Friday, November 15, 2013

Protests in Turkey: Three Firsthand Accounts

This post was originally published in the Fall 2013 Illinois International Review, Issue No. 17.

Levi Armlovich is a second year master’s student in European Union Studies. He is currently pursuing a dual degree in Law and European Union Studies and is interested in international business and trade law. He spent this past summer in Izmir, Turkey, on a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship, where he observed the protests firsthand.

Night scene from Gezi Park in early June 2013,
 with celebration and dancing in
Taksim square in the early hours of the morning.
This summer Turkey was rocked by the largest protests the country has seen in decades. What started as a minor environmental protest against a development project in Istanbul escalated into nationwide anti-government protests after the police violently evicted the original environmental protestors from Gezi Park. News of the crackdown ricocheted around the social media universe and spawned sympathy protests throughout the country. As protesters battled riot police in more than 90 cities, Turkish news outlets refused to cover the protests, broadcasting instead vanilla programs including a now famous documentary about penguins.

I arrived in Izmir to begin a two-month language course the night the protests started. Those first few days were intense; I did not go out after dark. After the police withdrew and the violence died down, I was able to go out and observe the protests firsthand.

After I came back to the States, I sat down with Dr. Sebnem Ozkan, outreach coordinator for the European Union Center, and Dr. Mahir Saul, professor of anthropology, to discuss what happened in Turkey this summer and what it meant. The following is from our conversation.

Where were you during the protests this summer?

Saul: I arrived in Istanbul on May 29, Wednesday afternoon, and went to an apartment I had sublet off Istiklal Street, near Taksim Square where the protests were centered. Late Friday morning, I went to Istiklal Street to renew my local cell phone contract, but instead I found a battle zone. A dense crowd of protestors, mostly young teenagers and women, were cautiously moving toward the Taksim end of the street and occasionally surging in the opposite direction. At the Galatasaray intersection, I saw a very large number of riot police with full body shields, helmets, and gas masks. They were shooting tear gas grenades towards Taksim Square. Suddenly I found myself in a rush of people fleeing back away from the square. This whole time tear gas had been wafting throughout the neighborhood, and everyone had burning eyes and occasional bouts of coughing, but suddenly my chest constricted and I could not breathe. I was caught in a dense fog of gas, and had no idea what was happening around me. I thought I was going to pass out, and ideas rushed to my head about what might happen if I was left unconscious in the street. Luckily I was able to get away. The protests continued until late that night, but my memories of that period are hazy.

You were in Istanbul for the beginning of the protests, then traveled to Brussels. What was the reaction to the protests like in the European Union?

Ozkan: I left Istanbul for Brussels on June 16th, the morning of one of the most violent police assaults. When I arrived in Schuman Station at the heart of the European quarter of Brussels, I thought I was back in Istanbul. Turkish groups were demonstrating in front of the European Parliament in support of the protestors in Istanbul. The way the Turkish government handled the protests clearly took a toll on Turkey’s bid to join the EU. Germany took the lead in opposing Turkey’s EU membership talks, which was unfortunate because an intergovernmental conference had been scheduled for later in June to break a three-year stalemate and re-launch negotiation talks.

More discouraging to me personally, however, were the disparaging comments some EU officials made about Turkish democracy. I agree that the Turkish government failed to meet the democratic standards of the EU. However, I am deeply concerned about the observation that Turkey has yet to become a democratic country. I think the protesters proved that the people are ready to become part of the “European” public, and indeed that they are Turkey’s greatest assurance of democracy.

These protests were characterized by a huge outpouring of creativity. Can you comment on the role that art played in these protests?

Protesters repurpose a road construction machine
 covered with pink paint, displaying the impact
 of the LGBT movement on the protestors’ imagination.
Ozkan: Yes, art and satire were main aspects that set these protests apart from former instances of social upheaval. It would be wrong to suggest that this was the first time critical humor had been used by protestors, but intelligent humor, questioning the dominant political discourse, exposing its limits, and even turning the official narrative against itself, became the very spirit of the protests. This might have been the first time that protestors laughed more than they cried, despite the heavy use of tear gas. The will and imagination that protestors needed to resist the violence came as much from art and satire as it did from suffering. The role and impact of art and satire were amplified by social media. I checked social media religiously every morning to see what new wit the day brought, and I found hope for a better Turkey in that wittiness.

Saul: The wit and intelligence displayed in the protests were some of its most unexpected pleasures. The graffiti and the posters on the walls were collectively a masterpiece of ingenuity and creativity. The tensions among the constituent groups of the very heterogenous protest movement were also exposed through creativity. An early phase where crude expressions of anger found outlet in insults soon gave way to more subtle humor. Growing sensitivity to sexism and homophobia became noticeable in the slogans. I think it was a first in Turkey. I hope this will be a permanent gain from this extraordinary period.

What made these protests “extraordinary?”
Protesters in the street on the northern flank of Gezi park.

Saul: In that period in June, there was a palpable sense of camaraderie in the protest scene and a strong sense of empowerment underlying it. People were aware that they were making history. It was a moment of transcendence, goodwill toward fellow citizens, and openness to the world. One example of such openness was the embrace of LGBT protesters by football fans. Fans of Istanbul’s three largest football clubs, Besiktas, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahçe, are renowned for their violent riots at football matches and their battles against the police. During the protests, however, they made a show of solidarity, not just with each other, but with everyone at the protests. Representatives from the LBGT community complained in the early weeks that many of the slogans used against the police were sexist and homophobic. The sports fans agreed to undergo sensitivity lessons given by the LGBT community and to avoid this kind of language in the future. In return, they trained volunteers to go on the vanguard wearing special masks and gloves and to catch the gas canisters and throw them back into the police ranks. They also trained people how to evacuate the wounded from a crowd and how to avoid stampedes. The old tensions and divisions are not totally gone, but in moments when they did surface in the streets, the general character of the movement rejected them. I had never experienced anything like this before.

Ozkan: The protests constituted a key turning point in the political and social history of Turkey and will continue to serve as a reference point in the years to come. It was truly a transformative moment, especially with regards to the media. When the mainstream TV channels turned a blind eye to what was happening in the streets all over Turkey and instead broadcast documentaries about penguins, many people realized that the media might have been equally dishonest in its treatment of other politically sensitive issues. For example, some of my own relatives who have always been diehard Kemalist nationalists and approached the Kurdish movement with suspicion realized that it was the same crusader media that had shaped their understanding and view of the Kurdish “problem” over the years. Now, when my relatives come to me with an outrageous argument about the demands of the Kurdish movement, all I have to say is “Remember Gezi?”

* * *

Although the protests largely died down by the end of July, aftershocks continue to rattle the country. On September 8th, a 22-year-old man died in a protest in southeastern Turkey against another government development project. People at the scene said that police shot him in the head with a tear gas grenade. The police denied responsibility for his death. Across Turkey there is a sense of waiting, a sense that things might get worse before they eventually get better. As students return to the universities this fall protests are expected to continue. Only time will tell what the eventual impact of these protests will be.

Photos courtesy Sinan Saul


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