Quite by accident, I found myself in Istanbul just as the protest movement blossomed in Gezi Park and elsewhere around the country. I’ve had the chance to document many of those experiences here, supplemented with photos and interviews.
In a case of bad timing, it turns out I returned to Canada just before a renewed police crackdown began. I’m quite irate at my timing: not because it’s romantic to get tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets (it’s not), but because the world needs to hear about the remarkable and courageous struggle being waged by the peoples of Turkey for democracy and human rights.
International media has been doing a hit and miss job, and Turkish media has been doing a downright poor job (even they admit it; one of the prices to be paid by lack of human rights and the just rule of law is a greater fear and hesitation on the part of journalists to tell the truth, and thus potentially challenge forces that have more power than they should in a democracy. Indeed, some of the Turkish broadcasters that did cover the protests are now being charged and fined by the government for “encouraging violence”.).
Spending the past couple of weeks in Turkey has left me with no shortage of valuable memories. Some of those are documented in photos and previously-run stories, but the power of some experiences transcends the ability of digital cameras and structured articles to convey. Here are just a few, that reflect the significance and importance of what is going on in Turkey.
I attend a union meeting in a town outside of Istanbul. The organizers have gathered, following days of protest in this town, to decide what they, as a union, can contribute to the ongoing protests. The discussion flows over varied ground. Members stand, are acknowledged, move to the front of the room to face all the others before addressing them. They speak with passion, commitment filling their words, hands open to the crowd, gestures of solidarity and togetherness. I don’t understand the language, but I make out the scattered word or phrase. Gezi Park. Facebook. No matter what language or which country, ‘fascism’ always has a familiar ring.
Members stand, are acknowledged, move to the front of the room to face all the others before addressing them. They speak with passion, commitment filling their words, hands open to the crowd, gestures of solidarity and togetherness.
In North American unions, the union speeches are short, pithy, and try to be witty. Sometimes they’re electronically timed and limited to three minutes. In Turkey, they seem endless: people say what needs to be said, and others listen in silence. Nobody so much as fidgets or leaves the room while somebody is speaking. The speeches last for several minutes, full of slow enunciations and clear denunciations, declamations delivered with stoic spirit and all the weight of the world dripping from each mighty syllable.
Delegates rise to stand before the others, pull their great Ottoman moustaches: stoic, stout, their radicalism carved into craggy wind-burnt, sun-etched faces.
In North America, I’d probably find myself growing impatient with long speeches. But here, each and every one of these people risks being thrown in prison simply for attending a meeting like this. Many trade unionists have been. If their words carry weight, it is because the consequences of saying them do too. And in many ways, this right here is what they are fighting for: the right to meet, to speak, and debate their future together and in freedom.
Heading toward Taksim Square a mere day before the violent police attacks began, it’s impossible to even enter the subway station: it’s packed shoulder to shoulder, hundreds trying to work their way in. Slowly, we form vague lines and shuffle forward. Somehow, I buy a ticket from the vendor. Transit staff members are taking the chaos in stride; with each round of cheers or chants they look up, smile, and adjust their caps. It’s slow, crowded and chaotic, but it’s impossible not to feel a sort of buoyant, upbeat joy. This is humanity at its deepest: taking charge of its own destiny, proud and empowered and slightly astonished at its own capacity and accomplishments.
I make it past the turnstile, worried that the split-second it takes to scan my card will lead to my being trampled by the hundreds behind me. It doesn’t. The crowd is possessed by an alertness stemming from an implicit awareness of its own potential. The young girls ahead of me drop some coins and a space a few feet wide miraculously opens up for them to pick them up. The people look after their own.
We stand in wait for the subway — the platform is packed, lines dozens thick behind each gateway. In the far corner, a busker strums a guitar. He starts plucking away at a traditional folk-tune and hundreds start singing and clapping in tune. It morphs into a hybrid version of Partisan, the famous Spanish civil war song. The crowd cheers even more loudly, claps even more boisterously, hums in tune.
Then the subway car arrives, pulling around the corner slowly, inching its way toward the platform, conductor staring warily at the dozens of people teetering on the edge.
