The bitterness has been brewing

June 6, 2013

The rebellion that started over government plans to demolish a park in Istanbul has been transformed into a countrywide uprising against authoritarian repression and neoliberal economic policies implemented by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP according to its Turkish initials. Police withdrew last weekend from Taskim Square in the center of the city, where the assault on activists trying to save Gezi Park first endured tear gas and beatings--but the regime's repression has spread to other parts of Istanbul and other cities.

On June 3, a professor and activist in Istanbul, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, talked to brian bean about the state of the protests and where they might lead.

WHAT'S THE current situation today, June 3, in Taksim and elsewhere in the country?

TAKSIM IS peaceful. People are raising money online to buy supplies (food and drink) to be sent to those who did not leave from camping out in Gezi Park. Ever since the police left, the entire area is like a literal picnic, with many thousands of people eating, drinking, singing, doing yoga, dancing, etc. The protesters are aware that the government would like to provoke them into violence in order to justify its use of more violence, and everyone is telling each other to stay calm and practice nonviolent civil disobedience.

The protesters are a diverse multitude of people who all oppose the anti-democratic tendencies of the government and the prime minister. A Turkish nationalist can protest in peace together with a Kurdish nationalist. LGBTQ groups are protesting together with soccer fans. Old people are there. Kemalists [who subscribe to the ideology of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk the first president of Turkey] are supporting the movement, as are the labor unions and the Turkish Communist Party.

Protesters fill Taksim Square in central Istanbul
Protesters fill Taksim Square in central Istanbul (Julie Facine)

The prime minister is trying to call the protesters a handful of marginals and hoodlums--but the fact remains that these people are not that, and they are not a political or numeric or ideological minority, or simply people from the main opposition party. That should be underlined.

Other parts of Turkey are not doing as great. Besiktas, a neighborhood on the way to Taksim, had been under police attack for the last three nights. The police are attacking with tear gas, and the protesters are mostly young people with no particular political affiliation or organization.

The police caused a lot of damage to the neighborhood, and they are blaming the protesters. There is also evidence that the police are teargasing residences where some protesters have taken shelter. Those who can't be on the streets are participating by making noise--they are banging on pots and pans on their balconies at 9 p.m. every night. People who live close to the violent areas are opening their homes to protesters to give them first aid and food.

A young man has just been confirmed dead in Hatay, a city in the south of Turkey that was most recently in the news because of an explosion that killed up to 50 people. There was a media blackout on the news about this, so there aren't exact numbers, nor information on who planned the bombing, etc. This young man named Abdullah Comert was killed of a cracked skull--we are waiting the final results of the autopsy.

The deputy prime minister--who is the chief spokesperson because the prime minister just went on a tour in Africa!--just stated that over 200 police and 50 or so protesters have been injured. However, according to Turkish Medical Association, there are over 3,500 people injured and at least one confirmed death.

There are thousands of people under arrest. It's unknown if they have been given their full rights to an attorney. The Turkish Bar Association has been circulating the correct information about their rights and volunteering their cell phone numbers.

THERE HAS been a media blackout on the protests within Turkey. Can you talk about this, and what conclusions the protesters in Taksim and elsewhere are drawing as a result?

THE MEDIA blackout has been shocking. The Turkish media has not reported on the events that have been going on for the past six days--at all. Not a single word. I personally witnessed the events in Taksim on Saturday night, the police brutality, and none of the mainstream media sources reported on it. It's crazy-making. We could live-stream the protests from a Norwegian TV channel, but not a single story appeared in Turkish news sources.

It's clear that the media are being censored. Two days ago, as the police was withdrawing from the square, some news channels started reporting it, but they were spinning the story to support the narrative of the prime minister and hiding its real reasons and real extent. People are protesting these channels by going to their headquarters--one nice slogan has been "How much did they pay you to shut up? We will pay you more to report."

Another important conclusion has been that we've been watching the Kurdish movement via these media all these years. It is clear to us now that we have been completely wrong about everything. Some of these media channels own other chains, restaurants, malls, brands, etc., and people are boycotting them everywhere.

