The usually balmy sea air of the Bosphorus was yesterday cut with tear gas. What would normally be a refreshing breeze instead burned the throat and made the eyes water. This was true almost everywhere in the Beyoglu district of central Istanbul.
By dawn it was clear that June 1st would see hundreds of thousands on the streets. The previous night there had been remarkable flashing light and cacerolada demonstrations in apartment buildings across the city, and fevered organising on social media. As the sun rose over the Bosphorous the Bogazici bridge filled with protestors headed for Taksim Square. The Asian side of the city, until then mainly cut off from the Taksim Uprising, was joining in.
Other parts of this vast country were, too. Television showed pictures of government buildings in the capital Ankara under siege. In Istanbul new fronts of battle were opening up in squares, universities and on bridges. But at the epicentre was Taksim Square and the city’s high street Istiklal. The riot police battled protestors for hours, first forcing them back to the sea at Haliç then being driven back themselves to Taksim. By evening the crowds had retaken the historic plaza, overflowing onto it from avenues all around. The police had almost vanished, pulled back by authorities in advance of the surge that would come with the main rally.
But they were cracking down elsewhere. Besiktas, an area about three kilometres from Taksim, was the site of major police action. Home to two universities it is a predominantly young area, with a lot of student accommodation. Idil, a recent graduate of Bahcesehir University recounted some of the day’s events:
“We were on our way to the university when a gas bomb exploded next to us. I was choking and vomiting, and my eyes went black. When we were trying to help people who were terribly wounded police threw a bomb at the door and we were running like hell to the second floor with our faces burning.” The college is close to the coast and the protestors made for boats to “escape the mayhem”. Police then fired gas cannisters at the boat.
The Besiktas area is also home to the many of the ultras of the football club bearing its name. Football fans offer an intriguing dimension to the protests. At once more united than ever before – Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Besiktas putting aside rivalries to fight the police together – and disparate. As one group of Besiktas’ anarchist Çarsi were battling tear gas to the east another section had taken over a deserted government building on Istiklal. On either side of the iconic Inonu Stadium there were Besiktas ultras at war, but they didn’t appear organised or cohesive.
Another point of interest was the gas the police were firing. It emerged later in the day that pepper gas, more lethal than tear gas, had been used. Other reports suggested that the police were firing cannisters directly at protestors before picking them back up to hide the extent of their usage. Student doctors tended to the injured and promised to put themselves at the service of protests again today.
Gas has already been used lethally during these protests, but it hasn’t been an effective weapon more generally for the police. In fact, it has galvanised the protestors. They organise to distribute gas masks. Rather than dispersing crowds it merely shifts them, instead of detering more from joining it has enouraged a very strong sense of solidarity.
The power in the Taksim Uprising is its ability to unite the diverse anti-AKP factions in Turkish politics. Since the Islamist movement led by Erdogan swept to power in 2002 with 34% of the vote no-one has come close to providing a viable alternative. AKP’s vote grew to 47% in 2007 and then half of all ballots cast in the election of two years ago, with 83% turnout.
Government policy mixes neoliberal economics with religious social conservatism and state authoritarianism. Although it’s easy to find political parties and grouoings opposing these on each front, they had remained divided. Taksim has changed this. Socialists, communists and anarchists from the left share the streets with Ataturk-inspired secularists and liberal students.
The protestors say this is the most unified the left has been in living memory. While it is difficult to know how party leaderships are interacting activists on the ground in organised, distinguishable blocs co-operate. At Balyoz Street, when it was the front line, socialists and communists worked together to tear down scaffolding in the hope of outflanking the police lines.
But, while anticapitalists are prominent in the crowd, these are not anti-capitalist protests. People speak about government ruling by decree, police brutality, public space under attack and even impending limitations on the consumption of alcohol. But they don’t mention their bosses, economic inequality, workers and capitalists or any of the watchwords of the Marxist canon.
