People’s resistance against the police terror in Turkey

June 2013 saw the most militant and spontaneous mass resistance of people against police terror and state repression in Turkey. Within days a peaceful demonstration of a relatively small number of environmental activists to save a park in central Istanbul from development had turned into a nationwide act of resistance. It became a major crisis of the political system - unprecedented for decades. The inspiring mass actions of the people have been the greatest challenge so far to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, which was, after winning the elections for the third consecutive time in 2011, confident and arrogant. Ali Erkaslan reports.

On Friday 31 May the police brutally attacked the demonstrators who had been peacefully occupying Gezi Park, a relatively small recreational area near Taksim Square. Due to the excessive use of tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons by the police, the people were forced out of the park but they did not disappear; on the contrary, the number of protesters increased. Thanks to the use of social media, news rapidly spread and thousands of people from all over Istanbul gathered around Taksim Square, the historically iconic site of mass working class rallies and demonstrations. Under the banner ‘Occupy Taksim’, 40,000 people marched in the night from Friday to Saturday from the Asiatic part of Istanbul over the Bosphorus Bridge towards Taksim Square, which the police had blocked. On 1 June, football supporters, especially Besiktas, Istanbul, called ‘Carsi’, joined the protests in their thousands. Supporters of different teams, usually arch-enemies, combined against the common enemy: the AKP government and its police.

Clashes between police and demonstrators continued all day on 1 June and, under pressure from its supporters, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) cancelled a mass rally in Kadikoy, in the Asiatic part of Istanbul, and decided to join the demonstrators in Taksim Square. That night, in different parts of Istanbul, courageous battles against the police were at their peak. Istanbul was not alone - protests took place in other major Turkish cities like Ankara, Kocaeli, Dersim, Izmir, Antalya, Adana, Eskisehir and Antakya. All the marches were met with police terror and became local points of resistance against state repression. By 2 June a million people were resisting the police across the country. According to the Ministry of the Interior there had been 90 demonstrations in 46 different cities. At one time, in 77 different cities, 2.5 million people were on the streets demonstrating against the dictatorial rule of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP. Turkey was rocked by the impact.

The resistance was no longer just about defending a park against development. This was the explosion of an anger which has been gathering over years against the AKP government and Taksim Square was once again the focal point of resistance against the despotic Turkish state and police terror. Bourgeois, pro-imperialist Prime Minister Erdogan faced his greatest political challenge since he came to power in 2002. Every single demonstration in every part of Turkey called for his resignation, whereas just days before it seemed that his control of the country was unshakable. After all he and his government were praised, even internationally, for Turkey’s rapid economic growth and for the peace process with the Kurdish national movement - and it was Erdogan, who has been able to break the power of the generals in Turkey, who, since the foundation of the republic, have been a dominant force in Turkey’s politics.

But things are not always as they appear to be. During their 11 years of rule, especially since the 2011 elections, the AKP has been at war with many sections of society:

  • Students have been attacked and gaoled for protesting against university fees;
  • Neo-liberal policies made thousands of people jobless;
  • Journalists were silenced with 67 of them are in gaol;
  • Kurdish politicians, including elected councillors, have been gaoled in their hundreds;
  • Women, trade unionists, environmental activists, artists, football team supporters, workers at May Day demonstration, Kurds, in short whoever dared to protests for their rights or for their democratic causes have been brutally attacked by the police.

Erdogan’s government could not tolerate any criticism, however peaceful it may have been. Under AKP rule, collaboration with imperialism has increased. Hatay, the town on the border with Syria, harboured organisations fighting against the Assad-led government. Turkey’s people see this as a major problem which will eventually drag Turkey into the war. The intervention by the AKP in the social and cultural life of urban middle classes in the western cities of Turkey also added to the anger. Purchasing alcohol from 10pm to 6am has been banned and it is now illegal to sell alcohol within 100 metres of religious and educational facilities. Kissing in certain public places is banned. Erdogan’s decisions can even change the script of soap operas, if he thinks it is against the traditional family life of Turks. He tells women what to wear and how many children to have and not to have abortions. He decides whether an artistic piece is beautiful or not. In 2011, after Erdogan called a gigantic statue in east Turkey, erected as a memorial symbolising the fraternity of the Turkish and Armenian peoples, a ‘monstrosity’, it was removed. As a TV commentator put it during the protests: people were fed up with Erdogan the sculptor, art critic, architect, engineer, family planner, gynaecologist, philosopher, soldier, historian, sociologist, philologist, economist, religious expert, book reviewer and teacher.

