Turkey: people’s resistance against police terror

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Since the end of May, the most militant and spontaneous mass resistance against police terror and state repression has emerged in Turkey. Within days, a peaceful demonstration by environmental activists to save a public park in central Istanbul from demolition has developed into a major crisis of the political system.

By 31 May numbers were building up in Gezi Park, a relatively small recreational area near Taksim Square, because of dawn raids by the police to disperse the people camped there over the previous two days. Police had burned down the tents of the demonstrators and attacked them with tear gas and water cannons. However people did not retreat and the numbers increased. On 1 June, the police again acted with utmost brutality and wounded a socialist MP, Sirri Sureyya Onder. Another MP, Sezgin Tanrikulu from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), suffered a heart attack due to the excessive use of tear gas. Ahmet ??k, a journalist who had served one year in prison after being framed on charges of belonging to the illegal organisation Ergenekon, was also injured when a tear gas canister struck him on the head. The news spread rapidly, especially via social media, and thousands of people from all over Istanbul started to gather independently in Taksim Square, the historically iconic site of mass working class rallies and demonstrations. Under the banner ‘Occupy Taksim’, 40,000 people marched from the Asiatic part of Istanbul over the Bosphorus Bridge towards Taksim Square, which was kettled by the police.

The clashes between police and demonstrators continued all day and, under pressure from its supporters, the CHP cancelled its mass rally in Kadikoy in the Asiatic part of Istanbul and declared instead that they should join the demonstrators in Taksim Square. That night in different parts of Istanbul courageous battles against the police were at their peak, with police continuously firing tear gas and water cannon and charging against people. Istanbul did not remain isolated - protests sprang up in other major cities of Turkey like Ankara, Kocaeli, Dersim, Izmir, Antalya, Adana, Eskisehir and Antakya. All the protest marches were met with naked police terror and accordingly turned into local points of resistance against state repression. By 2 June a million people were resisting the police across the country. Turkey was rocked by the impact.

It was no longer just about defending a park against demolition. This militant popular resistance is the explosion of an anger which has been gathering over years against the dictatorial regime of the AKP government. Bourgeois, pro-imperialist Prime Minister Erdogan is facing his greatest political challenge ever since he came to power in 2002. Since 31 May, every single demonstration in every part of Turkey has called for his resignation. Every undemocratic measure announced by the state, from the suspended 10-month gaol term imposed on the secular and world-famous pianist Fazil Say for his tweets about religion, to the ban on alcohol purchases between 10pm and 6am, or the ban on kissing in certain public spheres to his foreign policy against Syria, are fuelling the anger. Erdogan’s dominance over Turkish politics had been perceived as unassailable until Saturday 1 June, when the spontaneous mass resistance of the people changed everything.

This is an unorganised, leaderless mass action which has brought many people out onto the streets and into direct confrontation with the police for the first time. Despite the confirmed deaths of three people so far, despite the many injuries (some of them critical) and despite at least 1,700 arrests (although that figure keeps changing as some are released while more are arrested), the people are not retreating and the resistance continues. In Besiktas in Istanbul, crowds managed to hijack a construction vehicle and used it to chase away police water cannon. There is no one unifying ideology or concrete political programme which the people follow. These are people from many different sections of society in action with a single common demand: this government must resign. What happens after that is not the current preoccupation.

Obviously the Turkish left is also involved. The members of left organisations, who have years of experience in street combats against the police are fighting the Turkish state apparatus side by side with the people who have risen. An unprecedented level of unity and solidarity rules in the streets of Turkey. Communists, social democrats, Muslims, middle classes, anarchists, Kemalist nationalists and Kurdish individuals, small shop owners are on the streets shoulder to shoulder.

Nor are those on the streets isolated from the rest of the society. Ordinary people are openly declaring their solidarity, and local shops are supporting those injured during battles with the police. Bakeries are supplying free bread and restaurants are providing drinks. When a known franchise does not offer refuge to demonstrators who are being chased by the police, a boycott immediately takes place. According to twitter reports from trusted sources, even the Starbucks in Taksim Square has had to turn a corner of its premises into a small infirmary for injured protesters.

The response of the media to the outbreak of mass protests all over the country has been utterly disgusting. The major national TV channels have been totally silent, refusing to air live coverage of events. There has been a total media blackout. This has infuriated people and there have been demonstrations held outside television stations. Another proof that the revolution will not be televised! However, some TV presenters have risked losing their jobs by opening their shows with solidarity messages to the protestors. The country is switching to the CHP opposition channel Halk TV in order to see what is really going on across the different cities of Turkey.

