Back in May and June this year, protesters occupied Gezi Park, a public park near the centrally-located Taksim Square. The tens of thousands of students, parents, teyzes, professionals, politicians, foreigners, radicals were standing up against unfettered destructive urban development, decay of civil liberties, corruption, lack of outlets for meaningful political expression, a narrowing in acceptable cultural expression. The subsequent government backlash and crackdown–via tear gas, tanks, civilian intimidation, arrests, media censorship, anti-terror laws–has silenced the protests for the most part. The municipal police, incredibly enough, became smarter, using intelligence-gathering strategies to preempt any attempted gatherings and also intimidating potential nonviolent demonstrators through legislation, fines, trials, beatings.
Yet, interestingly, the protest has not disappeared, in my estimation. It has become intertwined with daily life. Take my past two days as an example.
Yesterday was Cümhüriyet Bayramı, or Republic Day, which this year happened to be the 90th anniversary of the day that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk officially proclaimed the Turkish Republic. It was a national holiday, so I slept in and did not leave home until 16.00 to take a walk down İstiklal street and sit at a cafe in Şişhane. On the way there I was stopped in my path by a TOMA (armored water cannon vehicle) and a fired-up crowd of flag-toting would-be protesters. They started chanting–“Direne, direne, kazanacağız. Mustafa Kemal’in askerlerimiz”–“Resist, resist, we will win. We are Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers.” I had, in fact, in a general sense heard about this activity going on in my neighborhood. One of my friends warned me that some protesters had been taken into custody earlier in the day. Another friend of mine, a university student and normally a passionate chapuller, had also told me about the Republic Day protests in advance–but he said he wouldn’t be attending because only nationalists would be there. He, as a leftist, did not approve of the Kemalists’ rhetoric.
Distracted and deterred in my walk by the commotion, I returned back home. In the evening, a couple hours after dark, I ventured out again for a quick run to Beşiktaş. I jogged through Kabataş, past Dolmabahçe Palace, and arrived to the main square in time to take in the spectacular Republic Day fireworks show on the banks of the Bosphorus. I was particularly impressed by the dozens of red sparklers in the shape of crescent moons and stars. Judging by the cheering and clapping, everyone else was too.
After a rousing finale the fireworks came to an end, but back in Beşiktaş square there was already a large crowd waiting for Turkish rock/pop star Teoman to get on stage and perform. At one point the crowd, waving flags and clutching torches, started chanting: “Her yer Taksim, her yer direniş.” “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance” was the number one chant of the Gezi protests. Then Teoman got on stage and the chants turned into cheers.
The next morning I told a colleague at school about watching the fireworks. She commented, “I was surprised that they did such nice fireworks on Republic Day.” When I asked why this would be a surprise, she said, “Usually the government doesn’t want to do anything for Republic Day.” She was referring to the ruling party’s seeming campaign against, or at least principled indifference toward, secularism and Kemalism. At the end of the day, all the teachers headed to an all-school meeting. Halfway through the meeting, the lecture hall erupted in laughter: the presenters had showed a slide depicting the media consumption habits of teachers, parents, and prospective parents of the school, but then added the caveat that these results were gathered prior to the Gezi protests. (So, of course, the percentage of people reporting viewing of Haberturk, which infamously showed a penguin documentary instead of live coverage of Gezi protests, would have declined since then.) After a grueling hour-and-a-half and 90 slides later, we were able to leave the meeting and go home. In an alley across the street from the school, I passed by the name Ali Ismail Korkmaz spray-painted on a wall. Ali Ismail, of course, was the young man who perished of injuries sustained at Gezi-inspired protests in Eskişehir (he was also a student at the prep school where I was teaching during the time of the protests). I took the metro, got off at the Taksim station, and fortunately , I did not have to walk pass flanks of armored and armed riot police–though if I had, it would not have been an unusual sight at this point.
Turkish society has always been polarized, and it’s interesting to see how Gezi has, for the moment, become permanently woven into that fabric of polarization. Or maybe it’s just my optimism that makes it seem so. I want to believe that, even if the protests did not achieve their promise of broad social or political change, the urge to gather and resist still remains. I was in those protests too, and I want to believe that there is still an underlying urgency for change and a language to express the desire for change, that there are embers of resistance burning underneath the benign complacency of day to day life. Maybe, when the situation becomes truly desperate, those embers can ignite again into a roaring fire.
Photos of police in Taksim and TOMA on Istiklal by: me. Photo of fireworks by: AY.