Assault on Gezi Park sparks furious protests

June 17, 2013

Over the weekend, Turkish riot police, armed with water cannons and a huge arsenal of U.S.-supplied tear gas, attacked demonstrators occupying Gezi Park in Taksim Square--the heart of a movement that has rocked all of Turkey for nearly three weeks.

The Gezi Park occupation began in the closing days of May as a protest against plans to demolish the green space and build a shopping mall instead, but the demonstrations have become a much wider show of resistance to the neoliberal program and authoritarian repression of the Turkish government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The government was forced to retreat from its initial attacks in Taksim by the massive outcry that spread through Istanbul and then to cities across Turkey. Erdogan even agreed to meet with a select group of representatives of the demonstrators. But with an AKP rally planned for June 16 where Erdogan hoped to present the image that his government was unshaken, riot police moved in the day before. At the end of the weekend, there were reports of "creeping street terror"--non-uniformed thugs, armed with bats and cleavers, taking to the streets to attack dissenters, under the supervision of police.

But even as police retook Taksim on Saturday, demonstrations erupted across Istanbul and other major cities. Here, Sungur Savran, an editor of the newspaper Gercek (Truth), reports from Istanbul on the government's assault on the democracy movement and what it means for the future. This is an edited version of an article first published at The Bullet on the Socialist Project (Canada) website.

AFTER DAYS of hesitation and negotiation, the Turkish government finally decided to clear the Taksim Commune, where thousands were camping in Gezi Park and which tens of thousands visited every night during several weeks of protest.

Police attacked Gezi Park on the night of June 15 and--after clearing occupiers using tear gas and, as a novelty, water cannons apparently filled with a chemical agent since it burned the skin of everyone it touched--razed to the ground the tents, infirmary, kitchens and library established there.

But while one focus of resistance was crushed, a thousand others flourished. Immediately, in a series of neighborhoods of Istanbul and in many cities around the country, people came out spontaneously in their thousands and sometimes tens of thousands, and started to chant the slogans of the already 15-day-old rebellion. The most relevant was, of course, "Everywhere's Taksim, everywhere resistance!" Other significant chants were "Shoulder to shoulder against fascism!" (Turkish left-wing tradition calls all kinds of repressive regimes "fascist") and "Government resign!"

Turkish riot police march through a cloud of tear gas
Turkish riot police march through a cloud of tear gas (Jenna Pope | Occupy Gezi)

Moving out of working-class neighborhoods, tens of thousands occupied circlee roads on the opposite edges of Istanbul--the Asian side to the East and the European side to the West. A group close to 1,000 marchers crossed the main bridge over the Bosphorus River, which divides Istanbul and also serves as the boundary between the parts of Turkey that belong to the Asian and European continents.

Istanbul has now become an arc of struggle and resistance that extends over 80 kilometers in a city with an estimated population of 14 million. In the center of the city, even very posh neighborhoods were the scene of "cacerolazos" protests, where people bang pots and pans, and marches.

THE STRATEGY of the police was simply to protect Taksim and the environs. They made this a question of honor and saved face by not admitting the protesters anywhere near the square, which has been hotly contested for the last two weeks. That is why they fired huge amounts of tear gas at that crowds that were--like the one we were part of--with several kilometers of the square and forcing the police barricade around it, while they left alone the huge groups that blockaded traffic on major arteries and throughways and marched until sunrise.

But even near Taksim, there were huge crowds at times. For instance, the one we were part of reached into the tens of thousands at a certain point. But the choking effect of incessantly thrown tear gas and the bite from the chemically enhanced water from the cannons played their part, and over the hours, many people left.

There was, though, at a certain moment, an event of utmost significance. Gezi Park has been the center of attention for the whole world throughout these two weeks, with its atmosphere of freedom and shared life. Rightly so, since tens of thousands of youth were introduced for the first time to the beauties of sharing a common life through this experience.

But in the process, people around the world--and many in Turkey as well--ignored the brutality and violence of the Turkish police in handling mass demonstrations that continued elsewhere. One outstanding example was the Gazi neighborhood of Istanbul, a working-class district with an Alevi majority (the Alevis are a religious minority that number in the tens of millions, though the exact figure is unknown). The irony was even embedded in the names of the two places, Gezi and Gazi.

The inspiring event on the night of June 15 occurred at the moment when our thinning crowd received the support of a crowd of people arriving from Gazi--chanting "Hold tight Taksim, Gazi is coming!" Gazi finally met Gezi in the same vortex of police violence!

