Chapter 4 Turkey’s Uprising Crushed
Istanbul’s Gezi Park occupation, 2013. The banner refers to the activist role of the Carsi soccer fan club and includes the anarchist “A” symbol. One of their slogans is “Carsi is against everything.” The photographer wishes to remain anonymous for fear of repression. She gave me a tour of the sites of the uprising, shown on video.[i]
Contents: GezI Park Uprisings, The Aftermath: Assemblies and Demonstrations
GezI Park Uprisings
An observer who refers to himself as Ali B., pointed out that unlike the European uprisings, Turkey’s demonstrations were not caused by extreme austerity measures, but by the prime minister’s authoritarianism and dedication to massive privatization of land for real estate projects and urban renewal. His ADP (Justice and Development Party) represents neoliberal policies. Ali said these construction projects just benefit the bourgeoisie and Erdoğan’s desire to “leave a neo-Ottoman stamp on the city,” making it into an Islamic Disneyland.[ii] Some rural areas were aided by his economic policies and building and they feel comfortable with his working-class roots.” A young Islamic activist used Western media to convey his dismay: “It’s like the Lord of the Rings: We have the ring now, but we have become slaves to it.” More background on the book webpage.[iii]
Protesters’ signs called him “dictator,” told him to “Run [away] Tayyip, run!” and that they were fighting for democracy. I saw graffiti in 2016 saying, “Dictator will lose.” Protester signs blamed neoliberal capitalism, saying, “End the looting of the city. Capitalism out.” Another difference is that Erdoğan was elected fairly, unlike the Arab dictators, but a similar theme is the desire for freedom of expression without government censorship. Public opinion polls show that offended people by talking about “his people, “his policemen,” “his governor,” and so on. All the people who govern with him are men and his party’s rhetoric is patriarchal.
Youth were prominent organizers. “We have achieved a lot here,” said Okan Ozkan, a 19-year-old leader of Turkish Youth Unity, before police cleared the park on June 15. “But we are afraid that as soon as the protests are over it will be the same old country again.”[iv] The leader of the main opposition Kemalist party explained the failure of his party; “These kids communicate with other nations and demand to have the same confidence about this country’s citizens too. So far we have made them fear others so they vote for us. Now we see how wrong we have been.”[v] The minister in charge of EU negotiations called on “these young people to establish a political party. They would both force us to work harder, and take a step for the good of the country.”
Typical of their generation, many of the demonstrators were texting on a phone or recording the events on a tablet, dancing, chanting and singing with a sense of humor. Ayşe said the protests started with college students, and then workers and the general public joined in. Like young people around the world, they have access to American TV shows, music, and movies. They’re very creative and humorous, skilled in communicating electronically. Ayşe remarked that the public was surprised and shocked to “see that the cell phone generation has something to say, surprised at their level of political awareness, not just hooked on their phones, Internet and TV. We had no idea this would happen in Turkey. It changed the confidence of young people and trust in them.”
In order for a youth revolt to succeed, Public Policy professor Jack Goldstone points out that the national government must be undemocratic and weakened by a material or ideological crisis and elites must be divided. Networks are needed to mobilize popular support for youth-led protests from other discontented groups such as workers with falling wages and higher costs of living.[vi] Universities and cities congregate people who are most likely to rebel—young single men like Chinese students in Beijing who fomented the Tiananmen Square revolt in 1989 that is excluded from history books. Thus youth rebellions often occur at times with large increases in the number of university students, including before the English Revolution of 1640 and the French Revolution of 1789.
Writing in 2012, Goldstone didn’t predict the youth revolts in Turkey and Brazil because he viewed their governments as democratic and believed their economies provided opportunities for youth. He acknowledged that corruption was a threat to stability in emerging countries, but “other factors are moving to offset risks of rebellion.” He didn’t anticipate Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s drift towards Islamization and the Brazilian government spending about $30 billion to host the World Cup and Olympics, plus corruption scandals and impeachment of President Rousseff.[vii] Brazilian youth were angry with the large gap between the wealthy governing elites and the poor and Turks were frustrated by the increasing Islamization and autocratic rule of the Prime Minister. A Turkish author blamed his country’s “combative, divisive, cynical political culture.”[viii] “The Turkish model” used to be emulated as a democratic Islamic country, but when Erdoğan felt threated by the protests discussed below and a corruption investigation that followed in 2013, he became increasingly power hungry. Tunisia replaced Turkey as the new model of Islamic democracy.
Precedence for the Gezi Occupation in 2013 was the grassroots environmental movement a decade before, organizing against coal and hydroelectric projects. Environmentalists wanted to save the few remaining urban green spaces. The Neoliberal restructuring policies that began in 2001 created dissent. The Kurds had organized for greater autonomy for almost 30 years, as with an uprising from 1984 to 1999, which resumed in 2011. Young Kemalists defended Ataturk’s secular legacy, LGBT and feminists advocated their rights, communists spoke for workers, and anarchists opposed the state.
Young intellectuals saw that Erdoğan intended to lead the country towards a more authoritarian and Islamic state, as in his moves to restrict purchase of alcohol (it can’t be sold after 10 PM), require Islamic religion courses in school, attempt to ban abortion and adultery, and require that Ottoman Turkish with Arabic script be included in the national school curriculum. He said this language form is necessary to read old documents and gravestones as “history rests in those gravestones.” Police in some conservative areas told young couples not to kiss in public and violently repressed the 2012 May 1 demonstrations. Women were very offended when he said that a childless woman is half a woman and that they should have three children. In 2016 he said that using birth control is “treason” a follow up of his statement on International Women’s Day that a woman is “above all else a mother.” As well as a ban on birth control, his government proposed limiting abortion and caesarean sections. Two years previously Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said that women shouldn’t laugh in public, so women tweeted with photos of themselves laughing. Some protesters are also critical of the role of the army in Turkish public life, as well as discrimination again Kurdish and Alawite minorities.
Angered by HDP Kurdish party victory at the polls robing him of a majority in parliament, Using ISIS as a cover, Erdoğan authorized assaults on Kurds in 2015 and 2016. In July and August 2015, Turkish fighter planes bombed Kurdish villages in Iraq, killing civilians.[ix] Authorities cracked down on Kurdish activists in Turkey and arrested thousands.[x] In 2012, Kurdish youths organized in YDG-H, an organization affiliated with PKK militants, taking over Kurdish towns like Cizre on Turkey’s border. They’re called “the youth” who organize a growing number of “self-defense neighborhoods.” Other young people organize in groups like Anarchist Youth or Anarchist Women that indirectly support the HDP party although they believe in direct rather than parliamentary democracy. Many accused the president of placing his desire to contain the Kurds much higher than fighting ISIS. Turkey launched over 400 airstrikes on PKK’s base in the Quandil Mountains in northern Iraq, killing hundreds. In response PKK killed some soldiers and policemen. The military also pounded Kurdish cities such as Cizre, Sur, Yuksekova and Silopi in the southwest in 2015, destroying thousands of buildings. The excuse was getting rid of terrorists. The government said it would rebuild but only for people who signed a statement blaming PKK for the destruction. Erdoğan told Kurdish militants “You will be annihilated in those houses, those buildings, those ditches which you have dug” until “cleansed.”[xi] Photos are available, cited in previous endnote.
May and June Protests in Gezi Park
Despite the tradition of “obedience culture,” the Arab Spring spread to Turkey on May 27, 2013, as shown in my photos of key locations.[xii] Graduate student Balca Arda commented in an email:
Obedience Culture seems over-generalizing to me when one considers Turkey’s long tradition of activist organization. Although military coups in 1971 and 1980 imprisoned many leftist intellectuals and youth members, there is a specific politicized culture always active in Turkey. However horizontalist/ autonomous organization shaped activist organization in Turkey with the emergence of digitally-connected communication tools, as it does in all over the world. I think that any activist organization structured in vertical order can be considered as obedience-based.
