Men wearing surgical masks and safety helmets, chasing the police and waving Turkish flags from the top of a bulldozer they've just hotwired. That has to be one of the most enduring, and certainly most entertaining, images from what's been a grim couple of weeks of social unrest in Turkey.
The group staging this avant-garde protest performance were Çarşı, hardcore fans of Istanbul's Beşiktaş football club (or "the people's club"). For the most part, the members of Çarşı share an anarchist, anti-racist ideology, as well as a love for what is generally considered to be Turkey's third most prominent football club after Istanbul rivals Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe. On the night of the 2nd of June – the third day of an out-and-out war between police and protesters – Çarşı members hotwired a bulldozer that had been left at the construction site outside Beşiktaş' Inönü Stadium and used it to push the police’s water cannon trucks away from their home turf.
“Tell everyone that we are also against the demolition of our stadium – that’s another reason why that 'dozer was snatched that night,” Ayhan Güner, Cem Yakışkan and Kemal Ulhal, the senior members of Çarşı, tell me when I ask them why the Beşiktaş supporters decided to borrow the 'dozer that night. “The owner of the 'dozer turned out to be our friend, you know? He came up to us and said, ‘Brother, I see you took my bulldozer.’”
Çarşı ride their borrowed bulldozer through the streets of Istanbul
Last Wednesday, on Miraç Kandili – one of the five Islamic holy nights – the Çarşı members organised an event in Beşiktaş' central market (and their namesake and base), Çarşı. There, they handed out Kandil bagels (a special kind of miniature bagel made for holy Kandil nights) and publicly declared that they're against violence, holding a placard above an illustration of a peace-symbol-shaped holy bagel that read, “May Allah accept our resistance.” It was a tactful move amidst the government’s accusations that all protesters are “marginals, looters, extremists,” – or, in the lexicon of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his supporters, “godless”.
While they were still refusing to talk to Turkish media, wanting to remain reclusive, I managed to speak to the Çarşı members on Skype the day after their event. I waited on my end of the web-cam while the appropriate seating arrangements were made: Ayhan, Cem and Kemal sat in the middle, surrounded by their less senior “equals” (so they wouldn’t feel left out) – an all-inclusive seating arrangement they clearly felt was imperative in order to maintain Çarşı customs.
Çarşı members handing out Kandil peace bagels
I soon discovered that Çarşı members were well prepared for the unprecedented social uprisings. They’re already well acquainted with tear gas and a number of the police’s other oppression techniques. “We’re experienced with tear gas, you know?" they told me. "That’s why we were able to be in the front lines with our banners. We eat tear gas at least two times a week. We get tear gassed in away games, in handball games, in basketball games...”
The last clash between supporters and police was just a few weeks ago, before the last game of the season, when police tear gassed the area surrounding Çarşi. To distance rival fans and prevent chaos around the turnstiles before games, Turkish police have taken to liberally aiming tear gas canisters in the general direction of anyone wearing a team shirt as if they were trying to kill a swarm of wasps with a can of Raid. “Pepper spray is a Beşiktaş fan’s perfume,” the Çarşı members tell me, grinning proudly.
The mischief involved in the bulldozer incident isn't particularly out of character for Çarşı, or, in fact, the rest of Beşiktaş' fans in general. Playful, witty slurs against other teams are often brandished on graffitied banners from the stands of Inönü Stadium. On one occasion before a game between Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe, a few undercover Beşiktaş fans approached Fenerbahçe fans outside the stadium. They told them that they'd made a banner for Ariel Ortega – Fenerbahçe's star player at the time – but that they couldn’t find tickets to get into the game. So they asked the Fener fans if they could hold it up for them during the match instead, and they agreed.
Minutes before kick-off, the banner was held up in the Fenerbahçe stands, until the fans realised they were brandishing a sign that read, “Cobarde Gallina Ortega,” meaning, “Coward chicken Ortega.” The banner had political connotations, criticising Ariel Ortega’s admission that he would fly back to his home country of Argentina if a war erupted in Turkey's neighbouring countries – a fear he vocalised in February of 2003, just before allied troops invaded Iraq.
Another one of their banners, just after Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, read, “He who lived half of his life black and the other half white, great Beşiktaşlı Michael Jackson, may your soul rest in peace.” That one, in case you're not au fait with the strips of Turkish football clubs, was comparing Jackson’s two different race phases with Beşiktaş’ own black and white kit.
But beneath Çarşı's sense of humour lies a deeply romantic attachment to their beloved team, which is often expressed in poetry. One of their anthems – “We’ll see beautiful days, kids; we’ll see sunny days” – is a quote from the poet Nazım Hikmet, who spent most of his life either in prison or in exile for his political beliefs. And, they tell me, their love for Beşiktaş is based on the idea that “to love is more elegant than to be loved”.
Founded in 1982 by “Optik Başkan” (a pseudonym for Mehmet Işıklar) and Cem Yakışkan in Beşiktaş’s town centre, Çarşı originates from a traditionally working-class, leftist and social-minded group. The members I spoke to talked of Optik Başkan – AKA “The Last Hooligan”, who passed away in 2007 – with the utmost love and reverence. Başkan was a leftist who became a history teacher in Ankara after university, before eventually leaving his post because he couldn’t stand being so far away from his beloved Beşiktaş.
