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Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Choice of Violence

Actor Russell Crowe tweets about Gezi Park protests
Actor Russell Crowe tweets about the Gezi Park protests.

I shall try to keep this simple - which means it won't be, but I shall try. It won't be short, however. So grab a cup of something, and settle down with an open mind. This post is a follow-up and a response of sorts to the emails I have been inundated with as a result of publishing my experiences at Gezi Park.

To begin with, like all of us, there are things I will support, there are things I won't. There are opinions I agree with, opinions with which I won't agree.

We usually make these judgements as adults based on our own truths and morals, depending on how these have been shaped throughout our childhood. Such truths and morals are relative to the person and their unique experience. Sometimes we can feel restricted by the conventional beliefs of our society, sometimes they make us feel better, because they give us security in what we believe is a chaotic world.

But I try to make the choice on which side I fall in accordance with one basic judgement.

This isn't based on what I think is true, or morally right, because for me there are rarely absolutes in this area, and it is always open to bias. What we believe to be right and moral will be different for everyone. I want to know that I am of enough intelligence and empathy to support people that may have differing opinions to mine, when the need arises.

Therefore I make my judgement based on peace and violence. It's where I draw the line. I don't care how just a cause is, or how just I believe it to be, if it needs to resort to violence, then it loses my support.

In the same vein, I don't care how opposing a view is to mine, I will support the right of any group to argue it peaceably. I will support it, because that right belongs to me, too.

It is that simple. When I give my support to a cause I am not taking sides, except the side of peace.

For me, I am not anti- or pro-government, or anti- or pro-establishment, or anti-this or pro-that. I don't support a political party as though they are football teams to which we swear allegiance for the rest of our lives. I vote on policy, not on personalities. If I give my vote to the Conservatives in England today, I may not vote for them tomorrow.

I don't support idealogical movements either, or any institutionalised religion over another. This doesn't mean I don't believe in anything, it means I believe in doing my own thing. Let's separate personal belief from social unity. My private beliefs are my own business, I will not impose them on others, neither will I allow them to colour me against anyone who doesn't share them.

I have my own beliefs according to my own humanist values about politics, religion and our societies. I believe in education, in critical thought, and will support any view that is peaceful. I am going to repeat this a lot throughout this post, so it may get boring for some of you, but the only "anti- and pro-" I deal in is pro-peace and anti-violence.

Within those boundaries, I believe everyone should be free to do what they want, and think what they want. But I will in no way, shape or form support violence. It is never justified, because the moment violence rears its head, it disqualifies the reason for it.

The choice of violence gives none. Any religion, any political party, any movement that preaches or incites or uses violence has no just cause with me, because it becomes an imposition. The Gezi Park protesters - of which I am one - have no right to impose their views on anyone else. Whoever wants to join the peaceful protests is welcome to do so, but whoever doesn't want to join, and whoever doesn't agree, is also free to do so.

We are all free to support the views we believe in, or believe we can have a valid opinion on. Even if you don't have a valid opinion, you are free to believe in whatever you want to. Even if we come to our opinions foolishly, without being informed, or merely as a result of our prejudices, I am of the opinion that we should be free to that opinion, however we reach it - as long it isn't violent.

You can't protest for freedom simply for like-minded people. We have to respect the views of everyone. Gezi Park protesters do not have the right to destroy public property, or to attack the police who are only doing their job, or to bully and coerce people that do not want to stand up, speak up or speak out for our cause.

Moreover, responding to police brutality with our own doesn't justify our actions, it only shares culpability with the original brutal act.

I don't believe we should respond to violence or violent people in language of a similar kind. I don't agree with "an eye for an eye" mentality. Violence in response to violence doubles violence.

The issue of using violence as an excuse for self-defence is something I can't adhere to; the "right" to bear arms too often breeds the notion we have a right to kill. I have always wondered exactly how picking up a gun is going to defend our freedoms. What is it you need to kill to be free? Do you really need to destroy people different than you in order to be free? How is that, then, self-defence?

I am of the view there is only one valid form of self-defence, and that is not to increase violence, but to lessen it. The only way to halve it is to respond with peace.

In my opinion, it is the only real form of self-defence - it is a defence against the damage done to one's self by succumbing to violence. Otherwise, we go to war, and become the enemy we fight. Pretty soon, we don't know where our enemy ends, or where we begin. One mirrors the other.

This is why when we protest, we MUST protest peaceably. Otherwise what separates you from the people or institutions you are protesting against? Your violence only unifies you with what you were against in the first place; you become an oxymoron. Only peace brings dignity, violence brings the indignities we saw at Gezi Park in Istanbul this week.

I remember during Occupy Wall Street and other occupation zones in America, supporters of these protests were warned to preserve the integrity of their cause by not resorting to violence. There were agent provocateurs during that time, too, trying to pick fights with the police. At the time, a quote by John Lennon was circulated.

