Jun 13

Red Carnations and Government Supporting Soap Operas

Last night I returned to Istanbul in time to see thousands of entirely peaceful, standing protesters in Taksim Square being subjected to some of the worst shows of police violence yet. In the crazy logic of the past three weeks, it almost seems as though the more peaceful the protest, the angrier the police, and vice versa. Protesters are determined to demonstrate their good intentions, and police are equally determined to stop them doing that. Most people yesterday evening were standing and waving red carnations to commemorate the four fatalities of the protests. They tried to place the carnations in the grids of the encroaching water canon trucks, and were beaten as they did so. There were no political banners, nothing approaching the mystical “marginal groups” cited by the government as justification for previous police action. These people had nothing but flowers, and they were chased, beaten, gassed and shot at with rubber bullets. It has become like a nightmare.

In similarly nightmarish fashion, Erdogan has declared that the protests in Brazil have been organized by the same interest rate lobby that organized the protests in Turkey. At a pro-government rally in Samsun, yesterday, Erdogan announced that: “The same plot is being laid in Brazil. The symbols, the banners, Twitter and the international media are the same. They are doing everything they can to accomplish what they couldn’t achieve in Turkey.”
One’s first reaction is to laugh, but the sobering reality is that millions of AKP supporting Turks take this as gospel, just as they take anything else Erdogan says as gospel. They are living in a parallel universe, a universe where everyone is out to get Turkey and only their steadfast leader can save them – “the most popular and charismatic leader in the world”, in the words of Turkey’s EU minister Egeman Bağış.

If you follow the link below you can see a clip of a popular Turkish soap opera in which police are the brave victims of vicious attacks by rock-wielding protesters. A smartly dressed couple representing the “interest lobby” watch delightedly from the side lines as protesters throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at a police van. Just in case any of this looks remotely realistic to the outside eye, I should point out that scenes like this have never occurred at any point during the protest movement. The entire episode has been designed to pander to the picture given out by the government about the violent nature of protesters and the corresponding courage and patience of police. Samanyolu, the channel responsible for airing this particular series, is a religious, nationalist channel with links to the Gülen movement. Another of its series idolizes the heroic attempts of Turkish soldiers in the South East to save locals from evil Kurdish terrorists trying to bring about the destruction of the Turkish state.

This is not so much tragi-comic as tragic with superficially amusing overtones. These soap operas are the kind of thing which keeps millions of Turks in an artificial and shameful state of ignorance. Turkey has about 50 news channels, and only a handful of them have shown anything approaching the truth about these protests, so it is almost surprising that so many people have in fact educated and involved themselves in the protests. The Interior Ministry has announced that 2.5 million Turks have taken to the streets over the past three weeks, but that does not include those who showed their support at home, banging pots and pans, or those who demonstrated abroad in solidarity. The Turkish protests have so many beautiful images to define them – the lady in red, the standing man, the peace pianist, the red carnation. The police have only batons, water canons and guns. With each day these opposing sides become more polarised, but it is impossible to say where this will end.


Jun 13

Forums and News from Ankara


I have been in Ankara for the last couple of days, and it was a bit like going back in time to Istanbul a week ago. Police clash with protesters every night and Ankara’s Gezi Park equivalent, Kuğulu Park, is still full of people, mainly students, peacefully protesting. I saw paintings strung up from tree branches in a kind of al fresco exhibition, well-attended film screenings and groups of people singing and strumming guitars – just like Gezi in its heyday. There are no tents – police raid the park at night and evict people sleeping there. Huge TOMA (water canon) vehicles career down Tunalı Street, the area roughly equivalent to Taksim in Istanbul, a maze of bars and restaurants. The traffic of water canons is clearly normal, as most people barely look up from their beers. The familiar burn of tear gas materializes unexpectedly on street corners, a warning that riot police are gathered on the street ahead. Hawkers arrange their stacks of Guy Fawkes masks, Turkish flags and goggles on makeshift stands, relying on continued trade.

I did not see any journalists; they are all in Istanbul, where the tear gas has gone and with it any conception of a continued struggle. Being in Ankara was almost nostalgic, particularly walking through Kuğulu Park. Gezi Park is still guarded by surly police, calling into question the government’s wish to “open it up for the public”. However, in other parks across Istanbul, people are meeting in open forums, discussing the meaning of the protests and further action through other channels. Kuğulu Park hosts similar forums. Last night, protesters gathered outside the central court house near Kizilay to hear the charges announced against the twenty-two Gezi protesters arrested in their homes on Monday.

