Environmental protest turned into anti-government demonstration: Resistance in Turkey, police violence and a story of solidarity

Door Hikmet Özenç Demirkan

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An outstanding social movement is taking place in Turkey almost for two weeks. The protest has started with a small group against demolishment of Istanbul Gezi Park and replacement of the park with a shopping mall. Police got remarkable violent towards the peaceful protesters and the second day the number of protesters reached to tens of thousands. Police kept on increasing their attacks by using excessive amount of tear gas, pepper spray and pressurized water. With an ambush at the dawn protesters shot by water cannons and tear gas from multiple entrances of the Park. Tents were collected by the police and the park closed down to public reach. Some photos and videos show that police burnt a tent while some protesters were in it. The increasing police brutality triggered more and more people to join the protests.In a very short time protests spread all across the country and even in many cities in the West including Amsterdam. Over a night the number of protesters reached to hundreds of thousands. Famous people, actors, musicians, artist and columnists were also present in the protests next to the common people. Those who could not physically attend to the protests show their support via social media and other means of communication. The protests which started as an environmental awareness quickly developed into an anti-government demonstration resisting against all kinds of oppression and injustices thought to be orchestrated by the government and the Prime Minister Erdo?an himself.

While the resistance was growing, the Turkish mainstream media channels, which have political and economic ties to the government, were on mute. Only one or two TV channels were brave enough to show the episodes. Social media became the number one means to keep people updated. The third and the fourth day the mainstream media started to mention very briefly about the protests and mostly failed to address the magnitude of it. Some government adherent channels coined the protesters as mask wearing terrorists without even questioning why those people were wearing masks. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Erdo?an gave some speeches which further triggered people instead of soothing them. Prime Minister was not taking the resistance seriously and mostly underestimated it by saying “this is the work of certain ideologies, extremists, provocateurs and plunderers”. He refused to admit that people on the streets were general public. Even the international press invited him to show some common-sense.

As being a concerned citizen of Turkish Republic I have always followed the happenings in Turkey even though now I live in the Netherlands. When the resistance has started I could not leave social media even for a second, do my other personal duties nor managed to sleep. I was in contact with all my family, relatives, friends and acquaintances who were one way or the other involved in the resistance. The first hand information I had and the experiences of people that I listened were sufficient enough to convince me that this is indeed a genuine, bottom-up social movement despite of what Prime Minister Erdo?an claimed. Even the most apolitical friends of mine supported the resistance either by actually going out on the streets or by writing and sharing information on social media. For four days my Facebook timeline has been covered with posts, photos and videos about Gezi Park, police violence and public solidarity instead of famous cute cat videos, game requests and wisdom quotes.

The unity of the people was beyond my imagination. People from all different ideologies were side by side united under one cause. Decades old social polarizations, political, ethnic and religious rivalry seem to be put aside amongst the protesters. Girls with headscarves were shouting Tayyip resign! along with atheists; communists barricaded for the sake of those who were performing prayer; the sign of the greywolf (the sign of Turkish nationalists), the peace sign and fists were up in the air together. Fenerbahçe fans wearing Galatasaray scarfs on top of their jerseys were chanting Be?ikta? you are our everything! These and many others were experienced, told, taped and photographed. Most importantly people were peaceful and full of hope. If you told people that one day this might happen, they would just laugh at you thinking you lost your mind.

On the other hand, police brought the utmost violence; beating people with their clubs, aiming the tear gas canisters directly on people’s head, shooting people with water cannon from a very dangerous distance, pepper spraying people in their faces without distinguishing women, kids, old people or whether they are protesters or not. Everyone tasted the tear gas including the residents sitting in their houses in the neighbourhoods where the protests took place. There are videos showing police while they throw tear gas inside of people’s private properties and apartments. Hundreds of people were severely injured; some even lost their eyes. The exact number of deaths is still not confirmed but the rumours are worrisome. People were in shock, hurt, panicked and angry yet they tried to keep each other strong and calm.

As a result, people helped each other and demonstrated a one of a kind solidarity. The stories filled my eyes with tears and made me so proud of my people for the first time in a very long time. When the access to 3G was tempered with, cafes, restaurants, hotels, houses in the areas gave away their WI-FI passwords so the protesters would reach the social media. Those places not only gave shelter to protesters who were exposed to tear gas and pepper spray but also provided them with food and water. Lemon, vinegar, milk and anti-acid solutions were the main first aid tools against gas and pepper spray. So people came down from their houses to distribute them. In the streets people gave first aid to complete strangers carrying them to safe places which were often random people’s houses.

The protesters did not forget to help the street animals which were also affected by the tear gas and pepper spray. The pharmacies distribute medicine for free; volunteered doctors, medicine students and other medical workers build temporary aid centers and convert their houses into emergency rooms. Lawyers give their services free of charge to those who has been beaten and arrested by the police. Not to mention housewives who came on the streets to give away their homemade food. Many interesting and insightful dialogues are held between the masses which have never been brought together. People started to genuinely understand each other and see each other’s point of view. I read someone’s comment saying I finally understand what was happening to my Kurdish brothers and sisters in the East of country referring to the manipulated news broadcasted by the mainstream media.

Certainly it will be too rushed to jump to a conclusion that Turkish people solved their issues. However, some situations are full of hope. The Prime Minister Erdo?an caused something positive without being aware of. His arrogant attitude and the brutality of his police gave people a cause to unite and experience a heart-warming solidarity. Certainly he would never have guessed that, perhaps not even hoped for.

Hikmet Özenç Demirkan is a Master’s student at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the VU University Amsterdam (VU).

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