The walls of Istiklal are covered in leftist graffiti and it’s clear that banks have been a particular target for attack. At one stage thousands raised fists outside Beat Box Café to sing Bella Ciao. But the arrival today of large numbers of non-partisan Turkish flags bearing the face of Ataturk was more reflective of the majority. In terms of the expressly political, secularism is discussed more than socialism.
Talin, a student we spoke to from Istanbul Teknik, told us that many people felt that the advance of Islamism had curtailed their freedoms. “Especially if you are a woman. When you are not one of the people wearing scarves there is a pressure now. There is religious, cultural oppression.”
“Katil polis”, “police killers” was a slogan carried by protestors and daubed on the walls. The impact on popular consciousness of their brutal attacks – first in Gezi Park, then all over Taksim – has been enormous. Protestors are determined to deal them a blow, to reassert their ownership of this city.
But, beyond the past few days, many speak about a longer-running attack on civil liberties. Sencer, a student, said that the much referenced alcohol limitations were only a symptom of broader exertion of control. “Today it is what we drink and where we can go [Gezi Park], but the police also stop people for no reason and you can go to jail.” Anti-terrorism laws in Turkey, one of the west’s allies in the War on Terror, have been used as pretext for attacks on the due process.
There is also a backdrop of class conflict. The AKP government has overseen a wave of privatisations in the last decade, prompting sustained resistance like that of the TEKEL tobacco workers since 2009. Before these protests June 2013 was slated to see a public sector general strike on the 5th and a strike of metal workers the next week. In May the aviation union representing Turkish airlines workers called for a strike and latest reports suggest, despite initial setbacks, momentum for one has been building.
Urban renewal in Istanbul has exposed social divisions, too. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the neighbourhood of Tarlabasi, which is just west of Taksim Square. It has been the subject of decay since ethnic Greeks were forced out by pogroms in the 40s and 50s. Over time it became home to low-cost single room apartments and high crime rates.
Today around 80% of its inhabitants are Kurdish, many displaced from their native villages by the Turkish Kurdish civil war. In 2006 the Turkish cabinet turned a 20,000 sq m part of Tarlabasi into an official “urban renewal area”. The project was titled “Tarlabasi yenileniyor.”
The gentrification was to see the apartments demolished and replaced by fifteen-storey glass buildings and five-star hotels. In 2007 the tender for the project was awarded to GAP Insaat, a subsidiary of Galip holding, the CEO of whom is Berat Albey – son-in-law of Prime Minister Erdogan. The following year the residents were informed of the plan via eviction notices. Kurds from Tarlabasi have been out in numbers during the Taksim Uprising.
By last night the crowds owned Istiklal, and an ebullient stream of people walking towards Taksim Square maintained a sense of continued protest. It was a far different sight from the same road only the night before, as barricades and debris littered the avenue; and graffiti coloured the high street facades. There was a palpable sense of ground gained. Some of the more confident shops and nightclubs remained open, and even the familiar Istiklal mussel vendors were out. Other shops were less fortunate to have the opportunity, and one of the famous turkish delight confectionaries was burned out hours earlier with a giant Turkish flag draped storeys above it.
This was only a transient ownership though. Shops could have their shutters closed and vendors could fold their stalls and join sprinting panicked protesters within seconds, only to re-group and re-open minutes later. That is the spirit of the uprising as it stands; a determined, stubborn resilience.
At its heart this is a rebellion against authority. In Istanbul people are reasserting their right to the city – to public space, to assembly, to live without fear of police brutality. Across Turkey they are standing up to a government they see as arrogant, imperious and without respect for their rights. Every time they have been ordered to kneel by would-be masters they have stood taller.
Ultimately several questions remain unanswered: Does the initial sympathy for nonviolent protestors brutalised by police fade in the face of crumbling public order? Can Erdogan’s strongman political career survive such a fundamental challenge to his authority, and will his supporters join the side of the police? It all hinges on whether the movement can sustain its own numbers.
Only time will tell.
Ultras take building on Istiklal
Police clear Istiklal Street
Protestors retake the street