A Short Retrospective Look on the 31st May Uprising in Turkey

With this article, I aim at summarizing the key events in the ongoing resistance in Turkey since 31st of May through an insider’s look from Istanbul, with the help of several opinions that has been published in Turkish mostly in alternative internet media and based on my exchange with friends who are somewhat involved in resistance to different extents.

As of today, five people have been killed, three people have died due to cardiovascular and respiratory impact of heavy tear gas, more than ten have lost their eyes by tear gas bullets fired by the police and over one hundred have suffered head trauma. There were thousands of custodies and over one hundred arrests.

Ethem Sarisülük died in Ankara from a police bullet and the perpetrator was released by the court for further decree on justifiable self-defense. Abdullah Cömert in Hatay and Ismail Korkmaz in Eskisehir were killed by lynching of police and civilian fascists and the perpetrators are not fully identified. All three were Alawites and that further raised the resentment of Alawite communities towards Tayyip Erdogan’s rule. Mehmet Ayvalitas in Istanbul was killed by an automobile driving fast into the protesting crowds. Mustafa Sari in Adana was a police officer who fell down from a high bridge while he was on duty maneuvering together with the police troops. There are others in hospitals on the verge of death; there are numerous cases of harassment and abuse in custody. Yet, an accurate comprehensive report of human rights abuses is not available.

For the last two years, Taksim Platform, a group of elite professionals and environmentalists, was working to protect Gezi Park against development for a shopping mall and to stop Taksim pedestrianization project by law suits and information campaigns. A few days before the 31st, a popular Istanbul MP of BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), Sirri Süreyya’s appearance before the earth diggers was a call to the public.

On the 31st, it started as civil disobedience of middle class youth (so called apolitical Y generation) mostly in their twenties protesting the unlawful police blockade circulating Taksim Square and the Gezi, which had been evacuated the same day very early in the morning with a brutal police raid burning and dismantling the tents of activists protecting one of the last public parks in central Istanbul.

Very soon, observing the thousands in the streets, other thousands at their homes and work places became more hopeful. Towards the evening, streets were clogged with tens of thousands of people running back and forth towards guard fences under heavy tear gas clouds fired by police troops. With the white-collars joining after the work day and those marching from the Asian side over the Bosphorus bridge, hundreds of thousands were in the streets, resisting against the tear gas and assisting each other for healing the injuries and the pain felt deep in eyes, noses and throats due to tear gas.

On the 1st of June, when the masses mobilized by CHP (Republican People’s Party) joined the protests (coincidentally, CHP had an early scheduled public gathering in Kadiköy at the Asian side), police had to recede and both the park and the square were handed over to the protestors. This was the end of the unprecedented street anarchy in the west of modern Turkey and was the start of a second phase in mass mobilization.

While the 60,000 meter square space was handed over to the resistance, the mobilization was separating into two. A first group overwhelmingly consisting of the original resisters took over Gezi Park and built up their tents to recreate the communal space, while a second group consisting of some elements of the Turkish left, allegedly in quest of a military takeover rehearsed for a quick overthrow of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government. This second group, fighting the police guard at the Prime Minister’s office down in Besiktas was fortified with football fan groups and individual radicalized fighters with unparalleled intensions, however with deep resentments towards Tayyip Erdogan. Apparently, they were further enjoying their victory over his police in Taksim.

Simultaneously, a similar rehearsal was on stage in Ankara, when groups marched towards the General Assembly but were stopped by the police. Apparently, neither CHP had full intensions for a fast military takeover, nor was the military considering a coup supported with mass mobilization. Apparently, CHP did not have any prospects on democratic control over the growing discontent either. In a few days, when the fan groups in Istanbul receded fighting with the police, it became clear that the fighting around the Prime Minister’s office and the General Assembly was a farce and civil disobedience in Gezi Park and Taksim once again had become the center of resistance.

The first week, Gezi Park and Taksim square was a rebel zone. The resistance was able to expose the hypocrisy of corporate media and to create a crack among corporate groups that are under full service of the Prime Minister and those who had stronger western connections, such as CNN-Turk. Social media was in effective use and the resistance was able to acquire international solidarity. The Turkish government was warned by its western allies in US and Europe. Fethullah Gülen group within the AKP coalition, president Abdullah Gül and deputy prime minister Bülent Arinç were fast to create a shift in the government’s discourse from aggressive Turk-Islamism towards moderate conservative Islamism. In short, Tayyip Erdogan was having really difficult times.

