Students on the Streets in Turkish Turmoil

Students on the Streets in Turkish Turmoil

What began as a protest against the construction of a shopping centre has turned into the largest public demonstration seen in Turkey in recent years. Students have been at the forefront of the protests, which erupted in Istanbul, Ankara and many smaller cities and towns.

“Innocents have been right in harm’s way,” said Sam Blood, an activist from the student-led Generation Zero climate change movement. Blood, who was visiting Istanbul for a conference, claimed that he has “witnessed old women and children in the midst of teargas.” At least seven people have been killed, over four thousand arrested, and over seven thousand injured in the protests.

On 30 May, protestors opposed to plans by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to build a shopping mall on Istanbul’s historic Gezi Park were ejected from the park by police armed with pepper spray and batons. The demonstrators were arrested and their tents were burned.

Turks were quick to return to the park in Taksim Square to protest police tactics. Yeşim Tokgöz, 22, a law student at the University of Istanbul, was one of the first to retake Gezi Park, where protestors chanted “against fascism, we stand shoulder to shoulder.”

Tokgöz, who underwent surgery after being hit by an exploding tear gas canister, told Critic that “the police were actually trying to cause injuries.” Water cannons, baton charges, rubber bullets and large amounts of tear gas were used against the largely peaceful protestors.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan soon addressed the protestors on television, and called for their dispersal. Instead, hundreds of thousands of Turkish people protested against the government’s repression. The police responded with further violent tactics.

In recent days, people have returned en masse to Taksim Square to protest against the treatment of protestors in Lice, a district in Kurdish-majority Eastern Turkey, where people were killed while opposing the construction of a new police station.

The protests initially received little coverage by local media. CNN Turkey incurred the ire of protestors by broadcasting a documentary on penguins while tens of thousands marched through Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. Instead, news of the events in Istanbul was spread around the country through Turks using Twitter and Facebook to upload text, photos and videos of the events.

Even in the relatively conservative town of Konya, demonstrators gathered, chanting “everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance.” Erdoğan has condemned the reports for provoking protests, and called social media a “menace to society.”

Students in the western city of Izmir spoke to Critic on condition of anonymity. A number of their fellow protestors had been arrested in the city for inciting a riot and arson at the city’s AKP offices through social media. The students claimed that police had chased them through alleyways and beaten them severely. Others had only escaped by hiding in the houses and cafés of sympathetic residents.

As police violence has increased, young people have increasingly found themselves amongst the tens of thousands of protestors. Gözde*, a student at Istanbul University, told Critic she had been prevented from going to the protests due to university exams, but was moved to action “after the police brutally attacked the peaceful protestors.”

In the square, medical students and doctors worked together to treat demonstrators who had been injured by police, while law students such as Gözde issued a joint declaration condemning police brutality and challenging the legality of the government’s Gezi construction plan. Others played music, built barricades across narrow streets and donated books and food. “If it weren’t for the taste of tear gas,” Gözde said, “it would have been like going to a summer music festival.”

Blood recalled seeing his youth hostel receptionist leaving for Taksim Square as police sought once again to remove protestors. “You’re not going out there, are you?” Blood asked. “If I die, I die,” replied the receptionist, donning a Guy Fawkes mask as he left.

Universities have been disrupted by the events, with several postponing their examinations. For Tokgöz and Gözde, however, exams continued as planned. Gözde attributes this to Istanbul University’s pro-government Vice-Chancellor.

At Bogazici University, 204 academic staff signed an open letter calling for a halt to “irrational violence” and the government’s redevelopment plans. Some have since been the subject of police investigation, including those who allowed their students to skip class to attend the protests.

While Gözde believed that the majority of students are in favour of the demonstrations, students have been present on both sides of the confrontation. Blood and others to whom Critic spoke claimed to have seen “armed thugs,” believed to belong to the AKP youth wing, carrying sticks, bars and knives with which to attack any protestors who escaped the police onslaught. Some students were also present at a rally staged by the AKP, which attracted tens of thousands of Erdoğan’s supporters.

Despite the protests, Tokgöz describes modern Turkish youth as an “apoliticised generation … students talk with their friends and go, that’s what I see.” A survey conducted by Istanbul’s Bilgi University found that demonstrators were disproportionately young, and 70% of those surveyed reported no political affiliation. Nonetheless, the overarching conflict has been one of a young, secular opposition against the Islamist AKP government.

Damla*, a 22-year-old student at Yilmiz Technical University, told Critic that demonstrators outside the Prime Minister’s office in the Besiktas district of Istanbul had chanted “we are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal,” in reference to the Turkish Republic’s secularist founder, and that Turkish flags bearing Kemal’s image were seen in many protests. “The government is against the Turkish Republic,” Damla claimed, and suggested that the AKP sought to alter Turkey’s secular, democratic constitution.

Gözde was more circumspect about the protests’ republican dimension. “Of course, everyone is fed up by the government trying to regulate everyday life, like telling women to have three kids, or trying to restrict abortion or alcohol sales,” she said, referring to a recent law which prevented liquor being sold after 10pm.

“On the other hand, there are very religious people out on the streets protesting as well; we do not raise our voice just because there is a religious party ruling the country. We are protesting because the government does not respect the people who believe in different religions, because of the corruption and manipulation, and because of our freedoms.”

The future of the upheaval in Turkey remains unclear. Some protestors have taken to standing motionless in public places, after one man who stayed still for hours after police tried to search his bag.

Although a one-day strike was organised by the Confederation of Public Sector Unions (KESK) in response to what it called the government’s “hostility towards democracy,” the protests have sustained themselves with little organisation. A few ad hoc organisations have formed in the course of the protests, such as the Turkish Youth Assembly (TGB) and Kollektifler (The Collective), and local assemblies have been held in local parks and squares. Erdoğan has suggested that the protests had been provoked by what he called “the interest rate lobby.”
This article first appeared in Issue 14, 2013.
Posted 6:05pm Sunday 7th July 2013 by Jack Montgomerie.