Jadaliyya: Occupy Angara – A Situation assessment in a state of emergency


Protesters attacked by the police in Ankara. Photo via Kansu Yıldırım.

[NOTE: Angara is an alternative pronunciation of the name Ankara, which reflects the peculiarities of the city and the country.]

The Political Atmosphere Leading Towards Gezi Park Process

It can be said that the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) was born as a hegemonic project in the wake of the economic and social crisis that Turkey faced in 2001. In a period when politics was stifled and many economic parameters rang alarm bells, the AKP was coded as a critical actor to perform grave tasks such as re-establishing the frayed consent of the social classes and rendering the process of capital accumulation effective again. Thus, the AKP tried to develop a political language that seemed “inclusive” to address a wildly diverse set of social factions. While the initial phase of this language moved on the axis of “victimhood,” the later phase took shape around the rhetoric of “advanced democracy.”

However, this language began changing when a relationship that had been woven with subtle webs based on clientelism conflicted with the interests of the AKP’s administration; the structural changes on the political level influenced the tone of the AKP’s political language itself. For a long time, the AKP government’s oppressive practices, such as the increased disciplining of the labor regime and the intensification of the crackdown on freedom of information, could be concealed, blurred, and reflected onto national and international public opinion through repressive and ideological state apparatuses to a certain extent. This strengthened the public perception that the AKP ruled over an unshakable majority as the aggregate of the last sixty years of right-wing politics in Turkey.

The AKP’s policies, formulated in language based on “self-confidence,” pursued a course from macro- to micro-levels of governance following each election and referendum victory. They thus unavoidably paved the way for the events that have taken place in the last three weeks. Attempting to re-design or “renew” every aspect of public life, education, and social security, the AKP also polarized social classes in political, cultural, and ideological terms while re-mapping the economic cartography of the country and its inhabitants. Drawing negative reactions due to its policies as well as its politically-galvanizing language, the AKP tried to avoid moves that would amplify this discontent. For instance, when the smoking ban was introduced with the rationale of protecting social health, pressing for an alcohol ban was avoided. When AKP did bring forward the proposal for a new alcohol law for public spaces, it tried to minimize the potential reactions through situating such proposals within a framework based on religious obligations or religious prohibitions rather than within a framework of health. Lately, returning to the Kemalist roots of the Republic, it appealed to the usual criticism based on the “secularism-military tutelage-elitism” triangle, preempting even the potential for discontent among its own popular base.

On the AKP’s labyrinthine political journey from victimhood to hegemony, its method of veiling one policy proposal with another kicked back due to its policies concerning the environment and natural resources. The rage that had been accumulating slowly against the private sector for plundering nature through hydroelectric power plants (HES), with the backing of legal modifications and stimulus packages, intersected with the attempt to cut down “defenseless” trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park for another new construction project of the AKP government.

So far, the biggest advantage of the AKP has been the physical distances between and differences among its opposition, which has led to an inability to bring together different opposition forces. However, the cutting down of trees in Gezi Park and the subsequent appropriation of the common space by protesters challenging the AKP government has changed the course of events. The twenty-two-day-long waves of resistance have created a symbolic social value that could connect the loosely related struggles and oppositional forms. It is noteworthy that the symbolic value of Taksim Square stems from both its economic significance in terms of gentrification projects, and also its ideological-political character as an agora where different political lines intersect and where demands have been voiced since the Republic of Turkey’s very foundations. Within this context, the objections raised against cutting the trees in Gezi Park went beyond the aims of the people who initiated the protests.

Diffusion of the Protests

The protests that started in Gezi Park took on different shapes in different cities, as they were recast by the unique sociopolitical characters of those cities. Gezi Park protests reached various cities in Turkey, including İzmir, Ankara, Adana, Antalya, Samsun, Konya, Muğla, and Diyarbakır. But amongst those uprisings, the struggle in the capital, as “an Ankara struggle,” was unique.

Since it is the host of the parliament and the center of politics on a macro-level, Ankara became one of the most eccentric examples of the uprising and of the resistance. But what makes Ankara a unique example of resistance is not only its role as the determinative center of everyday politics, but also being home to diverse activist populations (both in terms of social class and cultural orientation) from one neighborhood to another, as well as the fact that forms of conflict with the police and the modes of reaction reflect a language of political struggle that the traditional left is not familiar with. In short, Ankara has become “unique” throughout the Gezi Park process, with an undulating but uninterrupted struggle oscillating between discipline and randomness, violent and passive resistance, and organization and lack of initiative.

