2013 Political Protests in Turkey: My Version

The summer of 2013 was marked by mass political protests across Turkey.  The main protests lasted about a month with some continuing in various forms for another two or three months.  The Turkish mainstream media was not covering the protest and U.S. news sources were covering it only minimally.  Therefore, I like many others, attempted to keep my U.S. community aware of what was happening through Facebook posts.  Since I decided to post on this site about how living through the protests turned me into a Twitter convert, I decided to also share my Facebook posts from that time period here, for any who might be interested. Quick Background:  At the end of May 2013, a small number of protesters camped out in Gezi park in central Istanbul to prevent the government from tearing up the park and turning it into yet another shopping mall.  During the preceding year, activists had gathered thousands of signatures, and used a variety of other methods to get the government to stop its plans for construction.  This was their last ditch effort.  Over the course of about a week, the police attempts to force the protestors out of the park became progressively more violent, and included 5:00 a.m. tear gassing as the protesters were sleeping in their tents, followed by setting the tents on fire.  The excessive and undemocratic nature of the protests prompted thousands of people to join in, standing up for their rights. Here are my Facebook posts:

FB  -- May 31, 2013

I'm glad people are standing up for their beliefs. Annoyed that I'm prevented from attending a friend’s goodbye party due to a cloud of tear gas and pepper spray. Praying that the violence does not escalate. Note to friends outside of Turkey: Don't worry about me, I am fine. I live very close to where this is happening, but I'm just avoiding the area.

FB  -- June 3, 2013

Update for friends outside of Turkey – First, I am still fine. The most serious violence has moved away from my area into other parts of Istanbul and other parts of Turkey. Also, the way its been going is that things are pretty quiet during the day. I have gone out, met friends for lunch, taken walks, etc. If you stay out of the hotspot areas, it’s possible for things to be sort of normal, admittedly in a slightly eerie, I-wonder-what-is-coming-next sort of way. I’m being cautious and staying in my home at night. Schools and universities and are closed today. I think this is mainly because transportation is disrupted rather than because of safety concerns. Also, and this is just a theory, I suspect that some of the universities may have postponed finals as a way to support students and teachers who are participating in the protests.

At 4:30 in the morning, I was awakened by pots being banged upon, horns honking, and helicopter noise. I checked FB but couldn’t really figure out what was happening. FB has been my main source of news, since the Turkish media is covering the protests in the most minimal, pro-government way possible. This of course is a big part of the problem. Although the protesters have not been emphasizing the issue, with of all the journalists in jail and general intimidation of the media in Turkey, that is certainly a symptom of what this protest is about. Erdogan (the Prime Minister) keeps saying that Twitter, Facebook, etc, are a big social problem. There are reports that the government is trying to shut down Internet service or restrict access in certain areas. I don’t have any idea about this, but I just saw that Anonymous has committed to blocking such attempts by the government. No idea how this will play out but it seems to be good news.

Finally, I just want to emphasize that the government’s claim that the protestors are from fringe groups is totally wrong. As far as I can tell, everyone I know in Turkey supports these protests at least in principal. There are lots of students participating of course, but there are also a huge number of highly educated upper middle class professionals, and even some devout Muslims and (former?) AKP supporters (AKP is the government’s party). That said, the government is still quite popular (more than 50% of the vote at the last election – which is a huge accomplishment in a multiparty system).

Turkey really is a democracy. However, there is just not a level of civil society participation and free speech that we would consider normal in the West. The government has a fear of groups and a fear of youth that we just can’t relate to. I am in a couple groups that are unofficial (not officially registered with the government) and those groups have made a policy of not allowing members to email/post anything about politics, for fear that the group could get shut down or the leaders could face legal action. Combine that with there being lots of journalists in jail, and you get the idea. Turkey currently has democracy–lite and they want the real thing.

FB  -- June 5, 2013

I think its hard for Americans to relate to how Turks feel about these protests. I was talking to a friend yesterday (a very successful, well educated professional) and she mentioned to me that participating in the protests makes her feel like she has a voice. After ten years of feeling like she has to be very careful not to say anything to offend the government, and feeling very alone, suddenly she has a huge community of people who feel the same way. Now she feels like she can express herself and speak up, and that the government will have to pay attention. No wonder people are dancing in the streets!


FB  -- June 11, 2013

Update for friends outside of Turkey - After many days of peaceful protests (really celebrations) where police stayed out of Taksim square, early this morning (Tuesday) the police moved in. In what has been widely seen as a piece of theater designed by the police to discredit the protesters, a group of undercover police officers pretending to be protesters threw molotov cocktails at police. The police did their usual thing with the water canons and the tear gas. An influential business man who I was interviewing this morning on a completely unrelated topic mentioned to me that the only people who are going to believe that those were really protester are the people who are already supporting Erdogan (the Prime Minister). He also pointed out that the "protestors" were remarkably well equipped with professional gas masks, and that the water cannons were not as pressurized as usual. (If they had been, it would be particularly dangerous to use the molotov cocktails.)