Gezi Park was the playground of independent activists, relatively large left-wing labor unions, trade associations and political parties and numerous radical left factions. While people were learning to stand side by side against AKP’s aggressive Turk-Islamist rule, it was not clear whether they were transforming towards an organic, democratic public opposition.

With that respect, Kurdish involvement from the very start is noteworthy. During the first phase (the two days of street anarchy) young Kurds were active in the streets, stiff fighting to wear the police blockades. In the second phase, the legal Kurdish party BDP (Peace and Democracy Party, also a partner in Taksim Solidarity Platform) was hesitant to encourage Kurds for further involvement in Gezi Protests. While resistance was spreading into many places in Turkey, the Kurdish towns and cities, except low profile protests in Tunceli, were quite silent.

That was partially understandable because there is an ongoing peace process between PKK (Kurdistan Labor Party) and AKP, and there were elements of nationalist Turkish left in the resistance in quest of military take over. Apparently futile but if it happened, that could abruptly restart the warfare in southeast Turkey triggering a brutality which would far exceed what has been observed so far in Gezi Park protests. Moreover, it was not very clear whether many others in Gezi Park and elsewhere were really aware that the civil disobedience that shook Erdogan’s insulting Islamist orientation had actually become possible with the climate of truce that started in March 2013. However, there is a dilemma: as long as Erdogan pursues his aggressive Turk-Islamist orientation, the peace process is fragile and the only way to tame this orientation is through disobedience and building up of peace from the bottom. This path essentially requires, though provident, Kurdish involvement in the resistance.

During the first week, Taksim Square looked like a museum of revolution. Obviously we were not living through a revolutionary moment in its traditional sovietic meaning, however the huge Atatürk Cultural Center, the Atatürk statue and other buildings in the square were ornamented with red flags of left factions. Radicals were taking care of the blockades against police but they were by no means fortified against a well-intended police raid. The state apparatus was watching from outside, the intensive underground construction activity was suspended, all regulations on sales of food and alcohol were lifted and the whole square was a market for the peddlers, mostly Kurdish, trying to make their income out of this unexpected public fair.

The activism in Gezi Park was concentrating on sustaining the communal life, providing food, sanitation and healthcare and outsiders were giving support with few culture-arts-science activities and workshops. Activists were slow in building bottom-up assemblies for decision making and Taksim Platform, formerly a group of elite professionals in local character was transforming itself to Taksim Solidarity Platform, de-facto representative of the resistance with over hundred partners including political parties, labor unions, trade associations, small NGOs and initiatives as well as left factions. Meanwhile, although people around the country were chanting “Everywhere is Taksim, Everywhere is Resistance” they were not building up local committees and the groups in public protests were declining in number. Apparently CHP, either heartbroken with the impossibility of a military takeover, or scared by the scale of disobedience which it cannot control, was totally out of the scene except accidental appearance of some of its MPs.

At the end of the week on Sunday, at a large meeting called by Taksim Solidarity in Taksim, the platform declared its provisions for full ceasing of the occupation. The discourse was global and national, against neo-liberal economic order, against commodification of commons. The provisions were mostly local, concerning the development in Taksim Square and Gezi Park, also including country-wide demands concerning the use of tear gas, punishment of officers responsible for unproportional police force against the public and release of Gezi Park activists put in custody throughout the events. The occupation in Taksim Square as well as the Gezi Park was left untouched, still blocking the public traffic and underground construction works.

That evening, President Abdullah Gül ratified the annoying “alcohol law” restricting alcohol sales. This was interpreted as an insulting gesture of the power block united against the secular society.

The second week, Tayyip Erdogan worked hard to take control and corner the resistance. Firstly, creating a divide in discourse between true environmentalists concerned about the green and vandals and pro-coup groups trying to abuse this mobilization was considered useful. In implementation of this discourse, the police attacked Taksim square and cleared the resisters blockades, vandalized police cars and construction vehicles, the red flags hanging over the large Atatürk Cultural Center and the Ataturk statue.

Secondly, several conspiracy theories were considered useful and put in circulation through mainstream media. According to such theories, the “interest lobby” and the western powers, including major forces such as Germany was funding the resistance to topple down Erdogan, the most powerful prime minister that Turkey ever had, exactly when the Turkish economy was performing at its best. Chief curator of such theories was the director of a mainstream TV channel sponsored by corporate groups close to Erdogan, and he is now rewarded with the Prime Minister’s chief advisory office.

