ISTANBUL, July 2013, The White Review
Taksim Square appears at first a wide, featureless, and unlovely place. It is a ganglion of roads and bus routes, a destination and a waypoint, at once central and marginal. Many of the people and neighbourhoods surrounding it are also simultaneously at the centre and the fringes. The square lies in Istanbul’s nightlife district of Beyoğlu – vibrant yet seedy – a must-go spot for visitors who want to see more than just mosques and the Hagia Sofia.
Amid the bustle of commuters and tourists, poor Kurdish kids from nearby Tarlabaşı cook up trouble near the metro exit; in the flowerbeds a discrete society of stray dogs lounge and flirt; and tinerciler – glue sniffers, once ubiquitous, now less so – wander with bloodshot eyes. Each day at around 7 a.m., in the Starbucks, a homeless man who is a paid dog-whisperer has his morning coffee before he sets about training and entertaining the pets of the better off. His workplace is often Gezi Park, across on the north of the square, a dingy oblong of planes, once a well-known gay cruising spot, now a hangout for those with nowhere else to sleep. It’s heavy in summertime with the shade of the thickly planted trees and overshadowed at the back by encroaching high-rise hotels; but it’s green nonetheless, and free, and open to all – something that is becoming a rarity in Istanbul. The blockish hulk of the Atatürk Kültür Merkezi (the AKM) that lies on the square’s eastern side is a case of the central-turned-marginal. It is a seat of memories for many Turks who went there in years past to see operas and the latest plays. It was a purveyor of Western high culture, an emblem of Turkey’s Europeanness. Today it is shuttered and dusty and slated for demolition.
Taksim is fraught with this kind of historical and cultural symbolism. One old trauma has been very much in the mind of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In 1909, the Halil Paşa Artillery Barracks was the scene of a rebellion – bloodily suppressed – against the rule of the Committee of Union and Progress, the forebears of the modern Turkish Republic. It was a clash between the forces of Islamic tradition and Western-style modernity. The Republican government demolished the artillery barracks in 1940 to make way for Gezi Park. Erdoğan wants to demolish the AKM, build a mosque, and bring back the Halil Paşa Barracks. ‘If you have respect for history, research and take a look at the history of that place called Gezi Park,’ he said recently. ‘We are going to revive history there.’
He may not yet have ‘revived history’, but in seeking to recreate the barracks Erdoğan has unwittingly written a new chapter in Taksim’s. In the past month Gezi Park became the focus of an unprecedented social movement, and western Turkey has seen its most serious unrest since the 1970s. One can feel the country shifting course, though in which direction is hard to say. Distilled from its confusion, the cry of the protesters who flocked to Taksim is for the rolling back of the state and greater protection of individual rights. In its response the government has pivoted in the opposite direction: police violence, mass arrests, and vows to strengthen the state’s powers, and to further criminalise dissent.
Living through a moment of history and strife in a foreign country changes your relationship to it. It is like witnessing a friend going through an emotional trauma: it can either repel you or pull you closer. During the past days I have felt like the thread of my own life has been snagged in the twists and splinters of Istanbul’s. Many of the people out in Gezi Park were the kind of people I call friends – a generation of young, globalised Turks, middle class, highly educated, generally unreligious. Many, significantly, have shed the nationalistic, xenophobic baggage and reflexive acceptance of authoritarianism that their parents carried with them. Their ideals and views have never been reflected in the country’s politics. Like the homosexuals and the homeless, the Kurdish kids and the tinerciler, they too are marginal, albeit in a less visible way.
Utterly apathetic about Turkey’s future, they had buried themselves in a world that seemed far out of sight from the public face of the country in which they lived. This struck me last summer, when I went to a music concert with friends in the open-air bowl of the Cemil Topuzlu amphitheatre about fifteen minutes walk from Taksim. The band was Antony & the Johnsons. It was a cauldron buzzing with this young, heavily-tattooed, photogenic generation. Midway through his set, the singer decided to have some back-and-forth.
‘How’s the situation for women here?’ Antony called out. He must have been following the news. A couple of weeks earlier Erdoğan had abruptly pronounced that he would ban abortion, also adding that he deplored caesarean sections. Both, he said, were part of a plot to hold back Turkey’s growth by making women have fewer children – he often exhorts them to have at least three. Antony, a staunch feminist, probably figured that the sort of people who turned up for one of his concerts would feel strongly about this kind of thing. But his question hung in the air, and a quiet collective groan bled from the crowd. It seemed to say: ‘Please, just play the music.’