When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humour.

Violence is easy, peace is hard. I am not going to support any group that takes the easy way out, however justified their violence may seem when we look at it from a certain truth, or certain perspective. Just because the group using violence is smaller, it doesn't make the violence "heroic". Idealising violence, as though we are in some action movie, is wrong. David's biblical battle against Goliath was still violence, it was still about domination, and that allegorical battle is still going on today with no give on either side.

Occupy Gezi Poster
An #OccupyGezi Poster
For those who believe themselves to be "revolutionaries" and are under some misguided adolescent belief that you need to violently fight for freedom, let me advise you to go read about Mahatma Gandhi and how he freed his country from British rule without picking up a gun, or a rock or a Molotov cocktail. Parading under the banner of the raised human fist as though it were some skeuomorph to violence shows ignorance towards the meaning of that image. If you care so much for freedom, you will not hide behind violence, you will lay your life down in peace. That is true courage.

The courage I saw in the peaceful way protesters reacted at the start of the Gezi Park protests stirred me to join them. That is the sort of courage that speaks to me. I reacted against the violence shown to a peaceful demonstrator, and in Istanbul I witnessed first-hand how the Gezi Park protests had began peacefully, with very good intentions.

Unfortunately, as I made clear in my Gezi Park post, I also warned it would be vulnerable to violent factions, with others using social media channels to tweet absurd conspiracy theories. Take note that a large percentage of the tweets over Gezi Park this second week are not actually from the peaceful protesters that have occupied the park.

Turkish Government stages a funny Police against Terrorists Open-Air theatrical performance at Taksim Gezi Park
Turkish Government stages a theatrical performance at Gezi Park?/Orhan23
One popular conspiracy claim made from social media networks, over the violent protests on Tuesday, was that they were orchestrated by government spies. One British correspondent, Luke Harding from The Guardian - who has been called a serial plagiarist - backs this claim in an article.

The story is that the violent protesters were plain clothes policemen in disguise. The evidence cited? The Turkish media's live feed of the demonstration. That it took the police a long time to round the violent protesters up. A combination of pictures distributed by media agencies (see further down) even shows one protester accidentally setting himself on fire, after a huge fail trying to throw a Molotov cocktail. The police helped to put the fire out - effectively saving his life.

Is this clear evidence of political theatrics? Or should we expect so little of the police? They are human beings, after all, doing a job, and some are suffering a conflict of conscience. I spoke to a few who agreed with the spirit of the protests, but they have a job to do, families to feed. They are under immense pressure, mindful of the initial violent reactions of their colleagues, and it doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination to realise they were trying to be measured in their actions on Tuesday.

Rather than seeing it as evidence of a government conspiracy to discredit the protests, it looked like police were trying not to repeat the mistakes of last week. Naturally, crowd control is for the safety of everyone involved, and experience shows us that the police force need to patrol and mediate protests. However, while good policing sustains the peace, bad policing can lead to deaths.

While I was in Gezi Park, unbeknownst to us at the time, other protests were going on miles away from Taksim Square in Beşiktaş, which erupted in violent clashes between the police and the public in response to the failure of the officers to adequately assess the situation. According to reports a violent splinter group was trying occupy official government buildings, and while trying to stop them some peaceful protesters were also caught in the line of fire, resulting in the horrific scenes below.

What is Happening video
WARNING: Video contains scenes of a disturbing nature. Protesters in Istanbul seek refuge in a mosque set up as a makeshift hospital where medical volunteers are helping those wounded in clashes with the police. (2 June 2013)

Training in crowd control is certainly needed, but training in compassion, in keeping calm under fire needs something more than sophisticated handling and weaponry.

The police handling of this protest was badly managed from the get-go - and "badly managed" is an understatement to say the least. The violence and injuries sustained by peaceful protesters need to be addressed not only in the Turkish Parliament, but within the police force, too. But the violence of the police does not give us the right to retaliate back in kind.

Initial police violence instigated retaliatory violence at the Gezi Park protests, and not only gave violent factions the excuse to destroy public and private property, but when the police pulled out completely it created a vacuum that allowed fringe groups to take over. They took hostage the good intentions of nature lovers who simply wanted to defend a small green space in an increasingly urbanised area.

I had hoped that the positive scenes I saw in Gezi Park would mean that the protesters would police themselves, and that it would continue to be a place where families could take their children. Sadly, the events of Tuesday showed that this wasn't the case.

In one sense, it was a reversal of the situation last week. Had there been no retaliation to the police presence that returned to remove certain banners and posters on Tuesday, there would have been no cause for violence.

The protesters involved in the occupation of Gezi Park were asked to remain in the park, and were assured that under no circumstances would they be forcibly removed on that day. Removing politically loaded banners and emotionally charged slogans from Taksim Square is not a violation that deserved such a violent response. Why not just allow them to come down, and then peacefully hang up some new ones after the police leave?