Thirdly, Erdogan was signaling that he can come in some terms with the resistance. With a P&R effort, he first started negotiations with irrelevant magazine figures, then with other artists who showed up in Gezi protests and to the end of the week with spokespersons from Taksim Solidarity.

Here it is important to note several anomalies: Most of the things being negotiated were local demands concerning Taksim and Gezi, under the jurisdiction of Istanbul municipality, but it was the Prime Minister himself, not the Istanbul mayor, negotiating with the protestors. A parallel anomaly was Taksim Solidarity, which emerged from the local resistance in Taksim but now transformed itself to de-facto representative of the resistance in Turkey and negotiating the conditions for ending the occupation with the prime minister in Ankara.

On Friday, apparently, the spokespersons from Taksim Solidarity were quite convinced with Erdogan’s concessions that ironically, the government would follow the court’s verdict in Taksim development, and even if the verdict favored the government’s plan, they would ask this to the public in a plebiscite. Taksim Solidarity had to find a way out to convince its partner organizations and the independent activists to end the occupation in Gezi and to create a new activism, maybe with a few tents kept in Gezi on rotational basis for several uses. In the meanwhile Erdogan was preparing for a victorious finale in Istanbul with his party’s “Respect to National Will” meeting in Istanbul. Time was short. Taksim Solidarity was lacking the organs to arrive at a quick decision. Erdogan was in a rush to prove his ultimate power.

There were full day meetings around the Taksim area, imitating bottom-up democracy, however arriving nowhere. Heroic speeches were celebrated while rational talks were despised. It was understood late in the evening that, actually, relatively big partners of Solidarity were observing that the occupation in Gezi was quite unsustainable and were trying to pass a decision towards a controlled evacuation of the area. Left factions were accusing them for betrayal. The end result of the talks was a quite heroic public declaration that came early on Saturday morning. When the declaration was read on the news channels, it was understood that the resistance would go on, however what specific intentions did the resisters have for Gezi was obscure.

Erdogan’s deep insult towards secular society was not yet satisfied. Saturday evening, quite unexpected at least exactly at that time, a much more brutal police raid swept Gezi when there were thousands of activists and visitors inside. The resisters were followed to kilometers away from Taksim, police force was fortified with transfers from other cities. Now, blockades were not only around Taksim but in everywhere, avoiding groups of people gathering and approaching Taksim from remote districts.

On Sunday, Istanbul was Erdogan’s. Public transportation along the arcs connecting to Taksim and Besiktas was cancelled to avoid possible mass mobilization towards Taksim. Police was attacking small groups everywhere to avoid a mass unrest from the very start. On the other hand, special voyages and party envoys were carrying Erdogan’s supporters from their home districts (some of them poor working class neighborhoods) to Kazliçesme meeting place where Erdogan was preparing to preach on the international conspiracy, the moral looseness of the resisters and how it contrasts with “our” genuine values.

That day, Erdogan once more fall victim of his utter contempt towards secular classes and the leftists.

On Monday, in return, two large labor unions KESK and DISK called for a half-baked, ill-organized general strike, which once more proved that labor unions, as well as political parties were not able to sufficiently address to their members and fellow workers. The setback of the unions’ parade before approaching to Taksim was helping to create a psychology of defeat. On the other hand, people were not submitting but gathering in various public parks in Istanbul, preparing for a third phase of the mobilization.

In one of his regular contributions in alternative internet media, an author identified the movement as “secular resistance”. The resistance was mobilized particularly with strong resentment towards AKP’s shift from conservative populism which supports its neo-liberal economic policies to an insulting Turk-Islamist ideology which risks sustainability of its economic order. The resistance had a mixed class character. While the left parties and unions were systematically making wrong calculations and creating a psychology of defeat, (a fact that would become more evident in the third phase), and while the nationalist Turkish left was searching for a military takeover in vain, the secular resistance dominated by young middle class individuals was now challenged with the task of organizing.

I will summarize the events after 18th of June, soon in a second article. For a background on the affairs in Turkey that had created large scale public discontent, the readers can refer to another ZNet article: http://www.zcomm.org/gezi-park-resistance-in-turkey-reasons-lessons-and-possible-consequences-by-taylan-tosun-1

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