The explosions of flash-bangs echo around concrete towers of flats. Police fire tear gas and water cannon into crowds. The crowds reply with rocks and molotov cocktails. Plumes of smoke rise from bonfires as young men march with shields to the barricades. Saturday night in Gazi Mahellesi couldn’t feel farther from the festive atmosphere of Gezi Park. Reuben & Gielty investigate:
This suburb in the north of Istanbul has seen eight nights of intense clashes. Crowds gather in the neighbourhoods at 8PM and march to the main street, Ismet Pasa Avenue.
The clamour of pots and pans being banged rings out, and residents young and old gather in the street to chant anti-government slogans. The shops close. The barricades go up. The TOMAs* arrive. Everyone is aware of the routine.
We find a translator during the street battles, a student of philosophy at Istanbul University. He asks to remain anonymous much more wary of divulging personal information than some of the extroverts in Gezi Park. He explains the government’s view of his community. “They think people here are dangerous. We are poor, always fighting. They don’t respect us.” Gazi Mahellesi is as close as Istanbul comes to a banlieue**. Young, workingclass and populated by ethnic minorities; it is one of the city’s most deprived areas. In addition to battling high unemployment, overcrowding and a lack of services the area also has significant problems with drugs and crime. Local leaders insist Gazi is deliberately neglected by the state in order to weaken the community and distrust runs deep.
Gazi Mahellesi is well known in Istanbul as a ‘police free zone.’ Home to several radical leftist groups that control different areas; its main road is referred as ‘Mayday street’ in some circles. Its residents are also predominantly Kurdish, with immigrants displaced by the TurkishKurdish civil war and its aftermath continuing to stream into it and other poor areas. Many of the Kurds there are of the Alevi faith, and they face double discrimination.
Expression of Kurdish identity is strongly restricted in Turkey. Kayla Zana was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in 1995 for alledged ties to a terrorist organization. The first Kurdish woman to be elected to the Turkish parliament, part of the reasoning behind her conviction was cited: “that the defendent Leyla Zana on 18 October 1991 did wear clothes and accessories in yellow, green and red while addressing the people of Cizre.” Colours signifying Kurdishness. At her inauguration as an MP three years previously, after taking the oath of loyalty in Turkish as required by law, she added in Kurdish, “I have completed this formality under duress. I shall struggle so that the Kurdish and Turkish peoples may live together in a democratic framework.” Parliament was reportedly awash with cries of “Separatist”, “Terrorist”, and “Arrest her.”
Indeed, the only violence within the remarkably restrained occupied Taksim was last Sunday when a group of nationalists attacked a group of Kurds. The belligerence was quickly diffused but it was a stark reminder of the still existing tension simmering below the surface of the defiantly jubilant demonstrations.
While Alevism is not exclusively a Kurdish branch of Islam, it is a synthesis of Shia Islam with Anatolian Kurdish folk tradition. It shares an etymology with the Syrian Alawites; both take their name from Ali, son in law of Muhammad. It is generally seen as being a very moderate conception of Islam that incorporates music and dance into its rituals, and its centres of worship focus on community as well as religion. Alevis are therefore subject to prejudice from Sunni Muslims as well as hardline secularists. There is an ongoing controversy in Istanbul over a new bridge linking the European continent to the Asian, which was named after Yavuz Sultan Selim, who expanded the borders of the Ottoman empire. Also known as Selim the grim, he earned his nickname for for his relentless slaughter of 40,000 Alevis.
Only 20% of Alevis worldwide are Kurdish, but most of the Kurds in Gazi Mahellesi are Alevis. Fresh in their memory are the events of the evening of March 12th 1995. Rifle fire erupted from a passing taxi into three cafes and a cake shop, killing an Alevite religious leader. Locals marched to the police station immediately after the event and another young man died as a result of police firing into the air to disperse the crowd. Over the following days, 17 people died from injuries sustained from live ammunition fired by police. Twenty police officers were sued by the public prosecutor for misconduct, but 18 were acquitted and the other two were released for time served by the time the trial ended in 2000. The original shooters were later linked to rightwing nationalists and were exmilitary.