Elsewhere in Turkey, the masses poured out onto the streets as soon as they found out about what had happened at Gezi Park. In Ankara, the capital city; Izmir, the third-biggest city, on the Aegean coast facing Greece; Adana and Bursa, the centers of the textile and metal industries, respectively; and Antalya, the major summer resort city on the Mediterranean--all saw huge crowds gather in their main squares. Nonetheless, the attitude of law enforcement was very diverse, ranging from no violence in Izmir and Antalya to the extreme use of force in Adana.

THERE IS no doubt that people in high places are meeting frantically in offices in Ankara. The government, the heads of the intelligence and law enforcement bodies, and top military brass are, in all probability, weighing the merits of martial law or a state of emergency.

Parallel to these official discussions, there is little doubt that the fissures in the ruling class are finding their way into the ruling circles. An anti-Erdogan coalition has emerged in the alliance between Abdullah Gül, the president of the republic with roots in the AKP; Bülent Arinç, the deputy prime minister, and another party heavyweight; and Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP), the self-proclaimed social democratic party in Turkey and the major secular nationalist party associated with Kemalism, the ideology that dominated Turkey since its founding in the 1920s. The CHP, a darling of many sectors of the left, is trying to let the steam out of the movement, although it claims hypocritically to be siding with it.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has probably made the biggest mistake of his life. His hubris again pushed him toward a rash decision. The leaderships of the organizations handpicked by the government to negotiate as representatives of the revolt were ready to liquidate the movement. But they had to proceed cautiously lest the rank and file rebelled against their capitulation openly. They needed only one day to reduce the size of the Taksim Commune and a week at most to dissolve it.

But Erdogan had scheduled a rally in Istanbul for Sunday, June 16, where he wanted to put on a show as a victor in the confrontation. That is probably the major factor behind the timing of the police raid on Gezi Park.

The attitude of sections of the left regarding the continuation or dissolution of the Gezi Park Commune is instructive. Only a week ago, the representatives of the movement who were picked to negotiate with the government put forth a list of demands, many of which incredibly minimal or mild formulations of the grievances of protesters.

One example should suffice. Faced with the brutal methods of the police forces--including the use of non-uniformed troops wielding nailed wooden bats, pretty much in the same vein as the Shabiha of Bashar al-Assad in Syria or the Baltagis of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt--these representatives only demanded the removal of some provincial governors, as if it the Interor Minister of the central government was not responsible for these brutal and shameful policies.

Yet despite the shortcomings of those original seven demands, they proved to be much stronger compared to what the representatives agreed to in the end. Erdogan simply proposed a referendum on the future of Gezi Park and an internal investigation of excesses of the police. Given the track record of the Turkish police and armed forces in investigating their own crimes--fully one-and-a-half years after the Uludere/Roboski massacre, in which 34 Kurdish peasants died in a bombardment by the Turkish air force, not one single person has been prosecuted--the promise of an internal investigation is a joke!

Yet the representatives accepted it. This was truly incredible, given the fact that not one of their original demands had been granted--and the additional fact that the movement had not lost any of its vibrancy.

However, in forum after forum held at Gezi Park, the independent youth who formed the backbone of the Taksim Commune characterized the "concessions" made by the government as ludicrous and refused to budge. This led those who supported the agreement with the government to opt for a devious method to disperse the movement. Caught as they were between the devil and the deep blue sea, the leadership declared it was holding fast, whereas it was simply trying to lay the commune on its deathbed.

Yet even this rhetoric proved too rebellious for Erdogan's taste. War ensued.

THE REVOLT is unprecedented in the breadth of its influence, the depth of the rage out of which it was born, and the self-confidence and courage that the ordinary masses of people, many with scant political experience in the past, have shown. If the combativity of protests continue after June 15, not only Erdogan's future, but the future of the regime as a whole would be in jeopardy.

One factor of immense importance is the fact that DISK, the most progressive of the union confederations in private industry, and KESK, the most leftward-leaning of the public employee confederations, have made a joint declaration for a general strike and appealed to the rank and file to go out on the street and protest. This is unprecedented and of critical importance, but we will have to wait and see to what extent this promise will be kept on Monday, June 17, which is when any kind of strike would be meaningful.

All in all, the Turkish revolt is entering a new stage, in which the struggle may, under certain conditions, bear the stamp of class struggle much more distinctively. It may erupt into a revolution. It may, however, also dwindle into a simple protest movement and gradually die out some time in the coming period.

Even if the latter is the case, however, the subsequent repercussions on Turkish politics, on the working-class movement and on the left promise to be considerable.

First published at The Bullet.

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