Turkey: 'We know what you did last summer' – a year on from Gezi rising
“The Gezi Resistance is the biggest popular uprising in modern Turkish history,” said long-time socialist activist Nuray Sancar. “It smashed the fear we have been living with since the military coup in 1980.”
It has now been a year since the Gezi Resistance started with a handful of people protecting trees in Gezi Park in Istanbul's Taksim Square in June last year. Protests spread to 79 cities across Turkey in the next few months.
Sancar is a member of the executive committee of the Turkish Party of Labour (EMEP) and a member of the People's Democratic Party (HDP), a Turkish–Kurdish electoral alliance.
Sancar has edited a book about the Gezi Resistance called Hot June: A Letter to the Next Resistance. She contributed to The Joyful Opposition of Gezi, which has been translated into English and will be published soon.
Sancar spoke to Green Left Weekly's I Zekeriya Ayman about the Gezi Resistance and the situation in Turkey now.
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What do you see when you look back on the Gezi rebellion, after one year?
Gezi was the biggest popular rebellion in the history of the Turkish republic. People’s movements have always been met with military coups, torture and oppression in Turkey.
Because of the war against Kurdish people, we have spent half of our modern history under martial law. Gezi smashed a lot of fear and unleashed an intense politicisation in people’s minds, which is still going on.
It is not yet a completed historical event. The “ghost of Gezi” is still here. Since Gezi, every time the government does something people don’t like, they take to the streets and clash with police.
Fourteen-year-old Berkin Elvan was hit in the head with a teargas capsule during Gezi, in Istanbul. He died after 270 days and 1 million people ― many of them also secondary school students ― attended his funeral in March.
What is happening now among the people who rebelled during Gezi?
The political demands raised during Gezi are still being discussed in suburban parks. Decentralised and flexible forms of popular organisation are still developing. Now they are discussing whether the Gezi Park experience could be a model for the whole country.
Another topic is the Kurdish freedom movement’s proposal for a political model that includes autonomy from the central government, local direct democracy and capacity for self-defence ― a communal model. This accords with the spirit of Gezi ― freedom from despotic, oppressive government power.
Gezi is part of a global rebellion that started in north Africa, spread to Greece, Spain and includes the Occupy movement. Right after the Gezi Resistance, a new rebellion broke out in Brazil.
It is possible to describe those as anti-capitalist movements. They are all asking the same question: What kind of future and political model do we want to create?
What impact do you think Gezi has had on the balance of political forces in Turkey?
While post-Gezi discussions have been going on, there was a mining disaster in Soma in Western Turkey in which more than 300 miners died. These mines were once publicly owned and privatised years ago to stop “losing money”.
This disaster highlighted how the Soma coal company cut the cost of one ton of coal from US$140 to $20. It was obvious that the cut was coming from workers’ entitlements, wages and health and safety standards. Turkey erupted again.
In response, the working class took to the streets to a much greater extent than during Gezi nine months before.
The Soma protests showed that the Kurdish east and the Turkish west could be united around labour issues.
There are other serious divisions in Turkey. The government party, the AKP, can easily mobilise its religious supporters. Those who support the AKP don’t see the struggle for democracy as being in their interest.
On the other hand, there is a more modern, secular section of the population with strong left tendencies. These two groups are divided for deep historical and cultural reasons and the division won’t be resolved any time soon.
Since Gezi, support for AKP Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has fallen from 50% to 40%. Erdogan is desperate to keep it from falling further. He has increased repressive violence and he tells his supporters that the opposition are foreign puppets. He uses religion to cover his neoliberal policies. He uses the deep division for his own benefit.
Gezi also brought onto the agenda a discussion of how to relate to and win the hearts and minds of the ordinary people who support the government. Actually it’s not only the government that benefits from these religious and social divisions, but also marginal groups within the opposition.
Gezi was a spontaneous movement. It was not class-based, but drew in many sections of the community. But the organised left, some unions and NGOs, women’s and LGBTI groups had a great impact on the whole resistance.
Taksim Solidarity Platform was created before Gezi but became much bigger and more effective during the rebellion. More than 130 groups, including the HDP and other left and Kurdish groups, as well as the main social democratic opposition party were represented in the Platform. The broad representation in the committee won people’s trust and helped the committee’s decisions to be accepted.
Women clearly played a strong role in the Gezi resistance. Can you talk about how and why?
Over the past 12 years, the Erdogan government has really ramped up the oppression of women in Turkey. Social security has been decimated and abortion has been banned.
There have been changes to the education system that have directly led to more young girls being married earlier. The government has provoked greater prejudice against women.
Violence, rape and abuse against women has risen. The numbers of women killed due to domestic and sexual violence has reached an unbelievable high.
Women in Turkey are feeling very trapped socially, so it was no surprise that women played a major role during Gezi. They played a major role in influencing the witty Gezi graffiti and slogans away from chauvinist, macho language to more inclusive jokes at the expense of the government.
There was no leader of the Gezi Resistance, but there was lots of symbolism that highlighted the leadership of women.
The LGBTI community felt the same way, too. LGBTI people are very discriminated against in Turkey. Many are unable to get employment and can be forced into sex work to survive.
But the community became very organised during Gezi. They managed to create a living space, a community with publications and films. They joined the mass protests with their demands.
In the past LGBTI community members have been hunted down in the streets and bashed, especially by the police. Their homes have been raided. It wasn’t surprising to see them in front of the protests.
LGBTI members are active participants in the HDP and play leading roles in the party and in the ongoing peoples’ assemblies that have been taking place since Gezi.
The HDP especially values women’s and LGBTI representation. The party has adopted a quota system that guarantees 50% of the leaders are women. Also, women have our own assembly to decide the party’s policies affecting women.
What are the challenges facing the HDP after Gezi?
The main challenge after Gezi was to find common candidates for the March 30 local elections.
Gezi was a historical moment that brought together Kurds, supporters of the Kurdish freedom movement, as well as left nationalists opposed to the Kurdish struggle. But the Gezi forces were divided in the local elections.
The HDP is now restructuring. Kurdish MPs have left the Peace and Freedom Party (BDP) and joined the HDP.
The HDP will be a mass people’s party. Some participants are hesitant about a merger with the BDP as it is a big party. There is fear that the other, smaller parties and left groups won’t have a say in decision-making.
There are many parties and groups in the HDP with different programs and views. How they can merge under one program is not clear yet. Discussions are continuing.
Since Gezi there have been some developments that are tiring the people’s opposition. There are ultra-left calls for people to take to the street on every occasion. It is a stage in which the people's demands are getting lost amid calls to fight in the street.
Some people are exhilarated by street fighting, even being gassed and water-cannoned, and they want to keep doing it. But if street fighting becomes a fetish, the link between self-appointed “messiahs” of the left and ordinary people weakens.
This was the case on May Day in Istanbul. There were not hundreds of thousands of brave Gezi people on the streets on May Day. Less than 10,000 people took part.
It was important to insist on celebrating May Day in Taksim Square, but there was no preparation or field work to renew people’s will to join. There was only a “call” for people to join forces in Taksim.
It would have been better to do work in every suburb in Istanbul to mobilise people. If this had been done, many people could have been organised to meet in their local area and march to Taksim. The EMEP proposed this to our allies in HDP but it was rejected as too labour intensive.
After Gezi, and especially after the Soma protests, the pro-democracy forces in Turkey should think carefully about, and thoroughly discuss, street mobilisations.
Turkey is at the threshold of remaking itself and this will only happen with the power of street mobilisations. Nobody will give democracy to us. We will win it, if we have the right tactics and strategy.