Ankara has always trailed behind Istanbul when it comes to urban charisma, but it has shown itself to advantage during these protests. There has been an impressive show of support for the protests considering about 50% of people working in Ankara are employed directly or indirectly by the government, and there is a large migrant population of conservative Turks from central Anatolia. The power house of protest energy has come from the overwhelmingly large student population – educated, left-leaning youth exercising their political voices for the first time. Ankara is an almost hyperbolic example of the split in Turkish society of pro- and anti-government demographics, even more polarized in some ways than Istanbul. The continuation of protests here speaks volumes of the energy of those who want to speak out. It is to be hoped that Kuğulu Park and the parks in Istanbul will continue to nurture the next stage in the protest movement, and provide some outlet for the voicing of concerns that has been denied in Istanbul.

The photograph above is of a forum taking place in Abbasaga Park, Istanbul.

Jun 13

Çapulcu X

The current protests in Brazil are a reminder of the passion and energy that the Turkish protests used to have. People still have the same concerns they have been voicing for the past last three weeks, and they still feel just as strongly about issues such as excessive urbanisation, authoritarian government and restriction of freedom of speech. Those concerns are very much alive. But the government’s aggressive U-turn and their vow to track down and prosecute protesters via social media has really intimidated people; all they can do now is stand still in one place and revel in not getting arrested.

I take as an example of the Intimidated Protestor a friend of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous. Let us call him Capulcu X. He is a member of the Communist Party, not because he has any faith or belief in Communism as an ideology, but because he wishes to formalise his dissatisfaction with mainstream Turkish politics.

Capulcu X had been waiting all his life for this protest movement. He was in a frenzy of excitement at the beginning, barely sleeping, paying no heed to his job and hoping and praying that the protests would achieve what the opposition parties had failed to achieve throughout his lifetime. He lives nearly two hours away from Taksim Square in a distant suburb but would still come without fail every night, leaving at around 5AM, getting home for two hours sleep and then off to work followed by yet another night of passionate resistance. It was an exhausting schedule, but my friend had never been happier, and his energy levels were proof of his strength of feeling. He was one of those who said he would not leave Taksim Square until Erdogan resigned.

Now his hope and energy has gone – he has removed himself from social media and is conscious only of the repercussions of having been involved in the protests. It is very sad to see this change in him, and I hope the same sorry fate does not fall to those now protesting in Brazil. Judging from the relatively mild reactions of the Brazilian government, compared to those of the Turkish government, I don’t think that will happen. No one matches Turkey in the field of revenge.

Jun 13

Plots and Standpoints


Erdogan has raised more eyebrows than usual by claiming that foreign powers have been plotting to “sterilize” Turkey by encouraging abortion and Caesarean sections. He believes other countries are jealous of Turkey’s growing power and seek to restrict it by reducing the population. He is clearly warming to his theme of “Turkey vs. Rest of World” and is elaborating on the various threads of his argument.

The newspaper Takvim has published a fake interview with CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour titled “Dirty Confession”, in which Amanpour admits that CNN chose to cover the protests untruthfully because of pressure from finance lobbies, alcohol companies and other supposed beneficiaries of the protests. Her supposed confession is that “we did everything for money”. A note at the bottom of the article says: “This interview is not real but what you will read here is real. We published this to get back at CNN for its lies.” Amanpour’s tweeted response was “shame on you Takvim”.

130,000 tear gas canisters have been fired so far by Turkish police, almost all of the 150,000 canisters bought this year. The police force is holding an emergency tender for 100,000 more canisters.

While Istanbul remained peaceful last night, 5,000 protesters in the town of Eskişehir in Central Anatolia were hit by tear gas and water canons last night.

Standing protests continue across Turkey. Taksim Square always has a crowd of standing people who make their point in various ways; when I was there last night I saw five or six people with tape over their mouths to symbolize the lack of freedom of expression which spurred many people to join the original Gezi protests. Most people were facing the picture of Atatürk on the AKM building; a few men were facing Gezi Park, and the line of police who sit in front of it, guarding it day and night.

One of the joys of this form of protest is that anyone can take part – I saw more elderly people in the square than I had in the park because this is a quieter, less demanding way of showing support. I found it cheering to see the range of people present – people in wheelchairs, tourists, children, businessmen and the usual erudite students.

I was in the square for about half an hour and two people fainted in that time. This danger has not gone unnoticed by the government. Deputy Prime Minister Arınç has declared that there will be no police interference with standing protesters (after 10 of the original standers were arrested on the first night), but expressed concern for people standing for long periods of time. “Stand for eight minutes, not eight hours” was his considered advice. I imagine he doesn’t want anything equivalent to a hunger strike on his hands, if people start keeling over all over the country.

Standing still must be one of the most simple and powerful forms of protest. It is totally passive and yet incredibly dignified. There is no need for noise, movement or anything that could possibly be construed as aggression. But if I were a policeman facing this crowd of unsmiling, unmoving people, I would certainly feel intimidated.

Jun 13

Adjusting to a New Normality

It occurred to me recently that everyday life in Istanbul has changed dramatically and yet almost imperceptibly over the past fortnight.