Mahmet is a resident of Gazi Mahellesi, and an active member of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which he represented as the president of the Gazi council. He was calmly if disappointedly eating dinner in a local restaurant when we met him, as heavily armoured police trucks pushed protestors down the road and stones flew by above. The sting of tear gas was in the air. The BDP is a centre left party that advocates for Kurdish rights, and Mahmet says that
“Sunni Kurds have been oppressed because of ethnic identity, and Alevi Kurds; because of religion. The Kurdish movement is rising though and there is solidarity now. We aren’t looking for a separate state, but all the government decisions are coming from Ankara. We are looking for education in the Kurdish language, recognition of democratic rights, and more local governance.” .
In recent times, one of the challenges facing groups like the BDP has been organising.
“Workers unions aren’t strong here, and attendance at Mayday demonstrations may be punished. People from Gazi do resist the police on Mayday though.”
The BDP is a member of Taksim solidarity, which is the umbrella group whose members are organisations, as opposed to the Taksim Platform which has individual members. The press may be ignoring Gazi and the structural inequalities that allow somewhere like it to exist, but the events in Taksim represent an opportunity for direct engagement. Mahmet says that –
“the movement in Taksim has taught people that Turks and Kurds can work together, they are starting to realise that it is the system that separates them. People need to find common points to agree with.”
The walls of Gazi Mahellesi are covered in leftwing posters, many of them date from before the Taksim Uprising. Although a majority of those here voted for mainstream parties in the last election it has a longstanding revolutionary tradition. The face of Maoist guerrilla and theorist Ibrahim Kaypakkaya adorns street corners and banners. Captured while fighting in the Alevi capital Dersim, he was tortured for four months by Turkish intelligence before being extrajudicially executed.
Gazi is an industrial area, textile factories that provide the greatest source of employment for its residents are the first thing you see from the motorway. In a country where the left is fractured and even hostile among itself, Gazi is a place where the seriousness and shared circumstances forces them to cooperate. When the civil war in the east drove floods of migrants into this area in the 1980s and ’90s it was these groups who built homes for them, in defiance of police orders.
Protestors in Gazi are keen to emphasise their solidarity with those in Gezi Park. The uprising that began in Taksim has brought a new energy to the streets here, offering a broader field of antigovernment politics. On Saturday the chants are ‘her yer Taksim, her yer direnis’ ‘everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resisting.’ People discuss taking over a local park as the next step in the local battle. But there are important differences between the two. Gezi’s predominant demographic is young, middleclass and Turkish. The people we see in Gazi are a crosssection of ages, working-class and ethnic minorities. Our translator tells us that the nightly protests on Ismet Pasa are overlooked, at times, in favour of the attractive feelgood of Taksim Square.
“There is fighting here every night but the volunteer doctors are there where it is quiet. We haven’t seen any in Gazi. They don’t come here. It is the same with artists, famous musicians, and its the same with the media.”
Dublin MEP Paul Murphy went to Gazi Mahellesi during his visit to Istanbul and saw the street battles. He thinks the community response to
“systematic oppression by the police and discrimination by the government” is a test for the Taksim Uprising. He questions “how can the movement be widened and developed to integrate all those rising up and focused in order to threaten the survival of the government?”
As a result of the clashes with police; two teenagers from the area are in hospital, hit in the head with tear gas canisters. One, Turan Akbas, is in critical condition and may not survive.
The Taksim Uprising has provided an opportunity for Gazi Mahellesi to capture public attention, air its grievances, and propose its solutions. If the Taksim Uprising is to fulfill its potential, it must aim to end the conditions which make that struggle necessary.*TOMA is the Turkish Police’s armoured water cannon vehicle. ** The banlieue is a French term equivalent to ‘suburb’ but more generally equivalent to American ‘projects’. While ostensibly a neutral term it is more often accepted as a euphemism for densely populated areas outside city centres containing lower income, migrant populations – ‘areas of sensitivity’ – and even spawned the Turkish word ‘banliyö’. This article was written pseudonymously by Irish journalists Ronan Burtenshaw and Tommy Gavin because of safety concerns.
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Video from Gazi on saturday night after disturbances via Paul Murphy – more on twitter