On Monday the mass protest movement in Turkey was given another martyr. 22-year-old Ahmet Atakan died in a confrontation with police in the Armutlu district of Antakya in the southern Hatay province.
Protestors and witnesses say he died after being shot in the head with a gas canister. The local governor’s office and state TV deny this, saying he fell from a building. Selim Matkap, head of Hatay’s chamber of medicine, was present at his autopsy and dismissed their version of events:
“He has a compression fracture referred to as blunt trauma and bruising on his skull. His cause of death is either one of these. It cannot be stated that ‘one has fallen from a certain height’ with these indications.”
Atakan joins a list of five other young men who have been killed since the protests began on May 27th:
Mehmet Ayvalıtaş (20), killed by a car (probably by police) on June 2nd in Istanbul. Abdullah Cömert (22), executed (probably by police) on June 3rd in Antakya. Ethem Sarısülük (26), shot in the head by police on June 1st in Ankara. Died June 17th. Medeni Yıldırım (18), shot dead by security forces near Lice on June 28th. Ali Ismail Korkmaz (19), attacked by police on June 2nd in Eskişehir. Died July 10th.
It’s very difficult to know how many have been seriously wounded or remain in critical condition. But the number is high. As an indication, last night’s demonstration in Antakya was in solidarity with 14-year-old Berkin Elvan – in a coma since June after being shot in the head with a gas canister.
Upsurge in the struggle
There had been a noticeable drop-off in activity in the protest movement coinciding with the height of the Turkish summer. Colleges closed, people took holidays from work, the heat of the July/August period made political activity very difficult – and that’s before considering the effect that June and July’s ferocious state crackdowns had on the movement.
August saw the protests flicker again in Turkey’s football stadiums but September has seen an upsurge in the struggle. This new wave has been prompted by confrontations over the environment, urban planning, minority rights and police brutality – a similar mix to that which led to the initial Gezi Park uprising.
At its heart, with colleges recommencing, is Middle Eastern Technical University (ODTÜ) in Ankara. Ekin Deniz, a former student at ODTÜ, told Rabble that the university had long been associated with left-wing politics. “ODTÜ is a big mark in the political world of Turkey. Many ODTÜ students and teachers are socialist and the movement is powerful. This has created some problems for governments in the past. And because of this ODTÜ is a target every time.”
In early September the local authority announced that the forest on ODTÜ campus and the neighbouring Atatürk Forest Farm were to be destroyed to build a new motorway. This prompted an angry response from local residents and students at the university.
Large protests began on September 6th – with demonstrators chanting the refrain of the Gezi Park protests: “her yer Taksim, her yer direniş!”, “everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resisting!” On September 7th, with bulldozers already at the site, a sizeable contingent of riot police arrested fourteen protestors who had been camping out to protect the forests. That evening saw a violent police crackdown – these have been escalating in ferocity throughout the summer – but they were unable to disperse the protestors, who had built barricades at the site.
The following day there was a protest in the Tuzluçayır district of Ankara at the opening of a new complex that would house both a Sunni mosque and Alevite cemevi. Opposition to this site was strong among local Alevites, a persecuted religious minority in Turkey, who felt this would place their practices under the control of powerful Sunni groups who view their faith as heretical. Neil Doherty, an Irish translator working in an Istanbul university, said the move was “not some ecumenical gesture” but “an attempt to bring them into the fold, so to speak.”
The complex is also thought to be associated with Fethullah Gülen, leader of a Sunni political movement known as the Service who is exiled in America but wields considerable political power. The state argues that initiatives like this further integration of the Alevite community, but one commentator rebuked the proposal by putting it into Christian context: “To “integrate communities” in Protestant areas, the Pope should build joint Protestant-Catholic complexes under his control.”
The majority of Alevites are Kurdish and, as a result, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) has been to the forefront of the protests. On Sunday, amid a confrontation between the police and protestors in Tuzluçayır, its offices were raided and fired upon. While the Turkish state under Erdoğan has been engaged in a peace process with the group widely-understood to be the BDP’s military wing, the PKK, persecution of the party has been increasing this summer. This persecution has involved Facebook too, who shut down a series of pages run by the BDP amid allegations of government pressure.
Solidarity protests occurred on Sunday in Adana, İzmir and both Taksim Square and Gazi Mahallesi in Istanbul, with police dispersing crowds using rubber bullets in the latter. A “justice” demonstration for Berkin Elvan in Okmeydanı, Istanbul on Monday led to a number of serious injuries while clashes continued in Tuzluçayır. Major protests in Istanbul, Ankara, Antakya and elsewhere across the country on Tuesday evening marked the biggest single day for the movement since June.
Developments in the movement
Peter Loto, a translator based in Ankara, attended the protests in the Alevite Tuzluçayır neighbourhood of the city on Sunday and said that “it was the protestors who were calling the shots, not the police”. He continued that the Ankara police “go to great lengths to prevent those from the Alevi neighbourhoods getting into the centre of the city and joining the main protests”. This is because protestors there “have learnt to street fight the hard way, and if they got into the centre they might do some damage beyond passive resistance.”
