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Turkey’s Taksim Carnival Commune

June 10, 2013 1 comment
Revolutionary flags on the Taksim monument

Revolutionary flags on the Taksim monument

[This post written on 10 June, the day before the 7am police intervention that took control of Taksim Square, the Atatürk monument and the Atatürk Culture Centre. On 16 June, the police took control of Gezi Park as well. For the aftermath, see below].

I still couldn’t believe my eyes as I wandered this weekend round Taksim Square, along with thousands other visitors who thronged there this weekend to take in this extraordinary moment in Turkey’s political life. Even a few days ago there were just a few people camping out in what was once the small, unfrequented park, from where Turkey’s protests over the uprooting of a few trees blossomed into a national protest movement. A carnival atmosphere has now spread out from the park to include most of the square itself, a fair in which an alphabet soup of often little-known Turkish organizations have set up shop. There are revolutionaries, Marxists, Kurdish insurgents, anti-capitalist Muslims, environmentalists and many, many more.

Like all new-borns, a rush is on to name and define the wave of protests. Are they “a few looters”, in the inimitably dismissive comment of Prime Minister Erdogan? But if not that, then what? A Turkish Spring, a poll tax turning point, an “occupy” movement, Piraten or indignados? A political earthquake, sure, but on which of Turkey’s many fault-lines: secular-Islamist, rich-poor, new urban vs old urban, left-vs-right, Kurdish nationalist vs Turkish nationalist, Sunni Muslim vs Alevi, authoritarian vs anarchist, environmentalist vs shopping mall builder? Of course, the answer is all of the above and all of no one of them. As some leading lights of the small old leftist opposition parties put it, the demonstrators themselves probably have as little idea as the government about what  exactly the protests are about. Whatever the final judgment of history, there is already a “revolution museum” in a commandeered hut from the now suspended roadworks around Taksim. And while they wait, protestors take time out at “The Looters’ Cafe and Reading Room”,  stock up on supplies at the “Brigand Market”, and get their souvenir stickers from the “Taksim Commune”.

"Don't bow down" T-shirts being advertised by a penguin on Taksim Sq (a national symbol after Turkish TV news channel aired a penguin documentary instead of the peak of the protests).

“Don’t bow down” T-shirts being advertised by a penguin on Taksim Sq (a national symbol after a Turkish TV news channel aired a penguin documentary instead of the peak of the protests).

A “Taksim Solidarity Platform” has built a stage in the heart of the park for hosting groups like the “Looters’ Chorus” and is trying to rally its disparate members to agree reasonable demands – 35 groups mid-week, 80 groups now – and its officials rush about in union-style printed overshirts. Merchandising is putting its mark on proceedings: Turkish flags with secular republican founder Ataturk superimposed are popular; a T-shirt saying “don’t bow down” is everywhere; there is also a a scarf demonstrating unity in protest between all three of Istanbul’s main rival football clubs. There are many references to the “looters”, or çapulcu, including a T-shirt with the Turklish phrase “Everyday I’m chapuling”.

This is a rare time in which international media are interested in Turkey as Turkey, not as part of the usual effort to pigeon-hole the country as part of the Middle East, Europe, or the Islamic World. The only other time I can remember this happening is during the massive 1999 earthquake around Istanbul, when more than 40,000 Turks were probably killed and the outside world forgot its prejudices about the country and real empathy was on offer. Similarly, visitors from Europe say the “Occupy” atmosphere is suddenly making Turkey looking very European. Unfortunately, the muzzled way Turkey’s national media initially covered the events was a reminder of the non-European limits Turkey’s places on freedom of expression.

Something in the scene reminds me of the liberated atmosphere in 1996, when the UN’s Habitat Conference was held in Istanbul and Turkey’s non-governmental organisations were allowed to gather in an Ottoman barracks opposite the Hyatt Hotel . The idea of anything being allowed to organise legally outside direct state supervision was then very new (Turkey is still digging its way out from being so long the West’s own East bloc government). It was the first time many of the NGOs were really aware of the existence of other such groups, and all derived a great sense of solidarity as they met and talked. Another comparison would be with the first political chat shows in the early 1990s, when Turkey stayed up until dawn to watch people debating their way out of the country’s old black-and-white, enemy-or-friend view of life.