It’s not that people didn’t care. Friends and acquaintances often spoke of their fear and powerlessness in the face of the government. When ‘Tayyip’ – as they call him, contemptuously forgoing the honorifics usually accorded Turkish politicians – talked about banning abortion, they all knew he could do it with ease if he wanted to. He commands a huge and servile majority in parliament and, like all its predecessors, his government is instinctively hostile to civil groups seeking to influence policy, unless accommodating them serves some other agenda. The secularist opposition, meanwhile, is feckless and disorganised, and remains mired in the past.
These young people, therefore, did not go to see Antony & the Johnsons to get worked up about this stuff. They went to forget about it, to escape from their own feeling of impotence in a world utterly disconnected from their own values, in which a hectoring leader hovered over them, threatening to intervene in their most intimate choices. In almost every other way they had little in common with the groups with which they were soon to share Gezi Park: radical leftists whose organisations had been ruthlessly crushed in the 1980 military coup d’état; Alevis, a heterodox Islamic sect who have faced centuries of persecution in Anatolia; Kurds, Turkey’s connoisseurs of rebellion and the victims of unimaginable brutality over the past thirty years. These young people were the urban middle class, with good job prospects and comfortable lives. They had not yet tasted their own blood on their teeth. What they had, however, was a growing sense that their breathing space, their public freedoms, were diminishing.
One of the most prescient descriptions of the man against whom their anger was directed came from former United States ambassador Eric S. Edelman, in a leaked diplomatic cable from 2004, a year after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had come to power. ‘[A] natural politician, Erdoğan has a common touch and an ability to communicate his empathy for the plight and aspirations of the common citizen. He projects the image of the Tribune of Anatolia, ready to take on corruption and privilege and to defend conservative traditions.’ Edelman listed the new prime minister’s weaknesses: ‘First, overbearing pride. Second, unbridled ambition stemming from the belief God has anointed him to lead Turkey… Third, an authoritarian loner streak which prevents growth of a circle of strong and skilful advisors, a broad flow of fresh information to him, or development of effective communications among the party headquarters, government, and parliamentary group. This streak also makes him exceptionally thin-skinned. Fourth, an overweening desire to stay in power…’
If these traits were observable back then, today they run wild, stoked by a decade of success and adulation. In the years since Edelman’s description, Erdoğan has been feted in Europe and America for his democratic reforms, in the Middle East for marrying Islam and democracy, and by a growing plurality of his own people for delivering competent government and strong economic growth. They have re-elected him twice with ever-growing majorities. Most recently, in 2011, he attracted a shade under 50 per cent of the popular vote. He crushed the power of the secularist military that had overthrown four governments in the past fifty years.
Had there been a ‘Turkey 101’ class when I moved to the country in 2010, one of its first commandments would have been to scrap preconceptions about secularism being inherently democratic and political Islam being inherently undemocratic. The established orthodoxy of Erdoğan’s early years – upheld by most respected commentators – was that in this case the opposite held true. When Erdoğan was growing up in the conservative, working-class neighbourhood of Kasımpaşa, not far from Taksim, his predecessors, backed by the army, were running a secular regime in which religious and democratic freedoms were tightly curtailed. It was a society in which the parents of the young people who came to Gezi Park were unequivocally at the centre, and the pious, mainly poor, mainly rural or urban migrant majority were at the fringe. Erdoğan himself was imprisoned for reading a religious poem during a political speech.
When he and his Justice and Development Party shifted away from Islamism to more central ground, affirming their support for Turkey’s secular political system and thus finding a route into it, the ballot box became their most powerful, and for a time their sole weapon with which to battle the ancien régime. Erdoğan appeared to be the most democratic leader Turkey had ever had.
