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      Could the Turkish Uprising Be a Breakthrough for the Country's Kurds?

      June 25, 2013

      By Jonathan Wiltshire, Photos: Oren Ziv


      Emre Elmekci, a Kurdish activist, sits on a barricade in a road leading to Taksim Square during clashes with the Turkish police. 

      The fallout from the protests in Turkey isn't all bad. Unthinkable only three weeks ago, the demonstrations have begun to unite Turkey's Kurds—both those in Istanbul and traveling there from the east of the country—with a broad cross-section of Turkish society under a collective banner of anger against the government and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Years of clashing with riot police in the east of the country has taught the Kurds a couple of things about protest tactics, and their know-how came in handy the weekend before last when Gezi Park was forcibly evicted.      

      Sidenç is a Kurdish 20-something from Diyarbakir, the major city in the Kurdish part of Turkey. "Most English-speaking people call me Angel, so call me that," she said. And the name is fitting; she's a strikingly beautiful girl from the eastern heartlands of Turkey's Kurdish population who's flown in with her equally striking friends to support the anti-government occupation.

      The day before Gezi Park was evicted, we were all crouched under a tarpaulin, smoking cigarettes. "We're here to support this revolution, despite 30 years of problems, pressures, and no recognition for the Kurds," Angel told me. "We're here in solidarity with the Turks in Istanbul. Now they [predominantly young, middle class, first-time protesters] know what Kurds have been experiencing all these years."

      And the Kurds present at the occupation have been sharing their hard-earned knowledge of how to face riot police with the first-time protesters. According to Sarphan Uzunoğlu—a teaching assistant in Kadir Has University, who's involved with the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party—the sharing of those defense techniques has enforced a newfound unity through "common struggle."

      Both Sarphan and Angel told me that it's the Kurds who "know how to build the barricades" to protect protesters from police. "We know how to fight the TOMA [the government's armoured water cannons]," she said. "We've been doing it since childhood." Oiling the roads is one tactic, but barricade-building was the main focus among protesters. At strategic points around Taksim Park over the weekend—and during other clashes over the past few weeks—the streets were packed with lines of protesters ripping up cobbled pavements and dumping them, by hand, onto piles of garbage, fences, billboards and whatever else they had to hand.

      Of course, ripping up the pavements to build barricades isn't exactly legal, and the police would argue that it justified their intervention in the eviction of Gezi Park (the extent of police brutality, however, seems impossible to justify). Angel told me that, while most young, middle-class kids from Istanbul spent their youth enjoying the fruits of economic growth under Erdogan, "We've [the Kurdish community] come to know the government's tools," meaning water cannons, pepper spray, tear gas, and sound bombs. "Tear gas doesn't affect us," she told me, laughing.


      Kurdish activists sing and dance in the Kurdish camp in Gezi Park.

      It's not only during the clashes that bridges have been built. It's also through living cheek by jowl in Istanbul's Gezi Park. Çansu, a young commercial lawyer and first-time protester, says that, "they [the Kurds] really knew what they were doing. We [the large number of young professionals] had no idea. We'd never even heard of TOMA before Gezi Park." And rubbing shoulders with Kurds has changed her views towards the community as a whole: "I never realized how fascist I was," she admitted. "I was thinking, 'The Kurds are terrorists.' I didn't care about their demands. But after being in Gezi Park, after seeing how the police react over these past few weeks, I realized that I might be wrong and that I needed to adjust my ideas."

      The Kurds' role in the Turkish state is a highly contentious political issue, and although these protests have undoubtedly broken down boundaries for some, there's been no "official" support for the movement from any Kurdish political party. To his credit, Erdogan has successfully pressed ahead with a Turkish-Kurd peace process and no one wants to scupper it. But walking around the occupation or going to the general assemblies that are sprouting up in smaller parks across the city, it's obvious that many Kurds, as individuals, have the same gripes as those out on the streets: they don't like the way they're being governed.

      Happily, there's been few reports of hostility towards the Kurds during the protest. Rather, many talk about non-Kurdish Turks joining the circles of dancers who were singing traditional Kurdish songs at the main entrance to Gezi Park before it was razed. And although the sharing of knowledge was common during the protests, the importance of who exactly was introducing what skills is fading. Far more important now is that, by connecting with Kurds over the past few weeks, people are being forced to question their own government. "I understand their ignorance of the Kurds," Angel told me, referring to Turkey's non-Kurdish population. She says the Turkish government "never told the truth about us, so they never understood us."


      Kurdish women shout slogans during a march to Taksim square.

      Although most media outlets in Turkey either didn't cover the protests (Turkish CNN infamously broadcast a documentary about penguins while the streets were full of CS gas) or echoed the exact sentiments of what Erdogan was saying, it's clearly impossible for those living in the centers of Istanbul, Ankara, and other major cities to ignore the protests. Ozgur Mumcu, a professor of international law at Galatasaray University in Istanbul, said that ordinary Turks are beginning to realise "that the misinformation about these protests might mean that they were also misinformed about the Kurds". If nothing else, these protests are exposing the extent of the Turkish media's self-censorship.  

      So after an exhausting, sleepless weekend of clashes–and after 130,000 tear gas canisters had been fired across the country—things have quietened down in Istanbul. In an act of defiance that people hope won't lead to police intervention, Taksim Square and other small squares in Turkey's major cities are now punctuated with solemn, motionless "standing" protesters. These demonstrations are a symbolic and passive wave that's caught on over the last week.

      And this contemplative mood has also led to various neighborhoods organizing packed-out general assemblies in parks across the city. People are figuring out what's been achieved and what to do next. "And the Kurds are involved in this process," said Sarphan. "It feels like the symbols of the past have fallen away and the symbol of 'resistance,' if you will, is now the major thing in Turkey. We're only a few days in, but the future might hold a new politics—Turks and Kurds together."

      However, it will only hold out if the police don't interfere. "People are furious," Sarphan continued. "If we're terrorized again, it's likely things will flare up. I hope not." Professor Ozgur Mumcu thinks that the main achievement is the birth of a new culture of politics. But he is not quite as youthfully optimistic as Sarphan. He isn't sure this wave of national indignation will last and, if it fizzles out, the catalyst for change between the Kurdish community and the rest of Turkey will be lost. "It will probably fade out in a week or so," he says, "just as Occupy Wall Street did, or May 1968 in France."

      But Angel, getting up from the tarpaulin to greet some friends who'd just arrived from her hometown, seemed pretty hopeful about the future of relations between the Kurdish population she comes from and the rest of her country. "We all now properly recognize each other. And this is good; this is really good."

      Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @jonwiltshire

      More stories from the uprising in Turkey:

      Istanbul Police Tear-Gassed a Memorial March This Weekend

      Talking to Besiktas' Bulldozer Joyriding Fans About Their Role In the Turkish Uprising

      The Battle for the Heart of Istanbul Is Raging On

      Watch - Istanbul Rising

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      Topics: Istanbul, Turkey, kurds, Kurdistan, Kurdish, Gezi park, Taksim Square, tear gas, water cannon

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