The Birth and Rebirth of Gezi Protests

A protestor looks on during clashes with Turkish police near Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan office, between Taksim and Besiktas, early morning on June 4, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

June 4, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) Source.

A year ago, the Turks poured into the streets to voice their demands of freedom, justice, and their right to live in a non-concrete environment. Young and educated people had been fed up being constantly alienated, insulted and discriminated by the ‘pious’ rulers of the country. And they defied. In a great sense of solidarity, people of very different ethnicities, political thoughts and socio-economic backgrounds got together and stood against police brutality, oppression of basic rights. Gezi Park protests inspired songs, various artworks, documentaries, other protests in even faraway countries… It was elegant, it was colorful, creative and magnificently humorous. I daresay, even too post-modern for a country like Turkey. Gezi changed lives of many.

It was Gezi protests that prompted me to start to write this blog. I had always been a political person but the last summer was the first time that I felt compelled to write. Not in Turkish, as the Turks already knew what was happening. But in English, as I thought the world had to know about our perspective of the events, too.

I am not talking about a memory. Even as you read this, protesters are trying to get over the roads that are blocked by the police and access to Taksim Square. We are marking only the beginning of Gezi. It did not end and nor will it, any time soon. Because firstly, when you create something that beautiful and powerful, it will not die out easily.

And secondly, the problems that sparked the protests off remain unresolved. Actually, they got even worse. The PM who was accused of lacking sense of empathy in 2013, now goes to a disaster-hit town where 301 people died and physically attacks a mourner, turning what was supposed to be a solemn national mourning into a farce. He can interrupt a ceremonial speech, shout at the speaker and storm out. He can ignore court decisions and refuse to answer for strongly-substantiated corruption allegations. Now in this a country social media can easily be banned. There’s now a bigger deficit of empathy, understanding and tolerance. Compared to the Turkey 2013, we now face more authoritarianism, less justice, rule of law and individual freedoms…

We shouldn’t think Gezi didn’t achieve a great deal, though. It did. Things may get much worse before getting better. But we don’t have the luxury to fall into despair. To eventually prevail, right should at least be as persistent as wrong.

Turkey’s Protests: What Really Triggered Them and Why They Will Continue

Now the protests seem to have run out of steam. Although still clashes erupt occasionally, the country is much more calmed compared to first days of the protests. Yet the reasons that sparked this social explosion off, are still there. And they need to be understood and studied intensively as they could be pregnant to even more than what already happened.

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What triggered massive protests first was the police brutality that targeted peaceful protestors at Gezi Park (Which was a place hardly of national importance, let alone being worthy of global attention. Now everyone has heard of it.) To be fair, Erdoğan’s government made a lot of progress in ending torture and ill-treatment by the police, especially through passing EU reform packages. Police brutality during riots, however, remained a problem. It generally targeted protest-addicted leftist groups, sometimes labor unions and BDP (Pro-Kurdish Party), and the public, media mostly didn’t care what was happening to them. But when it happened to peaceful Gezi Park protestors who were perceived by urbanized Turkish middle class and upper middle class as their own, all hell broke loose. Angry urban youth, white-collar workers were all out in the streets. One can clearly see all this is the result of a lot of resentment accumulated over years and the attack of the police was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I’d say the PM’s political language is perhaps the biggest cause of the protests, unfortunately this reason wasn’t sufficiently touched down in English-written analyses so far. The language of politics in Turkey has always been harsh and fierce. Before 2003, Erdoğan had actually promised he would change that. Indeed, in his first years, he used a more uniting language, seemed to embrace all the nation. But in his second term in office, he started to get in fights and wars of words. With who? Almost every segment of the society that didn’t support him: Diplomats, soldiers, students, academics, businessmen, doctors, journalists, labor unions, some non-governmental organizations and so on…

He makes long speeches frequently: Only in June 9, he made six speeches full of advertisement of himself, misinformation, alienation, threats and conspiracy theories. For a long time, they have been extremely unbearable for the half of Turkish voters who didn’t choose him. While presenting and talking about public investments and projects, he uses a language makes it harder to understand whether these are public investments paid by taxpayers’ money (largely by the upper middle and middle class he alienated) or his personal grants to the nation. He never avoids to call names, talk down, judge and divide people for their religious beliefs and lifestyles. Just after the big protests erupted, the country literally became a victim of this language. President Abdullah Gül, Deputy PM Bülent Arınç, İstanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş and Governor of İstanbul Avni Mutlu had all made very reasonable and empathetic statements. Everyone was expecting the PM to use a soft language, show a sense of empathy and soothe the people after returning from his North Africa trip. Instead, at the airport, he made one of those big stupid speeches liked by only his own base and his a few reconciliatory remarks in the speech naturally failed to calm the crowds. The protests were inflamed even more. All he had to do was to plainly apologize, or at least express regret for police brutality and say that protestors’ opinions would be taken into account. Now we face a price hard to calculate. Turkey’s one of the top ten most visited countries that uses its tourism incomes to cover its huge deficit, but the tourism sector now struggles with cancellations. Foreign direct investment and hot money flowing into Turkey are starting to have second thoughts. As the Turkish saying goes: Dilin cismi küçük, cürmü büyük. (The tongue is small but its villainy can be great.)

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Another matter frustrated the crowds is that he tries to micromanage people’s lives. He tells them what to drink, when to drink, how many kids to have, what docudramas to watch, what newspapers to read, what ways are appropriate to give birth… Upper middle and middle class Turks, according to my observation, chose to ignore him for a long time. But on May 31, they decided that ignoring was not enough to cope with this mentality that blatantly tries to get into even people’s bedrooms.

Though, in all fairness, Tayyip Erdoğan is not a dictator: He won three general elections fair and square. This fact, however, doesn’t stop him from having fears of a dictator. Even though, the main goal of the protests was never overthrowing his government or questioning his legitimacy as leader, he thought he was being challenged by forces seeking to unseat him. That’s why he has been holding a series of meetings called “Respect for the National Will”, and by “the national will” he means the will of the 49% that chose him; not the others who are more crowded, probably pay more taxes than his voters do and only want their opinions to be taken into account. He responded a post-modern movement that has post-modern demands with brutally classical ways. He still perceives every bit of opposition to himself as a setback to the country’s development and democracy. He still feels no remorse, takes no responsibility for the social explosion that rocked the country. Moreover, he refuses to understand the reasons caused all this mess. And that’s why, as Americans say, it ain’t over yet. So, continue to watch Turkey.

Surely there are many more reasons and some very important ones are not directly about the government but about low standards and unskillfulness of Turkish media, incompetence of the opposition, limited options of Turkish voters and so forth. Turkey is a complex country with its unique economic and cultural dualism. Thus, every little problem is surprisingly multi-layered. I just tried to explain a few things here. I hope that I have been useful.