In focus groups with 61 university students in Istanbul in 2010 they described themselves as apolitical, easily bored, and brand-conscious consumers. They also described themselves as creative and fun techies influenced by American media in a hybrid culture. Similar to their global peers, they described their parents at their age as more responsible, idealistic, respectful, better read, consuming less and more connected to Turkish culture.[xiii] Young people’s lack of activism changed when about 70 environmentalists and anarchists called for help guarding Gezi Park’s 80-year-old trees against the bulldozers in an economy based on construction. The spark that set off demonstrations in **Taksim Square with over 30,000 people was the government’s plan to convert one of the few green spaces in Istanbul, Taksim Square in Gezi Park, into a shopping center and hotel although Istanbul has the least amount of green space of any European city. Taksim isn’t green but the park next to it has many trees and lawn, with benches to rest and enjoy the bit of nature as shown in my video.
Protests for the “right to the city” (a widely-used term coined in 1968 by Henry Lefebvre to mean access to and influence on urban life) were often held in Taksim Square. Turkey joined uprisings in other countries in using open urban spaces, usually squares, to organize and demonstrate for change. A photo on the Global Youth SpeakOut Facebook album shows the occupation of the Ataturk Cultural Center on Taksim Square transformed from a “soulless black box” to a colorful collage of leftist posters and banners.[xiv] The building has historical significance but Erdoğan wants to replace it with a new building, perhaps with his name replacing Ataturk’s. Photos of the building on social media connected material and virtual space, leading young academic Basak Tanulku to ask, “Can soulless cities re-gain their life back due to the new culture of Gezi commune?” Photos of the 2013 demonstrations are on the Global Youth SpeakOut page and many videos are online, including Gazi to Gezi.[xv]
Around a dozen protesters spent the night in the park with two large tents and guitars. The bulldozers returned the second day and police used tear gas to oust the protesters. Like Julia Butterfly who guarded the old growth redwood trees in northern California by living in one from 1997 to 1999, protesters hugged, tied themselves, or climbed a tree and prevented demolition. Kurdish rights groups and several opposition members of Parliament joined protesters to stop the bulldozers, and the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions called on its members to support the occupation. For the first time, the Kurds weren’t the main instigators of rebellion and understanding and support of their cause grew.[xvi] When a Kurdish boy named Medeni Yildirim was killed protesting the construction of a police station in Kurdistan, the Gezi activists organized demonstrations in support of the Kurds.
On May 29, several hundred people joined the demonstration to enjoy concerts, sing songs (John Lennon’s 1971 song “Imagine” is a global favorite) and watch films. Activists planted tree seedlings and a vegetable garden in the park. Demonstrators included young women with and without headscarfs and young men carrying flags and signs demanding “Tayyip Resign!” (see photos[xvii]). I saw more women in the protests in videos than in Middle Eastern countries. High school students brought their homework to study on the lawn. It started with protecting the trees in Gezi Park and then opened up a decade worth of discontent with the government.
About 150 people slept in the park, woken up at 5:00 AM by tear gas. The police burned their tents and fired tear gas canisters at their heads, kicking people holding onto trees. As news spread on social media requesting people to come to Gezi, by morning 5,000 people came to the park. By evening more than 10,000 people joined them in the park. Several hundred slept in the park, again roused by police who escalated violence. They shouted “infidels, Alevi bastards [a Shia sect], terrorists!” as they attacked the demonstrators.
By May 31 between 5,000 and 10,000 people gathered in the park and over two million Tweets with protest hashtags were sent. The next day #DirenGezi Parki (Resist Gezi Park, also a webpage) was the most viewed Twitter account. Turkey is fourth largest Twitter community behind the US, UK and Japan. Late that night, the police barricaded the park and closed all roads and public transportation leading to the park. People gathered in their neighborhoods and walked to the square, with estimates of 40,000 demonstrators. From their balconies, neighbors booed and yelled at police at they marched down the street to Taksim Square. A left-wing group of Beşiktaş soccer fans, called Çarşı, whose banner with the anarchist A heads this chapter, cleared the way for marchers to move past police into the park. Solidarity protests spread to other cities where police again used tear gas and water canons against peaceful crowds. A common slogan was “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance.”
With each wave of police violence, the crowd grew larger—the largest in a decade. The Minister of Interior estimated 2.5 million demonstrators took to the streets, but the activists thought it was probably five million. Many thought it was the largest crowd ever assembled in Tashim Park. Professor Ayca Cubukcu, from Istanbul, explained at the Global Uprisings Conference that protests against shrinking urban space spread to more than 50 cities (I’ve seen different numbers). Diverse groups including socialists, feminists, LGBT activists, anti-capitalist Muslims, and Kurds supported the protests. Rival Istanbul soccer clubs came together to support the Solidarity Movement—similar to Egypt, tweeting “Damn American imperialism to hell.” They united under the slogan “We’ll fuck Erdoğan” (see a documentary about the clubs).[xviii] He responded, “If you use provocative words, our people will never forgive you. If you gather 100,000 people, I can gather a million.” Some protesters wore Guy Fawkes masks as in other Occupy movements and some threw Molotov cocktails at police in the park. In a reference to the American film The Godfather, posters of Erdoğan’s face imposed on the Mafia boss played by Marlon Brando were posted around the city. This protester unity was unprecedented and unexpected, professor Cubukcu observed.
Ali B. reported that demonstrations took place in every major city with new feelings of solidarity. Activist Joris Leverink reported that over 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets and in just a few days the protests spread to 80 cities.[xix] The new solidarity carried over to demonstrations to support Kurds when soldiers opened fire on them on June 28: “Before Gezi, it would have been unimaginable for such expressions of solidarity to spontaneously erupt from a non-Kurdish segment of society.” This unprecedented unity indicated the power of emotion and the Gezi spirit rather than simply economic motivations for political action. During the 15-day occupation, the demonstrators created a “culture of kindness.”[xx] Balca Arda emailed, “The Gezi spirit of kindness was remedying neoliberal brutalism under AKP’s rule. Therefore although motivations of Gezi protests seem to be not economic, there is a indirect economic reason behind it.”
Feminists and GLBT groups were active in the Gezi uprising; women painted over walls with sexist slogans against Erdoğan with white and purple and corrected football fans sexist chants. Women were almost half of the protesters occupying the park, despite their lack of representation in parliament and in management positions in the private sector. Turkish women were given the right to political representation in 1934, but in the 2011 general elections only 14% of members of parliament were women and a lone woman was on the cabinet, predictably in charge of the family portfolio. Erdoğan’s sexist policies generated extensive protests with slogans like “My body belongs to me.” The prime minister proposed that abortion, which he called “mass murder,” be prohibited a month after conception, and he urges women to have at least three children (Russia’s President Putin also urges women to have three babies but acknowledges they need social supports to be able to be employed). Erdoğan blames rape victims for being “immoral” and made it legal for families to take children (mostly girls) out of school after only four years. A slogan “every day, men’s love kills three women” highlights increasing violence against women. Ministry of Justice statistics showed that an average of 10,000 women are abused and/or raped annually.[xxi] He also opposed wearing red lipstick and white bread.
The film Mustang (2015) illustrates the continuation of cruel sexist practices in the present. The five teenage sisters are taken out of school and married off because a neighbor complained about them roughhousing with boys on the beach on their way home from school. A doctor gave them a virginity check because if there was any doubt among villagers they wouldn’t be marriageable. The girls are kept at home behind bars in what Lale (the youngest and strongest) calls a “wife factory,” teaching them to be housewives, to cook and clean. When the older sisters are married off, the second sister is taken to the hospital for a virginity check after her wedding night to a man she didn’t know because she wasn’t able to show the bloody sheet demanded by the groom’s parents. The third sister shoots herself rather than get married and to escape sexual abuse by her uncle. Ironically, their uncle and guardian listens to a TV show where the speaker says modest women shouldn’t even laugh out loud in public.
First-time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven travels back and forth from Turkey to France. When she returns home, “I feel a form of constriction that surprises me” so she wanted to explore the status of girls and women in contemporary Turkey in the film.[xxii] She said, “Everything that has anything to do with femininity is constantly reduced to sexuality,” as when high school principals prohibit boys and girl from using the same stairways. Women are viewed as babymakers “good only for housework.” However, the youngest sister leads a rebellion (played by an actor born in 2001), saving the fourth oldest sister from a marriage she didn’t want. They escape to her former teacher who moved to Istanbul. Ergüven described the young actors who played the younger sisters as empowered, “They are also crazily plugged-in; they know everything about everything.” I asked a Turkish woman about the film’s accuracy. She said, “It is exaggerated in some ways and it other ways it shows the truth. We had a real rape issue just a few months ago,” where children were abused by their teacher and the government made an attempt to cover-up.[xxiii]
The various groups of protesters are examples of social identity theory of social movements. An informal map of the “Republic of Gezi” showed the location of identity groups: anarchists, communists, socialists, nationalists, LGBT, environmentalists, Muslims and soccer fans. The theory explains that a person feels oppressed because of their identity as a woman, a Kurd, a gay person, etc. We can have multiple identities such as a lesbian Marxist Kurdish mother. How strongly a person identifies with these identities and how much she feels her actions will be effective determines commitment to take action. The large numbers of occupiers increased the feeling that together we can make a difference and group identities changed as demonstrators became more politicized and viewed themselves as activists.
