People have killed their fear of authority - and the protests are growing

What began in an Istanbul park has tapped in to years of grievances.

"Well, we are just filling light bulbs with paint," said my friend, a cafe owner in Cihangir, the Soho of Istanbul. Speaking to me on the phone, she sounded as relaxed as if she was baking an apple pie. "You know," she continued, "the only way to stop a TOMA is to throw paint on its window so that the vehicle loses orientation."

My friend, who was completely uninterested in politics until six days ago, had never been in conflict with the police before. Now, like hundreds of thousands of others in Turkey, she has become a warrior with goggles around her neck, an oxygen mask on her face and an anti-acid solution bottle in her hand. As we have all learned, this the essential kit to fight the effects of tear gas. As for TOMA, that is the vehicle-mounted water cannon. To paralyse it, you either have to put a wet towel in its exhaust pipe or burn something under its engine or you and a dozen others can push it over. This kind of battle-info is circulating all over Turkey at the moment. It is like a civil war between the police and the people. Yet nobody expected this when, six days ago, a group of protesters organised a sit-in at Istanbul's Gezi Park to protect trees that were to be cut down for the government's urban redevelopment project.

Ten years of arrogance

The protests that have now engulfed the country may have begun in Gezi Park in Taksim, the heart of Istanbul. It was never just about trees, but the accumulation of many incidents. With the world's highest number of imprisoned journalists, thousands of political prisoners (trade unionists, politicians, activists, students, lawyers) Turkey has been turned into an open-air prison already. Institutional checks and balances have been removed by the current AKP government's political manoeuvres and their actions go uncontrolled. On top of this growing authoritarianism, the most important reason for people to hit the streets in support of the Gezi resistance was the arrogant tone of the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Even on Sunday, when millions of people were joining the demonstrations, he called the protestors "looters". Throughout his tenure, his rhetoric has been no different. He has repeatedly called his political opponents "alchoholics, marginals, sniffers, bandits, infidels". His mocking sarcasm has become his "thing" over time, and even some of his closest colleagues accept that "he no longer listens to anyone".

Then, there is the fear. This kind of thing is hard to report in a prominent newspaper. That is perhaps why the international media have not reported that the fear of government and the Prime Minister has been growing even among non-political people. You can easily hear your grocery shop man saying "I think my phone is tapped". The mainstream media has not covered it, but we have read reports on social media about people being arrested for making jokes about the government. That is perhaps why for the past two days every wall in Taksim Square is full of curses against the Prime Minister. The public is enjoying the death of the "cruel father figure" with the most sexist curses I have ever seen in my life. And I have seen some. But there is a more important component to the protests.

Killing the fear

As a writer and a journalist I followed the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings. As I wrote at the time, Arab people killed their fear and I saw how it transformed them from silent crowds to peoples who believe in themselves. This is what has been happening in the last six days in Turkey. Teenage girls standing in front of TOMAs, kids throwing tear gas capsules back to the police, rich lawyers throwing stones at the cops, football fans rescuing rival fans from police, the ultra-nationalists struggling arm in arm with Kurdish activists. . . these were all scenes I witnessed. Those who wanted to kill each other last week became - no exaggeration - comrades on the streets. People not only overcame their fear of authority but they also killed the fear of the "other". One more important point: the generation that has taken to the streets was born after the 1980 military coup that fiercely depoliticised the public. The general who led the 1980 coup once said: "We will create a generation without ideology". So this generation was - until last week.

Dangerous questions

"So this is the media that we've been hearing the news from over the last twenty years?" That was the question asked by one young man on Twitter, as he watched a television journalist keep silent while the Prime Minister branded protesters "a bunch of looters". The young man has been on the streets peacefully protesting for the last six days, so now he has many suspicions about what's been happening in his country all this time. Maybe the Kurdish people are not "terrorists". Perhaps the journalists thrown in prison were not plotting a "coup" against the government. All those jailed trade unionists may not be members of a "terrorist organization" after all. All those university students in prison, were they innocent like he is? Questions multiply.

As I write, Istanbul, Ankara - Turkey's capital - Izmir and Adana are burning. Massive police violence is taking place. And in my middle class Istanbul neighbourhood, like many others, people are banging on their frying pans to protest. People are exchanging information about safe places to take shelter from police, the telephone numbers of doctors and lawyers. In Taksim Square, on the building of Atatürk Cultural Center, some people are hanging a huge banner. There are only two words on it: "Don't surrender!"

Ece Temelkuran is a Turkish journalist and author. Follow her on Twitter @ETemelkuran

An anti-government protester waves Turkey's national flag bearing a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.