One year since the start of the Gezi protests, and with a major debt crisis in the making, the resistance to Erdoğan’s embattled government continues.
Today we celebrate the Gezi resistance. Today we rally on the streets in a dozen cities across Turkey. Today we will once again taste the tear gas, get soaked by the chemical substance sprayed from the water cannons. Today we march, today we sing, today we shout and salute, dance and remember, celebrate and commemorate. Today we resist.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the latest in a series of violent police crackdowns on a small group of environmental activists from the Taksim Solidarity Platform who had gathered in Istanbul’s central Gezi Park to protect it from a planned demolition. There was nothing particularly special about the event: environmentalists protecting one of the few remaining green spaces in the ever-growing metropolis, and police attacking the protesters with vicious and entirely disproportionate show of force — it was nothing out of the ordinary.
What no one could have predicted at the time was that in a matter of hours the streets of Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district would be swamped with over a hundred thousand sympathizers, and that in a matter of days the protests would spread to eighty cities across Turkey, drawing millions of defiant citizens to the streets against an increasingly authoritarian and oppressive regime under the rule of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
After a day of fierce clashes between protesters and police in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and dozens of other cities, something remarkable happened. The police retreated from Gezi Park and the neighboring Taksim Square. For the next ten days — as the repression of peaceful protests across the country continued, and the deaths of the first “Gezi martyrs” Mehmet Ayvalitaş and Ethem Sarısülük were announced — Gezi Park would remain a police-free zone, occupied by thousands of Çapulers, or “looters”, as the protesters proudly called themselves after Erdoğan had used this term in a failed attempt to insult them.
In the short period that Gezi Park was reclaimed as part of the “commons” — neither in the hands of the government, nor in private hands, but truly belonging to “the common people” — it achieved an almost mythical status. When talking about “Gezi” nowadays, one rarely refers to the actual park, but rather to the wave of protests, direct actions and social resistance that have rocked Turkey on numerous occasions over the past year.
The “Gezi commune”, in which thousands of people briefly experimented with a different type of sociality, and where equality between men and women, between Muslims, Christians, Alevis and atheists, between LGBTQ activists and football supporters, between communists and anarchists, and between Kemalists and Kurds was as natural as the trees amongst which they dwelled, has established itself firmly in the collective imagination as the glimpse of a future society worth fighting for.
In the past twelve months, the popular resistance has continued with clockwork regularity as ordinary citizens still take to the streets on a near-weekly basis. None of the protests and rallies have been as big and spontaneous as those in the first days of June 2013, however. It is not that there hasn’t been enough reason to take to the streets — in the past year alone the government has provided people with ample excuses: yet another corruption probe, yet another murder, the closing down of yet another website or social media platform, and most recently the death of hundreds of coalminers, which was a direct consequence of the government’s neglect and plain indifference towards workers’ safety.
But “Gezi” never happened again — not in the last place because of the levels of violence the police is willing to use in suppressing any sign of dissent. But a more important reason, perhaps, is that the eviction of Gezi Park on June 11, after ten days of freedom, solidarity and great revolutionary joy, not only emptied the park of its protesters, but also emptied many of the protester’s hearts of any remaining hope. The eviction was a violent awakening from the most beautiful of dreams, and those present realized that it had all been just that: a dream, a utopia, a castle in the sky that vanished into thin air as soon as it was confronted with the harsh reality of clouds of tear gas, the popping sound of the air-pressured police guns, the sirens and the mechanical voices loudened by megaphones shouting threats and commands.
After the eviction of Gezi Park, the spontaneity of the uprising which had inspired hundreds of thousands to join the movement, appeared to vanish. But while the protests continued, people mostly returned to what was familiar to them — and political parties, ethnic affiliations and labor unions slowly re-established their central importance within the opposition to the AKP government, by and large excluding those who were deliberately unaffiliated with any of these particular groups and who had attended Gezi precisely because it provided a different model of antagonistic self-organization.
