Eyewitness reports on 12 days of Turkey’s rebellion

Izmir,Turkey — Something so important has been happening in Turkey since May 29 that even we here are bewildered and amazed by this unexpected uprising. It is something, very hopeful, very new and very fresh. For a park and for a few trees, Turkish youth rose up and brought new hope and new light to Turkey’s society.

To save a few trees and a park, young people were holding a vigil. Then very early in the morning of May 30, police came to Gezi Park, attacked the young people, burned their tents, fired pepper gas directly into their faces and dragged them to the ground. The police’s brutal act stirred all of society.

People started to gather at Gezi Park, by Taksim Square. Police attacked them again. Since then, in almost every city, people have been in the streets day and night. The police attacked people with pepper gas, water cannon and overall disproportional force.

According to the Istanbul Doctors Chamber report, more than 4,000 people have been injured, two demonstrators, one cop and three bystanders have lost their lives, and more than 60 people are hospitalized with serious injuries, including two who lost their eyes.

Everything started in order to save a park, a bunch of trees. For ten years, a lot of skyscrapers and shopping malls have been built in Istanbul. The city has become too crowded, with no green area, no park.

In Taksim Square there is a small park called Gezi Park. Before 1940, in this place, there was a military barracks, named Topcu Kıslası. In 1940, Istanbul’s Governor Lütfu Kırdar had it torn down, and in its place they created a park called Gezi. Before Topcu Kislasi was first built, there was an Armenian cemetery in its place.

Topcu Kıslası has been a very important place for Muslim groups, because in 1909 there was a rebellion by fundamentalist Muslim soldiers, and at that time, the secular party ITP attacked them and killed the soldiers. Now the ruling party is a Muslim party, the AKP. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is also the leader of AKP, wants to rebuild a facsimile of that military barracks, Topcu Kıslasi, including a shopping mall and hotel inside it.

Environmentalists wanted to save Gezi Park because there is not enough green area in Istanbul. On May 29, the builders uprooted five trees. That night 50 environmentalists kept vigil. The next morning, the police attacked.

The next day, many people went to Taksim Square to show solidarity with this group. The police again attacked, so brutally that it stirred anger throughout the society. Starting from Taksim, Istanbul, the uprising spread to Ankara, Izmir, Hatay and Tunceli. After five days of demonstrations, police were withdrawn from Taksim.

After the police were gone, Gezi Park became a place of celebration, much like a great festival. Unions went on strike. On this May Day, unions that hadn’t been allowed to demonstrate in Taksim on May Day, came back powerfully.

In Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, plainclothes police holding batons with nails in them attacked people. They also arrested some young people for writing on Twitter. In Ankara, more than 10,000 people were in the streets.

In Hatay on June 4, a 22-year-old demonstrator, Abdullah Cömert, was killed during the demonstration when police attacked. The last message he shared on Facebook was: “I slept only five hours in three days. I got pepper gassed countless times; I escaped three times from the jaws of death. And what do people say to me: ‘Don’t worry. Are you going to save the country?’  Yes, maybe we cannot save it, but we can die for it. I’m so tired; for three days I’m on my feet with three energy drinks and pain killers. My voice is hoarse, but I’m awake at 6 a.m. only for revolution.”

In Adana, a police officer fell down from a very high wall and died. On June 2, one car drove into the demonstrators and killed Mehmet Ayvalitas.

In Rize, demonstrators were attacked by a fundamentalist group.

Not just about trees

Is this only about five trees? No. It is about democracy, it is about the government’s anti-democratic acts and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s totalitarian behavior, his intervention in people’s private lives, his attempt to drag society to an Islamic fundamentalist lifestyle.

Even within the government, no one has any power but Erdogan. For every decision, Erdogan has the last word, even regarding the city’s municipal decisions. He acts like a king in the medieval era and he wants to be much more even than that.

The race to dictatorship:

Erdogan wants to change the Turkish Constitution. Instead of a  parliamentary system in which parties run for election and the majority party’s leader becomes prime minister, and where legislative, executive, and judiciary forces are independent, Erdogan wants a presidential system. Instead of separation of forces, he wants to collect the three of them in the hands of the president.

This would be a real dictatorship. He and his government have already changed the Constitution gradually, so he dominates the legislature and executive and even the judiciary. He aims for absolute power.

Since 1984, a Kurdish guerrilla movement has been fighting with the Turkish army. Because of this war, more than 30 thousand people have been killed. Recently there has been a peace process begun with the Kurds.

The Turkish government and the Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK) leader, Abdullah Ocalan, have begun this process. But Erdogan and his government have not told the people what his plan is. The PKK has withdrawn guerrillas from Turkey.

Some nationalist people, including the second-place People’s Republican Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), say that Erdogan will divide the country and open a possibility of creating a new Kurdish state. Others (like me) don’t trust the government and Erdogan and say that after Kurdish guerrillas withdraw, the government won’t do anything for peace.

There are also minority groups and problems for religious sects. For example, Erdogan and his government decided to build a third bridge over the Bosporus. They determined the bridge’s name to be Yavuz Sultan Selim, who was an Ottoman Padishah, and he reportedly killed 40,000 members of the Alevi sect of the Muslim religion. This decision stirred Alevi believers’ anger.