Today, the whole country is now talking about the protests, the new generation of  students who are its leading element, and the way there is a sense of happy, humorous liberation in the air. If only for this reason, I hope the authorities take a European view of this and continue to let this outpouring of democratisation run its natural course in Taksim Square – and that the protestors do find a consensus to take down the barricades, open the square up to traffic and allow all normal municipal functions to resume.

Still, nobody knows how this will end, only that how it ends will define much of the next decade. There are hardline revolutionaries among the protestors’ groups who do want to smash the Turkish establishment in the name of various ideologies. Still, they are far from the mainstream of the protestors, and it seems inconceivable that the security forces should launch sudden violent action against the currently large group of people in the square; yet everyone knows that one day the other foot will fall, perhaps not directly, but indirectly through the ongoing arrest-and-release campaign against social media ‘provocateurs’ or leaders’ public threats and intimidation of domestic and (openly now) foreign media.

The problem for the authorities is that now the protests are not just about Taksim, nor one small social class in Istanbul, nor even Istanbul itself. This movement has taken root all over the country. I was passed on the Istiklal Street pedestrian boulevard leading to Taksim by a band of young men who’d travelled all the way from the southern Taurus Mountains to march to Taksim to protest a dam being near them. And in the working-class dock district of Hasköy, I watched a squad of forty schoolchildren set off for the miles-long march to Taksim with matching blue flags and outfits.

So here are some more photos of the big party, even as we all wonder what form the hangover will take.

A line of stands in Taksim Square in front of the old Ataturk Culture Centre, now a corkboard of revolutionary slogans

A line of stands in Taksim Square in front of the old Ataturk Culture Centre, now a corkboard of colourful protest and revolutionary slogans.

Gezi Park on Taksim Sq is now full of people sleeping in tents, often students, and drew tens of thousands of visitors from all over the city over the weekend.

Gezi Park on Taksim Sq is now full of people sleeping in tents, often students, and drew tens of thousands of visitors from all over the city over the weekend.

Student activist networks from his tent. Gezi Park now has its own FM radio station too.

Student activist networks from his tent. Gezi Park now has its own FM radio station too.

A pick-up truck overturned in the first night of protests has become a wish-list of protestors' demands - typically, an end to the concrete covers up 98.5 per cent of the city.

A pick-up truck overturned in the first night of protests has become a wish-list of protestors’ demands – typically, an end to the concrete covers up 98.5 per cent of the city.

This group arrived from Antalya Province, 12 hours by bus, to protest a hydroelectric dam that will destroy their Tauros Mountain valley.

This group arrived in Istanbul from Antalya Province, 12 hours by bus, to protest a hydroelectric dam that will destroy their Tauros Mountain valley.

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Sample slogans from the political fair on Taksim Square: “Damn the Wage-Slave Order” (from an organisation called ‘Sweat’); “Against the New Sevres [a 1920 Treaty carving up Turkey by the imperial powers] – Long Live Our Second Liberation War” (from the People’s Liberation Party); “Long Live Revolution and SOCIALISM”; “Political Status to the Kurdish People [unreadable]…Mother-Language [Education]” (from the Freedom and Socialism Party); Hope is in You, the Organization, the Revolution; Forward for Revolution, Socialism or Death” …

The Museum of the Revolution

The Museum of the Revolution

The Kurdish nationalist movement has carved out its own corner of the square, where flags showing the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) are waved as here from an overturned police car.

The Kurdish nationalist movement has carved out its own corner of the square, where flags showing the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are waved as here from an overturned police car and activists dance in long lines.

Left-wing groups are rushing to show their relevance by handing out free copies of their hard-to-read publications against capitalism and shopping malls - here delivered to the Taksim Square in a doubtless liberated supermarket trolley.

Left-wing groups are rushing to show their relevance by handing out free copies of their hard-to-read publications against capitalism and shopping malls – here delivered to the Taksim Square in a liberated supermarket trolley.

