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Defining the Terrain of Struggle in Taksim

[Police confront protesters in Istanbul, 1 June. Photo by Carole Woodall.] [Police confront protesters in Istanbul, 1 June. Photo by Carole Woodall.]

In the past weeks, the Gezi Park occupation has weathered a ferocious police deployment accompanied by an almost ceaseless barrage of tear gas, plastic bullets, and water cannons directed at the peaceful congregration at the heart of Taksim. According to the latest report of the Turkish Medical Association, as of 17 June, 7,882 people have been hospitalized; four are confirmed dead while another fifty-nine have severe injuries and nine are in critical condition. For many first-time protesters, the Turkish state’s ruthless response to the demonstrations across the country has shattered the illusion that those who are subjected to the harsh treatment of the state are always “marginals,” “terrorists,” or “agents of foreign powers.” The latest KONDA survey reveals that forty-nine percent of the protesters at Gezi joined the occupation to protest against “police violence,” and for forty-five percent, Gezi Park is their first public demonstration.

Yet despite the severity of these figures and the naked outrage that the police violence has triggered in public, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently announced that the government has not “responded to punches with punches,” but from “now on security forces will respond differently"—that is, more harshly. Surely a “different” response would entail putting an end to the “unprecedented” police brutality rather than encouraging it, but the AKP is bent on imposing its iron will with minimal consultation and almost no compromise on the largest public protest the country has witnessed in decades.

Looking at this picture, one would have a difficult time reconciling the AKP’s blatant majoritarian indifference with its recent portrayal as a pioneer of subaltern democratization by two academics, Ali Murat Yel and Alparslan Nas. In “Taksim Square Is not Tahrir Square, published by Al Jazeera English on 12 June, Yel and Nas confidently maintain that the excessive police response to Gezi has been “acknowledged and harshly criticized” by the government. They highlight the apparent plausibility of the government-backed scenario that the Gezi Park occupiers are being manipulated by the clandestine forces of the “Ergenekon” organization and that the protests are merely the shallow incarnations of a démodé Kemalist counter-revolution advanced by the Turkish Youth Association (TGB). According to the authors, the AKP “has paved the way for Muslims, Kurds, the lower-class suburban poor, and non-Muslims to enjoy a democratic society,” and Erdoğan has “taken democratic steps to end Turkey's thirty-year-old problem with terrorism and the Kurdish group PKK.”

Let us leave aside the shortcomings of the “center-periphery” framework utilized by Yel and Nas to evaluate their assessment of Turkey’s democratization trajectory. (Those who are interested in a critique may refer to Fethi Açıkel’s superb article “Critical Notes on Center-Periphery Paradigm.) What the authors regard as the “acknowledgement” of police brutality by the government has proven to be deeply problematic. Many neighborhoods in Istanbul, as well as crucial city centers in Ankara and Izmir, have remained under siege by security forces after the initial wave of public atonements by government officials. There has been neither a visible improvement in the police’s heavy-handed conduct, nor a comprehensive investigation aimed at identifying the mistakes stemming from the metropolitan police strategy. (So far, only the identity of the police officer who allegedly shot and killed a protester, Ethem Sarısülük, has been revealed; the case is currently being investigated by the public prosecutor.) More strikingly, the latest police assault on Gezi Park beginning on 15 June, which resulted in full evacuation of protesters, once again highlighted that police have not developed an alternative to its previously “condemned” crowd control tactics. On the contrary, the security forces blatantly intensified the level of aggression by targeting makeshift infirmaries and temporary shelters offered by local hotels.

The government’s doublespeak on police violence needs to be contextualized as part of its overall strategy to denigrate the protests as a conspiratorial scheme of “marginal groups. While Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu tweeted on 11 June that the protesters would be left alone and further protected by police, Taksim Square was slowly turning into a battleground between police and a small group of molotov-cocktail-throwing “protesters.” The discrepancy between ordinary Gezi protesters and these firebrand newcomers was not lost on many observers. The Guardian’s Luke Harding described the scene as follows:

Turkish TV viewers witnessed this: a small group of four or five "demonstrators" throwing molotov cocktails at police. At one point they advanced on police lines in a comic Roman-style phalanx while holding the flag of a fringe Marxist party. The "protesters" were in fact middle-aged undercover police officers, staging a not very plausible "attack" on their own for the benefit of the cameras.

