By Boštjan Videmšek, Istanbul
What looked like a beautiful dream really was only a dream. After twelve days of festival of freedom in central Istanbul, Turkish government cracked-down the protest(ers), arrested many activists, journalists and lawyers and destroyed the idea that something like a democracy is possible in Turkey. It’s not. And it will never be. The era of human rights is dying down fast. There’s no place for this “dead-weight” concept in neoliberal economy with etatistic fundamentals. Turkey. China. India. Brasil. And, yes, European Union.
But still … Taksim square was for days a place of freedom and forgotten ideals. It will, forever, stays in the memory; in the historical memory. And one could feel it while the festival of freedom was going on. It was nostalgia in live. And a story fortold.
Utopia Called Freedom
On Wednesday, June 5th, in the evening, hundreds of freedom-loving residents of Istanbul were dancing a dance of victory at the teeming Taksim square. During the previous weekend, this patch of ground was the scene of horrendous fighting between the protesters and the police; now it was a liberated zone, where at least 50 000 people congregated every night. After the police finally retreated (both from Taksim and from the Gezi park, the last major green patch of land in the new part of the metropolis that was about to be replaced by a shopping mall), the protesters occupied the zone. They founded what some call ‘The People’s Republic of Taksim’, a liberated patch of ground where people now come to dream of a free Turkey.
Members of various movements, lawyers, anarchists, pensioners, gay-rights activists, communists, liberals, Atatürk fetishizers, united supporters of the Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas football clubs, women’s-rights activists, socialists, raving nationalists, Kurds (!), businessmen and union-members… People of every imaginable profession and affiliation arrive nightly to create an atmosphere redolent of the first days of the Egyptian uprising at Tahrir and of the Occupy movement that swept the West in the fall of 2011.
On every step, one can see the remnants of clashes with the police. Charred buses. Overturned automobiles. Wrecked kiosks and small shops. Almost every wall is covered with graffiti demanding the resignation of the prime minister Tayyip Erdogan and his clique of oligarchs from the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Many of these slogans are openly calling Erdogan a fascist. On every step, one can see Turkish flags flapping in the wind. The humongous speakers are blasting either rock music or traditional Turkish war chants. In certain strategic places, improvised first-aid stations have been set up in case of another police raid. Teargas protection is paramount, since the police used to fire the gas straight into the crowd.
“I’m here since the beginning. We were very much frightened for our lives. Now we are no longer afraid. We have shown them that we’re strong. We know what we want. Our demands are simple: democracy, freedom, separation of church and state,” said Mrs. Zeniyet, a schoolteacher I talked to during a protest march of public servants on the Taksim square. Her colleagues told me about their bout with the brutal Turkish police and the rising tide of totalitarianism in the country. Yet in spite of Erdogan’s ever more authoritarian style of rule, in the past ten years Turkey marked the emergence of a number of exceptionally variegated, active and above all modern civil-rights movements, whose aims are exactly the same as the aims of similar movements anywhere in the wider Mediterranean region. Freedom. Justice. Welfare state. The end of corruption. It is not that Turkey has only now woken up – Turkey has been awake for quite some time.
“Erdogan started interfering with our lives. He started dictating how to live, what to drink, how to dress. Like some imam, I guess! And because some of us here are used to thinking with our own heads, he declared we’re drunks, bandits and extremists! Frankly, I think he’s lost his mind. I never liked him, but I always thought him a rather shrewd man. I don’t know what’s got into him. I’m afraid all that power and money have warped his brain,” Zeniyet went on. Her colleague Hurriyet, who stood by waving the union flag, was even harsher: “Our government is using economic growth as an excuse to lead us into radical Islamism. Which is only another form of fascism and goes against every healthy principle of our society. We are not going to take that, and we are here to show it. If they want to drive us away from this park, they’re going to have to carry us off feet first!”
The entire square was aflush with positive vibrations. On every step, you could see banners proclaiming “Everything is Taksim! Everything is resistance!” Elderly ladies were dancing traditional square dances. The grins were so wide they nearly fell from the faces. The police treat was omnipresent, the brutal violence against the protesters was going on in other Turkish cities.