Turkey’s government also tagged leftist groups as marginal and police attacked them brutally in every demonstration. They didn’t even allow the workers’ May Day demonstration in Taksim this year. Demonstrating in Taksim on May Day is very important for Turkish leftist groups because on May Day 1977, police and some secret forces attacked demonstrators and 37 people were killed. Since then unions and leftist groups have identified Taksim as a May Day demonstration square.

The government took away workers’ rights and made it impossible to get organized and join unions. Changes that the government made to labor laws worsened working conditions; these depended on the subcontractor system that divided big organizations to small pieces, which doesn’t allow them to get unionized.

Because workers cannot get organized, workers’ salaries have stayed very low. Workers have grown poorer, while rich capitalists have grown even richer. In agricultural areas, peasants cannot live on their agricultural work so they migrate to big cities and join the workers and unemployed people.

Also the Turkish government has not cared for the environment or buildings with historical value unless they are Muslim structures. Rivers and creeks are sold to energy companies; forests are allowed to be opened for construction.  And the government decided to build nuclear power plants without listening to the people’s voice.

Also, nationalist groups and Kemalist groups, which consist of the followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (the late founder of modern Turkey), have a problem with the government. During the last five years, very top army generals and some Kemalist journalists and professors have been imprisoned.

Also, Erdogan is intervening in Syria, supporting mostly fundamentalist Muslim groups in Syria. It was rumored that the Turkish government is providing weapons to these anti-government forces in Syria. This policy boomeranged when in Reyhanlı, a small town at the border with Syria, bombs exploded and 52 people died.

Erdogan is also attacking people’s private lives. Recently the government passed a law that strictly limited serving alcohol and restricted selling alcohol. Erdogan said that drinking alcohol means getting drunk and said he doesn’t want drunken youth.

Abortions have become difficult to obtain. A new law introduces the right for doctors to refuse to perform an abortion on the grounds of their conscience and a mandatory “consideration time” for women requesting a termination. Only if a woman is in a life-threatening situation is the abortion performed without a problem.

Erdogan even intervened against a television series, Muhtesem Yuzyıl, about Ottoman Padishah Suleyman’s life. He said that Padishah had not lived that way, so the series must be stopped. He is also trying to get control of every major media channel on TV and all the newspapers.

Journalists are afraid to say or write anything against the government. Any journalist who says or writes anything that Erdogan disapproves of will face the danger of becoming unemployed.

Why people went into the streets?

When police attacked the young people so brutally in Gezi Park, in Taksim, two important things happened: One is that young people didn’t pull back; instead, the crowd became bigger. They organized by using social media, Twitter and Facebook. They were not socialists, they were not politicized, and they were not experienced. Most of them were under the age of 30.

They confronted police vehicles so heroically using humor as a political weapon, and they were bold and brave. But the police attacks were violent, merciless, outrageous and ruthless. This had a big effect on people’s consciousness.

People came from everywhere, and from different groups they went into the streets to support these brave youths. It was not only to save Gezi Park and some trees there, but to show their anger at the government and Erdogan.

From every group, every minority, including Kurds, Turks, leftists, socialists, feminists, environmentalists, Kemalists, anti-capitalist Muslims,  etc., the people were together even where they never had come together before. A Kurdish Party member and a Kemalist (Turkish nationalist) together were cleaning a dog’s face of pepper gas. Some actresses, actors and musicians went to Taksim, Gezi Park.

Most people organized demonstrations locally. In Ankara, Izmir, Hatay, Tunceli … in 70 cities, people were in the streets. The mainstream Turkish media, TV channels and newspapers didn’t show anything at the beginning, but the movement was so powerful that eventually they came to question themselves.

During these events, what did Recep Tayyip Erdogan say? He said that he will build that military barracks, that he will take down the Ataturk Cultural Center, which is very close to Gezi park (It has also been a problem.) and build a mosque in Taksim. He said that demonstrators were “chapulcu” (meaning spoilers, plunderers, looters). The word “chapulcu” and demonstrating with pots and pans as noise makers became symbols of the demonstrations. Young people referred to them in a song, using humor.

Erdogan went on a trip to North Africa. When he was away from Turkey, President Abdullah Gul met with some representatives of the demonstrators and said that the message had been received. But when a journalist asked, Erdogan asserted, “What message? I don’t know of any message.” He asked the journalist, “Do you know the message?”

Erdogan also said that he got 50 percent of the votes, and that he has had difficulty keeping this 50 percent of people quietly at home. He mentioned that if things got worse, he could take them to the street. This has only one meaning: civil war.

At the same time, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc apologized about police using too much pepper gas. When Erdogan returned from Africa, he said he will never give up; the demonstrators are provocateurs. He blamed the rebellion on revolutionary groups.

The events have not ended. People are still on the streets. I’m very afraid that the government will play some game on this and turn the streets into a place to hunt humans.

Turkish society has learned a lot from the youth. We learned that they are not as apolitical as we had thought; they are not voiceless. They have a new language that is different from our traditional leftist language. They are not socialist, they didn’t raise an anti-capitalist flag, but they gave us hope that no one can easily take away our freedom.

They changed us, they changed themselves, and they changed the mainstream media. I hope they will change the society. They got hold of society’s rope and dragged it a little to the left. We thank them.

This will have its place in Turkish history as a turning point.

The author is a veteran Turkish political activist and former political prisoner. She heard or read the quotes on the streets or in Turkey’s media.