As has been the case since the Gezi Park protests began, the resurgence in the movement is based on popular reaction to events rather than any organic development or deliberate direction. Ekin Deniz described the protests as “spontaneous” while Neil Doherty, a translator in an Istanbul university, said there were “no signs of it becoming a standard political movement with a leadership.” “It seems to react to state violence but perhaps now things will change,” he continued.
Loto feels the regular açık forum which take place in communities around Turkey are developing a localised infrastructure that helps to sustain the movement. “Neighbourhoods in Ankara which had well-organised forums throughout the summer are now more like units… they know each other, they trust each other, they will risk danger to look after each other and they can agree on tactics. You can look at those protesting at ODTÜ and distinguish the local residents from the students immediately for this reason: the residents have been talking about this to each other all summer.”
Dominic Mealy wrote of the forums in June, “in their spontaneity, in their horizontality, these forums echo the neighborhood assemblies that have characterised the major social upheavals of the last decade, from Spain to Greece, from Argentina to Egypt.” Deniz says she watches them on Ulusal Kanal TV channel. “It is very useful. People are talking, discussing and making complaints. They are so brave and they want to live in a better Turkey.”
Neil Doherty’s local forum is in Yoğurtçu Parkı, Kadıköy. He says there was “lots of debate before the summer” and while it is small “it will grow again after tonight.” There is a shared microphone and a variety of topics are discussed, with guest speakers invited in from the outside. An over-arching co-ordinating body has been created to facilitate co-operation between local branches, but they remain focused on their communities.
Loto says that “in places where there are already small leftist groups used to protesting, the forums have been a way for those groups to interact and join forces, and in places with fewer existing structures, this has been a way of introducing people and creating a form of network to activate future protests.”
But does the movement now need to move to the national level? Loto doesn’t think so. “That gap is filled, in the main, by social media like Twitter, which is much more democratic than a national-level hierarchy. Of course, these groups are far more effective when they work together, but they’re also built on a structure which is intended to let every participant have their say, and you lose that up the chain of command.”
The indications are that these forums are trying to develop parallel participatory democratic structures rather than crystallising demands to place on the existing political system. They remain relatively small, however, and reports suggested participation in them waned over the summer months.
One structure that has articulated demands is Taksim Dayanışması or Taksim Solidarity. Evidence of its declining influence are to be seen on its Facebook and website – both inactive since mid-July. But it did produce five demands for the movement in June: Gezi Park must stay as a park; governors and police chiefs involved in the violent repression must resign; the use of tear gas must be prohibited; detained protestors must be immediately released; and bans on public meetings must be rescinded.
In practice it has had little success in achieving these. If anything the use of tear gas, number of arrests and breadth of the bans on public assembly have increased. The one victory had been Gezi Park itself, but its situation remains in flux. A decision of the Istanbul First Regional Court in early June to halt the demolition of the park on planning grounds was overturned by an administrative court in late July. At the moment the park is open to the public but the police are not tolerating anything resembling protests and close it down by force at their first sign.
The movement remains leaderless from a party-political standpoint. It has, however, prompted changes in party politics. Hüseyin Aygün and Aylin Nazlıkaya, politicians from the main opposition party the secular-Kemalist CHP, have taken an increasingly friendly stance. Their party is now entering coalition talks with others in the Turkish parliament, emboldened by the opposition to Erdoğan displayed by the movement.
The Kurdish BDP, the largest left-wing party in parliament, is to run under the banner of a non-Kurdish sister party, the HDP, in the west of the country in the next elections – an attempt to move beyond ethnic politics and establish itself as the country’s social-democratic party.
Although it is not at a central concern of the movement at the moment the spectre of Syria looms large over Turkish politics. Any intervention there could have a significant effect. The Turkish Communist Party (TKP), following the line of its sister party in Syria by supporting the Assad régime against the rebels, issued a statement with veiled threats about retaliation if the government took “concrete steps” towards intervention.
A range of persuasions tug Turkish politics vis-a-vis the conflict in different directions: anti-imperialism; secular nationalism; Islamism; the support of the AKP for the rebels; the Kurdish question; regional geopolitics; the 500,000 refugees from the war who’ve crossed into Turkey and so on. The only area that there seems to be broad agreement on – across the movement and supporters of the government alike – is opposition to western intervention.
Protests in ODTÜ are likely to continue, meanwhile. Irem Güvin, an Istanbul-based activist, says that tensions have been raised by the police falsifying evidence against students under arrest. She says the weapons used by police are worsening, with “plastic bullets including a dust which burns the skin and may cause nausea” and chemicals added to water canons.
If commentators were predicting the petering out of the Gezi Park resistance then September will have given them a surprise. The movement seems in better shape to build towards the new year than it seemed a month ago. The latest wave will need to survive what is likely to be a significant escalation in state violence and develop beyond mass protests into efficient, democratic structures in communities and workplaces. If it can then it seems likely that the government is in for a long autumn and winter.
Ekin Deniz is convinced that the movement has a long way to run yet. “People will never forget the martyrs. Ahmet Atakan was killed for the same reasons. The problem continues and the people are still resisting.”