By the time I arrived this narrative was wearing thin. Erdoğan was successfully challenging the undemocratic centres of power in Turkey, but in ways that did not necessarily bode well for the future. The military was being pummelled into submission by a mass trial targeting around 200 senior officers accused of plotting a coup, but much of the evidence against them was blatantly fake. In September 2010, constitutional amendments were passed by referendum that would supposedly rebalance the dysfunctional and highly partisan judiciary. Although lauded by the EU, in practice the reforms merely traded one kind of dysfunction for another, more dangerous kind: a court system largely subservient to the government. A similar but more subtle process was taking place within the press. As Erdoğan and his party tightened their grip on the levers of power, they and their allies bought sections of the media, and put pressure on the large holding companies that own the rest. Cowed media bosses fired critical reporters and columnists, sometimes after Erdoğan himself had publicly denounced them. While the mainstream media became a cheerleader for the government, a few outliers on the loony fringe have persisted, creating the specious impression that things are ok. Turkey has moonwalked through the first decade of the twenty-first century, seeming to travel at once forwards and backwards. The government’s newspeak catchword is ‘advanced democracy’: crude majoritarianism in which the democratically elected executive is totally unhindered by checks and balances. Erdoğan has now turned more fully to reshaping the country of which he is master, which brings us back to Taksim Square and Gezi Park.
By bringing back the Halil Paşa artillery barracks as a glitzy shopping arcade complete with luxury apartments – a quasi-Ottoman fortress of consumerism – Erdoğan would be sanitising and privatising Taksim, recasting it as a symbol of the government’s twin ideals of religious conservatism and neo-liberal capitalism. When a local conservation board rejected the plans, Erdoğan was characteristically dismissive, declaring: ‘We will reject the rejection.’ In a ruling in which it overstepped its legal powers, a higher board dutifully did just that. Erdoğan is recasting Istanbul at will, and without consultation. Atop Çamlıca Hill, another rare green space on the city’s Asian side, the prime minister plans to build a vast mosque, bigger than any constructed by his Ottoman predecessors. He is also pressing ahead with what he describes as his ‘crazy project’: an artificial Bosphorus to run parallel to the original, a canal to rival Panama or Suez. A few days before the protests erupted, construction commenced on another of his controversial projects, a third Bosphorus bridge, which is likely to lead to the decimation of the pristine forests that lie to the city’s north. To make matters worse, he recently infuriated the Alevis by announcing that the bridge will be named after Sultan Selim the Grim, who spent a portion of his reign slaughtering the sect, which he considered heretical. Sulukule, an ancient neighbourhood under the city walls and long the home of the city’s Roma community, has been bulldozed and redeveloped as a plot of twee Ottoman-style luxury villas. In Tarlabaşı, just down the road from Taksim, a large chunk of the neighbourhood has been similarly requisitioned and demolished, its former inhabitants – mainly Kurds, and also a community of transgendered sex workers – are being shunted out of sight, to forests of tower blocks springing up on the city’s fringes and where, perhaps, the government believes they belong.
As Erdoğan reshapes public space, so he reshapes the space of public conduct. Until recently, he largely confined himself to rhetoric in this regard. In speeches he would tell his people what kind of bread to eat, how to give birth, what television shows to watch and not to watch. He pronounced that the national beverage, often held to be the aniseed spirit rakı, was in fact ayran, a yoghurt-based drink. In the past, he often backed off from his more controversial proposals, such as his proposed abortion ban. In May, however, he forced through a new law regulating alcohol consumption and promotion. Booze will no longer be advertised or promoted in any form, including online. It cannot be shown on screen: movies and TV programmes must pixelate drinking scenes. Nor can it be visible from the street: the windows of shops that sell alcohol may have to be shaded as they already are in much of the conservative Anatolian hinterland. They will become like sex shops. Erdoğan has made it more or less explicit that the purpose of the law is to drive something he regards as shameful and debased out of the public sphere. ‘People who want to drink can drink in their homes,’ he said, later adding that ‘anyone who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic.’
On the night of May 27, bulldozers working for a private contractor carrying out pedestrianisation work in Taksim illegally began demolishing the northern end of Gezi Park, uprooting trees in what the government was later to call ‘necessary pavement expansion’. Activists were already fighting the barracks project. Within a few hours, ten of them had pitched tents, preventing further work. The following morning police responded with a characteristic prescription of tear gas and casual brutality. A Reuters photographer took a photo showing a policeman firing a jet of pepper spray into the face of Ceyda Süngür, a lecturer in urban planning at Istanbul Technical University. In the photograph Süngür’s black hair streams upward with the force of the blast, but her body has not yet recoiled. She looks casual and relaxed in her pretty red dress, askew from the policeman, handbag slung unguardedly over her shoulder: erect, dignified, and unthreatening. The police officer is firing the pepper spray up into her eyes from a squatting position, knees bent, arse out, looking at once cruel and vaguely silly. Maybe it was this image – endlessly shared on social media in the hours and days that followed – that broke a spell of fear the police held over people. As the protesters kept coming back to Gezi Park morning after morning, support for them rippled through the city. On Friday, police burnt the protesters’ tents. Hundreds more came and sat peacefully on the ground, singing songs and eating lunch. The police flooded the square with tear gas. By evening there were tens of thousands and, the next day, President Abdullah Gül ordered a police retreat, signalling an unprecedented victory of a popular movement over the state. After firing off some abuse at the demonstrators, Erdoğan himself departed on a visit to North Africa.