Next scene - About 50 lawyers representing the protestors were arrested at a court house, where they were about to make a statement to the press. The police were violent and a lot of the arrested lawyers were injured, as were others. In response, lots of other lawyers (I saw numbers ranging from 100 to 600) held a sit-in at court and others protested at the bar association. Also, I saw an update that the lawyers were not actually arrested, only detained. Either way, its clearly intended to intimidate them, and others who might be considering representing the protesters.

Lastly, and still ongoing – Protesters gathered in Taksim again tonight.  The police shoot tear gas and water canons, and everyone runs away. Some people get injured and they get taken away in ambulances. At one point the police actually seemed to target a guy in a wheelchair with the water canon!?!?! Then gradually the protesters come back, they chant some more slogans, saying that Erdogan should resign, maybe shoot off some fireworks. Then the police come back and it starts all over again. This has been going on for two hours and is being streamed live on the web by various alternative news agencies.   [I provided a link but its no longer valid.]

FB  -- June 16, 2013

Things were really bad in Istanbul last night, police firing tear gas, water canons (reportedly with some sort of chemical mixed into the water) and rubber bullets not only at protesters on the street but also going after protesters AND the doctors who are trying to help them in hospitals and 5 star hotels which had opened their doors to help the injured. Police were beating up people in the hospital!! Tear gas canisters where filed into consulates! To prevent people from the Asian side of İstanbul from walking across the bridge to join the demonstrations they tear gassed the bridge - including people who were DRİVİNG in their cars! İ'm outside of Istanbul for the weekend. So İ'm fine, but for the first time, İ'm starting to seriously wonder if this will get bad enough for me to leave Turkey.

FB  -- June 17, 2013

Erdogan, the Prime Minister, arranged a rally yesterday to prove that he still has the support of most Turks.  The government said that one million people showed up but international news agencies say it was more like 300,000.  Still, by any measure, a crazy huge number of people.  Supposedly people were bussed in from the countryside for the event and given food and money.  Not that it really matters. I’m sure they are very sincere in their support for Erdogan.  With the Turkish news media too scared to provide balanced coverage, all most people have seen about the protests is burned out cars and broken glass and graffiti.  They have been told the protesters are basically looters or foreign instigators who are trying to undermine Turkey’s economic success.  So of course they think it’s reasonable for Erdogan to crack down hard on these “bad apples.”

As the pro-government rally was taking place the anti-government protesters were trying to gather in other parts of the city, but constantly dispersed by police with tear gas.  As a side note, the police have been working such crazy long shifts, you have to feel a little sorry for them. Sometime you see them trying to sleep resting against their shields.

I have never actually felt unsafe in my home, even though it’s only a 7 minute walk from Taksim square.  However, last night I stayed at a friend’s house in a very quiet part of Istanbul, far from the action.  I watching on BBC International as groups from the pro-government rally roamed the streets carrying knives and sticks, escorted by police. It was easy to imagine that if they came into contact with some of the more militant anti-government protesters, things would get ugly.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen. ---

FB -- June 17, 2013

Good summary, analysis... It addresses the question "why is Erdogan acting like a lunatic?"   Forbes

FB  -- June 18, 2013

Last night a new form of protest started in Istanbul. A guy stood still in the middle of Taksim square for five hours or so. It was immediately copied in Ankara, and in at least one other location in Istanbul. Now I just saw on twitter the call is going our for a standing still protest (every night at 20:00). People are supposed to stop whatever they are doing, if out on the streets anyway, and just stand there for five minutes. The logic being that its hard to rationalize arresting people, gassing them or shoot them with water canons or rubber bullets if they are just standing there silently.

FB  -- June 18, 2013

Facebook desperately needs to add a tears button (and a fury button) along with the "Like" option. Hurriyet Daily News

FB  -- June 19, 2013

On the slightly more comic side, I got bitten by a dog. That’s not the funny part.  In an attempt to escape from the craziness in Istanbul, I went away with friends to the beach for the weekend.  I had more to drink than I normally would have and made the mistake of treating a wild dog as if he were a tame, family dog and tried to prevent him from eating our grape leaves.  He bit me and I ended up with a HUGE bruise on my arm.   I was fine, but it looked nasty.  So everywhere I went this week people would look sympathetically at the bruise on my arm and assume that I was a victim of police violence.  It totally increased my street cred. 

FB  -- June 30, 2013

Turkey Update: The protests are still going on but the “real” story is elsewhere. Two big things are happening, one very scary and the other very positive. Below are links that give more details. (1) Major witch-hunt is going on. In addition to jailing journalists, doctors, lawyers, and anyone who they see as plotting against the government, the government is claiming that the “interest rate lobby” and other shadowy foreign forces seeking to harm Turkey’s economy and diplomatic relationships are responsible for instigating the protests. Now instead of just making this sort of crazy statements, they are actively persecuting anyone they can through fabricated (or nonexistent) evidence. Since it is a “national security” issue they are not letting lawyers and others have access to the supposedly classified evidence.When you see references to how Erdogan “tamed” the military, what they are talking about is that they basically trumped up evidence to jail a large portion of the top military leaders. This is referred to as the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials. Its an issue with a complicated history, but the point is that right now the government is again in the process of fabricating evidence and making false accusations in order to jail and cow the opposition.

