The reclamation of Taksim square and the battle of Besiktas

In Blog, politics, Topics by Reuben & Gielty9 Comments

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On Sunday Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan responded to the Taksim Uprising with characteristic machismo. In speeches and interviews he called protestors in Gezi Park “looters”, “hoodlums” and “a few bums”, lashing out at social media and the independent press for acting as “provocateurs”. Reuben & Gielty joined the crowds at Taksim.

He also suggested “hanging [people] from trees”, a comment widely interpreted as referring to protestors but which he later claimed was meant to refer to their intentions for him. The comment evoked memories of the role of hanging in previous Turkish upheavals – Adnan Menderes, a Prime Minister who challenged secularism and the military, in 1961 and iconic leftist revolutionary Deniz Gezmis in 1972.

In the face of a challenge to the AKP’s Islamist project Erdogan also announced that the new development in Gezi Park would contain a mosque – a move predicted by protestors days before. The government wins elections by appealing to religion, order and business interests – and will likely play to these constituencies in the coming days.

But despite his public pronouncements of determination authorities in Istanbul were forced into a major concession on Saturday evening, withdrawing the police from the area around Taksim Square altogether. Thousands flooded into Gezi Park to re-establish the occupation and have remained ever since.

Sunday in Taksim Square saw rallies by leftist groups, with bands playing folk songs from a stage constructed on the roof of a van. The Ataturk Cultural Centre, also slated for demolition by authorities in the city, was occupied with hundreds of people standing on the roof seven storeys up. A giant banner from the Turkish Communist Party (TKP) read ‘Boyun Egme’, ‘Don’t Bow’. The square itself bore the signs of battle – over-turned vehicles, a smashed up ambulance and police riot shields carried as souvenirs by protestors.

Behind it in Gezi Park a festival atmosphere mixed with an occupation settling in for the long term. Where the police cordon had stood on Thursday there was now only wrecked police vehicles and a burned out hut. Buildings were covered in slogans, party logos and anti-police graffiti. Both squares had bands playing songs of resistance and revolution, crowds danced along. Cheerleaders stood on ledges and led hundreds below in chants against the government.

But there was also organisation. Plastic bags for clean ups were taped to the trees along with a constitution for the camp. The construction barriers which had closed in the second square were ripped down, allowing protestors easy access (and escape, if necessary) but also a clear view of the large Cumhuriyet Street and Tarlabasi to the north from the elevated plateau of the park.

Mehmet Sehriyar, one of those cleaning the park on Sunday night, told us a vigil was being maintained in the camp. Campers were turning over in cycles to sleep for a few hours but always making sure there were enough to protect Gezi. “Food, clothes and water are collected here an distributed for free. If you come here and get cold you can ask for a coat.”

The first organisations to become involved in the Taksim Gezi Park fightback were Greenpeace, whose activists maintained a small occupation for months before these major protests, and the Taksim Solidarity committee. The committee is comprised of locals from the Taksim area, mainly politically unaligned, who worked at raising awareness about the impending demolition of Gezi Park and challenging its legality in the courts.

One of its members who is politically aligned, Ahmet Atil Asici, International Secretary of the Turkish Green Party, said the occupation was attracting a wide range of support – from nationalists to anarchists. Up to six days ago, when the bulldozers arrived at Taksim Gezi, it was small, but now it was “something really new in Turkey”.

“Saturday’s protest was historic for Turkey, huge in size, and this many people can’t always share the same agenda. Some people here want to overthrow the government; we, the greens, are against the government because of its attack on nature and people’s democratic rights; some people are against the government since they are attacking the power of the military and the ancien régime. So it’s not hard to find reason to be against the government.”

The crowd in Gezi Park was predominantly young and middle-class, most people we spoke to were students. This demographic has led the Taksim Uprising, though its explosion to at least hundreds of thousands in Istanbul and much more across the country evidences the depth of the revolts appeal beyond this in Turkey.

