On Saturday 31st May, 2014, people gathered in the streets near Gezi Park, Istanbul as they had done exactly one year before. This time their mood was very different, however – bitter and fatalistic, with little of the exhilarated energy that characterized protests last year. This year, Gezi Park was cordoned off hours in advance. Civil policemen holding batons patrolled street corners, sinister backup for the thousands of riot police and their water canon trucks stationed around Taksim Square. Only the most determined and politicized of protesters headed out to the unequal battle with their gas masks and hard hats, leaving mainstream Gezi veterans watching events unfold on their TV or Twitter screens at home. This year, the government has learned from its mistakes.
The obvious but crucial point to be made about this year’s protests is that they happened at all: people are still angry. There is plenty to protest about in Turkey; arguably much more than last year, considering the allegations of grotesque government corruption, business cronyism and misconduct that have emerged in the wake of the December 2013 wiretapping scandal and the recent Soma mining disaster. Yes, Gezi Park has been saved, but the Gezi protest movement has moved far beyond that now. The reason so many people rushed to support the original group of protesting environmentalists back in May 2013 was the violence of the police suppression, and that is still part of what people are protesting, in a horribly predictable vicious cycle. Images of people beaten, gassed and detained in cities across Turkey circulate with sickening familiarity on social media, and they are certainly not confined to those protesting the status of a small but iconic urban park.
These images are shocking, but the shock is – sadly – dulled now by the knowledge that this has become the norm, and will probably stay the norm for some time. It is difficult to imagine anything on the scale of the public’s two week occupation of Gezi Park last year happening again under this government’s watch. The events of May 2013 caught the government off guard. In the last year, there has been plenty of practice for the police force described by Prime Minister Erdogan as “heroic” to become adept at stopping any significant protest gathering momentum. That knowledge is at the core of many people’s anger at the government, and at the same time the reason that they cannot fully express it.
My favourite memory of the protests last year is a crowd of people holding out red carnations to commemorate those who had already died, pressing around an advancing TOMA (water canon) in Taksim Square. These people were so determined to protest peacefully, so united, it was impossible not to be moved. This year, the event that stuck in my mind was someone throwing a glass bottle at police from an unseen window on high. The bottle smashed and police quickly pointed their guns at the crowd, who backed off. Here was explosive anger and cowed fear, a horrible indication of how peaceful protest is becoming increasingly desperate.
We’re also hearing ever-more polarizing language from the government, in particular the Prime Minister. One of the most famous clips of Saturday’s protests is of CNN’s Ivan Watson being forcibly detained mid-broadcast by a policeman who refuses to accept his press card as proof of his journalistic credentials. The ridiculous spoof-like quality of the clip has caused much merriment, but that merriment turned sour today after Erdogan referred to Watson as a “creep” and an “agent” who was caught “red-handed” provoking trouble during the protests. The fact that the Prime Minister can refer to a journalist doing his job (and brusquely prevented from doing so) in such a way is not, at this point, surprising, but it is worrying because so many people who listen unquestioningly to their Prime Minister take his words very much to heart. When journalists tried to get to the protests on Saturday, they were stopped by police who accused them of having fake press cards, and then told that only Turkish press were allowed to cover the protests. Several of them were asked, with great suspicion, if they were German journalists, because Germany happens to be the main target of Erdogan and the pro-government media’s xenophobia at the moment.
It will be a very sad day when the raging rhetoric of an unscrupulous government makes foreign nationals feel unwelcome in Turkey, to the point where they want to leave. I hope fervently that will not happen. In the meantime, I applaud the attitude of Ivan Watson, who has entered into the spirit of events by changing his description on Twitter to “siyenenci” – or CNN-ci (purveyor of CNNism). A light touch, Mr Watson, bravo.