The banners of the Socialist Democracy Party (SDP) were carried by the so-called protesters to shift the blame onto a party whose leadership explicitly refused any affiliation with the “violent” events of 11 June. Thus, the televised half-hearted “acknowledgments” of police misconduct were coupled with a sinister smear campaign to vilify the protesters as a violent bunch. Furthermore, this shadow play between (uniformed) police and (undercover) police was instrumentalized by the government to sanction an even more excessive intervention, which led to the temporary evacuation of the Gezi Park.

What if we zoom out from Taksim and focus on the authors’ other substantial references? Turkey’s perennial inability to confront its Kurdish “question” has largely been rectified in the last decade, yet it is doubtful whether the AKP deserves the lion’s share of praise for remedying past transgressions. As Cuma Çiçek has convincingly argued, the “democratic initiative” advanced by the AKP has “tried to eliminate the pro-Kurdish politics instead of integrating them to Turkey’s politics” and “closed doors to the collective cultural rights and waited for the Kurds to be content with the individual cultural rights.” The Promethean task of reaching a peaceful and democratic solution has become a possibility mostly due to the Kurdish actors’ perseverance in the face of the AKP’s constant to-and-fros between banal nationalism and a circumspect dialogue.

The AKP’s reluctant “democratization” has also created its own victims. The prison population soared to 132,000 in 2012, “breaking a record in Turkey”, with sixty-six journalists and more than seven hundred students arrested under “flawed anti-terrorism laws [which] routinely failed fair trial standards. The arbitrary implementation of counter-terrorism laws has undermined the right to protest, as students have been arrested for merely carrying “free education” banners.

On the economic front, the AKP’s strict adherence to neoliberalism has amplified the marked differences between classes in an already unequal society. Despite being showered with accolades on the success of its short-term economic growth, the fact sheet of AKP neoliberalism is fraught with inequalities. As a 2011 report published by the Ministry of Family and Social Policies reveals, Turkey’s 14,600 US dollar GDP per capita (2011) is composed of a largely uneven distribution, since only 6.6 percent of the population earns more than 1,300 US dollars a month, while 72.3 percent earns 640 US dollars or less. The AKP’s neoliberal creed has been further underlined by a twin tendency of privatization and strict labor control. The onslaught on workers’ rights has been resisted fiercely by various segments of organized labor and culminated in extensive strike action, as exemplified by the recent Turkish Airlines strike and the TEKEL workers’ struggle against the tobacco monopoly’s privatization in 2010.

Finally, the composition of the Gezi protesters discredits the official rhetoric (echoed by Yel and Nas), which maintains that the occupation feeds into and is being used by “far-right extremist group[s] with totalitarian and militarist tendencies” such as the TGB. İstanbul Bilgi Üniversity’s extensive survey, conducted with three thousand participants, demonstrates that 81.2 percent of the protesters regard themselves as liberals (Özgürlükçü). More significantly, 79.5 percent oppose military intervention, while only 6.6 percent are strongly in favor of it. These findings resonate directly with the more recent KONDA survey, according to which 94 percent of the protesters have joined the occupation on an individual basis and 79 percent are not affiliated with any political or civil society group. While the extant surveys largely indicate that the mobilization consists of a previously “apolitical” body of protesters, one should not dismiss the involvement of trade unions, as well as the concentration of demonstrations in working-class neighborhoods outside Taksim (such as Gazi).

The AKP’s handling of the protests has demonstrated once again the frailty of its “democratic” reflexes and the corrosion of its once seemingly impenetrable hegemony. Its stance towards Gezi has been one of indifference, repression, and outright deception towards people exerting their basic rights. Whether the government portrays the protests as the work of few “marginals” or not, social scientists have a responsibility to interrogate the official discourse, not to reproduce it without any hint of critical scrutiny.

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