To understand the surreal days that followed, in which the state left Taksim to its own devices, you first have to understand what Istanbul is normally like. On an ordinary day walking towards Taksim down Istiklal, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, you notice the police. They stand in ranks, inherently frightening in their black body armour and bulbous white helmets, hidden behind riot shields. There are many more in plainclothes, particularly if trouble is in the offing. They are conspicuous not so much for their appearance as for combining a purposeful air with no clear purpose, epitomising the sense of threat implied in the legal phrase ‘loitering with intent’. Some even pose as simit and chestnut vendors (as one confessed when I tried to interview him for an unrelated story).
Protesting is a frequent and dull affair. Activists tramp down Istiklal with their banners and flags, different groups each day espousing different causes, but always chanting in the same thumping monotone, gathering briefly, expending their collective energy, dispersing. It feels ritualised and pointless.
Turkey can often seem like a country of crippling deference to Baba Devlet – the ‘Father State’. Politicians are pompous and drunk with the fawning praise of journalists and advisers; they expect unconditional respect. Erdoğan himself is a famous stickler in this regard and has sued a huge number of journalists and rival politicians who have insulted him, including a cartoonist who innocuously depicted him as a cat caught in a ball of yarn.
Politicians and the media recklessly exploit the fault-lines in society for their own gain, dealing in crude divisive symbols and stereotypes, playing on prejudices to give the impression of a country bitterly divided against itself – as, at times, it is. Enmities are absolute, opponents are criminals, usually terrorists. It is a place of deep intolerance: secularists fear and despise the pious, Turks hate Kurds, the Left loathes the Right, and vice versa. Plots are everywhere and everyone harbours some sinister, undisclosed intent. Smaller fractions – the Armenians, for example – do best to just keep a low profile. This is Turkey’s public face, viewed through the distorting lens of its mainly partisan media, its formal politics, and its self-mythology; but of course that was not how I experienced it. The Turks I mixed with – and most Turks – are not like this.
When Taksim erupted, the first thing I noticed was the graffiti: humorous, irreverent, and obscene. Most of it referred either to ‘Tayyip’, the main focus of demonstrators’ rage, or to the police and their liberal use of tear gas and water cannon. ‘One serving of gas, please,’ read one graffito, while another asked: ‘Are you sure you’d want three of me?’ referring to the PM’s exhortations for women to have more children. Among the banners festooning the AKM was a huge one that simply read: ‘Shut up Tayyip.’ A generation that had hitherto largely occupied itself with Western TV series and Internet memes turned its creativity to relentlessly mocking its rulers. The insults Erdoğan hurled at them were assimilated and thrown back, scrambling the dull formulae of Turkish protest. When he branded them çapulcular – marauders – they gleefully coined ‘chapulling’, an Anglicised version of the Turkish, which came to mean ‘fighting for one’s rights’. Penguins became an unlikely symbol of the country’s rotten, self-censoring news channels, after one station opted to air a documentary about them instead of covering the protests. One man donned a penguin suit and stood at the entrance to Taksim wearing a sign that read: ‘Antarctica is resisting.’
On the first days of Occupy Gezi, the atmosphere in the square was that of a music festival set in a Mad Max-like cityscape of burnt out and overturned cars, smashed up buses, bus stops, and barricades. A mushrooming tent city blossomed in the park; meatballs sizzled on vendors’ grills, trees of candyfloss bobbed through the crowd, and buckets of illicit, ice-cold beers were hawked into the square; there were bands playing, pop-up tattoo parlours, tango classes, mass yoga sessions, a lending library, dervishes whirling (one in a gas mask), and a game of giant backgammon with counters of uprooted street bollards made up to look like police and protesters.
