Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part post. The second part can be found at “Reading the Writing on the Wall at #OccupyGezi, Part 2.”
ISTANBUL — The graffitti that now covers the streets of Istanbul cannot be called ‘art.’ It was put there by people on the run from tear gas and billy clubs. It was done quickly and secretly, at night or in flight. It is a reflection of the social media that inspired it — pithy, angry, quick, and short. The grafitti are spray paint tweets on brick and mortar. And they tell a story — they reveal the hows and whys of this mass, varied uprising against an increasingly arrogant ruler.
The protests now raging all over Turkey started over a small park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, Gezi Park — the Justice and Development Party (the AKP) wanted to turn this last bit of green into some kind of mall/mosque complex. But Gezi’s destruction was really the last straw for millions across the country who felt marginalized by the paternal ‘we know what’s best for you’ attitude of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government. I have heard from Kurds, from ultra-nationalists, from members of the LGBT, and from faithful ‘Turkey for the Turks!’ Kemalists the same sentiment — “Erdoğan was elected by a majority, but he’s the Prime Minister of us minorities as well.” Each group has a different agenda on the surface, but at heart, they all simply want representation in a true democracy — a thing that has never really existed in this land of military coups and martial law. Tayyip Erdoğan’s response? “If this is about holding meetings, if this is a social movement, 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.”
The entrance to Taksim Square on the day the police retreated was lined with abandoned news vans. This is what’s left of the Fox News crew. Written across the satellite dish is ‘The media has sold out!’ The news crews were embedded with police, and most of the ‘live feeds’ came from the police side. Despite their overwhelming presence on the square, Turkish news channels were either silent (CNN Turk famously broadcast a documentary on penguins during the worst of police attacks) or else they gave the microphone exclusively to government spokesmen who said the protesters were ‘marginal groups and looters (çapulcu) instigated by foreign powers.’ Rage against the media was potent — many Turks realized for the first time that their media might lie to them. For me, my Kurdish in-laws and many other people around the country, this was hardly news. I stood in Dağkapı Square in Diyarbarkır last spring. It was completely empty during a Friday Prayer though CNN Turk reported ‘live’ on mass riots there. This has been a wake-up call for many young Turks about how their news sources have failed them. And all for fear of Erdoğan — Turkey now has the most imprisoned journalists of any country. Media coverage finally started in earnest after protesters surrounded the offices of channel NTV, held up five lira bills and offered to pay them out of their own pockets to just cover the protests. Bülent Arınç, the AKP Vice-Prime Minister, said in a speech that the protests were exaggerations of foreign media who had decided to target Turkey and thus, not behaving responsibly like the Turkish press.
Police withdrew from Taksim Square on June 1st — a group of tens of thousands of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) were marching on the square from the neighborhood of Beşiktaş. Another group of Kurdish parliament members and labor union leaders had already arrived. Other random groups were pouring in from all sides including the ‘Anatolian Bears’ — a group of gay men from the interior. A confrontration would have been catastrophic for PR. “I decided to tell the police to leave them alone,” Erdoğan explained, confirming he controlled the police. As the TOMA tanks left, the ‘security forces’ in them were jeered. The CHP people hurled water bottles, rocks, and anything else they could find at them — I saw one of the police vans just ram its way though a crowd knocking several people to the side as it fled. Once the police were gone, the construction site at Gezi park was raided in a frenzy of celebration. Abandoned police vans were looted, windshields smashed, and angry slogans like this one sprayed on the construction vehicles. The side of this gas truck says ‘S.O.B. Tayyip!’ and ‘Killer Police.’
Alcohol has become one of the symbols of the protests. Erdoğan already announced last year that he would create a ‘conservative’ generation and forced through last minute laws on school ‘reform’ to ensure that. His AKP government has raised the taxes on alcohol several times in 2012 — effectively doubling the price — and this year passed a law that would severely restrict its sale. Read a certain way, the law could even ban drinks served in restaurants. People see it as a sign of creeping religious fundamentalism. In an interview he gave on May 31, during the worst excesses of police violence in Taksim, he said “I regard anyone who drinks as an alcoholic.” In defiance, after the police withdrew, alcoholic celebrations ensued. The grafitti behind this man reads ‘Take charge of your nature, your art, your labor! Rise up! Rebel! Taksim is Ours!’ Art and labor refers to the Emek (Labor) Theater, a historic theater that was recently demolished to build a mall, despite protests by Turkey’s most famous actors. The destruction of the Emek is one of the many catalysts of the protests.
Istiklal (Indepence) Avenue is the trendy boulevard that leads to Taksim Square. It was in a shambles on June 1st after the police withdrew — some stores that had locked out protesters were vandalized. Clean up crews made up of protesters returned the next day and have continued all this week. This store front says ‘All together or not at all!’ The groups that have converged on Taksim and gathered throughout the country do not represent any one section of society — in fact many are largely apolitical youth who have never protested before. They wear football jerseys instead of carrying party flags. They shout curses instead of slogans. Their amateurism inspires some and dismays others.
A t-shirt store on Istiklal Boulevard — the grafitti reads ‘Tayyip (Erdoğan) Resign! The Star and Fist Revolutionary Headquarters.’ The Star and Fist is an anonymous emblem of the leftist movement — particularly associated with the Revolutionary Path (Dev Yol), though you see it everywhere from socialist meetings to Gay Pride parades. Taner Akçam, one of the few Turkish scholars to admit there was an Armenian Genocide, once belonged to the Revolutionary Path. Scholars like Akcam have been persecuted and hounded by the AKP government, and all the ones before it for that matter. Still, under the AKP, taboos around subjects like the genocide have actually relaxed a bit, which is partly what angers some people in the CHP and moves them to the streets. And it is now an oft mentioned fact that Gezi Park was an Armenian cemetery seized by the state when fleeing Armenians ‘abandoned’ it. Some minorities, Armenians and Kurds among them, are frustrated with the AKP, but nervous about anything that might replace them as well.
‘To the Revolution’ reads this graffitti on Istiklal. The iron fencing surrounds another historic building being turned into a shopping center.
Get Hyperallergic in your Inbox!
Subscribe to our email newsletter. (Daily or Weekly)