The government, thrown into panic by this historical action of masses, has responded no better. As hundreds of thousands ordinary people were on the streets clashing with the police and constantly mobilising against the brutal crackdown on rallies and demonstrations, Prime minister Erdogan dismissed the protestors as just a handful of ‘looters’ and claimed that the protests were organised and led by marginal ‘far-left’ groups who just wanted to destabilise his government. Erdogan also said that he enjoyed a huge mandate and tried to justify his actions merely on that basis, saying ‘I could mobilise my supporters against the people on the streets. When they are 100,000 I could right now bring 250,000 of my people against them.’ This is openly threatening the crowds with a civil war-like scenario. While the skies of central Istanbul were completely covered with the smoke of thousands of rounds of tear gas Sirin Unal, an MP of the ruling AKP, tweeted: ‘It seems to me that some people just need gas’. Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara, also from the AKP, tweeted: ‘Believe me we could get rid of all of you this instant but be thankful that we believe in democracy. We do not use brute force or methods of banditry’. These statements by Erdogan and other leading politicians have added to the anger of the people on the streets. At last President Abdullah Gul, (who was originally from the AKP) had to make a statement to calm down the police. Bulent Arinc, the deputy prime minister, was obliged to apologise over excessive police violence. Their comments made no difference: the attacks by the police continue as do the popular resistance and demonstrations.

The Kurdish organisations have not been directly involved in the resistance. Even though the leaders of the legal Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) have said that they sympathise with the democratic demands and actions of the people, BDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas added that their grass-roots organisations had nothing in common with what he described as the nationalists and fascists in Taksim Square, and therefore they would not mobilise. At the moment a historical opportunity seems to be lost for solidarity between the Kurdish and Turkish people. A mass mobilisation of the Kurdish youth would totally change the character of the resistance and would provide tremendous amounts of experience to the Turkish people, many of whom are fighting police brutality for the first time. After all, who knows better then the Kurdish people how to organise urban resistance and defence against police attacks?

The executive committee of the Kurdistan Communities Union, allied to the PKK, made a different point in its statement, arguing that the Kurdish people actually should take the initiative in these latest developments and should fulfil their duty alongside other democratic forces to ensure the process stays on the correct path. However there are also opportunist racist/nationalist forces which will exploit the situation in order to sabotage the process of a democratic solution between the Kurds and the Turkish state. The working classes and the democratic forces of Turkey need to be wary and ensure they empower the process of such a democratic solution.

Nine days after the uprising first began, the streets of many cities in Turkey still echoed to the chants of the demonstrators: ‘Shoulder to shoulder against fascism!’, ‘AKP has to resign now!’ The students are organising mass boycotts; the Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions (KESK) and Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Trade Unions (DISK) organised a two-day strike action and a mass rally in Taksim Square in solidarity with the resistance. Communities are still out on the streets. Police violence continues, not so much now in Taksim Square but, as the uprising spreads to more deprived areas of Istanbul, so too has the focus of police attacks.

It is too early to say anything with certainty about the future of this movement, but there will be major political repercussions. First of all it seems that Erdogan’s dream of holding a referendum to change the constitution and introduce a presidential system to enshrine his personal rule is shattered. It will now prove almost impossible to rally the majority of the people behind that idea. And the more the people resist the harder it will be for Erdogan to mobilise support for his military intervention in Syria.

The Turkish masses are now a force which will have to be taken into account regarding any political issue. They are alert, mobilised and watching the steps taken by the government more intently.

On 6 June, around midnight, Turkish Prime minister Erdogan returned to Turkey after his trip to Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. He had left the country at the peak of the demonstrations and protests on 3 June. According to the news a miserable crowd of around 10,000 AKP supporters have welcomed him even though the party organisations mobilised the people and provided vehicles to bus them to the airport. There were chants heard from the crowd like “Prime Minister give us permission to smash them”. Erdogan’s speech at the airport was full of denial of the reality and justification of the police terror on protestors. Among other things he said that police had rightly done their job even though some of them might have used excessive force no one had the right to attack the government on this issue. He added that cities had been looted and protestors had burned Turkish flags. The scenes of the Turkish flag being burned had been aired by pro-government television channels during the angry marches and demonstrations in order to turn the public against the people on the streets. The footage has been immediately proven wrong and people saw that this was at another demonstration years ago. Erdogan, although calmer than usual, clearly showed that he will not step back from his policies. As the weekend nears people are organising mass demonstrations and rallies in Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, Antakya, Antalya, Kocaeli, Samsun and in many other cities of Turkey. Hundreds and thousands of people are expected to be on the streets over the weekend. In Antakya 50,000 people marched today (7 June) calling for the government to resign. The city is at the border with Syria and it is the city where the terrorist groups fighting against Assad are harboured by Turkey. The citizens in Antakya have been organising rallies against the existence of terrorist groups on Turkish soil. In the Reyhanli district of the city two car bombs exploded on 11 May 2013 killing 54 people. Erdogan’s government had immediately blamed the Assad regime for being behind the attack but RedHack (a left revolutionary hacking group) published a leaked document written by the Turkish army intelligence clearly showing that the Turkish state had information that cars belonging to Al-Nusra (related to Al Qaida) loaded with bombs had crossed the border from Syria into Turkey.

Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, has sent his solidarity greetings to the resistance on 7 June. He was visited by a group of BDP MPs for the first time since 14 April this year. He stated that this latest resistance in major Turkish cities had created an important political fracture, However it should not be allowed to be exploited by nationalist, reactionary forces. The Turkish democratic, revolutionary and progressive forces should prevent the reactionary forces getting control of the movement.

Ali Erkaslan