The governing enmities seemed to have been overthrown. In one corner of the square, Kurdish nationalists hoisted the banner of their jailed rebel leader Abdullah Öcalan – perhaps the only man in Turkey more divisive than Erdoğan himself. On the other side a group marched military style under the banner of the Grey Wolves, far-right Turkish nationalists known for their hatred not only of the Kurds, but also of the kaleidoscope of leftist groups with which they shared the square – and with whom they fought bloody street battles in the 1970s. Portraits of Che Guevara and his Turkish incarnation Deniz Gezmiş sat alongside those of Atatürk, Rumi, and Imam Ali and the Twelve Imams. There were Alevis, anarchists, and anti-capitalist Muslims; there were two-dozen CEOs from Turkey’s biggest companies; there were LGBT groups, students, doctors, engineers, architects and the Kurdish kids from Tarlabaşi. The mortal rivalries of the big three football clubs – Beşiktaş, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahçe – were laid aside as their fans sung each other’s anthems. The heroes of the protests became Çarşı, the Beşiktaş ‘ultras’, known for their anarchist bent and their slogan: Çarşı herşeye karşı – ‘Çarşı against everything’.
Tensions were contained and subsumed within a more powerful atmosphere of fellowship. At one point, nationalists from the Turkish Youth Union began throwing bottles at a group of flag-wielding Kurds. Others restrained them and formed a human chain between the two groups. ‘The Kemalists have never demonstrated with us before,’ said one of the Kurdish men, ‘but it’s ok. They’ll learn our style.’ Inveterate pessimists became gushing optimists. ‘I’ve never felt proud of my country before this,’ said one friend. ‘I was thinking of moving abroad, and now I feel like I must stay.’
It felt like the kind of atmosphere in which strangers meet and fall in love. The uptight, harried faces of Istanbullus relaxed in ease and wonder. One conservatively dressed couple gazed proudly at their small son as he spun the wheel of an overturned police car. ‘We’re not protesters,’ the father said. ‘We just came to see.’ One balmy evening, a group of cross-legged teenagers sat behind a projector on a blockaded street, engrossed in a glowing rectangle on the wall: a documentary about Palestine, in Arabic with English subtitles. Friends snapped each other at the wheels of wrecked buses, and one group laughed as a tinerci clowned at the wheel, a bag of paint thinner in one hand. ‘Don’t drink and drive!’ shouted one guy. Later, bemused, ruddy-faced tramps laid out their cardboard bed mats next to the tents and sleeping bags of college students, and my local street dogs ventured far from their usual haunts in search of leftovers. It seemed like a realm of unreality in which the immutable laws of Turkish life were suspended. Every morning I would walk there fearing it would all be gone.
Reality returned with Erdoğan. While in North Africa he had remained more or less silent about the protests. In his absence Turkey felt like a country of school children misbehaving while their teacher was out the room. The president, Abdullah Gül, and Erdoğan’s stand in, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, had strayed from the tough line their leader had set out. They had hinted at compromise and dialogue with the Occupy Gezi movement: were they standing up to him? In Taksim, a week of defiance and mockery seemed to have deflated Erdoğan. There was a growing belief that a big change could be underway in Turkey.
In the early hours of Friday, 7 June, his plane arrived at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport. Party apparatchiks had theatrically urged his supporters not to turn up to greet him, whilst also making sure the metro line stayed open late so they could. Even so, there was no mistaking the size and passion of the crowd. Many came in their cars, and by the time he and his wife climbed on top of a campaign bus, more than 10,000 had gathered. It was after two o’clock in the morning.
What followed was a terrifying piece of political theatre: an assertion of power and a battle cry to the massed ranks of his followers. The prime minister opened with salutations and words of peace and tolerance. He greeted Istanbul, the city that made him, ‘again and again, with all my heart: every neighbourhood, every street, every district’. He greeted all Turkey, and what he called Istanbul’s ‘brother cities’: Sarajevo, Baku, Beirut, Skopje, Damascus, Gaza, Mecca, and Medina. He was every citizen’s servant, he said, irrespective of his or her ethnicity, origin, or ideology.
He paused now and again for applause, and the chants of the crowd made a chilling counterpoint: ‘May the hands that strike the police be broken!’ ‘Give us the word and we will crush Taksim!’
