Riots and police violence in Turkey

We're staying!
We’re staying!

The spontaneous movement that started in Istanbul is unprecedented in Turkey’s history. It’s now spread to  sixty-seven of the eighty-five major cities writes Masis Kürkçügil of New Course for Socialist Democracy, the Fourth International section in Turkey.

It all started when a group of citizens decided to express their opposition to the redevelopment, including uprooting the trees, of Gezi Park in Taksim Square in the centre of Istanbul. Gezi Park, according to statements by the Prime Minister Erdogan, would be the site of a development project including rebuilding, as a luxury shopping centre, an Ottoman artillery barracks that had been demolished following a rising against the Young Turks Revolution of 1908. The site was subsequently cleared in 1940. This plan has also been criticised by town planners, architects and ecologists.

On Friday May 31st, the very same day that an Istanbul court decided to suspend the rebuilding of the barracks, the police attacked the peaceful occupiers of Gezi and forced them out. The police aggression provoked a massive reaction by the inhabitants in solidarity with the occupiers, and after violent confrontations the police finally moved back from the park on June 1st and 2nd and lost control of Taksim. The street fighting continued day and night in several districts of the centre of Istanbul.

The Party of Justice and Development (AKP), which has been in power for ten years, has become increasingly authoritarian. It has tried to exclude everyone who is not in its camp. Its neoliberal policies has provoked a hostile reaction among much of the youth. All these things contributed to the explosion which was detonated by the police intervention in entering the park to brutally evacuate people with their children and set fire to their tents

The AKP, which has a strong electoral base of fifty percent of voters, has suffered a first defeat, and from a popular mobilisation. This party, which is seen as having brought about important changes for half the population, had just sat down at the negotiating table with the Kurds to find a peaceful solution to the national question. Its policies were up to now contested only by militant but not very influential sections of the left, but suddenly a heterogeneous and not easily definable set of people conquered the centre of the city after courageously facing the police.

It’s a young movement

The majority of the demonstrators are, alongside the left groups, people of 20-30 years old participating for the first time in a political struggle although there is a sizeable participation in the demonstrations of secular Kemalist[i] currents opposed to the AKP government. It should also be underlined that young women occupied the front ranks in the confrontations with the police. The proximity of poor districts to the centre made it easy for young people from these districts to participate. People from all over the city went to the centre. At dawn a massive crowd crossed the bridge over the Bosphorus on foot and joined the other demonstrators. Although it remained limited, certain members of the far right Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi party took part in the demonstrations, but the party leadership immediately ordered them to leave.

There is a mixture of young headscarf-wearing girls, “anticapitalist Muslims”, fans of football clubs, LGBT groups, Kurdish, Kemalists. But most of those who were there said simply “we’re standing up against Tayyip Erdo?an, “we are here too, we exist”. The important slogans were “Tayyip resign”, “shoulder to shoulder against Fascism”, “It is only a beginning, the fight continues”, however there was no clear mass demand. Even if the Taksim Initiative has demanded the resignation of the minister of the interior, this demand is not yet very widespread among most people.

The most important fact is that, for the first time, hundreds of thousands of people are independently going to public places without being directed by a left organisation, trade union or the state in order to oppose to the policies of a government which is taking a more and more authoritarian turn. Even if social demands have not yet emerged, it is quite obvious that the implementation of neo-liberal policies is making people angry.

The revenge of May 1st or wars of memory

On May 1st this year the government had, on the pretext of work in progress, closed the symbolically important Taksim Square to demonstrations, paralysed maritime and road transport and deployed police officers everywhere in order to prevent May Day demonstrations. The government adopted the Putin method to choke off the social opposition and the city was paralysed.

There is a war of memory between the left and the government over Taksim Square which is known as May Day Square. Faced with the left which wants to perpetuate both the memory of 42 people who fell here on May 1st 1977, as well as working class ideals, the government would like, by rebuilding the artillery barracks, to both “revive history” and, by transforming it into a shopping centre, create its own historical legitimacy.

By humiliating the demonstrators whom it stigmatises as “marauders” and agitators, Erdogan revealed how “consistent” he was when he opposed to Israeli repression in Gaza or when he criticised Assad in Syria. Municipal and parliamentary elections will take place during the next two years, as well as the presidential election. According to many analysts, it is almost certain that Erdogan will be elected president. Erdogan would like a constitutional amendment that would enable him to constitute a Putin-style presidential regime.

However these recent events have been an unexpected defeat for him.

What we need now is new mass movements.


[i] The political ideology of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Its main elements are  republicanism, nationalism , populism, secularism  and statism.

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