Turkey: the movement stands firm against repression - general strike organised

Two days of clashes and street barricades followed the brutal police effort to clear Taksim Square and Gezi park of protesters, ahead of Erdogan's show of strength with mass rallies in Ankara and Istanbul. Five different trade union and professional bodies called a one day protest strike today, June 17.

The brutal police repression against the protesters who had been in the park for eighteen days was preceded by increasingly ominous threats and ultimatums on the part of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. During the week he had gone through the motions of meeting with representatives of the Taksim Solidarity platform, pretending to listen to them, hinting that the whole project of bulldozing Gezi Park to make way for a shopping mall would be put to a referendum, etc. This was just a diversionary tactic, to attempt to divide the protesters and isolate them from supportive public opinion, thus allowing him to brand anyone still protesting as "hard-liners" and "terrorists". He threatened that Taksim square would be cleared within 24h "using the language they understand."

Despite his promises, those taking part in the movement rejected any compromise and decided to continue the protest. On Saturday, their numbers were increased by members of DISK trade union confederation who were commemorating 43 years of the Tulza shipyard workers regional general strike in 1970.

The attack on the Gezi Park camp was brutal, against unarmed demonstrators and with almost no prior warning. The aim was clearly not only to clear the square and park but to do so using overwhelming force and swift action to prevent the protesters from gaining reinforcements. A comrade in Turkey wrote the following lines: "police attacked Gezi Park and a few neighboring streets with tremendous amount of tear gas and pressurized water. People in Taksim say this attack is not comparable to anything that they have seen in the eighteen-day history of resistance. People escaping from the square took refuge in the hotel but police came after them and sprayed the hotel. I sometimes have hard times believing in the stuff I see."

A correspondent from the British newspaper, the ‘Observer’, described the scene in a similar way: "Police had given 15 minutes' notice to clear the park and the adjoining Taksim Square before storming the protest camp. Police warned protesters: "This is an illegal act, this is our last warning to you – evacuate." The speed of the move to seize the square and park caught protesters by surprise. They were quickly scattered by teargas canisters and rubber bullets. Within 20 minutes a bulldozer had moved in to demolish structures and tents that had been used by the anti-government movement. Children and tourists were among those caught up in the assault, amid reports of many injuries."

Hundreds of people were arrested and in the case of Istanbul, held in riot police buses. According to the Lawyers’ Associations, 441 were arrested in Istanbul,  56 in the capital Ankara, with dozens more across the country who had also been participating in protest demonstrations. Hundreds were also injured, contrary to the claims of the authorities, with at least three still in intensive care, including a 14 year old boy hit in the head by a tear gas cannister and who has had to undergo surgery twice and remains in critical condition. Another protestor, Can Tekin, is also in intensive care unit after police hit him the head with a rubber bullet early on Sunday morning. Dilan Dursun (19) has also undergone a brain surgery after she was hit on the head with a tear gas canister during the protests in Ankara. She is also in intensive care. Dozens more were injured by rubber bullets and tear gas cannisters aimed at the heads and bodies of protesters.

The police also entered the Divan hotel in Istanbul, where many had taken refuge and were seeking medical attention. They shot tear gas and arrested people, despite the presence of many tourists and children. Doctors who have staffed first aid hospitals at Gezi Park were threatened by the Prime Minister and many of them were arrested during the brutal assault on the camp on Saturday. Hospitals have also been attacked by the police, firing tear gas and arresting doctors and patients (See video above of this incident at a German hospital). Again, police did not respect journalists covering their actions, with several reporters being arrested and others attacked.

In yet another increase in the level of repression there were widespread reports of the water used by TOMA riot vehicles in their water cannons being laced with chemical products which produced an allergic reaction in contact with the skin. The heavy use of pepper spray and tear gas had already earned the Prime Minister the nickname of Erdogas or Chemical Erdgodan.

