At the beginning of summer, a tired bit of news from Turkey was followed by something really unexpected, and pinned expats like me to their computers for the following three months. The news was police (together with some civilian workers of the city of Istanbul who most certainly had no right to do so) applying potentially lethal violence against a totally innocent civil protest. Some young people had occupied a park – Gezi Park, the last patch of green in the most central part of Istanbul – to avoid its getting ripped apart to build yet another shopping center. Istanbul is a concrete jungle with scant green space (1.5% compared to 17% in New York or 19% in Berlin and these young people wanted to keep what is left as a public space for the residents. In typical Turkish police fashion, their tents were burned, they were doused in tear gas by police in riot gear, and beaten up with whatever the police had in its hand. What was unexpected were the masses that poured onto the streets to protest against this public use of blunt state violence. As the crowds grew during the following few days, the center of Istanbul was filled with hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters, leading to one of the biggest civil mass protest movements in the turkish history. The occupied Gezi Park was turned into a commune in the middle of Istanbul, with people sharing whatever they could bring, and enjoying music and various performances together. In my memory, nothing even remotely similar has happened in Turkey; I was born in 1980, the same year with the last Coup which demonized all kinds of dissident civil organization, and don’t know of any comparable protests. You would have to look hard for anything comparable in the history of the republic, the unrest in Fatsa looking like a distant cousin.
As a response to this unexpected outburst of citizen participation, the Turkish state went berserk, using brute force to crush the masses with water cannons, chemicals, and projectiles of various kinds. Hordes of police were imported from other cities and given free reign as to how they could attack people. The tear gas canisters that are supposed to be shot with an angle were used as weapons, killing two, and blinding at least twelve. One man was shot in the head in the middle of Ankara. A 14-year-old kid named Berkin Elvan who was on his way to the market was shot in the head with a gas canister, and is still in a coma after 4 operations. Among the most enraging cases was one university student getting beaten to death by policemen and “helping” civilians. This incident brought for me the worst of Turkey to the fore. A 19-year-old kid named Ali İsmail Korkmaz who wanted nothing other than to protest peacefully on the streets was hunted into the side streets by the police, and then beaten with logs of wood from a nearby bakery by cooperating citizens. After he died of an aneurism, the governor of Eskişehir first claimed that his friends killed him. Afterwards, an inquiry was opened, and the hard drives of the security cameras of shops close by were collected. İsmail Saymaz, a journalist working for the Radikal newspaper, found out that the police had the recordings secretly deleted to avoid some of their own getting identified. This same journalist later got an email from the governor, warning him that he should ‘behave’, and that they will meet under the ground. This governor is still happily executing his duties.
In their efforts to crush the protests, the police even disregarded martial law, attacking and gas-bombing the lobby of the Divan Hotel> used as a first treatment location for those affected from tear gas. This hotel belongs to the biggest industrial conglomerate in Turkey, the Koç Group, which accounts for 9% of the Turkish GDP, and whose CEO told the hotel direction to open its doors to protesters. Guess what happened right after the Gezi protests cooled off a bit? A contract given to a company belonging to the group was cancelled, and the headquarters of one of their biggest companies was raided by the police for a tax investigation. One of the ugliest aspects of the way the police handled the protestors was how they did not refrain from sexually molesting women at the protests. A young man named Erkan Yolalan was severely beaten by the police and later posted his experiences, which you can read in English here. Within this blood-curdling account of torture, the sexual intimidation of a woman still stands out. This kind of verbal abuse against women was pretty much the rule, with the police threatening women at every opportunity. Much worse sexual harassment (including of the physical kind) was also widely reported. One woman, for example, was groped as she was manhandled inside a police vehicle for more than an hour.
Despite the violent effort to put them down, the protests were a huge success. The Gezi Park is still there. It was closed for a while to any kind of protests, but city direction and constructors could not dare to carry on with plans to raze it. So the next time you go to Istanbul and get to enjoy the shade of a tree in Taksim, you have the protesters to thank for that. During the peak of the protests, a small commune was started in the Gezi Park, a stark alternative to the conservative social engineering of the ruling party. The protests created some of the most iconic dissident imagery in Turkish history, giving a face and sound to a feeling of “a future is possible”. As one protester put it, “Gezi gave us a powerful sense of a world based on solidarity and equality, which we could not imagine before”. The local elections are coming up, and an iconic character who was there from the first day of the Gezi protests, Sırrı Süreyya Önder, is running for mayor of Istanbul with a refreshingly bold rhetoric and inclusive campaign – though a bit too aggressive for some people’s taste. I wouldn’t bet money on him winning, but it’s pretty clear that he will get a considerable portion of the votes, while bringing into decisions on Istanbul’s future the voice of a great many people who have been ignored or actively silenced until now.