I was talking to a friend yesterday as he walked alongside a huge crowd of striking union members, up to Taksim Square. He had phoned me in great excitement to tell me about this novel experience: “There are simply thousands of us, and the police are doing nothing. Here we are, walking up Istiklal Street as bold as brass, and they are just standing around! It’s remarkable!”

It struck me as rather sad that we were surprised by, and grateful for, the lack of police brutality in this situation. Tear gas, water canons and plastic bullets have become totally normal to us over the last couple of weeks, and the conversation with my friend got me thinking about other things we now take for granted, which we probably shouldn’t, for example:

  • Idly speculating who the secret policemen might be on a busy street, scanning pockets for outlines of guns and walkie talkies
  • Cursing oneself for forgetting goggles and a face mask when going anywhere near a crowd of people. More recently, cursing oneself for not hiding the goggles and mask when passing police lines
  • Walking past a group of policemen enjoying themselves at a café and feeling incredibly angry
  • Getting pots and pans ready at 9PM for the daily resistance racket
  • Finding alternative routes home due to some streets being cordoned off or impassable due to tear gas
  • Occasionally resorting to pretending to be a bemused tourist in order to be allowed near Taksim Square

All of these things have become normal for us. The lack of police aggression in the past 24 hours has taken us by surprise.

I think we need a reality check.

Jun 13

A New Mood; A New Form of Protest

standing man After the dramatic scenes of this weekend, a disquieting calm and pretence of normality has settled on Istanbul. The streets may be free of tear gas, but the government continues to discourage protesters through subtler and more sinister means. Everyone is tense, cowed by the ferocity of the government’s recent response to protests, followed by a follow-up operation tracking down individual protesters. A few days ago, we thought the protests would last for weeks – it was inconceivable that the newly-awakened and empowered public would be intimidated or silenced. Now we’re not so sure. Turks and foreigners alike have started limiting their online presence.

193 people in Istanbul were arrested in their homes early this morning, giving credence to the government’s threat that everyone who had any part in the protests will be hunted down and “brought to justice”. More people were arrested in Ankara and elsewhere. The Interior Minister, Muammer Güler, has announced that he has started working with the Ministry of Justice to draft a new law to regulate and restrict social media use, after protesters shared information over Twitter and Facebook relating to the organization of protests – what Güler calls “provoking of the public”. The President, Abdullah Gül, announced on 7th June that he would not allow a “witch hunt” over Twitter, and that he would be watching the judiciary investigation closely. So far there has not been not much evidence of a struggle going on in the corridors of power over the matter.

An extraordinary new protest phenomenon has swept Turkey since 6PM last night: standing protests. It started with one man, a performance artist called Erden Gündüz, who stood and stared at the poster of Ataturk on the AKM building in Taksim Square, Istanbul. Silently and peacefully protesting, Gündüz was literally making a stand. As time passed, he drew the attention of plain clothed police, who became increasingly confused and irritated by his stance. He said nothing to their questions, passively allowing himself to be searched and hassled. As dusk fell, he was gradually joined by a crowd of around 300 people who came and stood with him in solidarity. At around 2AM these people were broken up and ten of them, including Gündüz, were arrested for “insisting on standing”. The protests were copied in other Turkish cities and other spots in Istanbul, reinforcing the government’s fears about the speed and power of social media. The photograph above shows the crowd in Taksim last night; Gündüz is the man in the white shirt.

My friend Patrick used to live with Gündüz and is very worried about his arrest. We have tried to get in touch with him but he will probably be detained for some time. This is what Patrick wrote about him: “He is a very courageous guy, and this is not his first act of bravery. A professional dancer, he regularly performed in public, on Istiklal and elsewhere, in nothing but spandex shorts, and as I witnessed on a couple of occasions, was often harassed and made fun of by passers by. But this did nothing to discourage him.  He is very soft-spoken, extremely outgoing, generous and kind. I understand that he has been detained along with others and I’m very worried about him, so would be happy to help anyone doing anything to shed light on this.”

The sight of the silent, standing crowd has been one of the most powerful of the movement so far. Gone is the excitement of the chants, the banners, the flares. This method of protest fits the new mood: tired but insistent, mature and above all peaceful. The aggressive reaction of police towards a man simply standing on one spot in a public place speaks volumes about their paranoia. I was speaking earlier with a friend, joking about the dangers of tourists stopping to take in the view in Taksim Square. They might find themselves in a police cell if they’re not careful, along with other dangerous terrorists.

Finally, the statement below was released yesterday by the Minister for European Affairs, Egeman Bağış. He makes it quite clear that the Turkish government has burnt its boats with regard to EU accession, bolstering Erdogan’s recent assertion that the EU does not understand democracy. I particularly enjoyed the bit in this press release where Bağış expresses his hope that members of the European Parliament “regain their reason as soon as possible” and stop making ridiculous statements about the severity of the Turkish police response to illegal protests.


