In the first few days of the protests, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to the protestors as “capulcu”s (pronounced cha-pool-joo) or looters. He had used the term before about other dissenters, but his reference to the protestors as capulcus brought about various creative subversions of the term. The protestors started to refer to themselves as capulcus and even used English-adaptations of the term, such as chapuller and chappulling. Since I arrived in Istanbul last Friday, I have met quite a few chapullers of various ages, genders, ethnicities and religions, as well as citizens who support the current Turkish government and think the protests were unnecessary and harmful to the country. Although I will discuss some of my meetings and interviews in further detail in later posts, here I want to highlight vulnerability - the feeling every person with whom I have spoken in Istanbul expressed regardless of their political views and long-term political objectives.
So far, I have had in depth conversations with approximately 30 people who joined the protests in various neighborhoods around Istanbul from various backgrounds- from young people in their early 20’s to a grandparent in her late 60’s, including a parliamentarian, publishers, doctors, homeless people and professors. I have also met people who did not join the protests but strongly support them. For instance, I met a taxi driver whose son was on the front lines during the protests, and a couple in their 60’s who opened their apartment building’s doors to protestors escaping the police. From the youngest to the oldest, they all expressed that prior to the protests, they felt vulnerable in Turkey, where Prime Minister Erdogan’s Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) (or Justice and Development Party) has governed the country for the last ten years, and has continued to pass laws that my interviewees find contrary to democratic governance. In the past, Erdogan has made numerous absurd comments about gender and sexuality (this news story reports Erdogan encouraging women to have at least 5 babies, 2 more than his usual call for at least 3). However, there have been other regulations and restrictions that have caused great controversy. A law limiting alcohol sales from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. met harsh criticism from citizens. For many citizens, certainly many protestors, this law is only one of many upcoming restrictions on individual liberties. Even before the protests began, many felt a sense of helplessness about the changes in the landscape of individual liberties in Turkey. Since the start of excessive police brutality during the Gezi protests, this vulnerability is even more pronounced with the recognition that the police can cause great harm with impunity.
Vulnerability to state oppression might be familiar to some in every country under any type of government and under any rule. For instance, racial minorities in the United States are well familiar with this kind of vulnerability (see this for a discussion of how race may be a determinant of premature death in the United States). Covert patterns of subjugation (such as covert and entrenched racism impacting death rates) are well known by those who live with the effects daily, but ruptures in status quo are necessary to awaken the masses. I think Gezi protests have constituted this rupture for many minds in Turkey.
In later posts, I will discuss earlier periods where the Turkish military did not hesitate to intervene in Turkish politics, during which times, those of us in older Turkish generations witnessed much police and military brutality. Prior to the Gezi protests, many among younger generations and those who live outside of Kurdish areas in Eastern Turkey did not really think that their government could hide obvious truths or harm them individually in the name of a law-and-order myth or the security state. The frequency and the intensity of police violence since the beginning of the Gezi protests prove that Noam Chomsky is correct when he argues that increasingly states are obsessed with protecting themselves from their own citizens, and excusing their responses to this fear as maintaining “national security.” A fresh example of this in the U.S. context is Bradley Manning's persecution, prosecution and conviction.
Among other traumatic experiences, having run away from tear gas and police batons, and witnessed their friends beaten, bleeding and wounded as a result of police violence, Gezi protestors now know vulnerability in a very real and physical sense of the word. A businessman in his 40’s was teary-eyed more than once when he told me his recollection of the protests. As he told me that the police did not discriminate between men and women (his phrasing) or young and old, that they deliberately hit people with gas canisters and pressurized water, that he shared camaraderie with every other protestor indiscriminately, he choked up on his tears a few times. He repeated occasionally, “everything has changed, nothing will be the same again. We are awake now.” He also emphasized multiple times that he felt deeply fearful about what the police would do to him. Every protestor with whom I spoke agreed that every time they were on the streets, they feared the police and knew that they could be seriously injured and possibly die. The younger protestors said they did not know they could be so courageous to confront the police even as they felt such fear. Everyone repeatedly shared at least one version of “let me tell you how much gas I swallowed.” Two psychology professors told me that they were writing chapters in edited volumes about the lasting effects of trauma from the protests.
Yet despite these admitted feelings of fear and vulnerability, masses were on the streets almost continuously for weeks. The police did not become kinder or gentler with time, rather police brutality intensified (for instance, see here). The protestors are still on the streets, albeit periodically and in smaller numbers. Earlier tonight, the police once again used tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons against a peaceful gathering in Taksim Square. The gathering was to show support for Berkin Elvan, a 14 year-old boy who was hit by a gas canister in mid-June and has been in a coma since. Berkin’s parents announced earlier this week that they would read a press announcement about their son and that the gathering would start at 7 p.m. I arrived at Taksim Square a little after 7 p.m. The police had already cordoned off the entry to the main street, Istiklal, with many people (who may or may not be protestors) trapped in the street. Even on a calm day, I have occasionally spotted water cannons on the small side streets off of Istiklal, and the large police busses with additional attack equipment are ever-present at both ends of this main street. As I stood with the crowd in front of a line of police, we saw water cannons move towards the inner areas of Istiklal, and after a while we knew that the police was using tear gas and pressurized water nearby. I started to walk closer to Gezi Park minutes before the police sprayed the crowd with water. I recorded the below video right before I left the crowd:
This is the entrance of Istiklal, the main street of Taksim Square, with many shops and restaurants. Some of the chants in the video are “shoulder to shoulder against fascism,” “everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance.” You can see the police barricade (which is a relatively small one) and the white vehicles behind the police are the water cannons moving towards the inner parts of Istiklal Street.
Berkin’s parents did not get a chance to read their press statement. Police continued to attack people and ended the evening with at least one arrest (CNN news story is here). As I made my way back, I stopped at one of the tables set up at the other end of Taksim Square. During the month of Ramadan, the municipality offers free iftar dinners where the public can communally break their fast. Because the municipality’s dinner tables were at the other end of Taksim Square, police kept away from that area. I sat down at the first empty seat I saw and found myself chatting with a group of homeless gay men. Even in the security of the iftar table, I listened to stories of vulnerability from my tablemates. They asked that I not use their names or pictures. As I stood up to offer my seat to a homeless child, an English-speaking man (British, judging by his accent) approached me and said in visible fear “I am so scared something really bad is about to happen.” I noticed that the last squadron of police was marching right behind us towards Istiklal, where they would presumably join other police to continue their attack on the demonstrators.
Compared to some of the horrifying ongoing developments elsewhere in the region (from Syria to Egypt) perhaps the ongoing casulties of the Turkish protests are not the most significant. Yet, as a Turkish proverb says: ateş düştüğü yeri yakar or fire burns where it falls, meaning tragedy is felt most potently where it occurs. Wishing for a tomorrow with less fire no matter where you are.