The prime minister said two days ago that Twitter is a nuisance to society. The deputy prime minister said today that they could have shut down the Internet and Twitter, but they didn't." He also claimed that foreign-based sources were "provoking us through Twitter and Facebook--the foreign press has an interest in representing Turkey poorly so we should be careful about the foreign press exaggerating the news, whereas Turkish media have been objective and sensitive."

ERDOGAN MADE a statement that this wasn't a "Turkish Spring." But the parallels with the process of the Arab Spring of the past two years have been the topic of much conversation. How do you view this comparison?

I DEFINITELY see the relationship there. For example, Erdogan is saying the exact same things as Mubarak in response to the unrest--the comments about Twitter, provoking the crowds, etc.

However, I believe that the unique context of Turkey makes it different than the Arab Spring as well. The events started as a reaction to the neoliberal Islamist government's urban development projects, not by unions or the underemployed, but by progressive environmentalists, and now, it has become a reaction to the government's antidemocratic decision-making process.

That being said, it has been brewing for a while. It is definitely about the neoliberal policies of AKP--the reason why even religious conservatives are at the protests is because AKP is mainly a neoliberal party, not an Islamist one. There are new leftist political organizations that call themselves the revolutionary Muslims and anti-capitalist Muslims, for example. The main defense that Erdogan used to show how successful his party has been the economic growth defense. This, from my experience as an Istanbulite, has been achieved through neoliberal policies of privatization, union-busting, provocation of cultural wars, urban development, the growth of Islamic capital and the like.

THERE ARE reports of plans by some workers organizations to go on strike. Considering that the entrance of organized labor in Egypt was the final nail in Mubarak's coffin, how might labor action change the situation on the ground?

THE RELATIONSHIP between unions and Erdogan and the AKP has been sour. While it's still legal for laborers of all kinds to organize, there have been firings, pressuring and bullying in every sector who's unionized. To give an example, in my sector of education, members of Egitim-Sen [the education and science workers union] in public universities [strangely enough, private universities have been more tolerant] have been targeted because they had Egitim-Sen stickers in their offices.

Academic autonomy has been threatened personally by Erdogan, most recently a few days ago when he targeted college presidents who postponed the final exams due to the civil unrest, but also a few months ago at ODTU when the students and faculty did not allow him to their campus.

The Confederation of Public Workers Union (KESK) is going ahead with the strike. Their message has been "Stop the police violence or we will stop 240,000 people who work for you." It's a very simple message calling for a halt to police violence--they have no other demand. The prime minister said that he will not be threatened by "marginal groups."

At the latest May Day protests, Taksim, which is historically and symbolically the place where all political demonstrations take place, was closed down, supposedly due to construction and safety reasons. Regardless, most major unions gathered together there and endured extreme police violence.

Since Erdogan and the AKP have been marginalizing the unions, I cannot gauge how the recent strikes might affect Erdogan's decisions or perspective. I'm afraid that it might add to his rhetoric of "See, it's not the people, it's the ill-intentioned unions who are using the people," and be used to justify further violence. It will likely inflame him, unfortunately.

WHAT DO people in Istanbul see as the next step?

PEOPLE ON the ground want to stay peaceful, and they just drafted a list of demands. These include:

Police should withdraw from everywhere immediately.

Tear gas use should be banned.

Those injured should be reimbursed.

The prime minister should apologize for the excessive violence against peaceful demonstrators.

Police who used excessive force in any form should be held accountable in court.

The police chief of Istanbul should resign immediately.

All those arrested in the protests should be released.

- The media should send reporters to the protests immediately.

The new Gezi Park project and other urban development projects should be cancelled, and there be a referendum on what should be done there (the deputy prime minister today said he's sympathetic to that).

WHAT CAN activists outside Turkey do to support the struggle?

YOU CAN also help by calling attention to these events. At this point, the government will only respond to international pressure to stop police brutality, and it's all the more important since the Turkish media isn't reporting at all what is really happening. Public intellectuals such as Chomsky, Ranciere, Zizek and Hardt recently came out in solidarity. There are all sorts of petitions (here and here) asking the prime minister to stop the repression.

It's correct to say that what is going on right now is no longer about the park, but is a civil disobedience movement against the current authoritarian government.

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