Or better still, don't politicise the protests. The occupation of the park should not be a mouth piece for any one organisation, if it is to be a genuine people's movement.

Any violence from trigger happy police officers would have strengthened the integrity of the protests, but the violence from fringe protesters weakened their cause. It was a disservice to everyone keeping vigil at the park, and an insult to the memory of the five people that have died and the thousands injured since the protests began on 31st of May.

On Tuesday, I watched the rioting from live feeds provided by the Turkish media channels - so silent during the early days of the protest suggesting they were controlled by the state - to see the protesters in the park get so affected by the clashes in the square that they tried to intervene to stop it, only to make matters worse. Violence just plays into the hand of the "other side", but far worse, it creates an opposing side.

There is no doubt that this situation has been fostered in part by police inexperience, in part by the government's initial tough stance on the protests. The Turkish prime minister's shockingly divisive televised talks did done nothing to appease fears, or open lines of dialogue.

The war of words between the prime minister and the protesters have at times lowered the tone, at times provided comic relief, while the comments from European leaders have sounded like empty rhetoric.

If the government is going to change its tack, it will do so because it's the best option for the country as a whole, not because of any subtle "threats" from across the Turkish border. Meanwhile, the European Parliament has passed a non-binding resolution that "deplores the reactions of the Turkish Government and of Prime Minister Erdogan, whose unwillingness to take steps towards reconciliation, to apologise or to understand the reactions of a segment of the Turkish population have only contributed to further polarisation".

Nevertheless, this continuing strong stance, taking protesting lawyers into custody (and then releasing them), arresting foreign correspondents (and then letting them go) the ongoing clashes in Istanbul and Ankara are pushing the country into dangerous waters. The longer an environment of mistrust continues, the more opportunity there will be for this protest to be hijacked by violent groups who come from an ideology of chaos.

A combination of pictures showing a protester as he catches fire before being showered from a water cannon
June 11, 2013/REUTERS/Murad Sezer
We must not allow the violent few to ruin what the majority of the protesters stand for - as a wake up call to an increasingly conservative government who believe they have an unopposed mandate.

I also wrote previously that I sensed a shift in public awareness, and that's why the Gezi Park protesters need to stand their ground. They need our help to continue their stance against an increasingly conservative attitude that has left them feeling they have no say, or part, in their society.

There is a large disaffected group that carries across all demographics and ideologies. The party in power needs to be made aware of this, and be allowed to respond.

We also have to accept that the foundations for this public "shift" were laid down by the present government - both as its cause AND effect. The economic success story of the country, the strengthening dialogue between the country's north and south provinces have all had a hand in this rally cry for freedom, which is being expressed in Taksim and beyond.

Since the military coup in the 1980s, widespread public protest has been non-existent in Turkey - that this can take place today is in part down to the current party in power. It also may explain to some extent why the police have show such staggering inexperience over crowd control.

For years, analysts and activists alike agreed on one fact about political life in Turkey: the inability of oppositional politics against a government too long in power. Now people from all walks of life have risen up in a stateless alliance based on social justice. There is potential for a great transformation. Let's not allow the violent actions of a few to destroy that opportunity.

I mentioned in my post about Gezi Park that there will be those fringe groups and xenophobic lobbies rubbing their hands in glee at the scenes in Istanbul, denting the success story the governing political party has turned the country into, and hijacking the original peaceful protests for their own gain. How can you distinguish them from the peaceful protesters? They are the ones who use violence. Their cause isn't about saving trees from being cut down in a small park. Their cause is violence, because they come from a point of violence.

The violence of the petrol-bomb throwing fringe has done a greater injustice to the peaceful majority in Gezi Park, than the initial over-reaction by the police. It places an ugly mask over the good I saw at work there, of the solidarity the protests had inspired - of doctors volunteering their services, shops distributing food, and everyone pitching in to tidy up the area.

A Gezi park flyer
A Gezi Park Flyer
During my visit to Gezi Park, I didn't go there just to wear a mask, or stick up two fingers in a victory sign. I didn't go to take pictures as though I were a tourist out for souvenirs. Neither do I judge those that have done so. I also didn't have in mind that I would blog about it, either. But when I was there, I did advise people not to respond to violence with violence. We spoke about the need to sustain the goodwill and humour, and the image of unity that sprung up between so many different factions. But most of all, we all agreed we needed to keep the issue of park renovations focused onto wider concerns about rights and freedoms, rather than as an attack on the government itself.

Turning the occupation of Gezi Park into anti-government protests, in a country where the government has been democratically elected by a huge majority, is not the answer - or the way to get public opinion behind you, or mobilise the masses.