For the first time, units of the military have been used in the repression. At this time the units are limited to the Gendarmerie, which is under the control of the Minister of Interior, but Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç has threatened the use of the Army against the demonstrators if necessary. “What is required of us is to stop if there is a protest against the law. Here is the police, if not enough gendarme, if not enough TSK (Turkish Armed Forces). These authorities exist in the laws,” Arınç said today in a televised interview.

According to the Turkish media, about 1,000 riot policemen were brought to Istanbul on June 16 from the southeastern and eastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak, Siirt, Elazığ and the capital city of Ankara. It is clear that the sustained police repression against the movement is taking its toll. There are unconfirmed rumours of 6 police officers having committed suicide and a police officer talking anonymously to the Russian TV channel RT described the enormous pressure they were being put under, having no time to eat, sleeping for one hour at a time on the floor or on a bench. As we saw earlier in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, even the forces of state repression can be affected by a revolutionary movement and crack under pressure. This is why the use of the army has been threatened if the police become overstretched. However, as has become clear in the 10 years of AKP rule, the Army is not fully under the control of the government and any attempt to use it by Erdogan against the mass movement would be very dangerous.

The police intervention against the Taksim protest on Saturday 15 was swift and brutal, but did not achieve its intended aim which was to re-establish “normality” ahead of Erdogan’s rally in Istanbul on Sunday. Tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands came out on the streets of Istanbul, Ankara and dozens of other cities and towns nationwide on Saturday and Sunday to protest against police violence.

The same report from the Observer describes some of the resistance which took place on Saturday night: “In the early hours of the morning groups of demonstrators blocked a main highway to Ataturk airport on the western edge of the city, while to the east, police fired tear gas to block protesters attempting to cross the main bridge crossing the Bosphorus waterway towards Taksim. Thousands more rallied in the working-class Gazi neighbourhood, which saw heavy clashes with police in the 1990s, while protesters also gathered in Ankara around the central Kugulu Park, including opposition MPs who sat in the streets in an effort to prevent the police firing teargas.“

According to Hurryet Daily News: “clashes between police and the protesters also occurred in the Mecidiyeköy and Nişantaşı neighborhoods of the Şişli district, as well as the Galata neighborhood of Beyoğlu. A group of people who tried to build a barricade on Ergenekon Avenue in Şişli, were dispersed with tear gas and water cannons. Another group blocked the highway access road in the Nurtepe neighborhood of the Kağıthane district. Another group of protesters, after being driven by the police from Osmanbey toward Nişantaşı, built a barricade to halt the police. The police then used a large amount of tear gas in the area in order to disperse the protesters, and several of the group took shelter in a mall.”

As an example, this was the scene around midnight at Gazi, with thousands blocking the main motorway


This was the crowd at Harbiye

harbiye-16-06-2013Thousands attempted to march from Kadikoy to Taksim, but were blocked Osmanbey was also the scene of fierce clashes. This video shows the masses attempting to cross the Bosphorus bridge on Saturday night

We are witnessing whole neighbourhoods rising up, coming out in the streets and building barricades to defy the police brutality. This time however, the police were prepared. They managed to keep the different neighbourhoods isolated and prevented them from converging on Taksim Square by closing down the ferries connecting the Anatolian and European sides of Istanbul and also some of the tube lines.

It is not just a question of the people who actually came out on the streets knowing they would have to face tear gas and police water cannons, putting their own lives at risk, but also the support they received from people banging their pots and pans from balconies, shouting at the police and throwing objects at them. In some neighbourhoods the police fired tear gas cannisters at people’s apartments in retaliation. An indication of the widespread mood of opposition in certain areas can be seen in the video which shows the arrest of Labour World journalist Gokhan Bicici , with people throwing all sorts of objects at the police from their balconies.