On the inspiring, it's-a-win-for-democracy side, there is real dialogue going on between people who never would have spoken to each other previously. The LGBT community was upset that the soccer fans were calling Erdogan (the prime minister) a fag. So they explained that the real fags were out there protesting and that the soccer fans should come up with a different insult. They settled on chanting “Erdogan is sexist.” How awesome is that! There was a protest a couple days ago in Lice, a Kurdish part of Turkey where one person was killed and several seriously wounded. Thousands took to the streets in Istanbul in solidarity with Lice. There is a lot of prejudice against Kurds and resentment about the Kurdish peace process, so it was really significant that people were expressing support and solidarity in this way. This article has a little bit more theory than necessary for a non-academic audience, but you can skip that part to see more really inspiring examples.   Technosociety

FB  -- July 8, 2013

Latest on Turkey: The government re-opened the park (that the protests were originally about) to the public then arrested about 80 of the people who went into it (including some very prominent people) gassed, water cannoned, and shot the rest with rubber bullets. Also for good measure the police were attacking random passers by who had nothing to do with the protests, and sent six canisters of tear gas onto the grounds of the British consulate. Babies, children and tourists were among the injured. Also a friend reported being attacked by random guys on the street. A couple days ago another guy was brandishing a large knife (more like a sword) and attacking people. Said his hotel business was being ruined by the protests. People seem to be going a little bit nuts. AND last but far from least, the government introduced a law that would make it illegal for doctors to treat injured protestors. $&@!%   On the policy/ big picture side this is a good article on what is happening in Egypt and Turkey.    (This is from Today Zaman, which has since been closed by the government.)

As for me, I'm dealing with the worst travel delays of my life  (due to flooding in Toronto) but at least no one is shooting at me with rubber bullets.

FB -- July 7, 2013

Turks have been amazing about keeping a sense of humor about the protests, the tear gas, police brutality, etc. This is the latest: a game where the goal is to tweet as many times as possible before the police beat you up.  Play it here.

FB -- July 12, 2013

 An update from The Radical Democrat:

“International media has lost attention but the turmoil in Turkey continues in the grimmest Kafkaesque fashion imaginable.

* This week, Yigit Bulut, a fierce critic-turned-ardent AKP supporter, pseudo-journalist, top demagogue and Turkey’s surrealist par excellence, has been named chief advisor to Erdogan. Bulut insists there is an international conspiracy to kill the prime minister via ‘telekinesis’.

* Construction on the controversial third Bosphorus bridge has been suspended when authorities ‘realised’ that it was being carried out at a ‘wrong’ location, unrelated to the plans at hand. Work will restart at the ‘correct’ location. Meanwhile, thousands of trees were mowed down at the ‘wrong’ location, which has probably lost its forestry status. Expect to hear about a 5-star hotel, shopping mall and luxury residence project soon.

* Two days ago, Ali Ismail Korkmaz, a 19 year old university student, brutally beaten by stick-wielding thugs while running away from police assault in the city of Eskisehir, died after a month in coma. He was denied immediate treatment at the hospital and told to report to the police, before he lost his consciousness due to brain damage. 18 minutes of vital CCTV footage has mysteriously disappeared, therefore there are no suspects.

* Yesterday Ali’s funeral was taken to his hometown of Antakya. This is the multi-ethnic, multi-religious province on the Syrian border that has faced extreme tensions since the outbreak of the Syrian war; it was here that Turkey’s worst terrorist attack killed 51 people only two months ago. Thousands gathered to protest after the funeral and were met with a ferocious police response, now a daily occurrence in this once peaceful province. At least 18 are reported injured with two people blinded and one undergoing brain surgery.

* Last night, a public forum in Fatih, a conservative neighbourhood of Istanbul, was attacked by knife and stick-wielding men, while commemorating the death of Ali Ismail.

* A man caught on video swinging a meat cleaver at unarmed protestors at an earlier incident in Istanbul was released from police custody. Public outrage forced the authorities to issue a new arrest warrant. Today, it emerged that the man had left Turkey and is now vacationing in Morocco.”  

[End Facebook Posts]

The protests petered out over time, and the government continued to crack down on protestors and their supporters.  A Turkish woman who worked for BBC was arrested for “Trying to overthrow the government” based on something she wrote on Twitter.  State-employed doctors who treated protesters got transferred out of Istanbul to poor, undesirable locations in the eastern part of Turkey.  Artists who participated in the protests got arrested for “drug use” under suspicious circumstances. Presidents of universities were asked to look at video tapes to identify protestors.  The government said it would start enforcing an old law that says that students who participate in protests won’t receive financial support from the government.  And it goes on.

The protests were not the only reason I left Turkey, but they were a factor.  I realized that I just did not want to live in that society long-term. I don’t want to worry about my friends getting arrested for something they write on Twitter.