Istanbul on Fire.

The Turkish protests that began in May in Taksim Square are already fading out of the collective media consciousness, although their existence and endurance is far from having faded and is instead increasing in the collective consciousness of the Turkish people. I came to Istanbul in my continuous efforts to document the uprising and its development, and to talk with the Turkish people about the future of the Taksim Square/Gezi Park protests and their crystallization, or lack thereof, in Turkish society and political arena.

First it should be noted that despite the incredible police presence that has made it almost impossible for Turkish youth, workers ad concerned citizens to demonstrate in Taksim square, brave activists and protesters still risk their lives at least once a week, often more and sometimes every day, demonstrating and attempting to reach the Square from the Istikal Cadessi, in the exercise of their rights of freedom of assembly and speech.  For those looking at Taksim Square and wondering where the protests have gone one should point out that they have not disappeared but have, rather, decentralized to various other parts of the city, most notably Kadiköy.

Kadiköy is a municipality on the Anatolian side of the city of Istanbul. Until a mere week ago activists preferred this location for their meetings, forums and assemblies which would then form the backbone of the weekly Taksim Square protests. As the Mayor of Kadiköy was sympathetic to the protesters, he allowed for them to gather in Yoğurtçu Park peacefully and without police presence or interference.

The Park in Kadiköy is very reminiscent of the many Occupy camps that I went through during the heyday of the Occupy movements a couple of years ago. The main differences are that no sleeping tents are set up, and that the organizational structure of the camp is much more founded, despite being just as democratic, if not more. it is not unusual for assemblies in this park to last from the early evening into the wee hours of the night. More than an Occupy camp, it should be considered the open-air headquarters of a democratically participatory activist organization which features public fora, free tea/coffee dispensaries, workshops, activist meetings, and even a kindergarten and nursery in which parents can deposit their children to be kept an eye on whilst the engage in the park’s activities.

The situation has, however, changed in the past few days since the death of twenty-two years old youth activist Ahmet Atakan. Atakan was shot in the back of the head with a tear-gas canister on the night of September 10th by the riot police forces. Despite numerous witness reports and the official autopsy, the authorities refuses to take responsibility for this death and to commence a formal inquiry, as they maintain that Mr. Atakan deceased because of his accidental fall from a building (which was, in reality, the result of the shot to the head). Ahmet Atakan is now the sixth person to have been officially killed since the escalation of the uprisings in Turkey.

 

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Atakan’s death caused a public outrage which translated into a call for mass demonstrations in Kadiköy, and Taksim the day later. It was a surprise to the protesters, accustomed to a relatively safe environment, to have to clash with the “boys in blue” in Kadiköy, as they were accustomed to sympathetic treatment by the local mayor and police.

Since Istanbul lost the Olympic bid, the local government is no longer concerned with how the treatment if dissent and protesters will reflect on their Olympic hosting reputation. Furthermore, it seems that the police deployed in the previously peaceful municipality of Kadiköy are not from the municipality itself, but are sent from other municipalities of the city which have no qualms in squashing dissent. The unexpected repression by the police and the outrage of the protesters turned into an inevitable explosive mixture that inevitably transformed itself into violent clashes between the two fronts. Kadiköy was on fire, quite literally.

 

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Caption: “Residents of Kadıköy leaving the keys to their apartment buildings on to provide shelter to protesters running from the riot police. The water bottles and carbonate are for relieving the effects of tear gas.”

The protesters create barricades with benches, trash, flower pots, trash bins and furniture to prevent the armored vehicles from getting too close as the protesters flee from the police on foot. The police forces then identify where the protesters are gathering, behind which barricade, and get into a standoff lasting tens of minutes in which the former shoot at the latter with rubber gas-filled bullets, tear gas, and water cannons, while the protesters throw bottles, rocks and anything that they can get their hands on at the law-enforcement forces. Once the protesters run out of projectiles and ammunition, the Police attempts to rush their position, at which point the protesters flee behind yet another barricade or seek refuge in the nearby apartments, shops and houses and eventually regroup.

Photo Credit: Şener Yılmaz Aslan
Photo Credit: Şener Yılmaz Aslan

It is strange for Europeans, accustomed to have the police adhere at least to a minimum standard of legality, see law enforcement officers openly break into houses braking doors and windows with impunity and without a warrant to seek out and detain protesters or those who hide them. This is commonplace in Turkey however, where Police forces have been given enormous leeway yet very little legal scrutiny and supervision in the application of their authority and where.

Historically, ironically, that has been the role of the armed forces of the military which are sympathetic to the secular demands of the protesters. This sympathy, however, must not be seen as a genuine support for democratic revolutionary change demanded by the Taksim/Gezi/Kadiköy activists suddenly being embraced by the armed forces after sixty years of iron-fist rule. Rather it should be seen as an opportunistic alliance against what the armed forces see as a common enemy: the increasingly religious and patriarchal government led by Recep Teyyip Erdogan and the Akp (Justice and Progress Party) which he leads, and a concrete example of the old axiom “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Should the protests succeed in eroding Erdogan’s power and electoral success, it would naturally result in the creation of a power vacuum. This power vacuum has the potential to be filled either by the military and the secular republican forces, which are inherently no less despotic or patriarchal than Erdogan and the Akp but are instead just of a different political nature, or by genuine revolutionary movements.

Given the current limitations that do not allow any party or movement to partake in elections unless holding a minimum of 10% of the electorate, it is unlikely that the current revolutionary struggles in Turkey will be able to crystallize themselves in an institutional fashion.

This could be seen both as a blessing and as a curse, but one thing is certain – unless there is a fundamental restructuring of Turkey’s political system, the discontent among the population will only increase and become more violent and volatile.

 

Ruben Rosenberg Colorni

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