In Ankara, also on Saturday, tens of thousands (see picture at the top of article) participated in the funeral procession for the 26-year old welder Ethem Sarisuluk (See video to the right), wounded on June 1st at one of the demonstrations who died later in hospital. The autopsy revealed he had been killed by a 9mm bullet lodged in his head. A video of the incident shows a police officer firing at a group of demonstrators Showing no respect for the dead, the police tried to prevent the funeral procession from advancing and later on attacked the mourners (See video to the righ)  All pictures are taken from this blow by blow account of the resistance published by Sendika.org

The movement was not limited to Istanbul and Ankara, but there were demonstrations of thousands and tens of thousands in places like Izmir, Hopa, Bursa, Canakkale, Antalya, Antakya, Adana, Eskişehir etc.

Erdogan’s show of strength

After delivering a fiery speech at a rally in Ankara on Saturday, Erdogan had prepared a show of strength for Sunday in Istanbul itself. While tens of thousands were battling the police and demonstrating elsewhere, tens of thousands of his supporters gathered at the Istanbul suburb of Kazlicesme. The pro-government media put the figure of attendance at 1 million, which is clearly a lie. Other media reports talked of 200,000. Of course, people attending were bused in by the government and the municipality, using public transport buses, opening up ferry routes which were closed elsewhere, etc. Those attending could expect free transport, free flags to wave and above all, they had no fear of being attacked with tear gas and water cannons. A report in a Turkish newspaper described how: “since the early hours of Sunday morning, dozens of municipal buses have been escorting thousands of people to the Istanbul suburb of Kazlicesme for a rally in favour of premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan... The transportation opportunities in the city were widened with boats carrying crowds to Kazlıçeşme from the Anatolian side of the city.”

Erdogan used the rally to attempt to portray an image of country united around him, with only a small minority of radicals, terrorists and vandals being against. "These hundreds of thousands of people are not the ones who have burned and destroyed; these hundreds of thousands of people are not traitors like those who throw Molotov cocktails at my people. Whatever we do, we’ll remain within the frame of democracy and the rule of law. We have never pushed the limits of legality,” he said.

He proceeded to accuse the protesters of everything, from being part of an international conspiracy, to being responsible for the Reyhanlı bombing, to being associated with the terrorist Ocalan. “I wonder what they these foreigners who came to Taksim Square from all corners of the world were doing. We have seen the same plots in Reyhanlı … These dark circles will never be able to succeed in their attempt to destabilise this country. One thing they did not count on was the determination of its people.” He said that some had been "putting Ataturk's flag side by side with a terrorist one", referring to the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) Abdullah Ocalan.

What was interesting was his insistence upon religious considerations, which must mean he fears losing the support of sections of his supporters amongst the poorest sections of society. “They have entered a mosque with their shoes on, they have attacked our sisters with head veiled,” he claimed. As a matter of fact, the incident he was referring to was one in which, on June 2, the Imam of the Dolmabahçe mosque in Beşiktaş allowed for a first aid post to be installed inside the mosque, and of course in the confusion of bringing in the wounded, some forgot to take their shoes off, to which no-one objected in those circumstances (http://youtu.be/yuBbhfT_Qm0). Contrary to the idea of religious people being assaulted at demonstrations, a group called Antikapitalist Muslims has been active in the demonstrations and there was even a Friday prayer at the Taksim protest on June 14, accompanied by a temporary ban on alcohol as a sign of respect.

Erdogan then proceeded to threaten the protesters: "We’ll identify one by one those who have terrorized the streets of our cities. We have all recordings of city surveillance recordings, we’ll trace the media and social media to find those who have provoked incidents.”

On Sunday evening, after Erdogan’s rally, there were groups of AKP thugs armed with bats, cleavers and knives patrolling certain areas of Istanbul, threatening anyone opposed to the Prime Minister.

These threats were repeated and amplified on Sunday and Monday by other government ministers. “From now on the state will unfortunately have to consider everyone who remains  there a supporter or member of a terror organization,” one minister said. “Our prime minister has already assured [activists] about their aim with the protests. The protests from now on will play into the hands of some separatist organizations that want to break the peace and prioritize vandalism and terrorism.” Turkey’s European Union minister Egemen Bağış said in an interview on broadcaster A Haber.

