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A letter from Şafak Özden: “Such public resistance is unprecedented in Turkish history”

turkDear friends,

You are all probably aware of the recent events in Turkey. You might have wondered about the reasons and subtext of the recent and ongoing demonstrations. To address this, I’d like to try to write a summary of the events of the last few days from my point of view.

I am a mathematician; I try to be neutral when I am writing. However, while reading the following, please remember that I am a socialist, an internationalist and an atheist; This may have unintentionally affected my perceptions. I do not claim that what I write below is the absolute truth, but I assure you that it is honest. I also want to thank my friend Mohan Ravichandran, who made series editing towards this letter. He edited almost all of sentences carefully.

Before explaining the origins of the events, I’ll start off with some of the topics that agitated Turkish society during the two or three weeks preceding the events (the list is ordered neither by importance nor chronology):

1. The planned third bridge over the Boshporus Strait, whose construction was inaugurated a few days ago, has been named the “Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge”. Yavuz Sultan Selim(also known as Selim the Grim) was an Ottoman sultan, who ordered a genocide against the alewites (a religious group) people in 1514. This naming of the bridge, which many had argued was unnecessary and an environmental disaster in the making, angered large sections of Turkish society. (Guardian article soncerning the effect of the third bridge on the environment).

2. The government passed a law a week ago that not only banned the retail sale of alcohol between 10PM and 6AM, but also prohibited all advertisement of alcoholic beverages. The need for such a law was strongly contested over social media, but the Prime Minister rather than admitting the criticism, ratcheted up the his rhetoric. In different press conferences, he stated,

a – We changed a law made by two drunkards; Why are you protesting this?

b – Liquors are forbidden by Sharia law (Islamic law); Why then are you protesting?

His usage of the word “drunkard” to refer to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (who is nearly universally admired in Turkey where he is referred to as “The Founding Father of the Turkish republic”) agitated a large number of people.

3. A large number of people died when two car bombs exploded in a small town on the Syrian border on 11th of May. The government’s handling of the situation exacerbated people’s agitation over the bombings and the ensuing deaths. Within a few hours of the bombing, the government forbade all reporting from Reyhanli. A journalist, Ferdi Özmen was arrested following his report on the number of people who had died in the attacks. The government declared that the attack had been financed and planned by the Syrian secret service and perpetrated by a defunct leftist organization named “Acilcier”.

The speed with which the government had unraveled the attack aroused suspicion, particularly as the government has been keen on entering into a war with Syria for a long time now. The Syrian Interiorministry’s categoric denial of involvement and the fact that all the Police surveillance cameras in Reyhanli had been out of order for unexplained reasons increased people’s suspicions. Soon after the attack, a hacker group released military intelligence files that indicated that officials had known of the impending possibility of a bombing. Instead of addressing these suspicions, thegovernment announced that a private had been arrested for collusion with the hacker group. There was no official denial of the veracity of these leaked reports. (Additional link)

4. On May 11, supporters of the Besiktas football team blocked a street near the Prime Minister’s Istanbul office, moved here a couple of years ago. This is part of the culture of the supporter’s groups of this team and for years, before home games, the supporters of Besiktas have walked to the stadium singing club songs after having a few drinks in local bars. The supporters were attacked by police on motorcycles who then fired live ammunition into the air. This unnecessary action caused a great deal of anger and the following video shows the events of that day.

5. On the first of May, the government forbade Labor day celebrations in Taksim square, citing safety concerns over an ongoing construction project in the square. Taksim has been the traditional place for Labor day celebrations and carries enormous symbolic value for the labor movement in Turkey. On the first of May, 1977, secret service agents shot at people in Taksim square from buildings surrounding the square and dozens of people died from the bullets and the ensuing stampede. People have placed red carnations at the places where the demonstrators died for years(wiki link) now. Fearing violence on the part of the police, Labor unions changed their plans for the May Day celebrations on the last day of April and relocated the demonstration from Taksim to nearby Besiktas. Despite this, the police rolled out in force on MayDay and worked at dispersing the crowd using tear gas and water cannons. (A photo gallery). A seventeen year old high school student Dilan Alp suffered cerebral hemorrhage after being hit by a gas bomb fired by the police. She was blamed for being a member of an illegal organization and was turned away from several hospitals despite her severe injuries. Related link.

