A first person account, some background, and some analysis of the ongoing protests in Turkey.
I've been living in Ankara for the past six months and last night I had the opportunity to head down to the main protest in the city. I in no way want to pretend this account is complete and would very much welcome feedback, additions, and corrections from others who may be more familiar with the situation.
I'll begin with some background, go into a bit of a personal account, and then finish up with some analysis of protest tactics.
Turkish politics: on one hand, you have the neo-liberal, openly Islamic, and increasingly authoritarian government the AK Party. Against that, you have a large section of the population who identify in the “Kemalist” tradition of Kemal Ataturk, the founder and first leader of modern Turkey. There's a serious cult of personality around Ataturk and his picture can be found in literally every public building and place of business. Literally. To his supporters, he represents secularism and a European-style social liberalism that stands between them and an overtly Islamist government.
All the major parties are openly nationalist and the main symbol that I've seen during the protests has been the Turkish national flag. But it often seems that Ataturk is all things to all people with protesters expressing grievances that run the gamut from increasing religious fundamentalism, social issues, erosion of civil liberties and government corruption to economic concerns.
The AK Party is strongest in rural parts of Turkey and resistance to the government has been strongest in the traditionally socially liberal, left-leaning, and more European cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The Turkish Left is larger than anything I've ever experienced in the States or the UK and appears to be dominated by Leninists. An anarchist presences seems negligible at best. In terms of traditional class struggle activities, May Day is huge although I've heard little of strike action outside of some very limited disputes centered in Istanbul.
For those who don't know, things kicked off when the government announced plans to clear a park in the Taksim part of Istanbul. Aside from environmental concerns, this is one of very few green spaces in the city. As it came time for the bulldozers to arrive, protests and an occupation broke out. The police arrived, violently evicted the occupiers, burned tents and belongings, and used tear gas and water cannon to clear out the encampment. Dozens were injured, some seriously, with reports of protesters losing eyes due to the violence.
This only sparked more protests and within 48 hours, ongoing demonstrations began to crop up in other cities. Of course, the protests are about far more than Gezi Park. It's a culmination of rising tensions directed against Tayyip Erdogan's government. And it's been a truly grassroots affair. Politicos are present and opposition politicians are trying to make political capital of the movement, but the vast majority of people are attending because they're pissed off. Gezi Park just provided the spark which unleashed a torrent of pent-up anger.
I think this is part of the reason the flags are so prominent. The demands are trapped in the standard political discourse. The sixties and seventies saw major social turmoil in Turkey. But since the last major military coup in 1980, active resistance to the government hasn't been on the streets. The choice has been between centre-left, but highly nationalist, secular parties and Islamist parties. In any case, the widespread acceptance of neo-liberalism has been the economic backdrop against which politics has occurred. Whether the current protest discourse can expand to include a deeper understanding of class issues and move beyond a knee-jerk nationalism, it's way too early to tell.
Again, I want to clarify here: I don't speak Turkish, I'm based in one city, and my Turkish history is not fantastic. These are just impressions and I'd be happy to be corrected by those more knowledgeable.
Some in Turkey have begun calling this the “Turkish Spring”. The western media has begun comparing Taksim Square to Tahir Square in Egypt. I'm not in Istanbul, but these sort of pronouncement seem premature to me. The Prime Minister has been defiant and despite the brutality, this is not the full force of the state. Things will probably have to get a lot nastier and by that point it won't be a matter of saving Gezi, but the resignation of the current government. A lot of that, or course, will depend on the ability of the protests to not only maintain momentum, but to develop more sophisticated tactics against the police.
As it stands now, the movement is everywhere. It dominates the social media (although there are reports that Twitter and Facebook have been down), it's the only thing people are talking about on the buses, and I can hear a constant chorus of celebratory car horns from my apartment.
Like much of the Occupy movement, protesters' tactics so far have been much more radical than their proclaimed aims. The protests in Istanbul may have started out peacefully—I don't know—but any pretence of that is gone. People show up prepared. There's an expectation that protesters will be tear-gassed and they come with surgical masks, handkerchiefs, homemade gas masks, and a variety of home remedies for tear gas exposure (which, trust me, is not much fun). And these are often first-time protesters. They know the score, they go on the internet to find out how to recover from a tear-gas attack, and protest in the full knowledge they'll probably go to bed with burning eyes and an aching head. Once a public space is claimed for the protesters, a bonfire is lit. Protesters begin chants and bang loudly on whatever is available. Graffiti is everywhere.
Currently, the main tactic seems to be waves of people arriving, getting tear-gassed, and then being replaced by a subsequent wave. This is bolstered by bonfires and barricades, including some made of city buses and mobile food stands owned by a company with ties to the current mayor of the city.
I should also note that I can only speak to the situation in Ankara. My understanding is that police are now allowing protests in Istanbul and the focal point of confrontation has moved to the Ankara, the capital.
Over the past couple of days the protests have been building and show no sign of abating. But energy and determination are not enough. The police response will continue to be heavy-handed and simply occupying a public space won't be enough for the movement to win. It's going to have to be able to score victories against the police.
Fortunately, as the 2010 student movement in the UK has shown, the previously unpoliticised are very capable of learning on their feet and devising effective tactics to continue the fight. The fact that the pretence of peaceful protest has been rightfully abandoned seems to suggest that the space for effective resistance is that much wider.