Participants I talked with in Turkey all commented on the joyous feeling of unity, their shared dislike of Erdoğan, and the lack of fixed leaders as everyone did what they could to help. Social media let people know what supplies were needed on a daily basis. A participant who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, told me in June 2016 the demonstration was spontaneous, a strong reaction to what she called the last sip from a glass, what I would call the last straw being bulldozers in Gezi Park. She said people reacted emotionally and instinctually, from their hearts, like being in love without logic. Without any leaders, they communicated on Twitter and Facebook. She gave credit to one organized group, a left-wing group of Beşiktaş soccer fans, called Çarşı, who pushed police back so demonstrators could occupy the park and were in front when the police shot teargas canisters.
She said most of the demonstrators were well-educated and young people were the ones sleeping in the tents. They also excelled in their humor, making jokes and slogans to express themes. Their mothers brought them food. For a week it was Woodstock, she said. The Standing Man stood silently in Taksim Square, confusing police who didn’t know what to do with him. Despite their peacefulness, police violence continued. The main outcome in her view is that Turks who thought they were alone in resenting the president’s growing autocracy and efforts to Islamize Turkey realized they had allies. She told me that high school students prepared manifestos to protest efforts to change modern curriculum to an Islamic one. Turkey is a moderate Muslim nation, she said, unlike Pakistan or Afghanistan.
Two Turkish scholars cited in the next endnote observed that a new phenomenon emerged, different from previous contentious action, characterized by “peacefulness, creativity, insistency, sense of humor, and sudden expansion,” with “an immense amount of creativity and humor.” Different groups were able to work together. Police didn’t know how to handle new protest styles developed by the mostly educated middle-class urban demonstrators such as reading to police or the “standing man” who did nothing but stand in Gezi. Police finally arrested him around 2am, but let him go. A festival atmosphere attracted people to the park especially when police didn’t intervene from June 7 to 15. Protests were strengthened by the government’s vacillating between harsh police crackdowns and attempts to negotiate.[xxiv]
Although the demonstrations were initially peaceful, police moved in with tear gas canisters fired at people’s heads and chests, pepper spray, plastic bullets and water cannons. A university student told NPR that she heard police brag about shooting demonstrators in the face with gas canisters. Football fans referred to themselves as “tear gas addicts” from previous run-ins with police, so they knew how to deal with tear gas with vinegar, lemon or milk. A sarcastic sign read, “Enough, I’m calling the police.” College professor Ayşe explained that these were not ordinary street police, but special forces of young men who felt powerful with guns in their hands even though they were loaded with plastic rather than metal bullets.
Medical professionals who helped injured demonstrators were threatened with losing their licenses and police attacked and arrested lawyers who denounced the repression. Hospitals and hotel lobbies that treated injured demonstrators were punished with water hosing their interiors or with tear gas. Police even fired tear gas canisters at doctors in their white lab coats, beat hospitalized protesters and didn’t allow passage for ambulances, as shown in a video.[xxv] I visited the posh hotel next to the park whose owner opened it as a first aid center. When I was there in June 2016 a hotel staff checked each arriving car, using a mirror to look under the car. A 2014 law gave authorities new powers to prosecute doctors for giving unauthorized medical care.
The violence (five deaths and about 5,000 injuries included 11 people who were blinded in the first 18 days of demonstrations) and arrests of thousands of people generated sympathy in cities all over Turkey. Supporters banged pots or metal street signs at night from their apartments similar to Argentina, Chile and Quebec. The Prime Minister suggested in July that banging pots and pans is a crime and at least one criminal case was filed for this offense! Other protesters waved Turkish flags, and people drank beer in public toasting “Cheers Tayyip” because of his Islamic opposition to alcohol. Some neighbors threw down furniture from their apartments to help build barricades against the police and some made keys available to find safety in their lobbies. Large jugs of water were left out to extinguish the gas canisters. Neighbors also left out baskets of lemons and milk to soothe teargas and lowered food from their windows to feed the demonstrators. Restaurants left food outside their windows. Protesters were free to hide in restaurants and bars until tear gas cleared. Turkish flags were everywhere.
After two days of non-stop fighting, the police retreated from the square and Gezi Park. Similar demonstrations occurred in every major city, especially in the capital Ankara. They invited famous entertainers to join in. Labor unions organized a one-day strike to support activists on June 17, leading a university professor to observe, “The fear threshold has been broken,” as demonstrators weren’t afraid of the authorities.
The prime minister said they were “extremists running wild” and puppets of foreign powers. Similar to other autocrats, he called them terrorists, hooligans–çapulcu, although as a Sunni Muslim he supported the Syrian Sunni rebels against Alawite President Assad. **The protesters painted the word on their tents and printed çapulcu stickers so the word came to mean a champion of the environment and freedom. A sign read, “I’m a çapulcu baby, why don’t you gas me?” Activist and blogger Oscar ten Houten reported that authorities looked in vain for non-existent leaders because activists are not an organization but “a world wide web. We are the people on the threshold of changing times.”
Ten Houten reported on the revolution in his book Occupy Gezi (2013) as he saw it unfold. He included a map of the “Gezi Republic” with kitchen, first aid, library, radio, TV, etc. and the location of anarchists, communists, socialists, nationalists, LGBT, Greens, Muslim, Kurds, and soccer fans in the park.[xxvi] He commented on demonstrators’ courage in the face of police tear gas, bullets and arrests. The were supported by neighbors’ pan banging throughout various Turkish cities and shinning strong laser beams from their windows on the drivers of police vehicles—even throwing burnings sofas from roofs, plus demonstrations in various Turkish and European cities, the hacker group Anonymous attack on government sites, and Canadian magazine Adbusters created a poster on Occupy Gezi. An anonymous person blogged from Istanbul, “We have never felt so alive! They can’t kill freedom!”
Erdoğan blamed the uprising on a foreign plot to destabilize his government, part of what he viewed as a “global conspiracy” that spread to Brazil on June 17. Typical of his age group, he doesn’t understand the possibility of leaderless uprisings sparked by shared media. Referring to the banners and flags demonstrators posted around the square, he said, “Were we supposed to kneel before them and say, ‘Please remove your pieces of rags? They can call me harsh, but this Tayyip Erdoğan won’t change.”
After 18 days of the sit-in in Taksim Square (the same number of days as Cairo’s Tahrir Square), Erdoğan sent in a massive police force early in the morning on June 15 to clear out the thousands of demonstrators with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets, and make arrests. Cigdem Ozturk said at the Global Uprising conference it was a real war with protesters using slingshots to throw rocks. Like their global comrades, they said, “We’re not afraid of anything.” The police attack was brutal, despite children’s presence with their parents. Amnesty International reported human rights violations on a huge scale, including more than 8,000 injured protesters, the deaths of 22 of them, sexual abuse of women protesters by police (as occurred in Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall St.), and adding chemical irritants to water cannons. The report called for a boycott of all imports of riot control equipment to Turkey. Erdoğan later admitted, “The police acted severely,” so he brought the people responsible for burning the tents into his office and said proudly that he yelled at them to make them cry.[xxvii] Police beat journalists, some are jailed, and foreign reporters were deported.