Turning to the protests, his message of tolerance ended abruptly. They were stoked by provocateurs trying to hurt Turkey, he claimed: ‘We won’t allow them to feed on our nation’s hard work’. The protesters were vandals and looters, or had been manipulated by terrorist groups. He also struck out at the public figures that supported them. ‘They said they were journalists, artists, politicians and they acted irresponsibly by provoking this lawless behaviour. These actions that turned into vandalism must stop immediately. Our citizens that became the tools of terrorist organisations must refrain from these anti-democratic, lawless actions.’
It was from the old playbook of Turkish politics: one’s opponents are terrorists and criminals, and must face the force of the law. He ended by appealing to his supporters to remain peaceful, but it seemed more like an implicit threat. When his speech ended and I headed out at around 3 a.m. through the streets with my gas mask and camera, I was expecting the police to move on the square immediately, or worse, bands of armed pro-government supporters. Taksim was quiet and empty, most people were asleep or had gone home. There was a tense atmosphere among those awake. ‘He declared civil war this evening,’ said one dejected young man as we were both heading towards the square. Like me, he had left home after hearing the speech. ‘He will come at us now with more than just tear gas.’ ‘Are you not afraid to be here?’ asked another hovering near a barricade.
The attack did not come that night, but Erdoğan’s words seemed to herald the slow death of Occupy Gezi; I felt like something extraordinary had been born, and was now being throttled and slowly broken down in the acid bath of Turkish politics. Erdoğan marshalled a series of huge rallies around the country – tens, hundreds of thousands. In a sequence of almost daily speeches, his words against the demonstrators grew more violent. He depicted the ‘chapullers’ as degenerate, godless alcoholics in terms calculated to inflame his pious base. They had worn shoes and drunk alcohol in a mosque, he said – a charge he continues to level despite it being denied repeatedly by the imam of the mosque in question. They burned the Turkish flag, they assaulted a woman with a baby and ripped off her headscarf, he claimed. Other government officials who had taken a more conciliatory tone soon snapped into line.
He forced the protests back into the bitterly divisive ideological framework that has always served him: the protesters were elitists who despised democracy and the honest toiling masses who propelled Erdoğan to power. ‘Those who support these demonstrations say, “We are artists, we are writers, we have capital, our vote is not equal with that of Ahmet or Mehmet in Kayseri,”’ he told his rallied supporters in that central Anatolian city. ‘They drank their whisky on the Bosphorus and lived it up in Çankaya, and held the rest of the people in contempt.’
He elaborated a conspiracy theory that he began to call the ‘Great Ploy’. The unrest was the work of the ‘interest lobby’, a shadowy group of foreign businessmen and media owners with local allies, intent on stoking instability to drive up Turkey’s interest rate, at once profiting from and destroying the country. They were in cahoots with the foreign media and neocons in the US. The Turkish leader’s claims may appear unhinged to outsiders, but paranoia and xenophobia are among the trustiest tools of politicians here. He and his ministers have expounded the theory across the country, and the pro-government media has fleshed it out in all its absurdity. Now, it might as well be real. ‘Not only will we end the actions,’ Erdoğan promised, ‘we will be at the necks of the provocateurs and terrorists and no one will get away with it.’
The police took back Taksim and Gezi in two separate operations. On Tuesday, 11 June, they moved into the square early in the morning, clearing the barricades on the surrounding roads but allowing protesters to remain in the park itself. Then on Saturday, 15 June, after some desultory talks failed to persuade the demonstrators to go home, police moved on the park at evening time as people were gathering.
From the start the protests had been peaceful, except for when the police intervened. Then the Çarşı boys and an assortment of the more radical leftist groups would hoist their banners and join the fight. A few burnt cars and threw Molotov cocktails and were accused by the protesters of being provocateurs intent on discrediting their cause. In Erdoğan’s version, the police became the heroes of the protests, nobly restrained, upholding the ‘will of the people’ against lawlessness and terrorism.
In nearly three weeks, the police fired 130,000 tear gas canisters, much of it, I would guess, in those final days. They beat people in the street as horrified residents filmed from upstairs windows. They rounded up and detained more than 400 in the final two days alone. They fired tear gas canisters straight at people’s faces and legs, breaking bones, fracturing skulls, and rupturing eyeballs. Four people died, including a policeman who fell off a bridge while chasing demonstrators; eleven were blinded; six remained in critical condition at the end of June, and more than 7,500 others were injured, mainly from excessive tear gas inhalation.
