4 Month Anniversary of the Gezi Protests in Turkey

September 28th 2013 marked the four-month-anniversary of the anti-government insurrections in Turkey where people en massed against the Erdogan regime for authoritarian and non-secular actions that were taken. What started with a simple protest, to protect a recreational park in the heart of the city from being destroyed to make room for construction of the 52nd shopping center in the city of Istanbul, escalated to being one of the biggest national resistances since the formation of the republic in 1923.

During this highly popular and persistent time, Turkey has witnessed what became a historical set of events which not only fueled the lust for revolution for a new hope throughout Turkey but also had significant effect and a direct role in anti-government protest establishments in the international arena. In spite of originating from their individual reasons and foundations, the public uprisings in Brazil and Bulgaria surely have been influenced and escalated in support of global public motivation occurred during the Gezi Park protests.  

Times of change…

Throughout the history, myriad protests have taken place for various reasons, and in recent history because of the events taking place in Northern Africa and Middle East. This phenomenon was known as the ‘Arab Spring’, very often mistaken in meaning since usually people take the word ‘spring’ as a season rather than the verb ‘to spring’ since the Arabic states in question actually do not enjoy the spring season. Gezi Park protests hold a very distinctive objective than the other public movements which have taken place in the past couple of years, in which the people’s foremost dedication and wish was the lust for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. More precisely, a total change of regime: from a corrupted way of dictatorship to a public-voted democracy where everyone could live in a free and peaceful environment. Little did they know that democracy is not as appealing as it sounds, where corruption still exists at the heart of the politicians, regardless of the form of government that is in place. 

Essentially, Turkey is a democratic republic, where supposedly the citizens and alien public enjoy freedom and democracy alike, at least in theory. However, when it comes to practice, Turkey faces a very distinctive reality. Under the current rule of Erdogan, whose party took office in 2002 with the vast majority of the votes in the general elections, AKP (Justice and Development Party) has been enjoying absolute power for over a decade now, serving their third time in a row. An environment which was moderately unstable back then, exists as a very problematic one nowadays, with escalated complexity. There is a common acceptance by Turkey’s leading enlightened journalists, politicians and sociologists alike, that in the past decade, especially during its last quarter, Turkey has and still is suffering from an extremely authoritarian and non-tolerant government rule which uses strict measures to impose its own-made, non-secular and definitely non-democratic sanctions. Having the constitutional majority at the parliament, AKP passes their own legislations and bills unchecked. Erdogan’s assertions of having secured an advanced democracy in Turkey is being undermined by his own biddings, by introducing new, reforming ‘democratisation packages’ every other year. 

Restrictions and violations of human rights

Coming back to our main topic, the Gezi Protests revealed that there is still a considerable amount of people in Turkey who opposes Erdogan’s and AKP’s authoritarian regime and who would not stand idly while their democratic rights are being taken away and their fundamental human rights are being violated. On a side note, non-secular and authoritarian actions of Erdogan government have constituted an ongoing issue in Turkey for quite some time now: Ever since their third victory in the General Elections of 2011, AKP has been carrying out strongly controversial legislations on restricting the everyday life of the general public. Involvement of the actual politics in matters such as alcohol consumption, abortion, rape and dictation on the number of children for each family, have angered various portions of the public. 

Restrictions and violations of basic fundamental human rights had further impacts on the society’s opinion on the government. Let’s take as an example, the case of Fazil Say, a world-wide famous musician. A general discomfort existed among the Turkish people to see the ridiculous verdict of being sentenced to serve jail time for tweeting his thoughts on religion. A similar atmosphere was felt when the trial of the former Turkish Armed Forces Generals on the claims to a planned coup that never took place which resulted in the life-imprisonment of the former Chief-Commander of the Turkish Armed Forces, Ilker Basbug along with a numerous other high-ranking officials. There are many other cases that can be given as examples of unjust, unfair prosecutions carried out and the fundamental human rights abuses, such as the right to protection against arbitrary arrest, detention or exile, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of opinion and expression, and even some extreme cases, the right to life.

When a peaceful park turns into a battlefield

Gezi Park protests started off as being a minor occupy movement led by a handful of university students who resisted the demolition of one of the only few parks and recreational spaces in Istanbul. Early morning on 28th of May 2013, which marks the official starting date of the resistance movement, the police entered the park to empty it. Tents were set on fire, innocent young people tear gassed and hit by water cannons and soon, what was an exemplary peaceful atmosphere in the park where youngsters were reading books and dancing to the guitar tunes turned into shambles. 