Protesters said the huge fires in the square set by the police to burn the tents looked like the movie Apocalypse Now, using the global imagery of western films and TV series. Protesters retreated into surrounding streets where they build barricades, chanting, “Tashim is everywhere. Resistance is everywhere.” Gezi was cordoned off by police, but reopened on July 8 when crowds continued to gather, especially on Saturdays in neighborhood parks accompanied by police surveillance. Erdoğan organized pro-government rallies on June 16 with hundreds of thousands of supporters, offering free transportation while cancelling public transportation to protester events. He did suggest a public referendum on how to develop the park. After the square was cleared, protester Erdem Gunduz stood motionless in Taksim Square for six hours ignoring police harassment, becoming an icon of the rebellion. Gradually others joined him in standing silently reading books like 1984 and activists in other countries copied his “standing man” pose.[xxviii] People continued to come to the park to play music, sing, and debate politics.
Middle-Class Youth Activism
Committed to their individual rights, Nihan Dinca, a woman age 26, told Al Jazeera, “We are here for our freedom, for a space to breathe. We are here to be able to kiss in public, consume alcohol, read without any censorship. We are here for a life without any pressure from the state.”[xxix] Yesim Polat, 22, added, “Prime Minister Erdoğan thinks that he is a sultan, he does not listen to anybody, consult with anybody. He thinks he can do whatever he wants.” A university student commented, “We thought he got the message not to interfere with people’s lives at Gezi. I guess we were wrong.”
A video of the protests can be viewed online, showing many women on the streets, as well as other marginalized groups such as Kurds, students, and LGBT groups carrying signs identifying their causes.[xxx] The LGBT movement allied itself with democracy movements in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries.[xxxi] A university student, (21, f) reported, “The government has sought to divide us, but has succeeded in bringing a lot of different people to the same cause.” Tanulku reported the largest group of demonstrators were well-educated urban young people with many women and leftists, leading to criticism that the urban poor were under-represented.[xxxii] However, resistance continued longest in working-class neighborhoods. Young street boys also participated. Most of the participants were previously apolitical, first time protesters.[xxxiii] Many of them vote but don’t trust political parties. They appreciated the number of protesters they trusted “to support me and help me” and the role of graffiti and music in showing “another way of life.”
A poll of 4,411 Gezi activists in June 2013 by the Turkish Research Institute reported that over half were employees, 40% were students, 56% had some university education, 13% had a university degree, 6% were unemployed, 3% retired, and 2% were housewives.[xxxiv] Many were from middle-class backgrounds, while poorer Turks supported Erdoğan’s AKP party. Demonstrators included members of trade unionists and farmers, not just young middle-class demonstrators. In the poll, the average age was 28 and 50.8% were female. Most said they were motivated by restrictions on their personal freedom, 37% were against the AKP, 30% against Erdoğan, 20% against cutting down the trees, and 20% against the state. Most (77%) learned about the demonstration from the Internet.[xxxv] Disenchanted with politics, 47% said there was no political party they wanted to vote for. According to three surveys of 5,409 Gezi participants, many voted for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). These voters were mainly young people raised by CHP parents.[xxxvi] About 30% were radicals who didn’t trust any political party.
Youth were prominent organizers. “We have achieved a lot here,” said Okan Ozkan, a 19-year-old leader of Turkish Youth Unity, before police cleared the park on June 15. “But we are afraid that as soon as the protests are over it will be the same old country again.”[xxxvii] The leader of the main opposition Kemalist party explained the failure of his party; “These kids communicate with other nations and demand to have the same confidence about this country’s citizens too. So far we have made them fear others so they vote for us. Now we see how wrong we have been.”[xxxviii] The minister in charge of EU negotiations called on “these young people to establish a political party. They would both force us to work harder, and take a step for the good of the country.”
Typical of their generation, many of the demonstrators were texting on a phone or recording the events on a tablet, dancing, chanting and singing with a sense of humor. Ayşe said the protests started with college students, and then workers and the general public joined in. Like young people around the world, they have access to American TV shows, music, and movies. They’re very creative and humorous, skilled in communicating electronically. Ayşe remarked that the public was surprised and shocked to “see that the cell phone generation has something to say, surprised at their level of political awareness, not just hooked on their phones, Internet and TV. We had no idea this would happen in Turkey. It changed the confidence of young people and trust in them.”
Activist Foti Benlisoy from Istanbul said at the Global Uprisings conference that attempts to portray the conflict as a culture war between secular youth and the Islamist government obscures the actual leftist motivation. The protest was a right-to-the-city movement against the encroachment of capitalism on the urban public space. Ubiquitous urban renewal projects around Turkey displace the urban poor and erode common space for everyone. During the occupation of the park they created a transfigurative alternative to capitalism and “existing social conventions.” As well as organizing food and medical care, demonstrators set up LGBT and gender awareness tents and invited individuals to talk with someone with different religious beliefs. Efforts by unions to strike weren’t successful. Benlisoy said Gezi was not the classical Marxist workers’ revolt. The new proletariat is formerly middle-class professionals who have precariously fallen into the working class, economically alienated due to neoliberal policies. Although they don’t think of themselves as working class, he believes they’ve permanently lost their high level of prosperity in an era when youth unemployment averaged 19% from 1988 to 2016.[xxxix]
Benlisoy advocates replacing spontaneity with strategic planning for alternatives to capitalism because “improvisation alone is not sufficient to confront the enemy.” The Gezi uprisings didn’t change the balance of power, he said, but ended the moral apathy of the last 15 years and began the struggle for the right to the city. He viewed the uprising as weakened by the lack of general strikes and mainstream labor movement support.
As in other Occupy movements, young people set up a tent city with a library including books donated by publishers, free food distribution centers, first aid center, pharmacy, plant nursery, children’s center and playground, stages for musicians and workshops in a variety of subjects including yoga and painting. A group called müştereklerimiz (“Our Commons”) helped set up some of these centers. Different tents featured specific approaches such as socialist feminists who erased sexist slogans from walls or media experts who recorded the protests. A “feminist tent” was set up the first day of the occupation and remained active. Everything was free, they practiced direct democracy, and some professors held classers in the park. Many people crowded the area almost like sightseeing but also to show support. Ayşe said they created an alternative city with a multitude of activities, until the police burned the tents and other structures.
Many of the protesters were previously called apathetic because their middle-class parents who had experienced traumatic coups told them to be quiet, similar to the Arab Spring countries. Surkru Argin called them not apolitical but counter-political. But Balca Arda doesn’t compare Gezi protests with the Arab Spring: “Turkey has a tradition of parliamentary system since the Ottoman era. AKP government has been elected by democratic elections although corruption in voting exists and there is a high percentage threshold (%10) for entering the parliament in Turkey. Consequently, Arab Spring cannot be the primary source of comparison in my mind.”
As we’ve seen, anger galvanizes rebellion when it seems like other people are showing up. A young lawyer who read about police burning tents in Gezi Park said, “I got really angry and I called all my friends” to demonstrate with her. They bought gas masks and water at the pharmacy on their way to the park. Even thought they were assaulted by water cannon, they were motivated to continue marching by neighbors banding pots and pans in support and their political will changed with their new identities as activists.
Thousands of the lawyers joined the demonstrators similar to their helpfulness in the Tunisian uprising of 2011, therefore Turkish eyewitness reported on Facebook on June 12,
Couple of hours ago, police attacked the biggest court house in Istanbul and arrested around 70 lawyers, who were only protesting against the morning attacks, probably as a response to their help with protecting the rights of the people arrested and injured during last weeks protests. In response to today’s events, people of Istanbul are going back to Taksim Square this evening at 19:00 possibly with larger numbers than the protests on May 31. Please share this information. The Turkish media has failed miserably and it is very important that the world knows what is really going on in Turkey.
One of the protesters interviewed by BBC TV said his goal and that of other young intellectuals was a socialist revolution. He definitely considered himself a revolutionary and others mentioned their opposition to “neoliberal impositions of uniform ways of living, producing and consuming through violence….” Demonstrators chanted “shoulder to shoulder against fascism,” “anticapitalism,” and “capital out.” Muslim groups against capitalism and for democracy were active, not just secular youth. At the same time, thousands of protesters marched in European cities including Brussels, Madrid (chanting “Government, resign”), and Lisbon “(IMF, out of here”) to protest austerity programs and neoliberalism. In front of the European Central Bank in Frankfort they chanted “Humanity above profits.” More than 10,000 protesters gathered in front of the Bank’s new headquarters in Frankfort in March 2015 with the slogan “Blockupy,” met by a large police force.
