Istanbul: We’re staying in the Gezi Hotel Bosphorus, overlooking the last pocket of greenery in downtown Istanbul – the controversial and shabbily at-ease Gezi Park. Ordinarily this is the place for a quiet stroll, a coffee and if there’s time, maybe a shisha pipe.
But stepping out on the morning of May 31 there’s an eeriness – no traffic, save for convoys of buses delivering thousands of helmeted cops from the suburbs and provinces. Ominously, many arrive in civilian clothing; most wield truncheons and riot shields; many are armed and a good many of them are kitted to fire teargas.
In the previous days Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been taunting the organisers of protests, intended to mark the first anniversary of what became the first major crisis in Erdogan’s near-decade as Prime Minister. They started as peaceful, Occupy-style protests in Gezi Park and adjacent Taksim Square, a local urban-environmental protest against the prime minister’s plan to redevelop the last downtown park as a shopping mall.
“Those who cannot accept [my] government want to carry out a coup by using the streets,” Erdogan mocked.
The prime minister has always dismissed the 2013 eruption of street protest as being "about 12 trees". But in the face of a hugely disproportionate police response, in which 11 protesters died and thousands more were injured, unrest erupted city by city, with angry demonstrations over a range of issues, the common strand in which was the prime minister’s authoritarian tendencies.
Silhouette images representing those killed a year earlier are strung above cobble-stoned alleys. The words with them are chilling: "You know our killers – follow them."
Word spreads of the death the previous day of Elif Cermik, a 64-year-old housewife who had been in a coma since December , when she collapsed as police teargassed and pepper sprayed sections of the crowd at a rally she had attended with her family.
Amid the rising tension, there’s a moment of levity as we depart a cafe, gasmasks swinging from backpacks – the proprietor cheerfully presents each of us with a lemon, the juice from which would be useful in countering the effects of teargas.
The skies become leaden and the police lockdown more intense – at 3pm the ferry service between the European and Asian sides of the city is shut down. As they gather, protesters warn each other of the menace from the large number of cops in civilian garb roaming the city – identifiable by their identical backpacks, from which police batons protrude.
When I ask one of their leaders if they are serving police officers, he brandishes a gun as he replies: “I don’t have to tell you. Anyway, how do I know you’re a journalist?” When I pull out my international press pass, he snorts: “I’m not showing you anything.”
A few protesters slip through the police lines and stage a sit-in in Taksim Square. A lawyer with them sits on the curb, engrossed in a Turkish-language edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace when the police scoop them up as the crowd breaks into a chant: “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance.’
Finally, hundreds of cops gather in the centre of the square and then start pushing out to the edges, arms linked as they counsel each other "be calm, be calm", pushing the chanting crowds before them: "There is a murderer... There is a thief... This is just the start – we keep fighting."
There’s a lull and 200 cops stare, not sure how to respond as a 40-something man in a wheelchair manoeuvres himself into a space between the police lines. The high-pressure nozzles on two water cannons swivel; now they are trained on the wheelchair.
Undaunted, the man opts for the only weapon at his disposal: words. “You can’t humiliate me – spray me if you have to,” he yells at the cops. He then produces a T-shirt bearing the slogan "First Anniversary of Gezi", at which point the police pull a cunning stunt – they ignore the man and charge the crowd, and by the time we stop to draw breath and look back, he and his wheelchair have been snatched away to who knows where.
Istiklal Avenue, a broad strip that usually teems with tourists, becomes the focus of the confrontation. There is charge and counter-charge, as protesters surge towards Taksim and Gezi, and the police repel them with gas and water. As both sides draw breath between charges, the police are taking selfies and texting, the protesters are tweeting and the unfortunate who were gassed are streaming.
On a police bus packed with arrested protesters, a single baritone voice recites the name of each of those killed in the previous year’s protests and the other prisoners respond as a chorus: ‘He is alive.’
On the edge of the crowd, 50-year-old Ibrahim Aktgun explains why he risks being in the streets. “This is where I live,” he says, pointing to a nearby apartment building. “I was here for Gezi and I’ve been here ever since. Our main demand is to be allowed to live like human beings – every day the government comes up with new ways to restrict our living space.”
Heading back into the ruckus, where I last saw him draped on the front of a water cannon, he called back to me: “Turkey has become a police state.”
As police pursued the last of the protesters in through the streets of nearby Cihangir, an old boy eating his dinner at a pavement cafe doesn’t even look up from his meat and veg as a water cannon pauses three metres from where he sits to take aim at the protesters, and an old woman taking it all in from a chair by her front window blows me a kiss.
High in some apartment buildings, women are on balconies, beating pans and saucepans in solidarity with the protesters. They yell “Enough! Enough!”.
And from down in the streets, a series of pointed new chants are addressed to the police. Harping on corruption allegations which include accounts of cash-stuffed shoeboxes found in the home of a government-allied bank executive, the protesters cry out: “They have shoeboxes in their houses – we don’t . . . don’t protect the shoeboxes" and “from Gezi to Soma, the murderous state will pay."
By early evening it was over – maybe a nil-all draw, but perhaps a points win to the protesters. The cops had succeeded in holding the protesters back from Gezi Park and Taksim Square, arresting hundreds along the way. But by merely stating a desire to meet in the two places, the protesters had goaded the government into showing more of its ugly side.
More importantly, in 2013 the protesters showed they were no longer scared of the government; and in 2014, the government showed it was scared of the protesters.
In this there has been an important psychological shift, what the Turkish writer Ayşe Cavdar describes as “a taste for what it is like to go out into the street ... a taste of what it is like to challenge our government.”
The pro-government Daily Sabah declared the 2014 protests a flop, but this was the same newspaper that in 2013 decided that the protests were not sufficiently newsworthy for its front page – instead, its editors opted for stories on Erdogan’s anti-smoking campaign and on a visit to Turkmenistan by Turkish President Abdullah Gul, where he was presented with a gift of a horse. Similarly, CNN Turk ignored the orgy of police violence in 2013, running back-to-back documentaries on training dolphins and penguins.
As dozens of new arrests were processed in the days after the 2014 protests, trials were getting under way for six people arrested in the 2013 confrontations who, given the reality of what they did, face wildly-framed charges – taking part in ‘unlawful’ protests and ‘founding a criminal organisation'. Absurdly, the charges allege membership of a terrorist organisation, for which some of the suspects face almost a century in jail. In a country in which the national flag is predominantly red, the evidence to be presented in court includes a red scarf worn by one of the defendants – proof of socialist tendencies, according to the prosecution.
On the eve of this year’s Gezi protests, columnist Yavuz Baydar wrote in Today’s Zaman: “Gezi has already gone down in history as a breaking point, as people at home and abroad ... saw [the Erdogan government’s] ugly face of intolerance and the brute force in its clampdown.”
Trying to put the latest protests in perspective, Hurriyet Daily News columnist Ertugrul Ozkok harked back to 2008, when the Turkish military had mounted one of its biggest operations, sending 10,000 troops over the border into northern Iraq, in pursuit of Kurdish rebels who had been crossing into Turkey to launch attacks.
In the days after the 2014 protests, Ozkok wrote: “Imagine that a state is fighting in one of its most important cross-border operations with 10,000 troops, but needs 25,000 people to suppress a celebration being held by a bunch of young people?”