A democratic people’s movement

Finally, the people rose up. The resistance in the form of daily streets battles against the police was an unorganised, leaderless mass action bringing thousands of people into direct confrontation with the Turkish state for the first time. Masses from different sections and classes of the society were united in two ways: fighting police brutality and demanding the resignation of the AKP government. Even though the resistance lacked a central organisational body and leadership it would be an error to say that the people resisting had no political consciousness. The masses were and still are acting with a democratic consciousness. This is a democratic people’s movement, which wants to reclaim its right to participate in the decision making processes. ‘Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance’, ‘Shoulder to shoulder against fascism’ and ‘This is just the beginning, the struggle continues’ were the most widely used slogans at every demonstration in every city. So, by saying that this was just the beginning, the people indicated they were ready for a longer struggle. And indeed the struggle continued with a stubbornness which no one could predict.

The resistance continued and on 3 June the protesters successfully fought back and the police had to withdraw from Taksim Square and Gezi Park. The people, inspired by other occupy movements around the world, occupied the Square and the park. As soon as the occupation was consolidated and the people realised that they were there to stay the space was turned into an area free of capitalist relations and state oppression. Groups as diverse as Turkish nationalists, communists, Kurdish people, middle class professionals, anti-capitalist Muslims, social democrats, LGTB’s and anarchists enjoyed a communal life. Barricades were set up around Taksim Square and the streets leading to it. People organised workshops; there were even concerts by famous singers. A library was set up and daily film showings were organised. This festive mood on Taksim Square, in the apparent absence of police (even though the place was teeming with undercover police, who had, for example, tried to create tensions between Turkish nationalists and the Kurdish people) was in total contrast with the situation in other districts of Istanbul and other Turkish cities. Just one mile away from Taksim Square, in Dolmabahce and Besiktas, daily battles were fought against the police, especially late at night. Also in Ankara, Izmir, Adana and Hatay resistance to police terror continued daily. In other relatively smaller cities the police cracked down on demonstrations even more brutally, as these cities were not a focus of the international media.

Despite the police terror the people did not retreat. By 6 June three people had been killed by the police. More than 4,000 people were injured, 40 of them were in a critical condition. But nothing could stop the demonstrators taking to the streets the next day. Without a unifying ideology or a concrete political programme, people from different sections of the society came together on the streets night after night with a single and clear demand: this government had to resign.

Obviously the Turkish left has been involved in this process, too. Members of left organisations, with years of experience in street combat against the police, fought the Turkish state side-by-side with the risen people. Without the militancy of the radical left organisations the police at Taksim Square could not have been fought and the Square’s occupation would not have taken place. After decades the radical Turkish left, including ‘illegal’ organisations, found through the occupation and the resistance on the streets direct contact with the masses. This provided a great opportunity for the organisations to openly talk to people and to discuss politics. As far as the people were concerned they understood that the radical left were not a bunch of criminals spreading terroristic violence. In Taksim Square and in the cities of Turkey the first part of a nightmare scenario for any ruling class government was coming true: the unity of the radical left with the masses. Since the start of the resistance every government member, especially Erdogan, repeated statements about the difference between genuine protesters and marginalised terrorist organisations planning to highjack the action of honest and sincere citizens. According to the government and its media the illegal elements were exploiting the protests for their own agenda which was to cause trouble and terrorise the ‘citizens’.

Kurdish participation

The Kurdish organisations were not directly involved in the resistance and, to an extent, this is understandable. Even though the leaders of the legal Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said that they sympathised with the democratic demands and actions of the people, BDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas said on 2 June that although he valued the mass actions and condemned the government for the excessive use of tear gas, their grass-roots organisations had nothing in common and could not be on the same platform with what he described as nationalists and fascists in Taksim Square. Therefore they would not mobilise. Demirtas represents petty-bourgeois sections in the Kurdish national movement. His priority was the peace process between the Kurdish movement and the Turkish state. For 30 years the Kurdish national movement was the only organised force fighting for freedom and democracy in Turkey. With Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan incarcerated and in isolation as the single inmate in a prison on an island in the Marmara Sea, and with the Kurdish guerrillas evacuating Turkey as per the terms of the peace process and hundreds of Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) members in gaol, petty-bourgeois sections of the Kurdish struggle can promote their class interests more easily.