An observer viewed youth activists as less ideological than youth in the ‘60s and ‘70s who were “more ideological” and aligned with political parties.[xl] The majority of protesters were motivated by government restrictions on their liberties, not just by desire to protect trees. They blamed the Sultan, the Dictator. As in other uprisings, no central political organization existed although a Taksim Solidarity umbrella group (with over 100 groups, see their Facebook page) coordinated some of the Gezi sit-in. I asked a Turkish participant in the uprisings about this group: She is afraid to email the president’s name so she used his initials: “Taksim Dayanisma held a talk with rte (you should know who this is) for negotiations. They did some organizing on Twitter after the first days.” The group presented the government with five demands: keep Gezi a park, end police violence, ban tear gas, release detained protesters, and lift all restrictions on meetings in public squares around the country. Prominent members of Taksim Solidarity were investigated under anti-terrorism laws.
Role of Media
Twitter (#OccupyGezi[xli]) and other social media were used to communicate, as the mainstream media didn’t cover the demonstrations. For example, during the height of the clashes, CNN Turkey ran a documentary on penguins instead of covering the demonstrations, leading to posters of penguins saying “Antarctica Supports You” and a penguin with a gas mask. Graffiti on walls stated, “Fuck the media.” “Penguin media” was an insult. A Capul TV station was set up in Gezi Park to broadcast events.
Because millions of tweets were sent in a day, the prime minister denounced Twitter as a curse “the worst menace to society,” despite having two million Twitter followers himself. The Ministry of Communication tried to get copies of messages sent on Twitter and Facebook during the uprising, but the companies refused. The government sent out its own tweets. An eyewitness reported that events were staged for the media to make demonstrators look violent while real events were ignored. Turkey is rated poorly on freedom of the press, ranked 154 out of 179 nations in the World Press Freedom index. In February 2014, parliament used a 2007 law to allow the government to block webpages without court order after YouTube was blocked for 18 months. The prime minister shut down YouTube because of leaked government conversations about provoking military intervention in Syria. The updated law forced Internet companies to retain data for two years so government could access it. Turkey already leads the world in jailed journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and is the top country for requests for Google to delete content. A student named Nedim Coskun worried, “The media already distorts the truth because it is under the government’s control. So when they take over the Internet, everything will go black, and we will become ignorant and Erdoğan will gain power.”[xlii]
The government put 29 people on trial for tweets posted during Gezi, accused of “inciting the public to break the law,” and three were also accused of insulting the prime minister. All but two were acquitted in September 2014. Facebook reported that India and Turkey were the most frequent censors of its pages, such as blocking “The Other’s Post” that reported on Kurdish issues and the Gezi protests. As president, Erdoğan said, “I don’t like to tweet, schmeet, because you know what they cause in society. Facebook and Twitter are ending lives,” but he uses social media anyway.[xliii]
Protesters went to the streets again to be met with the familiar water cannon and tear gas not afraid of the fact that thousands of activists, health workers, journalists, lawyers, and teachers had been detained and investigated at their schools or workplaces and their homes raided. Thousands were injured; water cannon can damage eyes, it’s not just about getting wet. An “Urban Transformation Act,” called the “Disaster Act” by activists, aims to remove legal barriers to building projects. Conflicts were exacerbated by economic problems in 2013 and 2014 when Turkey and other developing countries were hurt by the US Federal Reserve slowdown in bond purchases, leading to rising global interest rates.
Hundreds of protesters again went to the streets to protest the Internet censorship bill on January 18, 2014, and police fired the usual rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons. Erdoğan shut Twitter down in March 20 before important local elections, but of course young techies figured out ways to get around it and it was available again in a few days. A professor said his son got through the ban in 15 seconds. Student Engin Alturk said, “We know all the tricks to get around this. Erdoğan must think us stupid.” In a series of tweet President Abdullah Gul opposed the shutdown. Erdoğan threatened he would eradicate it; “I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.” He viewed users of Twitter and Facebook as people who “incite any kind of immorality or espionage for the profit of these institutions.” A widely re-tweeted post showed the Twitter icon of blue birds over the prime minister’s head dropping excrement on him. Another put his face on an Obama campaign poster with the modified slogan, “Yes, we ban.” And another slogan referred to the Emperor’s New Clothes, “Look, the king is naked!” Later in the year after a quiet period, in November Erdoğan came out against coed dormitories at state universities including off-campus housing.
The Aftermath: Assemblies and Demonstrations
The main outcome of the uprising is that the people are empowered, although currently in a period of discouragement. An activist named Zeynel Gul said self-organizing in the Gezi occupation “gave us a powerful sense of a world based on solidarity and equality, which we could not imagine before. No one can take away what we experienced in the park.”[xliv] Since Gezi, Turks have given support to minority groups including LGBT people, Kurds, feminists and Alevis (the largest Shia sect that the police insulted in their conflicts with the demonstrators). Since no major political party represents the goals of the uprising, forums focus on neighborhood problems such as evictions.[xlv] Other post-Gezi outcomes are boycotts, strikes, marches, and public forums. The fact that over half of the protesters were women is empowering, calling attention to government gender discrimination. A Gezi slogan is, “This is just a beginning, we keep struggling,” in the spirit of the Zapatistas.
The June 15 eviction from the park evoked huge anger and frustration that crystallized in general assemblies—about 70 throughout the country as of November 2013, according to Cubukcu. They formed self-organized, democratic, leaderless assemblies called “people’s forums” in various neighborhoods as done in Spain, Greece, the US and other Occupy Movements. Activist Binnaz Saktanber reported that assemblies in the Gezi Spirit continued in local parks around the country, some with thousands of participants, some a dozen. Activists set up barricades in some neighborhoods and parks, stood silently in protest, and threw stones at police. They offered workshops, yoga, art activities, and free books, as in other global occupations of public spaces. They created their own radio station and newspaper. The Turks used many of the familiar hand signs for communicating in a large group, such as crossed arms means no. People line up with a number in order to speak for a few minutes and no applause is permitted, as hand gestures signal approval or disapproval. Cubukcu observed meetings were generally quite smooth, although in some neighborhoods some political parties were prominent.
Cubukcu reported the assemblies began by sharing experiences with weeks of police violence as a way of healing each other. I imagine this process is similar to the communists forming Speak Bitterness groups for peasants after they took over China in 1949. They focused on how to sustain solidarity and collaborate with groups in different neighborhoods with weekly newsletters. Some forums brought in experts on topics such as what to do when arrested or how to form alternative media. Spontaneous actions occurred like protesting Egyptian President Morsi’s ouster by the military at the Egyptian embassy, protesting censorship at a TV channel, visiting wounded demonstrators in hospitals, and joining protesters shouting Kurdish slogans in a Kurdish town where police killed a demonstrator. Some assemblies were open and some had themes like LGBT pride. They discussed boycotts of certain corporations, formed social media platforms, worked with small shop owners, discussed non-sexist language, conducted legal rights workshops, and discussed how to influence urban transformation. One theme that united them all was anger at the Sultan.
Turkey’s first squat is a social center called Don Kisot (Don Quoixte), set up shortly after the eviction from Gezi Park. The Windmill Solidarity group claimed their “right to the city” and occupied an abandoned building (vacant for 15 years) to create a squat culture center with spaces for art, conferences, forums, children’s events, and concerts. Painted by the entrance to the first squat is “another world is possible.” Authorities shut it down in 2015.
Another act of direct democracy inspired by Gezi, female and male workers took over the in Istanbul textile factory on June 28 after their bosses disappeared without paying four months of back pay and after two years of struggle, stating, “No one will ever be able to exploit our labor again.” A short video documents the takeover where one of the workers said, “I learned not to be afraid.”[xlvi] They adopted the slogan of the Landless Movement in Brazil, “Occupy, Resist, Produce!” One of the members of the cooperative said the Turkish state is pro-boss so they want women to stay home and have lots of children to produce more slaves for the bosses.[xlvii]
Protests continued, including weekly Saturday demonstrations, even though the court said the park should be preserved. Although two Turkish scholars concluded that other than the cancellation of the development of Taksim, the protests “did not have any other substantive outcome,” they do acknowledge a new identity resulted.[xlviii] Other disagree: A Facebook post on August 5 reported, “Gezi Park is closed and cordoned-off on a near-daily basis, but the Turkish resistance lives on. In the streets, on the barricades, and most definitely as well in the parks, at the people’s forums all across the city.” People started painting public steps and streets in bright colors. When the authorities painted them back to gray, the people painted them rainbow colors again, as you can see.[xlix] Ayşe observed that discussion continued in public parks and universities, discussing national politics and local issues. These public forums use consensus decision-making. She added that in rural areas people have always made time for social connections in their neighborhoods.