Regarding the strike called by KEKS and DISK for Monday, June 17, the Minister of the Interior declared that this was an illegal strike: “I request public servants not participate in illegal actions,” said Muammer Güler said while answering questions from journalists in Ankara today,  "otherwise you will have to bear the consequences.”

However, for all the bravado, it is clear that support for Erdogan, which had already been falling considerably before the Taksim uprising started, has now plummeted further. A MetroPOLL survey conducted between June 2 and 14 and published by pro-government media, contained many interesting insights. First of all, voting intention for the AKP is now at 35%, 11 percentage points less than a year ago, and nearly 15 points lower than what it polled in the general election two years ago. This would mean that the AKP has lost nearly a third of its voters. When asked, nearly 50% said the government had moved in an increasingly authoritarian direction, while only 36% said it had become more democratic. 54% considered the government was interfering in their personal lifestyle, 53% that the media in Turkey is not free and 54% opposed the government’s policy towards Syria. A majority of those polled also considered the government and the prime minister responsible for the escalation of the conflict over Gezi Park. Crucially, 63% said they opposed the government plans for Gezi Park, including a majority of AKP voters. While Erdogan himself continued to have the “admiration” of 53% of the people, this figure was down sharply from 60% a month ago.

It is clear that the massive protests of the last three weeks could not have taken place without the active or passive support of a large section of those who in the past voted for the AKP and who have become increasingly disillusioned by it, as the policies of the government have been revealed as being increasingly authoritarian, invasive of private life of the people, but above all as the contradictions accumulated in the economic sphere have come to the fore.

One day strike

Shortly after the beginning of the repression on Saturday 15, the Confederation of Public Sector Workers, KESK, together with the Revolution Confederation of Trade Unions DISK, and the TMMOB (The Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects), TTB (Turkish Medical Association) and TDB (Turkish Dental Association) issued a joint statement calling for a one day strike on Monday 17.

This is an important step, and follows from the strike these same organisations had already called after the repression at the beginning if the movement. According to early reports, Hundreds of thousands have participated in the strike action across the country. The participation of health workers has been particularly noticeable, even though the biggest of the four main trade unions, Turk-Is, has so far not joined the action, which would be the only way to have an effective strike that paralysed the country completely. However conservative the leadership of Turk-Is might be, a concerted campaign towards its members at branch and workplace level would certainly have an impact. An example of this is the fact that some of the Istanbul branches of Turk-Is have issued a joint statement joining today’s strike action.

ankara-disk-kesk-16-06-2013KESK and DISK demonstration in AnkaraIn Ankara there was a massive demonstration led by KESK and DISK banners. In Istanbul, thousands gathered outside DISK headquarters with the intention of marching to Taksim Square. They were joined by increasing numbers of neighbours, many banging pots and pans to show support for the demonstration. The march, shouting slogans for the resignation of the government and “police out, Taksim is ours”, was blocked at Istiklal Street by a barricade of police forces.

It is to be expected that there will be further clashes this evening and tonight. The movement has not been destroyed by repression, but at the same time it doesn’t seem to have the necessary cohesiveness and leadership to move forward. Even the call for a general strike by the five organisations does not seem to mention any specific demands.

In the last twenty days, the brutal repression of the Erdogan government has managed to push together a wide coalition of diverse forces. This unity is one of the sources of the strength of the rebellion. In order for the movement to continue to advance it needs to be more organised and be politically armed with a clear program combining democratic demands with social and economic issues. According to some reports, committees of action have already been established in some neighbourhoods. These should be expanded and coordinated with workplace committees and trade unions, and linked at a local, regional and national level, around a joint programme. These committees should agitate around the call for an all-out general strike to bring down the government, which is the only way to achieve any of the democratic and social demands of the movement.