Turkey's Fight for Freedom Has Caused an Authoritarian Crackdown

Imge was part of the occupation in Taksim Square when the police moved in to clear the protesters on June 11. She found herself trapped in a building while the police fired tear gas through the windows. As she passed out due to lack of oxygen, she...

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Nov 7 2013, 12:00pm

Protesters gather in Istanbul after the death of Ahmet Atakan in September.

Özde looks like Audrey Hepburn. She has wide-set hazel eyes that are fringed with flicked-up long lashes and a button nose sprinkled with freckles that a dozen teenage boys must have gone crazy over already. She pulls her woolly cable-knit cardigan down snugly over her thumbs and breaks up a toothpick into smaller and smaller pieces: halves, quarters, eighths, sixteenths, until it’s impossible to break it any smaller. She displays all the unintended habits of the awkward teenager that she is, yet she speaks with the conviction of an old timer. I find myself wondering what the Turkish policemen made of her when she started throwing rocks at them in Taksim Square.

Ali is 22, but he looks older. That’s not unusual—Turkish men almost always age fast. Maybe it’s something to do with this country’s strange fashion for facial hair. Maybe this year Ali has just aged a little bit faster.

Imge is 18. She draws circles instead of dots above the "I" in her name. "We are the 90s generation," she says. There’s a subtext to what she's saying—hers is the generation that isn’t meant to care about politics. Their parents passed down apathy as a defense mechanism. They saw how the Turkish army overthrew the government in a coup every decade from the 60s to the 80s, and they knew about the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, all of them locked up without trial. They learned that the safest thing to do was not to speak about any of it, and then they taught their children not to speak about it either. But something didn’t go to plan. Somewhere along the way, the 90s generation rebelled and started to speak.

"Gezi Park happened at the utmost moment when people felt helpless," says Ali. "It wasn’t just a resistance, but a revolt."

"It was the first time in modern Turkey that people crossed the government’s boundaries," adds Imge. "We walked across the Bosphorus Bridge [usually reserved for vehicles only]. We occupied Taksim. This was Turkey’s first popular uprising."

They crossed the government’s boundaries, but they were punished for it. Imge was part of the occupation in Taksim Square when the police moved in to clear the protesters on June 11. She found herself trapped in a building while the police fired tear gas through the windows. As she passed out due to lack of oxygen, she heard them firing rubber bullets in too. As she came round, she was dragged across the floor and into custody. Handcuffs; police van; prison cell. One meal a day, served in the morning. One drink of water, served at night. Two days later she was taken to court and freed. Four of her friends were not.

"I still don’t know why they have been detained," she says. "They are both in solitary confinement."

Imge and Ali.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan learned some lessons in Gezi Park. He learned that Igme, Ali, and Özde—and all the thousands of young people like them—are refusing to follow the examples of their parents. He learned that he has a new, confusing type of opposition to deal with: nebulous, non-hierarchical and impossible to pigeonhole. Although it was the 90s generation that formed the core of the protests, they were joined by people from every corner of Turkish society: grandmothers, professionals, gays and lesbians and Kurds. His claim that the protesters were terrorists was never credible. Violence and imprisonment were his only resorts.

Imge’s detention wasn’t legal. She was never charged—just held and beaten and then freed. But there's a saying in Turkey: "If a minaret is stolen, you can make up an excuse for it afterwards." And that is what Erdogan is doing. One month ago, he introduced new laws allowing the police to detain people they believe are "at risk of causing a protest" for up to 48 hours without charges or access to a lawyer.

"The police did illegal things in Gezi Park, but this law has legalized them," say Ali. "You find backwardness like this throughout Turkish history. The state does things and then makes up an excuse to legalize them."

"It wasn’t my first time in custody," Imge cuts in. This petite 18-year-old, a music student and member of the Youth Union, has been imprisoned three times. She tells me it’s common. "Turkey is like an outdoors prison," she says.

Özde, Ali and, Imge all want me to use their real names. I check and check again, and they want me to use them; they’re adamant. The 90s generation are brave and foolhardy. They’re braver than me. I don’t want to use my real name; not when I’m writing about Turkey.

Maybe it’s because I know too much. I hear about the journalists who have been fired from their jobs, arrested and deported since Gezi Park and I don’t want to be the next one to join them. When I meet the three of them in an Istanbul teahouse I’m still reeling from my conversation with X, a foreign resident who is living out a Kafkaesque nightmare.

"One week ago, I was stopped by police at the border as I came back into Turkey," he told me. "I was taken into a back room and they kept checking my documents for so long that I thought I was going to miss my connecting flight. I kept telling them, and eventually they gave me my documents back and I ran for the plane."

It wasn’t until later that he checked his passport. The police had cancelled his residency permit and stamped his passport without giving him a tourist visa. Officially, he’s in the country illegally and could be deported at any time. If he tries to leave, he’ll be detained for being here without a visa. If he’s allowed to leave, he’s unlikely to be allowed to return to the country that’s been his home for the past four years. "I’m living each day as if it’s my last in the country," he said.

Riot police in action on Republic Day in October.

X has had no official explanation as to why his residency was cancelled, but he's sure it’s related to his involvement in the protests. He was one of the few people who live tweeted the events in English, albeit under a pseudonym. His Twitter handle was included in an article about CIA agents in the protest movement, published in one of the mouthpiece newspapers of the AKP (Justice and Development Party), the ruling party. On one occasion, he was stopped during a demonstration by a plain clothes policeman who checked his identity documents. He believes that, somehow, the Twitter account has been linked back to him, and this is his punishment for it.

While Özde, Ali, and Imge believe that the Gezi Park movement was a turning point—the beginning of a new wave of political awareness and participation in Turkey—X and others are more skeptical.

"Gezi itself was a victory," says Mahir Ilgaz, an activist with the environmental pressure group 360.org, who joined in the protests. "The park is still there and it’s got a new vibe about it. But many of the protesters are asking themselves what it will accomplish in the long term. After Gezi Park, police violence is now a given at demonstrations, and I think that the government is going to be much more hardline towards environmental activism in Turkey."

Mahir describes the new projects planned for the city—the third bridge over the Bosphorus, the third airport and Erdogan’s self-confessed "crazy project," the canal linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which will turn the European side of Istanbul into an island. Each one of these projects will wreak environmental destruction on a scale that eclipses the redevelopment of Gezi. However, none of them have attracted anywhere near the same level of anger and resistance. Maybe in time they will, but the words of one Gezi Park veteran suggest that Erdogan’s new approach may be working. "It’s become clear that the police can act with impunity," he said. "I wouldn’t be the one to start a protest in the future."

More on Turkey's summer uprising:

Furious Turks Are Back on the Warpath

Istanbul's Taksim Square Has Become a Warzone

Istanbul Rising

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