In the late 70s, when Inönü Stadium was the collective home ground for Beşiktaş, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe (the two latter teams were having their stadiums renovated), Optik Başkan was part of the core Beşiktaşlı group who would spend the nights around Inönü in a bid to protect the best seats – a period of overly violent musical chairs that was dubbed the "Inönü War". After the military coup in 1980, the violence intensified until the three teams decided to reach an entente. “We made a truce with the major teams in 1995," the Çarşı told me. "We haven’t had any problems since then – it’s the media that makes it look like there’s still trouble. We’ve swapped violence for humour now.”
And while on match days there's still a certain amount of belligerence in the air, people have definitely begun to associate the group with a certain level of tenderness. It's a sense of safety that manifests itself in jokes like, "Oh, there's something wrong in the neighbourhood? I won't call the police, I’ll call Çarşı.”
That attitude stems from the insecurities you often encounter in people who live in dysfunctional democracies, where the rules of law don't always apply. In such cases, leadership is often sought elsewhere – and intense, protective masculinity, as is apparent in the Çarşı, can be an attractive asset. Ironically, there's a similar logic behind Erdogan being hailed as a charismatic leader by the Muslims he's taken care of – the same citizens who were oppressed by the secularist elite in the past. But Çarşı is too self-conscious to get carried away with its citizen-appointed power, as well as the fact that their socialist-leaning beliefs would prevent them from ever acting out.
Over Skype, they told me, “For years we had an attitude: 'Çarşı is against everything.' Then we decided that Çarşı is also against itself, because we wanted to show – and prove to ourselves – that we have a strong inner democracy. We are against ourselves, too.” It's that self-effacing attitude that led to the group’s temporary dismantlement in 2008, when they felt that their growing popularity and the interest around their clashes in Çarşı were overshadowing the football club they love.
They claim to not to subscribe to a particular political agenda, but Çarşı is undoubtedly politically-conscious. “We don’t have a political stance, we’re not affiliated with any political parties; our stance is being Beşiktaşlı," they told me. "What does it mean to be Beşiktaşlı? We protect the oppressed, the ones who need their voices heard. We support the youth, we endeavour to shift to a more modern democracy, to a stronger democracy.”
A New Yorker article in 2011 cited a headline that called the Beşiktaş stands, “the only place where the Armenian problem has been solved” – a statement referring to the stereotype that "Armenians in Turkey [two countries who don't exactly have the best history] support Beşiktaş.” I asked the members about Çarşı’s pluralist image and the fact that one of their most prominent members, Alen Markaryan, is of Armenian descent. “That is a message," they responded. "Our inner dynamics are very strong. We are the people’s team; our leftists are populists, our nationalists are populists, our Islamists are populists – you can’t find extremists in Çarşı. Our members support and protect the people and Çarşı is an umbrella under which everyone is included.”
But what does their involvement in the resistance tell us? First and foremost, this is not the first time Çarşı have voiced their opinion about an act of "urban renewal", as the plans for Gezi Park have been labelled. In 2007, they protested against the demolition of another Istanbul landmark: the Muhsin Ertugrul Theatre. Then, during the 2005/2006 football season, they collaborated with Greenpeace to oppose the installation of a nuclear power station in Sinop (a Turkish city near the black sea), taking part in demos and staging shows at Inönü Stadium. So their presence in the protests didn’t come as a surprise to many.
Their involvement at the crucial initial stage – and the involvement of fans of other football clubs, and from varying socio-economic groups – also confirmed that this movement strived to be the people’s movement, a more innately secular resistance asking for freedom and basic rights, free from greater political outlook. Which separates it from, say, the nationalist-secularist alliances of the past.
The group's involvement has contributed to this urban movement’s status as being a civic and democratic one, aiming to unite people from disparate backgrounds whose common interest was to protect a shared public and cultural space. (It’s worth noting that their involvement didn't begin when the police made their way down to Beşiktaş. On the first day of the protests, a handful of Beşiktaş fans walked to Taksim to save the trees in Gezi Park.)
This movement feels like a grass-roots phenomenon, impossible to reduce and confine to political bodies, making it difficult for politicians and political parties to control and make sense of. And Çarşı's unique voice in the movement is considered imperative by some. Which perhaps explains why Cem Yakışkan and another 23 of the Çarşı members who look up to him were taken into custody yesterday morning.
They were detained by police on the grounds that they were "organising a mob" and "committing crimes with the aim of looting". The group immediately organised a peaceful sit-in, told their members to use their common sense and refused to confront the police – a continuation of the non-violent, reconciliatory attitude that they've maintained since day one. “As long as we have a strong sense of humour, we won’t cease to exist, we will prevail," the members had told me before we hung up. "This is the people’s movement; we want to have our say, we want to show how to fight without violence, how to fight back with humour.”
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