Apparently, the rest of the world has suddenly gone quite, quite mad.

Jun 13

Strikes, Detentions and Alarming Rhetoric

3PM: Around 350 people have been detained by police since Saturday night. The police refuse to reveal their whereabouts or on what charges they have been detained, which is  illegal. The Istanbul Bar Association has condemned the actions of police and the illegal detentions.

I just talked to Davide Martello, the pianist who was stopped by police from playing his grand piano in Taksim Square in support of the protests. He showed me a very ugly bruise on his arm from the policeman who tried to arrest him two days ago. He is now meeting with a lawyer who will try to get his piano back from police. Martello is determined to continue supporting protesters and has launched an appeal for another piano so that he can keep on playing, in the event of his own disappearing without trace. It appears he thought his piano would protect himself and the protesters from police interference, because it symbolises peace and freedom.

The Deputy Prime Minister has announced that, if necessary, the military will be called upon to deal with protests.

Five unions are striking in solidarity with protesters who have been subjected to police violence. These strikes have been deemed “illegal” by the government. It is, in fact, against the law for state employees to strike in Turkey. These unions are a mixture of public and private sector employees, namely:

The Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DİSK), the Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions (KESK), the Turkish Doctors’ Union (TTB), the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) and the Turkish Dentists Union (TDHB)

In one hour, striking union members will march from Tünel to Taksim Square, up the main street of Istiklal. Yesterday, there was a lot of police action around Tünel, which is a crowded, bohemian area. My friend Enver saw American tourists being gassed – “protest tourism” taken a step too far. A little further up the road, passers-by and locals in cafes and side streets were unexpectedly caught in the cross fire of water canons and plastic bullets.

Police action has taken the form of savage beatings of protesters in side streets, away from all but the quickest of passing iPhones or other recording devices. These videos have gone viral on social media but are largely unreported in the international media.

On the subject of media coverage, this is an excerpt of Erdogan’s speech from yesterday, addressed to an adoring crowd of over one hundred thousand AKP supporters:

“If you want to see a picture of Turkey, if you want to see it despite the international media, the picture is here. International media, please hide this as well. Ok BBC hide this, CNN hide this. Reuters hide this. You have been producing news that are lies for days. You have represented Turkey differently to the world. You are left alone with your lies. This nation is not the nation that you present to the world. This nation is not the nation playing pot and pans at night.”

It seems Erdogan is particularly bothered by the rest of the world viewing Turkey as backward. Last week he complained that foreigners “think we don’t know about art or music. They think we are like black people.” (Incidentally, the word he used for black – “zenci” – is particularly derogatory). He also talked about the “real” Turk holding a computer in his hands, not pots and pans, to reflect Turkey’s status as a modern, progressive power. I would hazard a guess that footage of police beating innocent people in the street might be slightly more detrimental to Turkey’s image than the kitchenware he is so worried about.

Erdogan promised he would “settle accounts” with those who had aided or abetted what he calls “terrorists”. He singled out the Koç family (although not by name), who own the Divan Hotel where protesters were sheltered (and subsequently attacked by police) on Saturday night.  “We will settle accounts with those who sheltered terrorists in their hotels.”

As I mentioned yesterday, Erdogan is treating the protests as an existential attack on Turkey itself. This is how he justifies the severity of the crackdowns, and most Turks accept what he says without demur, because it all sounds very alarming and the Prime Minister must know best and seems to have it in hand. The excerpt below give an idea on how he has turned the protests into a “you against us” (rather than “us against you”) battle of good and evil. Protesters are “the thieves of the nation’s will”. It also repeats his assertion that only the ballot box has any relevance to the public’s right to express themselves:

“The violent demonstrations in these 18 days are the sovereignty attempts of the minority on the majority, of the privileged on the victim, of the elite on the nation. We know those who make dirty calculations [the interest lobby] are hiding behind trees, the environment, Gezi Park – scared, low, immoral. We know and our nation knows those who steal the nation’s will, that elite group. We will not let those who try other methods than the ballot box pass. We will never give the thieves of the nation’s will any opportunity. We will not let gangs, terror organizations, illegal organizations, vandals and immorals disturb the nation’s peace.”

For me, the most interesting aspect of his vocabulary is his description of these protesters as “the elite”, who are conspiring against the common man (the average AKP supporter). Elite vandals are terrorizing the poor underdog, apparently.

I have saved the most worrying, and hysterical, excerpt til last:

“I am saying this openly: Those who have terrorized the streets for 18 days, those who have raised a hand to my hijabed sisters, those low-lives who brutalized mothers and babies, immorals [….] We will demand the necessary punishment for them within the framework of the law.”

The thing is, Erdogan’s punishment is nowhere near the framework of any law.