Since the first day of the conflicts, central Kolej Square has been crowded with many not-so-usual suspects resisting against the police: groups coming from predominantly working-class neighborhoods such as Tuzluçayır, Cebeci, Akdere, and İncesu, with modified “lower class” cars playing arabesque music. The groups fighting in areas such as Kızılay (the central square in Ankara), Meşrutiyet, Mithatpaşa, and Ziya Gökalp learned how to protect themselves from teargas canisters and how to send them back to the police side while on the run during violent encounters. These groups also targeted the riot control vehicles, armed with water cannons, by using laser lights (which could be purchased for only a few liras) in order to prevent the front cameras of those vehicles from filming, hampering their mobility in support of the street barricades.

Besides damaging the branch offices of banks and fast-food chains, symbols of “the capital,” these crowds spontaneously tore apart the bus stops that are considered to be “public property.” For example, the motivation behind the destruction of the Etlik Kasalar bus stop was nothing other than the fact that the bus line was reputed to have one of the worst on-time records in the already crowded public transportation system. The protesters unleashed their fury by insulting Melih Gökçek, the mayor of Ankara who also is a prominent symbol of AKP oppression. Another striking example was the following encounter: while one protester was ripping down street fences, another one, who belonged to a traditional leftist organization, approached him, warning him, “This is public, property, you should not damage it.” In response, the first protestor asked rhetorically, “So what? Then it belongs to us, and what are we?” So this protester uses consciousness about public property not only for functionality, but also for creative destruction.

What Makes this Movement Unique?

It is possible to give more anecdotes and examples such as these. What is impossible is to grasp and make sense of the activist profile in Ankara by resorting to a comparison with members of the Taksim resistance or any other locale of the uprisings. For the type of activism in Ankara during the recent conflicts is not compatible with some aspects of the usual organized resistance schemes. Let us list a few observations:

  • The meaning of these crowds in the theoretical literature would be a “mass.” Excluding pejorative ways of thinking, the “mass” is the ideal concept to describe crowds that do not adopt a single ideological, political, economic, or cultural stance, are out of the institutional hierarchy, and are unorganized and diverse. Therefore, these masses are better approached as a “popular movement.” The main source of motivation for those masses in Ankara is the possibility of representing antagonistic world views and class-cultural tendencies. Only through such a possibility have these masses, composed of crowds from shanty settlements including Dikmen and Mamak and those from “elite” neighborhoods like Tunalı Hilmi, Bestekar, and Tunus, managed to unite under the slogan of “Tayyip İstifa!” (Tayyip Resign!). While Gezi Park resistance is often understood as having a relatively more “intellectual” base, it is possible to see simultaneously a cosmopolitan structure and traces of the countryside. Members of the middle and upper-middle classes living in elite neighborhoods and members of the lower and lower-middle classes from proletarian neighborhoods managed to seize the squares. And when they could not, they came together in town centers.
  • While the masculine attitude of the crowds from poorer neighborhoods becomes directly concrete with slogans such as “S.O.B Tayyip” and “S.O.B Police,” in the richer neighborhoods the violence is rendered with slogans like “We Are the Soldiers of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk” and “Don’t Throw Rocks at Police.” But the catalyst slogan for both “crowds” has been the slogan “Government Resign.” Of course, deep sociological analyses are beyond the scope of this article; however, it is important to make this distinction: the uprisings in the richer areas should be considered within the context of the fact that in such areas, members of the upper classes connected to the domination of the “Ancien Régime” of Kemalism had lost their class privileges due to the AKP’s policies, and thus the eruption of rage among those crowds can be read as part of their struggle to take back their position as a social class facing liquidation. This is not the case for the working-class and poor “crowds.” AKP policies such as privatization and the sale of public properties, the US-dominated foreign policy towards Syria, and other practices are seen as “treason” by the nationalist-conservative social factions. These very factions that seem to have “de-classed” tendencies, unleashing their rage against the police as attempts to appropriate the spaces they are excluded from, and acting against the police as a symbol of public authority, reducing the source of their economic suffering to a single political subject, namely to the figure of the AKP. While they accuse the government, they refrain from challenging the system. This is a source of motivation for another section in society. Between those two dominant types, the demands of the left for political power and economic opportunity comprise the area of intersection.
  • Although the leftist organizations exhibited an organized structural outlook and presented systematic demands, they could not establish networks and forms of relationships capable of addressing the masses or of articulating the movements and discourses of the masses, except for a few slogans. There are two basic points where the left and the masses come together: first, during the moments of conflict with the riot police, which is perceived as “the army of the AKP”; and, second, while holding onto common spaces such as Kızılay, Tunus, and Kolej and clearly demonstrating that the some key spaces belong the people. Besides those two common goals, there is almost no basis for common action, and except in special cases, the masses remained distant from the leftist organizations on the ground or any other political subjects. The heat of the conflict during the actions and the uncontrollable structure of the masses, in other words, sometimes disrupted, if not undermined, the possibility of common action.
  • Because the masses remained uncontrollable, it became impossible to grasp the models and routes of the conflicts by using the usual methods. This caused many different conflicts with the police in numerous areas simultaneously, forcing the police to take extra and extreme measures. Deployed on the roofs of buildings for the first time in the history of the capital, and using riot control vehicles (TOMA) and special crowd control vehicles called Scorpions (Akrep), in addition to the usual police helicopters, the police attacked the crowds with teargas bombs and created a “state of emergency” similar to the one that has been deployed in Turkey’s Kurdistan for years. It is important to note that the Scorpions, which replaced the gross panzers of old times and which carry teargas bomb launchers in their machine gun holes, reflect the way the government sees these actions. Those vehicles bombarded the ground with water cannons and teargas bombs without any warning, injuring many workers, officers, women, and students right after the call of the trade unions and confederations for a strike on the of evening 5 June. The day before this attack, or “police terror” as the press has dubbed it, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç had apologized to the public on behalf of the government for the repression of the Gezi protests and announced that the attitude of the state would be softened from that moment on.
  • The resistance of the masses created a domino effect, in just a couple of days, in many neighborhoods and urban settlements. The reactions grew exponentially. The government’s actions, the oppression that the Alevi people faced, poverty and the high cost of living, the encroachment on private spaces due to the Islamization of everyday life, and health-care and education policies all allowed the conflict to take a certain route of action. Even though it is possible to detect the cracks in the AKP’s hegemonic project, embodied in the uprisings of various social classes, I aim to draw attention to the transformation of the state of consent. What the participation of the “masses” revealed in Ankara was the spontaneous political rage of crowds from different economic and cultural structures, different ethnicities, and different sects as a fading of passive consent and the formation of a counter-hegemony. The demonstrators have begun expressing their anger and demands in the streets. That anger and those demands had previously been expressed through social media, meetings, and closed conversations, but had never been transformed and translated into actual actions due to the absence of the necessary channels for such actions.
  • Over the past week of protests, the police started to take even a harsher course of action. Prime Minister Erdoğan exacerbated the turmoil by translating the demands of the Gezi resistance into a challenge to his persona, and through framing the events as a mass clash between the protesters and his constituents. He organized meeting under the title “Respect the Public Will,” and in those mass party meetings he pointed fingers at the Gezi Park protesters, and those supporting the demonstrations in other cities, as legitimate targets for the repressive state apparatus. Pulling the triggers on massive amounts of teargas bombs and plastic bullets against the demonstrators, this harsher course of action caused six severe head trauma cases, three cases of sight loss, nineteen critical injuries, and 1,328 other injuries, according to medical reports released so far. Then there was Ethem Sarısülük, a twenty-six-year-old worker shot and killed by police in Ankara during the protests. Autopsy reports indicate that he was shot with a nine-millimeter police gun within a distance of 4.8 meters. There has been no official statement so far as to what sort of procedure will be put into effect to pursue the case of the police officer who murdered him; it is not even known if there will be any investigation into the incident. To make matters worse, the memorial service organized for Ethem during his funeral was attacked by the police and his family was prevented from taking his body from the forensic morgue. This fact alone created a huge reaction and hardened the form that the Ankara uprisings took, as well as the subsequent police response.