One of the distinctive features of Turkish politics historically has been the centrality of Kemalism. Taking its name from the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the Turkish Republic, it describes his ideology – a mix of republicanism, nationalism, secularism and statism. Most political groupings adopt aspects of his platform and claim inheritance of his legacy, while leading opposition party the Republican People’s Party (CHP) are expressly Kemalist. It is deeply ingrained in the Turkish national identity and has a strange effect on the right-left political spectrum here, offering common ground where it shouldn’t exist and bitterly separating those whose platforms are similar.

One example of an unusual grouping are the Workers’ Party (Isçi Partisi) who combine hardline Kemalism with Maoist revolutionary politics. One of their members, Seda Topruk, tells us the party have opposed the AKP government since it came to power. “We are against American imperialism and oppressive, fascistic dictatorship.” Despite this they are supportive of the military, who are in NATO, in their power struggle with Erdogan. They are by no means the only grouping whose politics are eclectic.

Although organised forces tend to come to the fore in power vacuums, it isn’t the political parties who hold the key here. Erdogan’s jibe to the CHP that if they raise 100,000 people to rally, he could get a million is probably correct. But this is an uprising, not electoral politics-by-numbers.

The next step for the movement depends on the deepening of support among the masses of the people. For this revolutionary moment to progress the predominant middle-class of Taksim Gezi will have to be joined by workers more generally – their ability to bring the economy to a halt would make the Taksim Uprising a much greater threat to the government than it is at present. It will be interesting to see if June 5th’s public sector general strike goes ahead, and how large it is. Unions have backed the protests but there are doubts on tge ground here about their mobilising capacity.

As night fell on Taksim young people were fortifying barricades set up to protect the Gezi camp from the return of the police. They used materials left behind by the construction company sent to demolish their park, including commandeered bulldozers. Fires burned in the square and chants by lone individuals were liable to be picked up by thousands with spontaneous enthusiasm. This space was liberated – from the police, the government, the state – however temporarily, and it was shared.

But it was also prepared for war. Before the night was out the police would return from the other major site of confrontation.

Besiktas was again the site of targeted police attacks on demonstrators, and specifically, students helping injured injured protesters. Bahecesir University in Besiktas, which was a centre for distributing aid, was attacked with teargas, and police attempted to enter it at 22:45. Students have been at the centre of events here, and the police have shown a tendency to engage in tactics of entrapment and punishment in an attempt to crush resistance. According to the President of the Turkish Bar Association (TBB), Metin Feyzioglu, police have also targeted an infirmary in the city of Ankara and used gas grenades against the doctors and patients inside.

It was the second day in a row that the University on the coast was attacked. Now closed, the rector of the private third level institution had a boat sent to rescue students and injured people. Around 1000 people successfully escaped across the Bosphorus to Uskudar.

Police escalated their aggressive action and have begun using rubber bullets.  A protester in Ankara also died from a bullet wound to the head from a live round fired by police. In Besiktas, they have also started invading homes which they suspect have been harbouring and abetting student search and rescue teams. The teams attempt to provide first aid and to move injured people to safe locations.

Many of the students protesting and helping the injured fear for their lives and with good cause. It has been confirmed that AKP supporters have been fighting demonstrators on the side of the police, and one witness observed AKP supporters carrying knives in the Turkali district. It is still neatly impossible to get accurate numbers of the dead and injured, but our informed estimates are over 1000 injured and at least ten dead. The official figures are 79 and 1, respectively.

Students also worry because they have been using social media to coordinate relief and support, that after the protests end they will be tracked down by the police and arrested, or by AKP supporters.Another concern is that because of media censorship in Turey and sparse coverage of the protests; people who aren’t in their proximity won’t be aware of their scale, saying nothing of their political importance for unifying opposition.

There is an online petition circling among students of Bahecesir University to cancel end of year exams which are only now just beginning. They will literally be bringing makeshift gas masks along with their stationary to their finals. It is very hard to make predictions as protests continue to grow and develop here. One thing is certain though, the youth of Istanbul are receiving a very political education at the hands of the police and in the context of oppositional unity. It is not one they are likely to soon forget.

Footage from the weekend is available on our YouTube channel HERE 

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