6. At a subway station in Ankara, people were surprised to hear an announcement admonishing them against “Acting against public morals”. A protest planned the next day where couples would protest against this unacceptable scrutiny by kissing at the entrance of the subway station was threatened when a group of religiously conservative youth, alerted to the demonstration by vitiatory articles in the progovernment media, entered the area with knives. Fortunately, there were no casualties. (related video)

These are the first things to come to mind; they are only a sample of the events over the past few weeks.

In my opinion, each incident upset a different sociological class in Turkish society. I must point out that such vitiatory events have been a regular occurrence in Turkey over the past few years.

I now turn to the events of the past week. The government has been working on a major redevelopment of the Taksim area over the past few years; These plans have had little public input and have been extensively criticized. They include the construction of a shopping mall, a reconstruction of Ottoman era army barracks (Topçu kişlası, known because of a 19’th century rebellion by radical Islamists demanding the imposition of Sharia law) on the site of the last green area, Gezi Park in the center of the city. Construction work in Gezi Park triggered the events of the past week.

On Wednesday, May 30, people noticed bulldozers entering Gezi park and start uprooting trees. This news was shared over social media and people started gathering in the park to stop the bulldozers from operating. They formed a human barrier between the bulldozers and the trees and waited for public support. The first group comprised the ecological minded and leftists, but was soon joined by members of parliament from the BDP(the party spearheading the Kurdish freedom movement). The resisters were few and peaceful and engaged in Gandhian style non-violent protest. They engaged in no actions save passively impeding the bulldozers by blocking the path to the trees. The police soon  arrived on the scene and immediately started assaulting the protestors, throwing gas bombs and spraying pepper gas. Videos and photographs showing police forces spraying pepper gas onto a girl from all of 2 meters away and wounding one of the BDP parliamentarians -Sırrı Süreyya Önder- angered the public.

The next day, Friday, if I am not mistaken, as a response to this unacceptable police violence, people attempted to enter Taksim square from all different directions. My wife and I tried to reach Taksim square via a wide avenue, but the road had been closed by the police, who were constantly lobbing tear gas bombs.

I’d like to give a break to my recounting and share instead my opinions about the diversity of the protestors that we saw on that avenue. Though ecologists and leftists had  predominated on the first couple of days of the resistance, we now saw lots of apolitical looking old women and men as well as young people from very diverse socioeconomic classes. As a person who attended lots of demonstrations and protests, I was amazed at the the diversity of the resisters. Very poorly dressed people were standing next to people in fancy suits and were shouting at the Police together: “Resistance to fascism”, “The Government must resign” among other slogans. We left the avenue at 10pm but thousands of people demonstrated into the morning.

On the way back home, we saw people in several other parts of the city, beginning to organize. We heard Kurdish revolutionary slogans – “Long live the sisterhood of nations”, as well as Turkish nationalist ones –”We are Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers”. When we woke up on Saturday morning, we learned over the Internet that some groups of protestors had walked over the Bosphorus Bridge, which is normally closed to pedestrians, to reach Taksim square.

Another remarkable point about the first days was the immediate censorship of the mainstream media. When we returned home, we checked all the different TV channels but among the dozens of national channels there were only two small ones, one of them very nationalist-militarist and small, broadcasting the events. All the well-known mainstream TV channels were utterly indifferent to the events. For example, when tens of thousands of people were resisting Police brutality, the local CNN franchise, CNN-Turk, was broadcasting a documentary on the sex life of penguins. A second news channel, NTV, was broadcasting a cooking show (poor taste indeed). More than five other TV channels were broadcasting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s speech at the graduate ceremony of an Islamic divinity high-school. (In that speech, Erdoğan declared that protesters comprise a small group and their actions are ideological or radically political in nature). In the days following, there were several demonstrations against the media’s spinelessness and abrogation of responsibility: (People at the entrance of NTV)

In the meanwhile, we learned that protests against police brutality against protestors in Istanbul had broken out in Adana, Ankara and Antalya among other cities on Friday. The police responded to them in expected fashion. On Friday afternoon, Leyla Okay, an actress was wounded by the police in Ankara and suffered a brain haemorrhage. We also learnt that people, protesting non-violently had forced the Police to withdraw and had reclaimed Taksim square on Saturday.