Despite made-up news stories that have been circulated in the mainstream media in order to intimidate the public in the wake of police raids and mass arrests, more and more activists have filled the grounds and continue their struggles in different towns and settlements. “Occupy Ankara” created a brand new political culture. The masses discovered the street and action culture, developed new ways of acting together, and opened up spaces that were thought untouchable as well as breaking the spell of the power. As the police increased the violence, the state of emergency sustained in Turkey’s Kurdistan cities for decades moved to the west of the country, inadvertently producing a medium for socio-political empathy amongst the peoples of Turkey. At times, some real provocateurs tried to infiltrate the demonstrations, damaging their own clothes and acting as if they were wounded, shouting, “I cannot go home because of those terrorists!” The people of Ankara have become, however, increasingly familiar with these tactics, and subsequently exposed these individuals in public.

This article is not an attempt to respond to a general question such as “What Must Be Done?” and to draw a political line accordingly. By way of a conclusion, however, we will offer the following statement: Resistance is the only way. Demanding the right to the city, which David Harvey interprets as a collective right and practical transformation of Raymond Williams’s concept of “militant particularism,” stands as an important alternative. Williams defines militant particularism as mobilizing in order to realize a seemingly extraordinary idea, such as the defense and development of a particular interest, which would also correspond to the general interest. For that goal, the formation of political and institutional subjects who would function as the melting pot of the interests of particular and scattered classes throughout the capitalist system is necessary.

[A shorter version of this article was also published in Turkish on Sendika.]

Kansu Yıldırım and Ekrem Ekici
20. 06. 2013

Source: Jadaliyya