It was around the same time that Tayyip Erdogan‘s AK Party won their first seats in the parliament that I left Turkey to pursue an education in the US. I remember the controversy around the party’s first election in 2002, one of the few outspokenly Islamic parties to come to power since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, by the “father” of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. As Kemalists (Ataturk’s followers) and the rest of the secular population feared the AK Party’s potential conservative reforms, Erdogan earned his second victory in 2007 with flying colors. Kemalists speculated it was because their votes were divided among a group of forgettable candidates while their religious opponents had united under a single party. The following years proved a pleasant surprise to even those who opposed the regime: the AK Party painted a charming façade—they cleaned up the streets, made health reforms, strengthened foreign policies and fixed the economy. They were hardworking, they compromised, and often kept their promise.
However, as the AK Party almost finishes its second year in its third term in power, one can’t help but feel that there is a bigger agenda that the city’s luscious tulips and shiny new pavements are masking. And that agenda manifests itself as a growing unspoken air of animosity towards the modern. Perhaps this was most apparent in the way people stared at my bright turquoise sunglasses, or how I was mocked on the streets for my print-on–print ensembles, eventually causing me to abandon the subway and buses to avoid disapproving stares (if there was a staring contest at the Olympics, Turkey would win). When individuals with whom I had no acquaintance started to become increasingly entitled to walk up to me and tell me what I can or can’t do, say, or wear, I started to become concerned.
The government was acting like an amateur parent by spending its time with silly censorships like blocking cigarettes from television screens—insulting to even a child’s intelligence. (First of all there is smoke, second of all it’s sticking out of people’s mouths.) First they used a graceless white circle as cover-up, and later an ugly cartoon daisy would just move through the scene, clumsily covering each cigarette. In 2009 a number of web sites—mostly pornographic—including YouTube, were censored as a result of the AK Party’s “war against the Internet.” TV shows that satirized religion like The Simpsons also got their fair share. Meanwhile, historical landmarks and curiously art-oriented spaces were replaced with malls and mosques. The AKP not only attempted to reverse the laws passed 30 years ago that allow abortions, but encouraged every family to have 3 or more children, limited the use of alcohol, unofficially banned public display of affection, arrested many outspoken journalists and jailed Kemalist army officials, labeling them as terrorists.
Most recently, Erdogan’s management decided to tear down Taksim’s Gezi Park, a symbol for the Modern Turkish Republic, adorned with sculptures of the country’s founding fathers, in order to build yet another shopping center (there are already 94 existing malls in Istanbul—there are only 7 in New York). Protestors from a number of different backgrounds gathered on May 28th 2013 to peacefully protest Erdogan’s decision by occupying the park. The next day, Erdogan let the protestors know, “Even if all hell breaks loose, those trees are going to be uprooted.” On May 31st, four days into the Occupy Gezi protest, the police cracked down on the crowd by arriving at the park at dawn, forcefully kicking people out of their tents and burning down the protestors’ belongings.
What started as a peaceful demonstration quickly became a violent clash between the police and demonstrators. The news spread with the speed of light via 61,000 tweets sent by protestors and eyewitnesses. The image of a young girl, dressed in red, being sprayed with high-pressured water from only a few meters away yet standing tall as if she has been cemented there, had instantly become the defining image of this movement. The images of police brutality, excessive use of tear gas, injured teenagers, signs that read “Trees not buildings, schools not mosques, free speech not jail, beer not ayran, democracy not fascism, Turkey not Dubai” got retweeted, reblogged, Instagrammed, Facebooked and Pintersted to friends and friends of friends.
Faster than you could say “Occupy Gezi”, even more people gathered at the park. The crowd was getting increasingly diverse. The image of the girl in red became the unofficial event invite. “There is a certain innocence to her,” says Prof. Ahmet Insel, a supporter of the movement. “It made all of us say, this could be my daughter, defending what she believes in.” By 11am the next morning, #occupygezi and #direngezi had become the most popular hashtags on both Twitter and Instagram. 12 people were injured and 63 detained to be questioned as terrorists by the time the court finally ordered a halt on the reconstruction of the park. The protestors had gotten what they wanted, but at that point, next to all the injuries, the park’s victory simply didn’t cut it. The flame had already been lit.
While all this happened, the Turkish press in its entirety (with the exception of a channel called Halk TV)—which never bothered to cover the park’s protestors since they began their silent demonstration—continued to ignore it even after the arrests. Perhaps what fueled people’s fury above all was the media’s oblivious approach to what was happening: people truly felt abandoned. Signs read “Imagine a civil war in Times Square and the media is not there to report it.” For the first time, the nation understood just how subjective the media can be. The shift was organic; the press left a gaping hole, which social media filled. After all, one might be able to control the television and radio channels by which news gets reported, but how can anyone control the social media channels of every single individual?
On Friday night, all hell broke loose. The demonstrations in Gezi Park had expanded to Taksim with 100,000 supporters; anyone with a pot and pan started banging them together to make noise. The goal seemed pretty clear: to be heard. That night, the level of police brutality became undeniable. YouTube was flooded with videos of police breaking windows of civilian apartments and throwing tear gas inside, beating people senselessly in every corner, aiming plastic bullets, shooting tear gas canisters at people’s heads, throwing tear gas in subways, and photos of demonstrators washing out the eyes of stray dogs, people making out in front of vandalized news vans, children coughing in the subway, cranes chasing police cars, old women distributing home-made food to protestors, donated snacks placed onsidewalks as if they were supermarket aisles, and people spray painting mantras like “A tree dies, a nation wakes up” (a line by renounced Turkish poet, Nazım Hikmet), “Turkey, you look beautiful when you’re angry!” “My green will take down your green,” “We don’t need you to define our religion, nation, minorities. We’ll do it ourselves, we are the people,” “Our national anthem’s first two lyrics are: Don’t fear.” Another reason behind this movement’s popularity is its apparent sense of humor, forsigns also screamed statements like: “Tayyip, do you want three children like me?” “You can’t scare a nation who checks gas leakages with a lighter,” “The government keeps passing gas won’t be long until they take a dump all over us,” “You are the one who banned alcohol, Tayyip look what happens when you have a sober nation”.