After our experience on Friday night, before we set out the next day, we made ourselves simple gas masks and took along swimming goggles to protect our eyes, bicycle helmets given that the Police were aiming at people’s head when firing tear gas canisters and vinegar to mitigate the effects of tear gas. The ferry piers were swarming with people. The ferries have a capacity of 1500 and we had to wait for an hour, finally getting on a ferry at 15:15. The piers were jammed with people all day long and given there are two ferries an hour from Kadikoy to Besiktas, over 30,000 people made their way to taksim on Saturday on that line. Given that there are three other ferry lines between the Asian and European sides, there must have been over a hundred thousand people making the passage to the demonstrations from Kadikoy alone. This gives the lie to Prime Minister Erdoğan’s assertions about the demographics of the protestors. Such a large group of people from a single city can be neither uniform nor extreme. One can only conclude that Erdoğan, by labeling the protests “ideological or espousing radical politics” is of the mind that political actions are not permitted.

The situation in Beşiktaş was stable. The Police were not firing and thousands of people from all social and economic classes, including the fans of football teams grouped together, were walking peacefully towards Taksim, singing and chanting slogans. We entered Taksim in festival spirit. Hearing two hours later that the police had recommenced firing tear gas in Beşiktaş, we returned there. I was part of a group of around 2000 people who was fired upon by the Police near the Prime Minister’s office. Three Crowd dispersal vehicles (called TOMA in Turkey) sprayed pepper and tear gas upon us. I was in agony and the exposed parts of my bay were still hurting twelve hours later. The effect was really long lasting. The rumour is that they are using agent orange.

We got home past midnight on Saturday; Major TV channels were still refusing to report on the protests.

Before we went to sleep, we learnt of similar unjust and unprovoked Police action in Ankara and Izmir.

Over the course of Sunday, the numbers of the protestors in Taksim swelled as more and more people gathered to protest Police violence. The numbers have increased every day; Today, Tuesday has seen demonstrations in 67 different cities. On a four hour long programme on Sunday covering his engagements, the PM Erdoğan repeatedly used incendiary language, including referring to the protestors as Çapulcu (marauder).

I have omitted much. I have only tried to list the signal events that provoked the protestors. In the days following, things continued in much the same fashion. More people wounded, several people blinded many with head injuries and even tragically some deaths (The official count is one person, respected unofficial sources place it at four). The Association of Doctors in Ankara (ATO), in a press release announced that over the course of the protests, in Ankara alone, there have been 787 people admitted to hospitals following serious injuries in the demonstrations (69 of them policemen). Of 787, 8 are in intensive care and 4 of them have life-threatening injuries. This number in Istanbul is 1485 and in Izmir is 800.

I do not know what will happen next. Such public resistance is unprecedented in Turkish history. At the inception, I had feared the possibility of these protests being hijacked by racist or extreme nationalist groups. That has not happened. Rather, they have been marked by an unprecedented solidarity between very different social groups. I feel that these protests are the beginnings of the first broad based movement in Turkey where people tired of pale versions, demand true democracy.

I hope that this long letter has provided with a picture of what has been happening here.

Warm regards,

Şafak Özden

I’d like to thank my friend Mohan Ravichandran for editing this letter. He almost rewrote it.

I have provided links to videos and photographs illustrating police brutality down below. Images and videos that might be disturbing are marked with a (X).

Video showing 5 police attacking to a walking man from behind

Video showing police throwing pepper gas into a house

Video showing police saying protestor “come, we will not throw or do anything, then fire his pepper gas gun aiming the head

– (X)Police manage to hit the head!

Police thanking to girl who offered food to them

– (X) A protestor seriously injured by a pressurized water

– (X) Police using his gun


Lots of police hitting a protestor who has arrested

This video from the first days of the events. Police burn protestors tents

A variety collected by people

I don’t know how to explain

From Izmir

– (X) No comment!

Police effect