We may take Gandhi's civil disobedience as a blueprint, but we need to place it into our current context. This is not a situation akin to India under British military rule - even if to the protesters it might feel like it.

Whether we like it or not, democracy means we also have to respect the majority vote. The Turkish national elections are in 2014, and in a democratic country, if you are unhappy with your government, you take it to the ballot box. Peaceful protests are wake-up calls to those democratically elected into power; they should not be seen as a ploy to overthrow a government that has been chosen by a huge part of the country.

Peaceful protests do not circumvent the established process of democracy, they are examples of those processes at work. When I went to Istanbul, I went to show my support for the democratic right to peaceful protest, not to overthrow a government. I went to stand against the violence used by the police - and I don't even say disproportionate violence, because violence of any kind shown to peaceful protesters is unnecessary.

In a world with very few absolutes, for me this is the greatest exception. I support peace. I am against violence. I am prejudiced against violence; it's the only time I will discriminate. Everything flows from this basic judgement of peace and violence. With peace you win, violence you lose. Worse, with violence, we ALL lose.

At Gezi Park, I saw so many people from different nations, that it felt a bit like London's Portobello Road. Germans, Italians, Spanish, British and even Americans had come from all over. All different regions of the world being represented in support of the freedom movement.

Syrian refugee in Taksim
Syrian refugee in Taksim/Onedio
Some of the people there will have brought their own prejudices with them. Few will have taken part to rally against Islamic fascism, even possibly - in their heart of hearts - relieved to watch this burgeoning regional power overthrown at last. In amongst the crowd, there were even Syrian refugees joining in to give their dented patriotic pride a much needed boost. Some held up placards promoting pleasure to see Turks going through a major crisis, even if not of the same kind that drove them from their homes.

This is not merely an assumption on my part. At Gezi Park, I became very good friends with a girl from Greece who had come over from her neighbouring country. Initially, she was talking as though police brutality was particular to Turks, until I reminded her of the Greek government's recent treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers, with Greek police badly beating anyone that looked foreign, including tourists.

She seemed surprised that I had heard about that, and said the rise of the fascist, ultra-nationalist Greek group the Golden Dawn getting into Parliament was to blame. We also spoke about the persistent reports of Greek officials pushing Syrian refugees back into Turkish waters, sometimes with fatal results, while Turkey had readily opened its borders to Syrian refugees, only to have their hospitality met with violence.

An American tourist overhearing our conversation, agreed with me and likened it to America taking in Iraqi refugees during the war in Iraq, and then having those people car bomb the cities they had settled in - but it's not comparable because Turkey did not instigate the civil war in Syria. It is having to deal with a problem handed down through the fate of geography, and having unwittingly become a buffer zone for global foreign politics.

It does seem that the country is bearing the brunt of being a battleground between "clashing" ideologies battling for its future, but we in the West cannot just sit and watch from what we believe to be the comfort of our TV screens. If the Gezi Park protests fail in their wider aim, we all lose out.

So, I was happy to see a large number of foreign representatives at the park - whatever their motives. If they come in peace, and in support of their own view of democracy, I wholly support their right to do so. Even if their thoughts or views are culturally biased, if their protest is peaceful, then I don't distinguish them from the peaceful protesters who are there with a real vested interest for change against all extremism - whatever its colour or creed.

A Gezi park flyer
A Gezi Park Flyer
Peace or violence. It is how I make my choice. What people think, or what their opinion is, is their own business. I don't need them to share my opinions, or believe in what I believe. Indeed the most moving portrait of Gezi Park in those first three days was how so many people of so many different colours and views came together to stand side by side against violence. Even groups with a long tradition of enmity had come together to stand shoulder to shoulder, sending a message far stronger, but possibly too subtle for the international media.

The cynical side of me wonders how many positive images of the protests will make the news. Take a look at these selection of photos distributed via social networks. You'll see injured police officers being helped by protesters, demonstrators in wheelchairs wanting to take part being carried by police officers - you'll see people of all colours, together and alone, standing for something they believe in.

Now scroll back up and watch the video of the Beşiktaş riots, and see what happens when we allow violent factions to hijack our cause.

Proof, if any were needed, that when you support peaceful protest, you begin to understand what life is really about. It is nothing more than standing against oppression and brutality by refusing to oppress others yourself.

It is nothing more than realising that standing up for your own rights makes you feel powerful, standing up for your neighbour's rights makes you feel noble, but standing for the rights of people you have never met before makes your life meaningful.

That is the cause I went to support at Gezi Park, and am saddened to see violence mar its message. Violence against a protester is what drove me to Istanbul last week, violence against the police is what spurs me to write this today.

I will choose peace over violence every time, because we can either be the people violence forces us to be, or choose peace and become the people we have the potential to be.

In the end, the greatest victory is having the freedom to make that choice.

Read more about the Gezi Park protests >>

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