At the appearance of the subway car, a great cheer goes up, hundreds cheering the poor conductor on as he pulls his two-car train into the station.
The doors on the opposite side open. Those returning from the protest begin disembarking, flags wrapped around their shoulders and banners hanging from their necks. One of those disembarking begins blowing a whistle. Instantly, those waiting on the other side start clapping in tune. The two groups – those disembarking, and those waiting to board the train, line up and start chanting at each other from across the subway tracks, fists pumping in the air, flags waving, and then it all erupts into a transcendental wave of cheers. The doors slide open on our side and we pour aboard.
Once the train is as packed as it can be, the conductor somehow manages to get the doors shut. We take off. Squished in ahead of me is a couple with a young pre-schooler in the mother’s arms. The two parents start teaching the child a chant: “Tayyip, istifa! Prime Minister, resign!” The child repeats it dutifully. Those around us smile. The child repeats it, louder, more confident. By the time our train reaches its destination, the child is leading the entire train in a chant, eyes aglow — first the child’s single shrill voice, then a hundred other deep voices at all registers, repeating the chant, to the child’s utter delight. The doors to the car open and sunlight gleams through outside. Flags hoist, whistles blow, and out we march, child leading the way.
As I eat my dinner and take advantage of the restaurant’s free wi-fi to transmit stories and photos back to Canada, the waiter stops me. “You’re always writing. You must work for a newspaper. Which one? England? America?”
“You are writing about Taksim Square? You write this then: ‘We don’t want our prime minister. We don’t want him. We don’t want a bully. We don’t want a dictator. We want our trees.’
“You think Taksim Square can be stopped? No. It can’t be. You can’t stop democracy.” – Server in an Istanbul restaurant
“He is a dictator, like Franco, like Mussolini. We need democracy. He says if we drink alcohol, we are drunks. Why is he watching our lives so closely? Don’t tell me what to do. This is not Iran. If you want to go to a mosque, I don’t care, go to a mosque. But let me drink my beer. Let me be at home with my family in the way that I want.
“You write this. You write this to the world.”
“Do you think the protests will change things?” I ask.
“He will not change. What we need is a regime change. What we need is democracy. This – this tear gas, this police, this bully attitude – this is not democracy. We need democracy. Our people will have it. You think Taksim Square can be stopped? No. It can’t be. You can’t stop democracy.”
Right now Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is trying very hard to stop it. It can be frustrating to watch struggles like this play out from afar, but it shouldn’t be, because if today’s modern technology has accomplished anything it has made it possible for all of us to take responsibility for each other and for the collective destiny of our world and all its peoples. There are things that can and should be done, no matter where one is located.
First, spread awareness. The spotty job of local and international media makes it all the more important to spread the word about what is happening, about the use of police violence, about the staged use of police provocateurs to make it seem like there is violence on both sides, about the courageous resistance and the remarkable example of democracy that the peoples of Turkey have struggled to create in Gezi Park and elsewhere throughout their country.
Second, pressure the Turkish government. This involves signing petitions and letters to the Turkish government to let them know the world is watching, and is outraged. Just as – perhaps more – important is lobbying your own government to take action. Write to your MP or MHA/MPP and demand they speak out, and that our local, provincial and federal governments speak out, and pressure the Turkish government to respect human rights and democracy. If you’re involved with a political party, make sure that party is responding actively to what is happening. Prime Minister Erdoğan is a vain man who is quite obsessed with his reputation. The scorn and disapproval of the international community hurts him. Let’s heap it on.
And finally, think about other creative ways of support. Make sure your university doesn’t give any accolades to Erdoğan or other members of the Turkish government. Find ways for them to celebrate the accomplishments of the protestors. Solidarity rallies outside Turkish embassies and consulates. Pressure the Olympic committee to speak out against human rights abuse in Turkey (Istanbul is in the running for an Olympic bid in 2020).
We can’t all do all of these things, of course. But every little bit helps. Even just spreading awareness.
“If you tell the truth, the government treats you like the biggest kind of criminal,” said one union leader I spoke with in Turkey.
“But now everything has changed. This is the biggest lesson here. Everything can be changed. This is the hope that moves us all forward.”