A week after the end of the Gezi occupation, I went to visit Kadir, a man who had been beaten by police while protesting round the corner from my flat. He had been punched to the ground in the street then kicked by four or five officers. He worked as a fisherman in Fethiye on the Mediterranean coast, and had joined the protests because he was in town visiting his girlfriend. He was tall and powerfully-built and he thought that was why they singled him out. The attack damaged his bladder, and he would find out in the next couple of days if he needed an operation to fix it. He sat on the sofa in a friend’s flat with a urostomy pipe leading from his stomach to a shopping bag on the floor. He was visibly in pain. As we talked the bag began to leak, and he muttered apologies while his girlfriend and friend helped clean it up.
Kadir wasn’t angry at the police. They were exhausted after days of continual crackdown; many had not been fed properly and had worked 80-hour shifts. When he and scores of others arrived at the main station, they were treated politely, he emphasised. He was angry with Erdoğan – the man who told the police they were fighting terrorists.
In one way, his words reinforced the sense one often gets in Turkey that things have got better despite seeming to get worse. The crackdown on the protesters was horrific, but viewed in the context of the past thirty years, they received a far gentler blooding than those who defied the state in earlier generations – the Kurds, the Alevis, the leftists – who were ‘disappeared’, brutally tortured, or were met on the streets with real bullets, not plastic ones.
Many of my more experienced colleagues who have reported from Turkey since the dark years of the 1990s show a kind of stoic optimism about the country’s trajectory when viewing it through this longer timeframe. I find it hard to have faith in that now. There are no longer any rival centres of power to Erdoğan. His international reputation has been shredded, but it seems unlikely that this will have much effect, other than to encourage him to fall back on the damaging xenophobia of his predecessors. The United States, Turkey’s biggest ally, has remained disgracefully silent about the protests. While some inside his own conservative camp have expressed alarm at Erdoğan’s behaviour and rhetoric, there seems to be no one with the will or ability to challenge him. Turkey appears to be morphing from a troubled democracy into a regime, and that regime is now gearing up for a witch-hunt. Scores of arrests followed the protests; new laws are being prepared to control social media; punitive fines have been levied against TV channels that were brave enough to cover the protests; individual journalists who dared to do their job properly are being hounded more than ever; protesters are being investigated and prosecuted for insulting Erdoğan on Twitter, or provoking the demonstrations; members of Çarşı and leftist groups are facing terrorism charges. Erdoğan has vowed to go after everyone involved in the ‘Great Ploy’, even the owners of hotels that sheltered protesters in their lobbies during the chaos.
The future of Taksim and Gezi Park remains uncertain. Under the duress of the worst social unrest of his time in power, Erdoğan has now agreed to respect the legal process under which the project is being challenged, and to hold a plebiscite on the plan to recreate the Halil Paşa barracks. The vote, if it is held, will cover all of Istanbul, a city of 16 million people, most of whom are unlikely ever to visit Gezi. In appearing to concede defeat, he could in fact end up engineering a more total victory. He has said that when the barracks are built, they will no longer house a shopping mall but a museum. What would this museum commemorate, I wonder: the protesters who camped there in 2013, or could it be the pious reactionaries who fought there in 1909?
Meanwhile, a whole class of people who were once sick at the mention of politics are now infused with hope, and I cannot yet decide if it is heartening or heartbreaking. Recent opinion polling suggests the protests have not significantly dented Erdoğan’s support; but still, in the evenings these people meet in parks to plan the next steps for the Gezi movement. For the first time, friends of mine are talking about which parties to vote for in coming elections: there are rumours of a ‘chapuller’ party being set up, but could it possibly pass the 10% threshold required for parliamentary representation? Others are talking about forgoing their normal holidays on the Mediterranean coast to visit towns in central Anatolia – Erdoğan’s heartland – to see what motivates them, and to try to convince them to abandon him. Kadir’s girlfriend, who never normally votes, said she and her friends were thinking of casting their next ballot for the Kurdish party, which supported the demonstrators. ‘We’re now seeing what the Kurdish people have been living through,’ she said. ‘If they are doing this to us, think what they have been doing to them.’ She doubted it would make much difference. Like everyone I have spoken to who was there, however, her eyes shone and she became animated when we talked about Gezi Park and the glimpse it offered, however fleeting, of a vastly better Turkey.