A video titled After Gezi highlights the ongoing protests, including anger at repression of Kurdish and Alevi people and accusations that Erdoğan assisted the Islamic State terrorists in order to weaken the Kurds and Assad’s Alevi regime in Syria.[l] People went to the streets when Berkin Elven died, after Soma mine workers were killed in a mining accident, and protesting lack of support for Kurds attacked by ISIS. The “Children of Gezi” civil organizations continue to meet, as in the Radical Democracy Urban Encounter in December 2014, committed to making cities meet the needs of all the urban dwellers, not just the rich.[li] Erdoğan blamed opponents for being pawns of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad.
Critics were angry about the new presidential compound with over 1,000 rooms on almost 50 acres of land costing $1.2 billion and the purchase of a new presidential jet. Despite a court ruling that the development was illegal, Erdoğan said, “If you have the power and the courage, then come and demolish the building.”[lii] His family moved in at the end of 2014. The arrest of a 16-year-old boy for insulting the president by calling him the “thieving owner of the illegal palace” created an uproar.[liii] After his release the boy, known as M.E.A. said, “We shall not yield to the fascist unprogressive pressure.” He said Ataturk inspired him and his mother was proud of him. Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag reported that 1,845 cases were pending based on charges of insulting the president from 2014 to 2016.[liv] Bozdag justified these actions: “I am unable to read the insults leveled at our president. I start to blush.”
Around the same time, 35 soccer fans who took part in the Gezi demonstration the previous year were put on trial for being part of a conspiracy to “remove the government,” threatened with life in prison. Police raided media centers accused of being aligned with Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen for trying to take over the government. When the EU protested, Erdoğan told them to “keep your opinions to yourself” and it didn’t matter if Turkey is accepted into the EU.[lv] His government increased the number of religious schools that provide food and free transportation and limited the number of secular schools, thereby limiting parents’ choices about their children’s education. He mandated classes in “religious values” starting at age six. We’ve seen his goal is to raise “a pious generation,” meaning conservative Islamic. He also told schools to teach about Islam’s contribution to arts and sciences and Turkish Ottoman language “whether they like it or not.”
Turkey struggled with a $129.1 billion debt due in 2015 and a credit squeeze due to the end of low-interest rates set by the US Federal Reserve that fueled consumer credit card spending with a collective debt of $45 billion. Activist Joris Leverink predicted a severe economic crisis when the bubble bursts. He hopes that it will generate “rapid social awakening,” as happened in Argentina and Greece after economic collapse. The ROAR Magazine collective of researchers predicts for Turkey and globally, “The everyday resistance of the ordinary people will burrow its way through society, cracking the concrete, undermining the foundations of the neoliberal urban landscape, and ultimately allowing us to reclaim the physical and political space we so desperately need to live, produce and share in common; in solidarity, democratically, and as equals.”[lvi]
Kurdish youth organizations became “more vocal, violent and popular” with the urban guerrilla YDG-H (Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement) young Kurds striking back after Turkish attacks on PKK bases in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Nationalist youth attacked Kurdish neighborhoods and offices of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).[lvii] To counter resistance, parliament passed a law in March 2015 that broadened police powers to use guns against demonstrators armed with firebombs or other “injurious weapons” and to detain demonstrators fro 48 hours. Protesters who cover their faces can be sentenced to five years in prison if convicted of spreading propaganda for “terrorist organizations.”
Two years after the Gezi uprising, thousands of police blocked the entrance into Gezi Park to prevent demonstrators from offering carnations to celebrate the second anniversary of the protests. The AKP party lost its majority in parliament in June 2015 after over a decade of its rule, but regained it in November with accusations of media censorship and intimidation of voters. Western article headlines stated, “Turkish election campaign unfair, say international monitors,” and “The ruling AKP won yesterday’s Turkish election through sheer violence and repression.”[lviii]
Interviewing various Turks in June 2016, a businesswoman I’ll call Perran said that Gezi activists were punished, not able to get work, some put in prison. She said the upper court said it was legal to build a shopping center in the park that nine people died to protect and the president vowed to go ahead with the building. She added that Erdoğan privatized nation resources, selling land and water to foreigners, as well as building infrastructure. In Istanbul I was shown tall buildings that violate building codes pushed through by Erdoğan. If was told if he loses a future election many suits will be filled against him and he’ll have to go to jail, so he plans to stay president for life. He allowed violation of building codes with tall buildings that block views and wind flow and prevented police investigation of corruption publicized in leaks about shoeboxes of money in homes of sons of government ministers. A woman named Meral Aksener, a former conservative party minister, wants to be leader of her party and replace him. About the migrants, Perran said the educated ones went to Europe, leaving behind peasant farmers who squeeze many families into one apartment and have many children. She sees them begging in cities and sleeping and parks.
Another Gezi participant, who I’ll call Ceyda, said Erdoğan is a Darth Vader-like radical who thinks he’s perfect and the country’s father who did succeed in bringing Turkey out of the economic crisis of 2001. He’s like a prophet to uneducated people. She also said he sold the national resources to outsiders and tries to impose his conservative view of Islam in a country where most people think your religion is personal. The biggest mistake of the government before Erdoğan was forbidding wearing hajib in places like universities, hospitals, and government buildings. She thinks Gezi scared him because he still talks about it three years later, while the people gained more confidence. I videotaped her walking me through the hotel, park and square where the large demonstrations occurred in well-to-do areas of European Istanbul. Afraid of retribution from authorities, she asked that I not film her face.
I asked her about youth participation, she said they started the demonstrations when they set up tents to protect the park and were 80 to 90% of the demonstrators because other people were working. Their mothers came to support them the next day. With almost a million demonstrators, people of all age were represented, most well educated. Gezi was like Woodstock, with singers and other entertainment and exhilarated crowds of people. What organization there was done on the Internet, but Ceyda said no group and no leaders were in charge. Feminists, anti-capitalist Muslims, GLBT activists, Kurds, and environmentalists were all active.
A soccer fan, Ceyda is proud of the Besiktas fans of the local Carsi team; their banner with the anarchist A heads this chapter. When the police blocked the marchers, the Besiktas pushed them aside so people could keep walking, and the police pushed back in a kind of dance with their helicopters flying overhead and firing tear gas canisters and plastic bullets. Another hero, the owner of the elegant hotel at one side of the park opened its doors as a first aid station to treat tear gas inhalation and other injuries. Some of the fans and other leaders were jailed as traitors despite the group’s collecting money for the poor and other social activities.
Participants in the Gezi Park uprising described being there. None of them wanted their names used because of the pattern of government retaliation. At a middle-school in Istanbul, teachers said they were afraid and didn’t want their principal to see me talking to them and think they were up to something as they sat smoking across the street from their school. A mother of a student, the friend of the teachers, asked if I was a spy. A teacher asked me not to ask political or religious questions of the students I interviewed on video, but they brought up criticism of the government. The adults were surprised when students supported the Gezi demonstrations, thinking of them as lost in social media. Also after 1980 parents raised their children to be afraid of the government and be quiet. After Gezi, they realized that young people could take action. A middle-age man said everyone shared, supermarkets delivered food, there was no violence. Neighbors left out keys in case demonstrators needed to get away from police or teargas, they left out lemons and medicine and food. When they tried to have an anniversary demonstration, police prevented it. Now, people lack hope.
A female teacher in her 30s said she too lacked hope but she noted that Gezi inspired people to protest, as when a member of the government suggested that pregnant women not go out in public because it would make people think of sex. Many pregnant women gathered on the streets in response. After Gezi, GLBT organizing and gay pride events increased, along with the women’s movement and efforts to help battered women, and organizing for the environment and animal rescue. However, a businessman in Istanbul said the gained nothing from the Gezi protests, “Now it’s impossible to organize such protests. People think the results will be the same.”[lix] Another man worries that, “We used to be the secular republic. Now, we don’t know what we are.”