Despite the grim price they paid, the protesters achieved something that, even a week before, they didn’t dare dream about. The wall of fear had collapsed. And once that happens, authorities everywhere usually have a hard time putting it back up. Turkey’s young and educated generations started speaking out about the dictatorship and their own political ambitions. The entire Taksim and all its neighbouring avenues have turned into a place for celebrating freedom and fresh political ideas. On this tiny patch of ground, but still the biggest occupied public space I’ve seen while covering all major protests around the world in last 15 years, the dictatorship of neo-liberal Islamism was replaced by the dictatorship of civic responsibility. People – perfect strangers – are constantly hugging and kissing each other on the cheek. The streets are pulsating with astonishment over this temporary feast of freedom. Thousands and thousands of freethinkers come here to meet each other halfway. These are certainly images of historic significance.
At the Taksim square last Wednesday’s night saw everyone singing songs of revolt. Both the young and the old were dancing in the street. Raving nationalists were fraternising with the Kurds. The vibe of unity had taken over the square – a vibe, it needs to be said, that always has a very limited shelf life. Activists were handing out food, drink and clothes to thousands of protesters. Several workshops were taking place at once. Both political and merely amusing speeches were being delivered. Some women were practicing yoga as teenagers fiddled with their cellphones and listened to Nirvana. I saw one man reading War And Peace by candlelight. On seeing all this, prime minister Erdogan would probably just repeat his statement that these people were mostly alcoholics, bandits and extremists.
The more enterprising among the local vendors have set up stalls to sell gas masks and swimming goggles. Despite the general merriment, the crowd could still feel the teethmarks of police brutality. I talked to numerous protesters who’d been dealt a savage beating. The policemen, they informed me, fired off rounds of teargas straight into their bodies. Some of the beatings were so brutal one normally only sees such thing in the movies. The police were hitting and kicking women, children and the elderly. According to the local NGOs, around 5000 people were injured during the first 12 days of the protest. Three of them were killed.
“We were simply fed up. The authorities’ scheme to replace the Gezi park with a shopping mall was just something that lit the fuse. Everyone knows that. Our government has been growing ever more authoritarian. All it cares about is the economy and the further islamisation of our country. There is less and less freedom all around. This park is merely a symbol of what Turkey has been doing to its citizens. For the first three days, it was truly awful here. We knew what our police was capable of, but no one expected anything of this magnitude. Protesters were being beaten like the most disgraceful among the criminals. But – and I think they’ve become aware of that – this was a big mistake! Their violence and their arrogance only added fuel to the fire. Pandora’s box has been opened: the riots have spread all over the country. We are no longer afraid. We are united. One week ago, Istanbul was an urban jungle, where it was each man for himself. Now we have turned into a community. That’s a big thing, you know – no matter what comes next! Okay, so if Erdogan comes to us with a sincere apology, if he listens to our requests and pays some respect, then we’ll desist. That would be a good thing for our entire country.”
I was told this late on Wednesday night at the Taksim square by an activist named Ekim, who works at the French culture centre in Istanbul. “Everybody would like to go home in one piece,” he told me: “We’re hoping the authorities will not force us to get violent. Our aim is to remain peaceful until the end.” After saying this, Ekim bid me a hurried goodbye, since he didn’t want to miss out on the celebratory dance that, by then, was being simultaneously danced by over a thousand freedom-loving citizen.
The Mounting Arrogance
“This is only the beginning. The authorities obviously don’t have a clear strategy how to handle the protests. Our prime minister seems to have severely underestimated the power of the streets. By uniting us here – and let me tell you, a week ago many of us were virtually enemies! – he has managed to achieve something truly astonishing. If I may allow myself a bit of irony, those gentlemen in Sweden should seriously consider Erdogan’s name when the time for the next peace prize comes along! I mean, look at all these people here – together, united, with little regard to their different ethnic or religious backgrounds… This, at least around here, is really something new – something remarkable that bodes well for our society!” Such were the sentiments of Ece Temelkuran, one of Turkey’s most influential writers and activists. So far, she has been comparatively lucky. In a country where freethinking is all to often rewarded with a prolonged stint in jail, her open opposition to Erdogan and his cronies has thus far only cost her her job.
