“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.
“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!”