All in all, the activist within was awakened. Protestors started trading Wi-Fi passwords of nearby cafes and hotels like food and medicine. Twitter and Facebook were filled with people offering their own wireless passwords as the rumors around police jammers that block online access spread. Twitter and Facebook were down on and off throughout, yet there is no proof of government interference. The cyber space filled with DIY instructions on how to make a gas mask out of plastic bottles and how to make antidote concoction for pepper spray out of common antacid pills like Rennie. Demonstrators were spreading instructions on how to deal with police (“spray black paint on the visors of their gas mask”). Volunteering lawyers were offering the police information on what rights they have when it comes to following orders. People were seeking lawyers, and lawyers were seeking proof for agent orange (an illegal chemical the police was rumored of using). The captured police tanks were being sold on eBay (with hilarious descriptions). Information was released on hotels, cafes and other establishments, detailing which side the establishment’s owner belonged to—and whether you should go there to hide or to demolish it. A petition was started online to have CNN International cut ties with CNN Turkey on the basis that they were not televising any events as late as into the crisis’ fifth day. Even Erdogan’s supporters started tweeting words of sympathy as one AKP voter Ozge Gurbuz wrote: “When the AKP promised us freedom, we didn’t realize it would be freedom for only people of his choice.”
As the sun came up on Saturday, June 1, 40,000 people walked Istanbul’s Bosporus Bridge, connecting Asia to Europe. The images of this poetic rebellion against the beautiful backdrop of Istanbul, hipstamatically enhanced, were glorified to full effect through the social media channels—the key organic propaganda tool in this particular movement. While masses continued to battle armed police on the streets, CNN Turk chose to air an episode of Spy in the Huddle, a documentary on penguins while other news channels aired reality shows on dancing and cooking.
Turkish Media’s overall oblivion continued to fuel people’s fury. Crowds began to target the media cooperation’s’ offices with signs asking how much it would cost to buy the evening news. Only, if the media could do what social media did: provide an objective view of what was going on outside. The New Yorker’s Elif Batuman wrote “I realized that almost every person there was either typing on a phone or recording the scene on a tablet.” A historical moment was being captured only on social media. The signs now read: “Revolution will not be televised. But it will be tweeted.” In the 12 hours from 4pm on May 31, there were more than 2 million tweets for the 3 leading hashtags, #occupygezi, #direngezi and #occupytaksim. In a speech on the following day, Erdogan said, “There is now a menace which is called Twitter. The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” Erdogan later accused the demonstrators of manipulating environmentalist concerns for their own ideological agendas. “It’s hard to argue with him there,” said Batuman. “There’s little doubt that the demonstrations are less about six hundred and six trees than about a spreading perception that Erdogan refuses to hear what people are trying to tell him.”
The fire grew, fanned by winds of social media, carrying the news across board. Interior Minister Muammer Guler said there had been more than 200 demonstrations in 67 cities around the country by June 3, Monday, and 1,700 people had been arrested according to the Turkish daily newspaper, Hurriyet (which did start to publish news about the protests at this point). The famous Turkish rock band, Duman composed an anthem for the resistance and international celebrities like Madonna, Tilda Swinton and Josh Duhamel expressed support through their own social media channels. The Mayor of Izmir came out and walked with the people. Many policemen and media agency employees quit their jobs. At this point, for almost a week now, people have been banging on their pots and pans.
Undeniably, what’s most inspiring about this movement is the way that it brought people from all backgrounds together under a single common cause. Turks have never been known to abide rules, yet they had often tolerated the most ridiculous of fundamentals imposed on them by their government—until now. The way in which the country united over the threat for this park, the fact that all this fuss essentially started over trees (and one another), should serve to argue those who disagree the nation is mature enough to be considered “developed.” The intensity, dedication and pure intentions behind this fight for a modern and secular future serves to prove that Turkey is a nation that is home to great intellectuals and promising, brilliant young minds.
Another fascinating fact about this movement is that it did not start with a set agenda or even a leader, nor did anyone expect or intend it to go this far. Much like the Arab Spring of 2011, it was a completely organic eruption of people’s genuine voice from simply having been suppressed for too long. Their request from prime minister Erdogan is simple: listen to us, provide democracy, give us freedom of speech, don’t dictate our lifestyle, don’t silence people with force, allow us to flourish and grow while we protect our history, always respect our needs, and move us forward with the rest of the world. Young people, old people, Kemalists, Alevis, Kurds, Jews, students, gays, athletes, white collar workers, blue collar workers, leftists, rightists, Islamist, and even the blind stopped going to work, stopped making love to their wives and husbands, and instead grabbed their neighbor and came out on the streets to communicate this to their Prime Minister by whatever means available, pot and pan and all.
Finally, on June 3rd Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan gave a televised speech condemning the protestors and vowing that “I will not seek permission from hoodlums to implement my plans (…) Where they gather 20, I will get up and gather 200,000 people. Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together one million from my party.” So I guess we are about to see whose genitals measure taller, Erdogan or the country he supposedly leads.
To hear more about the build up to the current protests in Turkey, go here.
This article was originally commissioned by Refinery 29.