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Merchandising the revolution: The “We are looters but we feel good about it” scarf scores points off Prime Minister Erdogan’s dismissive labelling of the protestors

The square is 'defended' by numerous but pretty flimsy barricades put up by protestors.

Taksim Square is ‘defended’ by numerous but pretty flimsy barricades put up by protestors.

Paper hot air balloons lit with big candles float into the air each evening from Taksim Square, here seen rising over the 19th century bulk of Istanbul's Russian Consulate-General.

Paper hot air balloons lit with big candles float into the air each evening from Taksim Square, here seen rising over the 19th century bulk of Istanbul’s Russian Consulate-General.

POSTSCRIPT

The day after these photos were taken, on June 11, the police pushed the protestors off Taksim Square. The protestors responded with stone throwing, fireworks and in the case of one small group, Molotov cocktail throwing. The police then used high-pressure hoses and tear gas and tore down flags and banners. The police said they wouldn’t intervene in Gezi Park itself, but eventually, on the evening of June 16, they pushed them out of there too. Both sides accused each other of bad faith – the government saying protestors gave into radicals who only wanted a fight and refused to leave the square, and protestors who said they needed more time and commitments from the government. Once again, the police used force and tear gas in overwhelming measure. Protestors tried to win back the square on June 17, when the photos below were taken, but the police took strong measures to prevent that happening.

A tough column of protestors from the Turkish Communist Party moves through Nevizadeh restaurant street after a confrontation with police.

A tough column of protestors from the Turkish Communist Party moves through Nevizadeh restaurant street after a confrontation with police.

Middle-class girls fix their gear as they try to find a way past police lines to recover Taksim.

Middle-class girls fix their anti-gas gear as they try to find a way past police lines to recover Taksim.

Police in control of Gezi Park

Police in control of Gezi Park

Gezi Park and Taksim Square, back under government control

Gezi Park and Taksim Square, back under government control

Fixing the Gezi Park flowerbeds, the morning after the Taksim Commune was ejected.

Municipal gardeners fixing the Gezi Park flowerbeds, the morning after the Taksim Commune was ejected.

The debris of the revolution

The Taksim Commune RIP

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The Turkey protests – aftermath or interlude?

June 5, 2013 Leave a comment
Chestnut seller to the protestors, on Istiklal St. on 1 June.

Chestnut seller at the height of the protests, on Istiklal St. on 1 June.

The world’s media has descended on Istanbul to find out more about our Turkish unrest, an extraordinary long weekend in which the secular middle class lost its complacency, overcame its fears and discovered political protest. A new sense of humour joined the usually stern-faced national narrative, people are somehow walking taller and it is amazing to hear great, spontaneous waves of clapping spreading among pedestrians walking up and down Istiklal St outside my house. Everything changed, even if the baleful music from the music shop opposite unfortunately emerged from the day of rioting stuck the same gloomy rut (Ol-muyooor, ooool-muyor, “It just isn’t happening…”).

The analysis is flowing fast. Here are just some good pieces in English I saw flashing past: Frederike Geerdink in Diyarbakir excellently explained why Kurds feel detached from the Istanbul excitements – a perspective that shines light on where Turkey as a whole really is today. Piotr Zalewski gave a fine account of the big day on Taksim. Henri Barkey pointedly noted how much he thinks this is about Prime Minister Erdoğan and his “yes men”, and the sharp wit of Andrew Finkel laid out how the PM needs to open up to local involvement in local decisions. Claire Berlinski’s acid take is a bracing antidote to mainstream news on Turkey. Nadeen Shaker had a fascinating interview with a perceptive activist, Ozan Tekin, about what the Taksim Square protests do and do not share with Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

At Crisis Group’s Istanbul office, we couldn’t resist adding our voice to the hubbub, putting together what we hope is a balanced distillation of how we find ourselves answering questions from the sudden inrush of new and regular visitors. You can find our “Turkey Protests: the Politics of an Unexpected Movement” on the Crisis Group website here. I also did a commentary for Bloomberg urging Mr. Erdoğan to engage the protestors. Watching the novel, calm, empathetic outreach of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç at a news conference on 4 June, I felt that if Prime Minister Erdogan can execute one of his famous U-turns and do the same, it would do much to absorb the tensions.

