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Standing still to move on

By Simon Bahceli

WITH FOREIGN media attention now largely off Turkey’s anti-government demonstrations, people could be forgiven for thinking protesters had given up and gone home, presumably tired of being gassed and beaten by riot police or rendered silent by threats of arrest under newly enacted “anti terrorism” laws.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

I was in Istanbul’s Taksim Square last Saturday night when a crowd of perhaps 10,000 ordinary Turks of all ages met to hold a non-violent remembrance rally for the five people who had died in the three weeks of protests following the police’s violent crushing of a small environmentalist gathering in Istanbul’s now-famous Gezi Park. As the carnation-wielding protesters gathered, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the hundreds of riot police, water cannons and pepper gas guns that surrounded the square would be used that night. Experience told us that.

But when, just before sundown, police warned the chanting, singing and waving protesters that if they did not leave the square they would be forcibly removed, surprisingly few actually followed their instincts for self preservation and left. This, despite the relish of anticipation on the faces of the riot police.

As the onslaught began and people were sprayed off the square like ants under a hosepipe, there was little sign of fear among the protesters. In the midst of the maelstrom, a frail elderly man walked from the edge of the square to place a bunch of carnations in the wing mirror of one of the dreaded TOMA water cannon vehicles and stroll away slowly with no apparent regard for his own well-being. Others simply stood waiting to be beaten and arrested.

There may have been a handful of fools in the crowd who actually enjoy fighting the police, and even government-employed plants to whip up the crowd, but the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators were ordinary folks from pretty much every walk of life imaginable. Despite the violence and the teargas that met their airborne carnations and chants for the government, and in particular Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to resign, the protesters simply regrouped to face the police again and again.

Such bravery can be puzzling, especially in the face of such overwhelming force, but a meeting in a cafe the previous night with a group of young people who had been evicted from Gezi Park the previous weekend offered some clues as to the sources of their courage.

“When you have faced their force so many times the fear somehow disappears,” a male activist in his late twenties told me with a smile that seemed to understand my incomprehension.

I reminded him that in adversity we have a choice between fight and flight, to which he replied, “If we have to run away from violence, we will. No one is trying to be a hero. Fortunately, there are other ways to fight.”

The anti-protester rhetoric currently emerging from Prime Minister Erdogan’s mouth doesn’t seem to frighten them either. In the past weeks he has labelled them “provocateurs” and more recently “terrorists”, which means he can now arrest and throw protesters in jail without even the most rudimentary recourse to human rights. Over the past three weeks hundreds have been arrested, either at rallies or during roundups between them.

A report released on Friday Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation (IHD) said 294 children were among the detained and held in adult facilities. Many claim to have been mistreated. Despite intimidation from the police and the state, the IHD say 169 adults have filed against police accusing them of torturing protest detainees.

Erdogan meanwhile continues to up the ante on fear by announcing an investigation of protesters’ use of the social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter, warning that anyone found to have “incited” protests would face punishment.

Going on Erdogan’s record for jailing journalists and political activists who have stood in his way, one cannot disregard these threats as idle.

But as one protester said, “He can’t throw everyone in jail; he can’t sue us all.”

Still, it isn’t only safety in numbers driving the protesters on. As one self-proclaimed activist told me on Friday night, “It helps to overcome the fear when you know that what you are doing is right.”

This sentiment is close to the heart of countless lawyers who work for free around the clock helping those who have been arrested. They continued to do this even after 70-odd of their colleagues were arrested while objecting to police violence against protesters at the start of what can now be termed growing civil unrest.

How committed they were became starkly apparent when a foreign friend of some activists I’d met was arrested during the “clean up” following Saturday’s carnation protest. Without the fearless help of those committed lawyers over two days he would still be in prison now.

Despite the veil of darkness that has undoubtedly settled over a country that until recently had seemed to be heading towards a freer way of life, it appears the violence of the police, and the rhetoric of a leader who now believes the state to be his personal fiefdom, seems only to have instilled a feeling of unity that may never have existed previously in Turkey outside the family and immediate community.

“In Gezi Park we worked together as a community. If a job needed doing, you’d suddenly find a bunch of people there wanting to help you. People shared their possessions and the work. It was beautiful,” one of the original Gezi Park protesters said. She believes the protests started with a peaceful message of kindness, inclusivity and plurality, and hopes that they can continue in that way.

It is still hard to fathom how mass demonstrations sprung from the small protests of idealists in Gezi Park. But somehow they have.

While Erdogan insists they are engineered by anti-Turkish foreigners and remnants of the militaristic deep state he earlier claimed to have destroyed, the evidence is stacked against him that the protesters are neither violent nor overtly political.

With violence so rife, protesters have turned to other ways to take their protests further without putting their and other peoples’ lives at further risk. One way has been to hold public forums in parks around Istanbul and other cities and towns in Turkey.

“These forums have been going on for more than a week now and they’re extremely popular and successful,” a female activist told me. She added that the structure of the forums was designed to encourage debate and involve as many people as possible, and that this was a method also used in Gezi Park to devise the needs and the actions of the tent community there.

“The point is that everyone has a voice and that all voices are heard, meaning we are not taken forward by dogma but by grass roots interests of real people,” added, highlighting the ideological gulf between the protesters and the prime minister.

Such innovative protests, as opposed to the simple head on clashes with police, are a sign that it is not the classic opposition that threatens Erdogan’s grip on power in Turkey. After two weeks of teargas and water cannon, people began expressing their opposition to the government by simply standing still in streets and squares. Some of the first “Standing men/women” were arrested, but were soon joined by more, making police action look stupid and futile. Then, after an article appeared asserting that Erdogan had never been seen reading even a newspaper, let alone a book, “reading protests” began, where people simply stood and read a book.

Where these protests will go, and the government’s reaction to them, is of vital importance for Turkey and the region. They may even have implications for Islam’s future relationship with democracy, seeing as Erdogan’s intention of creating a more moralistic and conservative society based on his religious views is at the heart of these protests. But that a group of gentle environmentalists in a park could have a say should not be only baffling but also inspiring.

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