A historical opportunity seemed to be lost for solidarity between the Kurdish and Turkish people. A mass and politically directed 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. Who knows better than the Kurdish people how to organise urban resistance and defence against police attacks? The executive committee of the KCK, allied to the PKK, argued that the Kurdish people should take the initiative in these latest developments and fulfil their duty alongside other democratic forces to ensure the process stays on the correct path. Abdullah Ocalan sent a message of solidarity to the resistance on 7 June stating that it had created an important political fracture which must not be exploited by nationalist, reactionary forces. The Kurdish youth in major cities like Istanbul actively participated in the demonstrations. It is reported that one group of young Kurdish people in Tarlabasi (a deprived neighbourhood in Istanbul, close to Taksim Square) set a construction site, part of a city-redevelopment plan, on fire.

On 28 June during the protests against the extension and fortification of a military police station in the Kurdish town of Lice, in Turkey, soldiers shot at protesters killing 18-year-old Medeni Yildirim. According to the BDP, despite the peace process and the retreat of the Kurdish guerrillas from Turkey, 134 new police stations and military posts have been built in Kurdish areas. Without the resistance in western cities of Turkey the killing of the Kurdish man by the Turkish army would not make headlines. However, 10,000 people took to the streets in Istanbul on 29 June in protest against the murder of Medeni Yildirim and in solidarity with the Kurdish people. People carrying the Turkish flag were shouting slogans in Kurdish like ‘Biji bratiya gelan!’ (Long live the fraternity of the people) or ‘Lice resists, Gezi Park resists.’ The second part of the nightmare scenario for the ruling class and the government was coming true: the fraternity of the Turkish and the Kurdish masses.

Shocked by police brutality and the media lies about the intentions and actions of the resistance and the aggressive statements of Erdogan and other MPs against the protesters, the Turkish masses realised that things they read and heard before about what had happened in the Kurdish towns for 30 years could be true: ‘If the Turkish government could do this to a peaceful demonstration in the West, we cannot imagine what has happened to the Kurdish people in remote areas in Turkey,’ was one comment during the protests.

Government response

The response to the protests by media outlets close to the government or directly under the government’s influence has been disgusting. Major national TV channels were totally silent, refusing to air live coverage of events. This has infuriated people and there were demonstrations outside television stations. More proof that the revolution will not be televised! However, some TV presenters risked losing their jobs by opening their shows with solidarity messages to the protesters. The country switched to the CHP opposition channel, Halk TV, to see what was really going on across Turkey. Ironically, a couple of weeks later, the entire Turkish media was broadcasting the events in Egypt live.

Prime Minister Erdogan dismissed the protesters as just a handful of ‘looters’ and claimed that the protests were organised and led by marginal ‘far-left’ groups. He said that he enjoyed a huge mandate and tried to justify his actions 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,’ threatening the crowds with civil war. Melih Gokcek, the AKP mayor of Ankara, 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.’ The same Melih Gokcek hung a banner in Ankara at the point where the demonstrator Ethem Sarisuluk was shot in the head from five metres by the police on 1 June, the banner read: ‘We are proud of our Turkish policemen.’ Ethem Sarisuluk died after 14 days. Mass demonstrations were held all over Turkey in protest at his murder. All of them met by further police terror. On 16 June even the funeral procession of Ethem Sarisuluk in central Ankara was attacked by the police.

On 5 June in Besiktas, Istanbul, after a police attack with massive use of tear gas and plastic bullets, people sought refuge in a mosque in order to deal with injured people. The following day Erdogan made headlines with statements like: ‘They have entered the mosque with shoes. These hooligans have drunk alcohol in the mosque.’ One columnist of the newspaper Haber Vaktim went further saying, ‘They may have had group sex in the mosque. They have desecrated our mosque like the US soldiers in Iraq.’