I also attach some images from the scene on Taksim Square and Gezi Park, mostly from Monday 3 June. The upbeat mood was much the same in most places in Turkey. The country is an amazingly resilient place that actually enjoys a good crisis – it’s normality some people have trouble with! Still, ordinary folk are almost competing to get things ‘back to normal’ wherever they can by cleaning up and fixing the few broken shopfronts.

Still, nightly police-protestor confrontations that last for hours on the front lines have been frighteningly violent at barricades in Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district near the prime minister’s office, and in central Ankara. The new slogan rolling up from my street last night was a boisterous one: “Tyrant, Resign!” So for now we wait for the prime minister to return from his north African tour, and to discover whether we are now looking at the aftermath of an emotional outburst of popular sentiment, or whether the current precarious stand-off is just an interlude.

Where it all began - the corner of Gezi Park on Taksim Square, where an excavator's work on May 27 to clear space for a new pedestrian pavement brought a group of environmentalists to protest - and where, when police intervened by burning their tents and tear-gassing them, a national movement was born. (The plan to build a shopping mall on the park is real but was not actually why the trees here were going to be uprooted).

Where it all began – the corner of Gezi Park on Taksim Square where an excavator’s attempt on May 27 to clear space for a new pedestrian pavement brought a group of environmentalists to protest – and where, when police intervened by burning their tents and tear-gassing them, a national movement was born. (The plan to build a shopping mall on the park is real but was not actually why the trees here were going to be uprooted).

While protestors in Taksim largely avoided looting and vandalism, they did target the work machinery for the new underground tunnels in Taksim Square, a first stage in the government's top-down redesign of modern Istanbul's most important public space.

While protestors in Taksim largely avoided looting and vandalism, they did target the work machinery for the new underground tunnels in Taksim Square, a first stage in the government’s top-down redesign of modern Istanbul’s most important public space.

Still, there's going to be quite a lot of clearing up to do on Taksim Square!

There’s still quite a mess to clear up on Taksim Square.

An overturned police car on Taksim Square. However, I don't think more than a dozen vehicles were damaged in the first days at least.

An overturned police car on Taksim Square. Not many vehicles were wrecked like this one in the first days, but Interior Minister Güler said on 6 June that by that time a total of 280 workplaces, 103 police cars, 259 private cars, one house, a police station, 11 AKP political offices and one CHP political office had been damaged.

Another overturned car on Taksim Square, quite a contrast to a typical group of well-brought-up girl protestors, wearing the signature black of the protests.

Another overturned car on Taksim Square, quite a contrast to a typical group of well-brought-up girl protestors, wearing the signature black of the protests.

This group of high-school students skipped class for the third day (and didn't tell their families where they were off to either).

This group of high-school students in Taksim Square’s Gezi Park skipped class for the third day to follow the ebb and flow of protest (and didn’t tell their families where they were off to either).

University students moving off to man the barricades after meeting, singing and dancing under the trees of Gezi Park.

University students moving off to man the barricades after singing and dancing under the trees of Taksim Square’s Gezi Park.

Turkey is a resilient country and people quickly sought to take advantage of any new opportunities - here a man finds a new market in surgical masks protestors use to protect themselves from tear gas.

Turkey is a resilient country and people quickly sought to take advantage of new opportunities – here a man finds a market for surgical masks protestors use to protect themselves from tear gas.

The big clean up by the shops on the central pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal St. was particularly swift and impressive. The biggest problem was graffiti everywhere - some of it injecting an unusual sense of humour: "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (a dig at mainstream media failure to cover much of the protests), "This country is beautiful when It gets angry", or "I've been a faggot for 40 years, but I've never seen [unprintable]".

The cleanup by shops on the central pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal St. was particularly swift and impressive. The biggest problem was graffiti everywhere – some of it injecting an unusual sense of humour into Turkey’s often self-important politics: “The Revolution will not be televised” (a dig at mainstream media failure to cover much of the protests), “This country is beautiful when it gets angry”, or “I’ve been a faggot for 40 years, but I’ve never seen [unprintable]” (More here).