When I talked to her on 4th of June, she was outraged. »First the authorities apologise to us and assure us the park will stay… And then the next moment we’re subjected to a full-on police assault. In Izmir, in Ankara, here in Istanbul as well – though here we’ve had it a bit easier since so many of you foreign journalists have come. But what’s happening is insane! A great political masquerade is taking place! The authorities are trying to calm things down. The prime ministers remains arrogant as hell, but his closest associates have all adopted a soothing tone. It is nothing but an especially tasteless example of a good cop/bad cop routine. Oh, and the Western media need to assume a great deal of responsibility for this entire mess. Just like the Turkish media, their Western counterparts pretty much ignored the protests for the first three days. Also, for the past ten years they have done nothing but repeat the demented mantra about Turkey being the perfect fusion of Islam and democracy. I mean, come on! Democracy?! With its hundreds of political prisoners – imprisoned activists, union leaders, students, lawyers and writers – Turkey is one giant open prison! The people in charge are growing more authoritarian every day! And they are accountable to no one! On the other hand, the popularity of social networks here has started going through the roof, especially Twitter! And with these thousands and thousands bliplets of information floating around it is very hard to know what is real and what is not! And no one benefits more than the authorities!”
The Turkish writer went on to assure me she wasn’t about to give in to the euphoria that usually accompanies such revolutionary developments. No way: she had learned much from what happened in Egypt, from the way the Muslim Brotherhood ultimately appropriated the entire revolt. In her view, something very similar could happen in Turkey – at least if the protesters fail to organise politically. Erdogan’s party, after all, has taken the country down the road of political islamisation, which put them on excellent terms with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Hundreds of young Turks have been injured just because the protests injured our prime minister’s ego! The authorities deliberately provoked us – in the first days of the protests, that was their only strategy. We, on the other hand, didn’t have too much time to reflect or analyze, since we’ve been so busy running from the tear gas. But what we can say with utter certainty is that yesterday no longer exists. There is only tomorrow. Erdogan set out to transform the Turkish society into an object. Now we have turned ourselves into a great subject. The wall of fear has been knocked down. That is what matters most,” Ece Temelkuran said to me.
Such is precisely the view of Elik Shafak, a writer and blogger of both Turkish and French origin. Among other things, she wrote: ” Calling the recent events a “Turkish spring” or a “Turkish summer”, as some commentators were quick to do, is not the right approach. It is true that Turkey has lots of things in common with many countries in the Middle East, but it is also very different. With its long tradition of modernity, pluralism, secularism and democracy – however flawed and immature it might be – Turkey has the inner mechanisms to balance its own excesses of power. If this cannot be achieved, however, there is concern that the demonstrations could be hijacked by extremist groups and turn violent. The same concern has been voiced by the country’s president, Abdullah Gül, who gave a constructive statement saying the people had given the politicians a clear message, and the politicians should take these well-intentioned messages into account. Now, after days of upheaval, it is raining gently on the burning tyres and graffiti, and the voice of the young father who wrote the open letter to the prime minister represents the feelings of many people on the streets and in their houses: “You called us ‘unlawful’, my dear Prime Minister. If you only got to know us, you would see that we are anything but.”
So far, violence was the only response the Turkish authorities proved capable of. »I stand and watch, and a lot of the time I feel like weeping,” a painter and webpage designer named Emre told me: “I never imagined such things were possible. I’ve been standing here since day one. There were times when I thought the police would kill us all. But we slowly shook off our fear. As soon as the police attacked us, thousands and thousands of people started pouring in towards the Taksim square – people of all generations, both rich and poor. It was amazing! The supporters of Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas came together, united – it was a miracle! We knew that we’ve grown strong! That we must remain at the square. That this is our one historical opportunity! And then the police retreated. Now, the square belongs to us, and the Gezi park will not be replaced with a shopping mall. That is a great victory!”
I talked to Emre next to one of the countless police barricades blocking off the nearby streets. The young man told me that, for the large part, these protests are the confrontation between the old and the new, the progressive and the conservative, the urban and the rural. He also told me he had never been a political activist, but he had always marvelled how Turkey could still be perceived by many in the West as a democratic society. “We’re everything but a democracy! That is one big lie! Over here, everything has become indentured to the concept of economic growth! And the economy is being controlled by the people who are very close to the state – actually, it is being controlled by the state itself!”
. . .
The Utopia lasted for 12 days. The brutal crack-down was predictable, but something has irreversibly changed in Turkey. For good.