are cleaning up (often after the messes the police make) and making sure the space is as pleasant as it can be, given it is a low intensity war zone. One Guardian article describes it well.
Inside the Gezi Park, the utopian feeling is multiplied. There are open buffets for people feeding themselves, yoga sessions in the morning and now, a library. Every morning, after the police withdrawal, protesters got the area squeaky clean. People have fun in their own way and nobody intervenes: Kurds dance their halays, Laz people do their horon dance, and a group with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk flags chant their slogans – All this happens within a few meters’ distance.
Just as the Occupy movement changed the political dialog in the US, even after they were evicted, Gezi Park is shaping the discussion about the future of Turkey and secular government in the middle east. We can be thankful for the clever work of these protesters and look for ways to be in solidarity with them.
[The following is background information on the protests]
It started to save a park.
What started as an effort to preserve one of the last green spaces in Istanbul, blossomed into a nationwide protest of the increasingly repressive policies of PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development party (AKP). Since it’s third re-election, by wide margins in 2011, AKP has been shifting the country to a more fundamentalist Muslim culture. This has taken the form of significantly restricting access to alcohol, a near total ban on abortions, banning kissing in public and reversal of LGBT rights. Spiritual complaints just begin the list of protesters critiques of the government, aid to Syrian rebels, the crack down on dissent within Turkey, the control of media and unchecked development of Istanbul are also sited as reasons for these mass protests.
Erdogan has already given up on the original shopping mall proposal for the park, which is a major victory for the protesters already. “It’s the first time in Turkey’s democratic history that an unplanned, peaceful protest movement succeeded in changing the government’s approach and policy,” said Sinan Ulgen, the chairman of the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, a research group in Istanbul, according to the NY Times. But an arrogant and defiant Erdogan has said there will still be a mosque development at Gezi Park in Taksim Square.
Despite retreating in face of tremendous popular support over the last weekend, the Turkish police have managed to injured over 1,000 people and kill two protesters. Early protesters took the name and tactics of the Occupy movement and called themselves “Occupy Gezi”, which is the name of the threatened park. Turkish police donning tactics used in Oakland on Occupy destroyed tents, beat protesters and let loose a hail of tear gas.
This is a video about how life is changing in Turkey