A delegation of Taksim-Solidarity managed to meet with Erdogan. The meeting did not have a concrete outcome and Taksim-Solidarity declared that they would continue with the occupation until all their demands were met. Among other things the people occupying Taksim Square demanded that:

  • Gezi Park should stay as a park;
  • That the governors and police chiefs of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Hatay and all the others responsible for the deaths and injuries of demonstrators should be removed from their positions;
  • All the demonstrators detained, arrested and imprisoned should be released unconditionally;
  • All the public squares in Turkey, especially Taksim Square in Istanbul and Kizilay Square in Ankara, should be opened up for rallies and demonstrations without restrictions.

Even though these demands were not met and were not going to be met, the atmosphere on Taksim Square was calm. At least they were in direct discussions with the Prime Minister and they thought an attack on the occupation was not imminent. They were wrong. In the morning of 11 June special units of police attacked the demonstrators in Taksim Square. People were caught unprepared but thousands fought on the barricades courageously. Police were shooting with plastic bullets and aiming tear gas canisters directly at people’s heads. Against excessive use of tear gas and plastic bullets the people could not defend their position and they were dispersed into the streets around Taksim Square. ‘Taksim Square has been cleared of the rags,’ pronounced Erdogan.

The occupation of Gezi Park continued and the numbers increased after 11 June. On 15 June Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s chief negotiator in accession talks with the European Union, uttered his ultimatum. He said that the citizens who have supported the protests should go home as from then on anyone continuing with the actions will be considered by the state as a supporter or a member of a terrorist organisation. The police stormed Gezi Park, which was peacefully occupied by people with their children, with tear gas, plastic bullets and batons. Thousands of people reacted with highway blockades on both sides of Istanbul. The police shut the Bosphorus Bridge and redirected passenger boats to prevent masses coming from the Asiatic part of Istanbul to Taksim Square. Nearby hotels which opened their doors to the demonstrators to rest and be seen by voluntary doctors and nurses were attacked with tear gas. The Ministry of Health announced disciplinary actions against doctors and other health workers who provided medical treatment to demonstrators. As battles with the police continued, on 18 June, Bulent Arinc, Deputy Prime Minister, said that they might use the army to break the resistance. This is a very important statement as the AKP was celebrated for ending the army’s power and influence in politics.

The occupation of Gezi Park ended but people kept protesting. Many different parks in Istanbul especially Abbasaga Park in Besiktas (European side) and Yogurtcu Park in Kadikoy (Asiatic side) were turned into areas of direct democracy; every night people in their hundreds came together and discussed the future of the resistance with themes as diverse as the Kurdish question and the environmental damage of the planned third bridge over the Bosphorus.

During the resistance three demonstrators were killed by the police and another young man was beaten to death by fascist thugs. The police officer who killed Ethem Sarisuluk has not been tried. He is free even though there is footage clearly showing him shooting at Ethem. More than 4,000 people have been detained and hundreds arrested. Raids of people’s homes and student dormitories continue, especially in cities where the demonstrations were most militant. There are reports of torture and women have been sexually harassed and threatened with rape. The demonstrators arrested are charged among others with being members of a terrorist organisation, acting on behalf of a terrorist organisation without being a member of it, agitating the people for an uprising against the state, causing damage to public buildings, possession of arms and bullets, storming mosques. There are demonstrations in solidarity with the people who have been arrested, demanding their immediate release.

The future

Since June, the intensity of the actions has subsided, but protests continue over the arrests and the injuries to protesters, and people still gather in the parks and squares to discuss politics. No one can know the outcome of this great movement. But there are major political effects already. First of all for Erdogan: it is more or less impossible to change the constitution to introduce a presidential system, giving him more rights to fortify his personal rule. Secondly, Erdogan’s Syria plan has collapsed once and for all. He will not be able to mobilise the public opinion for a potential war against Syria. Every single step of the government is closely followed by the masses and they will be active again when they realise that government actions are not in their interests. Thirdly, the historical coalition of certain sections and classes of society, which brought the AKP to power and kept it there for 11 years, is disintegrating.

The people who resisted for longer than anyone expected them to resist have gained massive knowledge and experience; this is a preparation for more fierce battles to come. Political and ideological barriers, which were keeping people apart, have been smashed. People have experienced the importance of solidarity and have realised their own strength. Nothing will be the same in Turkey anymore and it is going to be very hard for any government in the future in Turkey.


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