“SELF CONFIDENCE IS like a virus” explained Eser Sandiki, a young secondary school teacher and socialist activist in occupied Taksim Square on Friday night.
Her words ring true not just for Taksim, but across Turkey where the authoritarian Erdogan government faces an uprising.
Over 70 cities have seen mass protests and occupations involving more than a million people. Many of these, like at Taksim, are surrounded by protester-built barricades made of construction material and burnt out police cars, which make these police-free zones. Inside the barricades, councils of volunteers organise distribution of food, water, the provision of childcare, security and first aid.
Today, with the entire Taksim Square packed an hour after the scheduled time of a major demonstration, people continued to pour in from every street, with some estimating a crowd of up to 300,000.
Half of the crowd at Taksim Square. Pic: Paul Murphy MEP
The response of Prime Minister Erdogan has been brutal. There have been ferocious attacks by the police on protesters, with extensive use of harsh tear gas, burning the tents of those involved in the occupation and undercover police attacking protesters with knives and clubs. According to the most recent estimate of the Turkish Medical Association, over 4,000 were injured, which is likely to understate the reality. Three people have died so far.
This physical violence has been matched by rhetoric which dismissed the protesters as ‘capulcu’ (freeloaders). In response, signs around the square declare “we are all capulcu” and an online TV channel, ‘Capulcu TV’ has been launched. Erdogan also attacked social media, describing Twitter as a “menace to society”.
The reason is clear – while six Turkish newspapers led with exactly the same headline on Thursday morning, and NTV showed a documentary about penguins during the police assault on Taksim – multiple videos of police brutality have gone viral.
The final straw
The spark for the eruption of revolt was the moving of bulldozers into Gezi Park in Istanbul with a plan to replace one of the few green and public spaces in the city centre with a shopping mall. This was simply “the last drop of water making the glass fill over”, as Mucella Yapici, the Secretary of Taksim Solidarity explained.
She is a leader of the Chamber of Architects in Istanbul. Mucella described “the robbery of the city” over the last years – the destruction of public spaces, the eviction of working class people from their homes and gentrification of their areas, together with prestige projects such as a planned third airport and third massive bridge.
This process led to the enrichment of a construction sector extremely close to the ruling AKP party. This re-organisation of the city has also seen attacks on historic buildings representing secularist traditions in Turkey.
Candles spelling out ‘Taksim is owned by the public’. Pic: Paul Murphy MEP
Another factor is the historic importance of Taksim Square for the workers’ movement. On 1 May 1977, 34 workers celebrating May Day were killed after the police fired on protesters.
This year permission for a May Day protest at Taksim Square was turned down. These elements, together with the aggressively authoritarian nature of the Erdogan government, including attempts to impose conservative restrictions on the selling of alcohol, and limitations on the availability of the contraceptive pill, provided the raw material for this social explosion.
Protesters coalesced around five key demands:
- No construction in Gezi Park
- The removal of the police chiefs and Interior Minister implicated in the brutal police repression
- A ban on the use of tear gas
- No restrictions on the use of public spaces for protests
- Release of all those arrested in these protests.
While these are the five official demands, the most popular slogan, which rings out 24 hours a day and spontaneously erupts even far from Taksim Square, is: “Tayyip Istifa” (Tayyip [Erdogan] resign). It is followed by the chant which moves thousands of people to jump as one: “If you don’t jump, you support Erdogan”. This is a now an anti-government movement fighting for democratic rights and freedoms.
The protest movement has swept hundreds of thousands of people who have never been politically active before into action. A survey of protesters at Taksim found that 57 per cent had never been involved in protests before and 70 per cent didn’t support any particular political party.
A guide for dealing with tear gas. Pic: Paul Murphy MEP
Together with these previously inactive people, the movement has brought together unlikely allies. The football Ultras of the three teams of Istanbul, Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, renowned for pitched battles against each other, have joined forces at the front lines to keep the police out.
They are joined by activists from the left parties and unions who have plenty of experience of the repressive nature of the Turkish state. Feminist and LGBTQ activists are a visible force and challenge the sexist chanting of some sections of the protests.
At Taksim Square, flags of Kurdish leader Ocalan flutter alongside Turkish nationalist flags. The experience of police repression and media censorship has opened the eyes of some Turkish activists about the oppression of the Kurds.
For now, the police have given up trying to re-take Taksim Square, but massive violence continues in Ankara, elsewhere in Turkey and in the suburbs of Istanbul. On Saturday night, with the assistance of reporters Reuben and Gielty from Rabble and Turkish activists, I travelled to a working class neighbourhood called Gazi, where 400,000 predominantly Kurdish and Alevi people live.
Here, I witnessed the end of a massive street battle involving around 10,000 working class people against the police. Tear gas mixed with smoke from bonfires as the police’s water cannons fired towards us. A few days ago, 19-year-old Turan Akbas was shot in the head with a tear gas canister here.
He, together with nine others with similar injuries, is currently in a critical situation in hospital. For the Gazi residents and many others, this uprising is about decades of repression and brutality by the police and a lack of democratic rights.
What happens next is not clear. Erdogan has taken an aggressive line, despite other more conciliatory voices in the establishment. Saturday’s leadership meeting of the ruling AKP party ruled out early elections and decided to organise major rallies of their supporters next Saturday and Sunday. Taksim Square is buzzing with rumours that the police will attempt to re-take the square on Monday.
If they do, they will face extremely determined resistance. Having felt their power, Turkish working class and young people are not about to surrender their control of public spaces without a fight. Many are actively studying the lessons of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, seeking to avoid the setbacks experienced there.
The genie is out of the bottle for the Erdogan government – this uprising has the potential to become a revolutionary movement capable of overthrowing it and posing the possibility of radical democratic and socialist change. Solidarity action is now vital to show that the protesters are not alone and that the world is watching.
Paul Murphy is the Socialist Party (CWI Ireland) MEP for Dublin.