In response to the police brutality taking over, the public aroused in solidarity and literally in a matter of hours masses gathered in all squares of the city in support of the resistance in Taksim Square, which is dear to all Turks as being the most significant gathering point for all freedom movements. What was a peaceful, student-led gathering became a nation-wide resistance because of an extremely wrong stance and approach of the riot police forces who are now deemed to be enforcers of the government, thus indirectly the Prime Minister. 

The casualties in the first week were catastrophic: thousands have been injured by pressurized water, tear gas canisters which were shot directly at the protestors over short distances. Those who escaped these fatal dangers faced the fate of being beaten up by police forces and the AKP supporters while the officials looked the other way. So far there have been 6 deaths occurring from police brutality that Prime Minister Erdogan did not mentioned, not even once. In his speeches, instead of soothing the atmosphere, and calling for a peaceful resolution, Prime Minister chose to anger the crowds by inciting his own supporters, reminding that they have gotten 50 percent of the votes and therefore claimed he had half of the entire population’s support, forgetting the fact that there existed another half that did not support him. 

Because of Erdogan’s unwise divisive approach to the Gezi Protests, situation went to beyond what people would have expected. What is unique about the Gezi Protests is that the majority of its activists are non-political. According to poll made by Bilgi Univeristy right after the initial events took place, 70% of the protestors did not affiliate themselves with any political parties, and actually identified themselves as libertarians. However, the remaining 30% which deem themselves political, all come from various political ideologies and parties, thus this movement was not an incitation of certain political bodies, as the Prime Minister alleged. With the closure of the academic institutions and the start of the summer holidays, the over-heated situation cooled down a bit. There were still gatherings, especially to commemorate those who were killed: Ethem Sarisuluk, who was shot in the head by a police officer who walks free; Ali Ismail Korkmaz, who was beaten to death by the police forces and AKP supporters; Abdullah Comert, Hasan Firat Gedik and Ahmet Atakan who were hit in the head by a gas canister; Mehmet Ayvalitas, who was driven over by a car which rode into the crowd. Unsurprisingly, none of these purely peaceful commemorative gatherings were left alone and faced more police brutality as a response. 

Counter-movement rections from the part of the officials

The government’s continuous desperate attempts at overturning the Gezi Park protests to their side and putting restrictions on bringing these ideas into other fields kept happening. With the starting of the premier league football season, police guards were stationed within stadiums to apprehend those who chanted slogans in support of Gezi Protests and against the government. It is deemed to be a counter-movement against the fans of Istanbul top football clubs who very actively participated in the protests, specifically Besiktas JK’s Carsi group. The social unrest started to grow again once the new academic year started, and the government’s stubborn stance and illogical actions continued. In the first week of  September, Mayor of Ankara who is a member of AKP, deriving in revenge of the protests and his personal hatred, picked on the Middle East Technical University, whose student-body is well-known for being socially active in a libertarian perspective and always had a strong opposing stance against the tyrant, non-democratic governments in past.

The Council of Mayor passed an agreement on building of a new inter-city highway that was to pass through the METU campus and divide it into two halves. This meant the demolition of hectares of forests which form a majority of the METU’s campus and sensibly, was not well taken. Student-led protests started and Ankara turned into a battlefield again. In support of the resistance in the capital, masses in various major cities gathered and the spirit of June 2013 was rekindled. In response to these protests, Erdogan stated word by word that ‘if they loved trees so much they can go live in jungles, we are going ahead with building roads,’ reminding the students that it is thanks to the roads that are built they are able to get to their schools. This was quite a logical statement on his part, since on many occasions many more illogical statements have been made by the Prime Minister. One for instance that comes to mind is when he was commenting on the protestors resisting to empty Gezi Park for the protection of trees, he stated that ‘they should be hanged on those trees which they try to save’.   

Uncertain future

As it can be seen, the offensive attitude of Erdogan is one of the most important factors that caused the situation to come to its present stage, and there is no doubt that had he been more logical and followed a calmer and more constructive approach - a diplomatic way, he might have been able to suppress the crowds and prevent 6 youngsters from being killed. Even after 4 months of the initial events taking place, it is visible that the spirit of Gezi Protests, which is the lust for freedom and a relief from such an authoritarian regime, still persists. It does not come as a shock however, for Turkish people are known for their stubbornness and the decisiveness even if it usually arrives a bit late. Bearing in mind the events that unfolded throughout the summer in Turkey are unique, there is no other example in the world, mainly because despite the provocation on numerous occasions, the activists refused to take arms of any measures and continued to practice their most deserved human right of demonstrating in a peaceful manner. What will be the outcome of this situation in Turkey, it is almost impossible to foresee. However, one thing is clear: that Turkish people will not so easily abandon their democratic and fundamental rights to the hands of an authoritarian government. They will stand up against the tyranny where and when it manifests.  

Edited by: Laura Davidel
Photo credits: Gurbet Behram