Amnesty International has written a report calling the state violence on Taksim flat-out torture; the report is really extensive and well-written, with choice quotes from the turkish prime minister Erdoğan and horrifying case reports. Following the events as they were unfolding, it was impossible to escape the impression that the thousands on the street were responding to Erdoğan, running away form his police, as Erdoğan himself was responding to them every night, calling them names, finding excuses for the brutality of the police, and firing them up like the trainer of a football team. Those not knowledgeable about Turkish politics could not grasp why the protesters were so preoccupied wit the prime minister himself, although they were facing the state apparatus in its whole. Mainstream turkish politics is still organized around charismatic figures, and right-wing parties that had long reigns of power have been organized around individuals, be it Turgut Özal, Süleyman Demirel, or now Erdoğan. This situation is caused in part by totally opaque and anti-democratic party laws, enabling a strong leader to form a party’s cadres to his wish. In addition, Erdoğan was the mayor of Istanbul before he launched his national political career, and he sees the city as his own domain. The project that sparked the protests was sanctioned by him, and used for political purposes in appearances on TV and in party events.
In addition to the general circumstances, Erdoğan’s character and the ups and downs of his more than ten years in power have led to an even stronger identification of his party and the current power structure with his individual figure. Taking over the reigns of his party after getting out of prison, where he spent some time for reciting a poem, Erdoğan steered it through some of the most transformative changes Turkey went through. The threat of a military coup, which cost one conservative leader his life, was always present, until the ruling cadre of the military was dismantled through not completely clean trials. This led to Erdoğan (and the people around him) fashioning himself into a fearless leader that fought for his people, even in the face of execution. To win this fight, he had to surround himself only with the most loyal colleagues, which meant that his grip on his party was absolute. During the Gezi protests, he displayed his tight grip on all parts of the government. Not one parlamenterian dared to speak up as the violence started taking its toll. One minister, a former social democrat put on display after the last election as the minister of culture, could not get beyond vague innuendos. Erdoğan later called the behavior of the police “an epic achievement”, and gave them a raise.
Even more distressing than the grip of the prime minister on his party and state forces was the barrage of counter-press from the many newspapers now practically under direction of the government. The control of the industry over the media is absolute in Turkey; all newspapers with significant circulation are owned by big conglomerates which don’t shy away from crassly forming the news policy by firing and hiring at will, based on what has to be reported to have favorable relations with the ruling power and have better chances in winning bids for state projects. A significant number of newspapers are simply owned by the state, since their control was handed over to a state agency named TMSF after their previous owners went bankrupt. At times, more than 6 newspapers appeared with the exact same headline. CNNTurk notoriously showed a documentary on penguins on one of the busiest nights of protests. Many journalists, some of them well-known, were simply fired for daring to find the behavior of the police and the media infuriating.
Was any of this mad violence, this united will to break the protesters surprising in any way? If one thinks rationally about it, the answer is a clear no. Turkish security apparatus has done much, much worse things in the past, and all of it went unpunished, so why should they behave now, or get punished for just beating up a few people here and there? The turkish special forces created an atmosphere of absolute terror for nearly a decade starting in the late 80s in the eastern provinces, picking those they deemed dangerous to the state, executing them after torture, and dumping their bodies on roadsides. Journalists were shot in broad daylight, without the perpetrators ever getting found, despite substantive reports (partly by the journalists who got killed) that a certain military intelligence service was behind the killings. Current governor of Istanbul, Avni Mutlu, was once the Governor of Silopi, where 22 people were “lost” during his term, i.e. killed by secret security forces and dumped somewhere unknown. Two of the policemen now on trial for killing Ali İsmail Korkmaz have come from Batman and Şırnak, Kurdish cities known for having suffered under state violence. Similar things have happened even in Istanbul, during the Gazi Street protests. During these protests, the police fired on protesters, killing 23 people. A young woman was shot in the head right in front of TV cameras, than kicked in the head while she was bleeding on the curb. A few policemen were tried for attempted murder, and 2 of them received sentences of a total of four years. This for 23 dead people, and one attempted murder on camera.
There is no other way to see it: This is a continuation of Turkey’s history of violence. The war of attrition waged on Kurds in the East has completed its arrival in the West. In Turkey, there used to be a here and there; one cartoonist who depicted the events in the turkish Kurdistan called his strip simply ‘Stories of Over There’ (Orası Öyküleri by Ender Kahraman). ‘Here’ had a semblance of order, where you wouldn’t get killed because of being a young male walking outside after dark, and ‘there’ was where the state forces were allowed to do whatever they wanted. Reaction to the Gezi protests showed many people for the last time: There is no here anymore.
Now, all of Turkey is there.