Meanwhile, the AKP has (for now, at least) effectively blocked out any hope of changing society through the electoral route. As the municipal elections of last March made clear, a large share of the population is still happy to give Erdoğan and his companions a thumbs-up for the “excellent job” they have been doing. And with this we arrive at the crux of the problem: Turkey’s growth in the past decade has been unprecedented in the country’s history. Since 2002 the economy quadrupled in size as a massive construction boom totally transformed the country and its major cities. The rise of the AKP, which was established in 2001 and came to power in 2002, coincided with this boom. Erdoğan immediately opened the country’s doors to the IMF and enthusiastically implemented its neoliberal economic prescriptions centred on debt-financed construction and consumption.
In today’s Turkey, consumption and construction are closely linked, with hundreds of malls having been built in the past decade-and-a-half alone, and consumer spending accounting for about 70% of GDP. Corporations with close links to the government have easy access to cheap money and favorable contracts, and are untroubled by the lack of worker safety regulations, environmental destruction, or the eviction and destruction of marginalized neighborhoods. However, brand new empty malls will bring little revenue, and this is where Turkey’s major specter enters the stage: cheap consumer credit. On a population of about 74 million, there are 57 million credit cards in circulationwith a collective debt of $45 billion. Consumer credit has been the engine of Turkey’s growth model for the past decade; the magic trick that filled empty malls, and the opium that kept the majority of people quiet, happy and obedient.
However, a combination of the need to repay $129.1 billion in short-term external debt in 2015, an end to the ultra-low interest rates which made credit so cheap and available to everyone, and the drying up of foreign capital inflows due to the scaling back of cheap central bank lending in Europe and the US will mean that sooner rather than later Turkish banks will want their money back; money that does not exist because it has been spent on fancy dresses, the latest smartphones, widescreen televisions and new cars — or simply because it has been eaten, as for millions of ordinary working people wages are not sufficient to make it to the end of the month. In fact, Turkey is facing a very severe economic crisis once this bubble is going to burst, and it will be the poor and working people who will suffer most.
As we have seen in countries like Argentina and Greece, however, this kind of economic shock can spur on a rapid social awakening, and perhaps the coming crash will allow people to see through the games Erdoğan and his companions have been playing for all these years. The workers of the Kazova factory in Istanbul may be a case in point: they had to hit rock-bottom first — getting fired while being owed months of back-pay, being accused of theft, tear-gassed by the police and beaten by thugs — before they realized how they had been tricked and fooled, and that they needed to stand up and fight to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. What resulted was something that inspired many in the Gezi movement: one of the first worker-run factories in Turkey.
This kind of autonomous working-class mobilization will be a crucial component of future social struggles in Turkey and beyond. As Michael Hardt commented on the recent Soma disaster while in Istanbul for a series of lectures:
“I think the tragic mining disaster provides an opportunity for the articulation of the traditional elements of the working class with the new urban class that was active in Gezi protests. This is a turning point in the public recognition of the destruction of Erdoğan’s neo-liberal policies that create wealth for a few and undermine the well-being of the many including the working class.”
Today’s “celebration” of Gezi’s first anniversary may not succeed in taking back the park and reclaiming it as part of the commons, nor is likely to have a major impact on the constituted powers, which comfortably hide behind a wall of police batons and tear gas canisters, cemented with lies, denial and ignorance. But what it will do is keep the revolutionary spirit alive and show the ruling classes of this country that the people refuse to turn their backs and remain silent in the face of oppression, inequality, exploitation and grave human suffering. Moreover, these protests will continue to pave the way for a common political project that may one day be able to provide a genuine alternative to the authoritarian neoliberalism of Erdoğan’s embattled government.
One year on the Gezi spirit still manages to make a hundred thousand hearts beat faster. Whether those hearts belong to dreamers or to visionaries, only time will tell — but one thing is for sure: today we resist!
Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance writer and an editor for ROAR Magazine.