In Turkey I asked teens and adults about characteristics of the younger generation in 2016. Perran, a business woman from Istanbul age 48, said they’re more pessimistic about getting a job, more individualistic, and less well educated because the quality of education decreased because of the increase of Islamic schools and teachers aren’t paid well and many “lost their enthusiasm.” Students are promised government jobs if they graduate from the religious schools and families get free food and sometime money, but young people with money go to private schools and try to study and work abroad. In some of the religious schools girls are “covered,” the word Turks use for wearing hijab, as early as age five. They teach that women shouldn’t work outside the home. Although almost every city has a university and fees are small, there aren’t enough professors. Urban youth lack social skills because of spending so much time on their electronic devices, starting as young as age three. Some kids don’t sit down to eat without their iPad.
High school students led protests against traditionalist education policy in 2016. High school students in an academic high school where their first year is taught in English, turned their backs when their principal was making a speech and wrote a manifesto about their goals. Their campaign spread to other schools. Conservative school principals were sent in to replace more liberal administrators, including the school I visited. They cancelled festivals and made strict new rules such as about the length of girls’ skirts. A teacher said the traditionalists “Don’t want people to be happy. The fly is small but it makes you sick.” Students and their parents have protested conversion of their local schools to Islamic schools and requirements to learn Arabic.
I asked Emrullah Ataseven to critique the Turkey section: He’s a Ph.D. student in Istanbul and translator who observed the protests.
I would like to appreciate you for your detailed and toilsome research. You analyze and summarize the situation very well. As you noticed the protests and events at Gezi have a multi-layered character. Turkish nationalists, Kurdish activists and secular republicanists together protested Erdoğan and his government. However, in the course of events, the attitude of some protestors changed. For example, the Kurdish political movement became more distanced with the mainstream Gezi protestors after the emergence of such slogans as “We’re the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal.” You could argue Kurds’ position. Also, the Alevi question could be emphasized. The majority of Alevis in Turkey support the Republican Party (CHP) and this party in the past was reluctant to give Kurds and Conservationists their rights like hijab and education in Kurdish. So, it is debatable to evaluate Gezi as a purely human rights movement.
The political life in Turkey is so changeable, the cease-fire declared by the PKK was abolished. This indicates the fragility of Turkish democracy. That’s why I think Gezi movement was a strong movement in terms of environmentalism, freedom of speech and minority rights but it did not lead to an enduring democratic body. Young people were more politicized, developed means of peaceful protests but an all-pervasive democratic understanding could not flourish. The solidarity aftermath of Gezi could enhance democracy. The party in power (AKP) lost remarkable seats in the parliament and violence restarted in the country. The Gezi spirit could contribute to a permanent peace but as in the case of Arab Spring, perhaps, it is early to say that movements like Gezi in Turkey can construct a well-established democratic youth movements.
In reaction to Erdoğan’s push to convert public schools to Islamic schools that are sex-segregated and teach Sunni Islam, the Turkish High School Students Union, TLB, circulated a petition signed by more than 370 schools by spring 2016.[lx] TLB leader Bora Celik said these schools don’t permit girls’ volleyball teams because they would wear shorts, they don’t permit literature or poetry societies, and have prayer rooms instead of laboratories. The main opposition party backs the students and parents demonstrate against plans to convert local school to increase the more than a million religious Imam-Hatips. President Erdoğan graduated from a religious school and aims to change the curriculum to raise a “pious generation.” Islamization results not only in protests by secularists but violence from religious zealots, as when a group of 20 men beat up customers in a record store in Istanbul in June 2016. Their crime was listening to the British band Radiohead and drinking beer during the holy month of Ramadan.
On July 15, 2016, junior officers attempted a coup (the military led four previous coups to preserve secularism in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997) while Erdoğan was on holiday, aiming to protect democracy and human rights and “reinstate constitutional order.” The coup was probably triggered by rumors that the president was going to fire many officers the following month. The coup leaders promised a new constitution and an end to corruption and terrorist attacks. The constitution charges the army with upholding democracy, as established by Ataturk, but all the opposition parties including the Kurds and world powers came out in support of the democratically elected president. A young woman tweeted, “I protested Erdoğan during Gezi. I was teargassed by his police. I think AKP is trash, but I support them against a fascist military coup.” The military declared martial law and a curfew, blocked social media, and shut down the major bridges between Asian and European Istanbul, shown in videos.[lxi] It sent tanks to the main Istanbul airport and shut it down, and flew helicopters over the city and jets over the capital.
The president said on FaceTime to CNN Turk, the most watched news station, that he would overcome the coup and encouraged his supporters to go to the streets, meaning he didn’t have access to a TV studio. Muslim clerics joined him in calling for men from their mosques to rise up and AKP party leaders knocked on doors asking men to demonstrate. Videos showed mostly men on the streets chanting religious slogans: Watching for hours I only saw a few women. Police and soldiers and 1000s of male supporters faced off in Taksim Square where shots were fired. Some civilians arrested soldiers and they beheaded one man and beat several others to death.
Erdoğan said the coup was a gift from God to cleanse the military further. He had already “cleansed” the judiciary of independents he thought were aligned with Gulen, but removed almost more judges. He had already put more journalists in prison than any other country, including China. He blamed Gulen (who moved to Pennsylvania in 1999) and his Hizmet movement for orchestrating the coup in a “parallel state” and asked the US to extradite him. One of my Turkish contacts who doesn’t like the president also blamed Gulen. Erdoğan didn’t refer to Gulen by name in his first speech after the coup, just to the “second estate” headquartered in Pennsylvania. The coup is an example of the finding that non-violent changemaking is most effective.
The government announced that thousands were wounded and over 265 died in the coup attempt, 104 of them were the “plotters.” Some suggested that the president knew about the coup but did nothing to stop it in order to gain more power.[lxii]A trending Twitter hashtag was “Not a coup. Theater” and “And the Oscar goes to…President Erdoğan. He told a crowd, “We will not leave the public squares. This is not a 12-hour affair” and sent text messages asking supporters to keep showing up in nightly gatherings in public squares like Taksim where vendors sell flags and T-shirts with the president’s face. His supporters blamed the US and the CIA for trying to assassinate the president.
More than 9,000 suspects were arrested and nearly 60,000 suspects were quickly detained or dismissed, including 5 to 10% of educators had their licenses revoked, 1,577 university deans, almost 9,000 police officers, one-third of generals and admirals, around 3,000 soldiers, 2,745 judges, 30 governors, plus more than 100 media outlets shut down and websites blocked.[lxiii] More than 15,000 employees were suspended from the Education Ministry, but the president said he will retain a “democratic parliamentary system.” By September, more than 100,000 people were arrested or fired from their jobs, accused of connections to Gulen.[lxiv] The president also ousted Kurdish mayors and thousands of teachers in the southeast, who were not even accused of being Gulenists, and seized about $4 billion worth of businesses.
Amnesty International reported torture of suspected Gulen followers. Erdoğan floated the idea of reinstating the death penalty. Next, he prohibited academics from foreign travel and recalled any of them out of the country. Erdoğan must have been keeping files on Turks he suspected of allegiance to Gulen. He’s been called “megalomaniacal” and “quasi-messianic,” and compared to Putin in Russia and el-Sisi in Egypt. He wants to replace secular Ataturk as the most famous Turkish leader as he creates and Islamic “New Turkey.” Perhaps Donald Trump is in the same category, telling Republicans he’s the only one who can fix US problems and he would be the law and order president, keeping out Muslims and Mexicans.
Watching hours of CNN coverage revealed inaccuracies in the coverage and ignoring the president’s sexism when describing his deficiencies. This is what I wrote to CNN: I flew out of Ataturk Airport a week before the recent bombing, after doing research for my book on global youth activism. Fareed Zakaria said that Erdoğan is secular. One bit of evidence he gave was women aren’t allowed to wear headscarves in universities and public buildings. That’s no longer true, they can wear what they want. He didn’t mention Erdoğan’s campaign to turn public schools into Islamic schools, which is a profound shift away from secularism. I watched CNN for hours yesterday and didn’t hear anyone mention the president’s extreme sexism. Women I talked with in Turkey are vey angry that he said a woman who doesn’t give birth is half a woman, women should give birth to at least three children, women’s place is in the home because their main role is motherhood, they shouldn’t wear red lipstick, etc. His government is mainly male. Turks refer to him as the Sultan or Dictator.
