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The Gezi Park Protests' First Birthday Party Was a Gas

Istanbul was a mess of tear gas and Molotov cocktails on the first anniversary of the protests.

by Kenny Laurie
Jun 2 2014, 1:00pm

Anti-government protesters use slingshots in the Okmeydani district of Istanbul. Photos by Barbaros Kayan

This weekend, Turks celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Gezi Park protests with some more protests, and yet again the streets of Istanbul were turned into a battleground between the police and the people. Tear gas, water cannons, batons, and pellets were used on crowds as police moved through the streets of central Istanbul as well as the capital, Ankara, and Adana, in the south of the country. According to Turkish NGO Human Rights Association, at least 83 people were detained and 14 injured in Istanbul alone.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had warned protesters in advance about going to Taksim Square, saying, "If you go there, our security forces are under strict orders, they will do whatever is necessary, from A to Z." Early in the day, at around 2:30 PM, plainclothes policemen detained CNN's Ivan Watson live on air, which wasn't the best PR move ever.

Undercover policemen wandered the streets all day and night, although their ability to disguise themselves was in marked contrast to their ability to quarantine the hub of Europe's biggest city. Most of them carried the same fake Nike/adidas bags that weren't big enough to enclose a three-foot nightstick, the handles of which rather conspicuously poked out of the zipper. 

Despite all the warnings, the 25,000 police officers who had been deployed, and the halting of transport to the city center, by 6:00 PM people were piling up at Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), the entertainment and commercial center of the city and main artery to Taksim Square. The chants, "Thieves, murderers, AKP" and "Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance," echoed throughout the side streets.

Protest groups had planned to start marching at 7:00 PM, with the intention of laying flowers at Gezi Park and reading a statement. At precisely 7:00 PM the police moved on the gathering. From my position at the top of Istiklal Caddesi, I could see water cannons and policemen moving down the street and intimidating citizens before unleashing tear gas canisters as people stampeded away from the square.

Cihangir, an upmarket, fashionable area near Taksim, saw a nonstop barrage of gas. After hours of dispersals, a group of protesters—16 of whom were later believed to have been detained—created a barricade of burning trash cans. I was standing behind the water cannon as it sprayed a group of demonstrators when suddenly the police turned on me and others who had congregated by a cafe. The police rushed us, so we hurried inside hoping to find safety, but the cops were happy to fire tear gas and pellets into the crowded cafe, which happened to be attached to a mosque—just one of a number of similar incidents that played out across the city.

I asked a protester why he was on the streets. "Last year was a spontaneous uprising like Brazil," he said. "This is just the anniversary; it's not like last year. The government has been responsible for many deaths in the last year. People wanted to come out, but in the first five minutes they [police] started attacking us... The government is putting a lot of pressure on us… No one has been brought to justice. It just keeps piling up and piling up."

Over the last year Erdogan has been systematically decreasing checks and balances, increasing executive power, and extending government surveillance, granting government agents judicial immunity. Twitter and YouTube were banned following a corruption scandal, although that was overturned as unconstitutional. Basically, the reasons to hate Erdogan have multiplied while expressing that hatred has been made more difficult.

Erdogan's paranoia has led to a witch hunt for Fethulah Gulen, a former ally and cleric based in America, whom Erdogan believes is running a parallel state in Turkey—infiltrating government institutions and looking to bring the system down from within.

“If reassigning individuals who betray this country is called a witch hunt, then yes, we will carry out a witch hunt,” he stated.

Erdogan also has a habit of claiming protesters are under Gulen's spell, which tends not to go down very well with the protesters. It does go down well with his voters, though.

Erdogan is unlikely to stop antagonizing protesters until it gives his position at the ballot box a knock. This is bad news for those who are not fans of coughing tear gas up from their lungs. Ozer Sencar of MertoPOLL Strategic and Social Research Center claims that the way the AK Party managed the Gezi protests last year—making people believe that they were a foreign-backed coup attempt and dealing with it harshly—won them 8 percent more votes in March's local elections. While one side of the political divide were on the streets battling with riot cops, the AK Party's supporters ran a hashtag of "the anniversary of the betrayal."

For his detractors, time is of the essence. Presidential elections begin in August, and Erdogan is expected to run and win. With no worthwhile opposition in sight and recent elections giving Erdogan more than 45 percent of the vote, the PM will likely ascend to an office where he can further extend his reach.

Despite his ruthless image among some sections of Turkish society and abroad, Erdogan is still a hugely popular man. A self-styled "Black Turk," many love his Islamism and tough leadership. Then there are the genuine, bread-and-butter improvements he has made to the country—Turkey's GDP has trebled in his 12-year tenure, while quality of life has improved (if you don't include things like having a free press or not getting constantly water-cannoned).

A year later, while anger is greater than ever, there is a sense that Turkey's anti-government protesters—many of whom are middle class and from the country's large urban areas—are becoming worn-down by consistent police brutality.

"We are under so much pressure," a protester who wanted to remain anonymous told me. "The people have felt the pressure, and it has made them weak, and that is why there isn't as much [protesting] as last year.”

Follow Kenny on Twitter.

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