By JESSE ROSENFELD
As a sea of riot police backed by water cannon trucks pushed past the barricades, seizing the center of Taksim Square in a barrage of teargas and rubber bullets, the small environmental protests-turned-urban anti-government revolt entered a new stage. In a bid to reclaim the square they occupied for the past week, Turkish youth, woken from their tents to the sound of exploding teargas canisters, erected new barricades, throwing rocks, Molotov cocktails and fireworks in pitched battles with police throughout the day.
By nightfall, thousands of people hearing the 140 character calls on Twitter flocked to the square only to be chased down sidestreets by water cannon trucks dowsing them with pepper spray-laced water in what has become a widening government crackdown. While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed the protesters as radicals in Parliament, police detained dozens of lawyers supporting the movement at the courthouse and stormed the Socialist Democratic Party headquarters, detaining another 70 people.
What started as a sit-in in downtown Istanbul’s Gezi Park to protest the chopping down of trees to build an Ottoman-style shopping mall ballooned into massive youth-driven protests in cities across Turkey following a May 31 violent police eviction of the park. Known for their heavy-handed response to leftists and Kurds and a general intolerance for public protests, the police storming of a tame, mostly middle-class protest in the center of Istanbul set off the country in what has become an increasingly polarizing spiral.
The demonstrations in 78 cities, including the capital Ankara, have been met by a swift and punishing police response. As Erdogan took an increasingly dismissive and then hard line, opposition focused on his government, and the police became to be seen as an arm of his policies.
When labor joined the protests with widespread strikes from two major union federations on June 4 and 5, the actions gained a strong cross-class composition. Spurred on by strict organizing restrictions in Turkey and blunt police suppression to this year’s May Day protests in Taksim Square, union leaders saw a common fight with young people who had been beaten in the streets and an opportunity to air their economic grievances. As the protest coalition grew, the government’s rhetoric became increasingly fierce. Erodgan’s government lashed out at workers and claimed the protests were being organized by international agitators and leftwing conspirators. National division deepened as a result.
“There is a side in Turkey that people didn’t want to talk about,” says Yusa Yalgintas, a recently graduated 27-year-old artist taking part in last Monday’s university and high school students’ march to the square. “But when they attacked us in the park, it couldn’t be ignored anymore.” Yalgintas joined the protests after seeing the images of the May 31 crackdown. He sees Erdogan’s repeated dismissals of the protesters and the pitched battles young activists have fought just to keep a presence in the streets as the product of a society that has been going through an increasingly authoritarian turn.
Meanwhile, the economic expansion that primarily benefits the wealthy as the country emerges in the Middle East as a regional empire is a clear example for Yalgintas of a booming society that is only serving the elites. It is something Erdogan made clear last week, when, as protests generated the first real opposition he has had, he left the country on a four-day North Africa state visit.
Inspired by the Arab revolutions and the Occupy Wall Street protests and adopting the tactic of seizing public squares to command the world’s attention, Turkey’s youth have joined an internationally emerging generational politics to contest the direction of their country. For them, with the curtailments on free expression that sees journalists locked up, dissent repressed and a government intent on socially enforcing conservative morals, the symbolism of the mall is an ideal flashpoint for what they are challenging. A wide coalition made of leftists, unions, business people, the LGBT community, Kurds, and even Turkish nationalists came together to set up a festival atmosphere camp with everything from medics’ stations and concert stages to free food, art displays and political workshops.
Although Erdogan has now backed down on the construction of the mall, the idea of building a wealthy shopping plaza inside a reconstructed Ottoman Empire army barracks helped encapsulate an image of what Turkey’s youth are responding to.
“The mall, just like much of the development around the Taksim area is intended to serve wealthy tourists from the Gulf,” says Elif Ince, a journalist for the liberal Turkish daily, Radikal. Writing about urban planning and gentrification, she has covered the Gezi Park story since the development plans emerged. “[The government’s] idea is to develop the area for families with a lot of money to spend who want the feel of Europe while still having the [cultural] security of a Muslim country,” she adds.
The youth at the center of the anti-government protests have spent nearly half their lives under Erdogan’s government. While the demonstrations in Taksim Square have created a drastic image contrast between a wealthy European downtown surrounding a budding activist counterculture, Istanbul’s working-class Western neighborhood Gazi has become a force to be reckoned with. A primarily Kurdish and Alawite neighborhood where residents complain of low wages, exploitation and unemployment, Gazi has had constant flareups with the police since the mid 1990s. Away from the glitz of the city’s downtown, it’s filled with towering apartments and lacks street lamps. Now Gazi’s residents have once again taken the opportunity to revolt against a long hated police force locals describe as systemically racist and anti-worker.
Fierce nightly street clashes over the last week have brought thousands of residents of all ages into the streets and the night before police returned to Taksim Square is no different. Tire and garbage fires mark the barricade lines of the street clashes while the high-beam lights from armored police vehicles and water cannon trucks provide the main source of light in the night clashes. As neighborhood youth shoot fireworks and hurl rocks at the cops in a cat-and-mouse game, other residents take to the center of the streets to hold a public assembly.
“I’m here because all the police and government want to do is divide our community,” says Dilan Tiyar, standing on the edge of the popular assembly as several teenagers rush past to the front lines of the clashes. A 21-year-old recent university graduate who grew up in Gazi, she goes to Taksim Square regularly and accuses Erdogan of trying to limit her freedoms and impose the Islamic values espoused by his Justice and Development Party onto society as whole. “Erdogan only governs for people that think like him, not the whole country,” she adds.
Winning three successive elections with increased majority governments, Erdogan has a strong support base, something he has demonstrated in several largely attended rallies of supporters since protests widened. However, the deep splits are solidifying in Turkey and those taking to the streets feel the country they want to see and freedoms they demand are being locked behind police lines and suffocated with tear gas.