It started with hundreds of peaceful protesters resisting the demolition of Gezi Park, one of the very few green spaces left in the center of Istanbul. There are plans to replace it with yet another shopping mall. The disproportionate police response to the peaceful Gezi protests has triggered a nationwide revolt within a matter of days. What we have witnessed since the early hours of 30 May is not only a display of the collective will of Istanbul residents claiming their right to the city but also a broad-based rebellion against the authoritarianism of Turkey’s conservative neo-liberal Islamist government.
Hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and political stripes have united around slogans such as “shoulder to shoulder against fascism,” and calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. The protests have spread from Istanbul to Ankara, İzmir, Adana, Eskişehir, Samsun, Konya and Mersin among other cities, despite the brutal and relentless attacks by the police. From the very beginning of the protests, Turkish police used water cannons and tear gas against the demonstrators. The streets of Istanbul and other cities have become battlefields; hundreds have been hospitalized and several unconfirmed deaths have been reported.
As this unprecedented wave of protests spread across Turkey, there was an unofficial news blackout across the mainstream media. The censorship of Turkish media has increased sharply in the last few years. According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2012 report, Turkey has become “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Protesters have been mobilizing nevertheless, mainly through social media.
Despite the clear dangers posed by an unrestrained police force, people have taken to the streets without fear. This ongoing protest is unique and historic, not only because the people insist in ever greater numbers on reclaiming the streets from the riot police, but also because it represents the hope for a genuine people’s movement beyond the usual political factions.
The protesters of #OccupyGezi are anything but a homogeneous group. It is comprised of millions of people from all over the country, young and old, leftists and nationalists, liberals and Kemalists, middle class and working class, believers and atheists, gays, lesbians, transsexuals and football fans, all united by one collective demand – the end of AKP authoritarianism. There is no central political organization bringing these groups together, yet the protesters have displayed enormous solidarity.
The protest aligns them. The affect of being together in this revolt unites them. The will to end authoritarianism and police brutality motivates them to revolt. The desire to preserve common public spaces and to resist their appropriation by local/global capital empowers them.
The reaction against the brazen force used on the Gezi Park protesters was the culmination of a series of incursions into basic liberties: the bombing of civilians in Roboski in December 2011; last month’s bomb attacks in the border town of Reyhanlı; the restrictions on women’s reproductive rights; the major crackdown on 1 May demonstrations; the recent curbs on the sale of alcohol; the onslaught of neo-liberal capitalist attacks on historical and cultural landmarks such as Emek movie theater and the port areas of Karaköy, Beşiktaş and Kadıköy in Istanbul; and the breaking ground for the widely unpopular 3rd bridge across the Bosphorous, have all contributed to the widespread discontent on display.
What must appear at first glance as a simple protest about trees was infused with passionate frustration by a citizenry that has finally lost patience with the autocratic and clearly undemocratic tendencies of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan who has been touted as a beacon of democracy by the global ruling elite. The people on the streets of Turkey send a clear message to the world today: democracy will not be coopted. Erdoğan has famously called for other leaders, Mubarak, Gaddafi, and most recently Assad, to listen to the voice of their people, it’s time he started to listen to his own.