I asked a Turkish contact about the impact of the coup and firing 60,000 people in August 2016: “Many people loosing their jobs has an impact on economy and tourism is already finished. I don’t think we can recover the image of Turkey easily. Not all of them real supporters of Gülen. Gülen is a radical religious imam who wants seriat in all the world, a Islamic world. Government and president are the ones to be accused to let him take all the positions.”
Joris Leverink explained that Erdoğan effectively used the coup to silence opposition including the capulcus, Kurds, Alevis, and LGBT groups; create the belief in the power of the people who overcame the coup attempt; and further his desire to replace Ataturk as the great man in Turkish history.[lxv] The government posted the slogan “sovereignty belongs to the nation” everywhere, along with photos of the president and red Turkish flags, but without references to the AKP party. At frequent “democracy watches” crowds shout “God is great.” My Turkish contacts are afraid to speak out.
[i] Gezi Park video YouTube
[ii] Ali B., “Notes on the Uprising in Turkey,” in “Voices of Resistance from Occupied London #5, Disorder of the Day,” ROAR Magazine, Fall 2013.
[iv] Firat Kayakiran and Selcan Hacaoglu, “Turkey’s Old-Gurard Opposition Fights to Surf Wave of Protest,” Bloomberg News, January 20, 2013.
[v] Firat Kayakiran and Selcan Hacaoglu, “Turkey’s Old-Guard Opposition Fights to Surf Wave of Unrest,” Bloomberg News, January 20, 2013
[vi] Jack Goldstone, “Youth Bulges and the Social Conditions of Rebellion,” World Politics Review, November 20, 2012.
[vii] Stephen Wade, “Brazil Faltering Under Pressure of World Cup, Olympics,” The News-Herald, January 20, 2014.
[viii] Mustafa Akyol, “Whatever Happened to the ‘Turkish Model’?” New York Times, May 5, 2016.
[ix] Yvo Fizherbert, “Erdogan Sacrifices Peace to Entrench his Own Power,” ROAR Magazine, August 3, 2015.
[x] Yvo Fitzherbert, “Kurdish Neighborhoods Take Arms as they Declare Autonomy in Turkey,” Middle East Eye, August 27, 2015.
[xi] Ceylan Yeginsu, “Turkey’s Campaign Against Kurdish Militants Takes Toll on Civilians,” New York Times, December 30, 2015.
Alex Kemman, “Whispers of War in North Kurdistan—a Photo Essay,” ROAR Magazine, March 8, 2016.
[xii] Basak Tanulku, “Gezi Park Events: Various Shades of the Opposition against the Authoritarian Rule,” Urban Cultural Studies, September 20, 2013.
[xiii] Mary Lou O’Neil and Fazil Guler, “Strangers to and Producers of their Own Culture: American Popular Culture and Turkish Young People,” Comparative American Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3, September 2010, pp. 230-243.
[xiv] Basak Tanulku, “Gezi Park Events: Various Shades of the Opposition against the Authoritarian Rule,” Urban Cultural Studies, September 20, 2013.
Gazi to Gezi, 2015. The uprising is told from the point of view of a paving stone. https://vimeo.com/108620724
[xvi] Julius Gavroche, “Understanding the Kurdish Resistance,” Autonomies, September 28, 2015.
[xx] Edrem Colak and Selen Yamak, “History, Struggle, and Class: Gezi Resistance,” a paper presented at SUNY Stony Brook, June 6, 2014.
[xxi] Özden Melis Uluğ and Yasemin Gülsüm Acar, “The Body Politicized: The Visibility of Women at Gezi,” ROAR Magazine, January 9, 2014.
[xxiv] Birce Altiok and Kerem Yidirim, ‘’’Characteristics of Prolonged Social Movements: The Case of Gezi Park Protests,” paper presented at the Contentious Politics in the Middle East Conference, 2014.
[xxvi] Oscar ten Houten. #Occupy Gezi. @postvirtual, 2013.
[xxvii] Suzy Hansen, “Whose Turkey is It?”, New York Times, February 5, 2014.
[xxix] Umut Uras, “Turks Sharply Split Over Protest Movement,” Al Jazeera, June 13, 2013.
[xxxi] Antoun Issa, “How Gay Rights Advance Democracy in the Middle East,” Foreign Policy, July 22, 2016.
[xxxii] Basak Tanulku, “Gezi Park Events: Various Shades of the Oppostion against the Authoritarian Rule,” Urban Cultural Studies, September 20, 2013.
[xxxiii] Balca Arda, “Apolitical is Political,” Interface Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, May 2015, pp. 9-18.
[xxxiv] Dilan Koese, “Revolt of Dignity,” ROAR Magazine, January 7, 2014.
[xxxv] Fiona Hill and Hannah Thoburn, “We Are Not Cattle: Protesters in Turkey and Russia,” Brookings Institution, June 24, 2013.
[xxxvi] Coskun Tastan, “The Gezi Park Protests in Turkey: A Qualitative Field Research,” Insight Turkey, Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer 2013, pp. 27-38.
[xxxvii] Firat Kayakiran and Selcan Hacaoglu, “Turkey’s Old-Gurard Opposition Fights to Surf Wave of Protest,” Bloomberg News, January 20, 2013.
[xxxviii] Firat Kayakiran and Selcan Hacaoglu, “Turkey’s Old-Guard Opposition Fights to Surf Wave of Unrest,” Bloomberg News, January 20, 2013
[xl] Kemal Kirisci, “Turkey Protests,” Brookings Blogs, June 13, 2013.
[xlii] Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsu, “Amid Flow of Leaks, Turkey Moves to Crimp Internet,” New York Times, February 6, 2014.
[xliii] Binnaz Saktanber, “’Cease and Censor’ in Turkey’s War on Social Media,” ROAR Magazine, February 20, 2015.
[xliv] Suzy Hansen, op. cit.
[xlv] Saygun Gokariksel, “Speaking of Resistance,” Occupy.com, August 8, 2013.
[xlvii] Joris Leverink, “Kazova Workers Claim Historic Victory in Turkey,” ROAR Magazine, May 1, 2015.
[xlviii] Birce Altiok and Kerem Yidirim, ‘’’Characteristics of Prolonged Social Movements: The Case of Gezi Park Protests,” paper presented at the Contentious Politics in the Middle East Conference, 2014.
[xlix] Emre Kizilikaya, “Turkey’s Stairway to a Democratic Heaven,” Al-Monitor, September 1, 2013.
[li] “Gezi’s Echo and the Battle for Public Spaces in Turkey,” Global Voices, December 14, 2014.
[lii] Tim Arango, “Turkish Leader, Using Conflicts, Cements Power,” New York Times, October 31, 2014.
[liii] Susan Fraser, “Turkey Teen Jailed for Allegedly Insulting President Released,” TheStar.com, December 26, 2014.
[liv] “1,845 Erdoğan Insult Cases Opened in Turkey Since 2014.” The Guardian, March 2, 2016.
[lv] Ceylan Yeginsu, “Turkey Promotes Religious Schools, Often Defying Parents,” New York Times, December 16, 2014.
[lvi] ROAR Collective, “Beyond Gezi: What Future for the Movement?” ROAR Magazine, January 16, 2014.
[lvii] Joris Leverink, “Turkey’s Radicalizing Youth Dominates Escalating Conflict,” TeleSUR, September 19, 2015.
[lviii] Kareem Shaheen, “Turkish Election Campaign Unfair, say International Monitors,” The Guardian, November 2, 2015.
[lix] Sabrina Tavernise, “As Erdogan Sculpts New Turkish Identify, Turks Look at His Work With Unease,” New York Times, July 11, 2016.
[lx] Selin Girit, Turkish Students Fear Assault on Secular Education,” BBC News, June 21, 2016.
[lxiii]“Turkish Post-Coup Purges Sweep through Education as Thousands of Teachers Lose their Jobs,” Euronews, July 19, 2016.
[lxiv] Tim Arango, et al., “Turks See Purge as Witch Hunt of ‘Medieval’ Darkness,” New York Times, September 17, 2016.
[lxv] Joris Leverink, “Fabricating Illusions of People Power in Post-Coup Turkey,” ROAR Magazine, August 28, 2016.