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Friday, July 12, 2013

In the Eye of the Beholder [1]

Protesters at Gezi park celebrating its reopening
Protesters at Gezi park celebrating its reopening.

Still with me? Are we sitting uncomfortably with our assumptions? Then let us begin.

As human beings, we are at once readers of the lives of others, and writers of our own lives, and vice versa. Within each process, bias plays a huge role. Before we go on that journey to have a look at how the way we see things affects the way we read them, it is also interesting to see how the bias of others has helped script the drama of Gezi Park.

If you are interested in stories, as I am, you quickly realise that a story has many sides, and many layers, which changes depending on how you interpret it through your reading. Two people can read the same story, and come away with two different experiences.

For me, although my story with Gezi Park began in proper when I saw an image of a lady in red, I had been aware of its background story for some time. It gave me a side to the story, and probably a bias, that had a hand in spurring me to take a trip to join the initial protests.

I was first told about the plans for Gezi Park's redevelopment when a Turkish friend, who knows about my love of trees, emailed me about the proposals early in the year. It was a big thing for Istanbul, because the park is the only place in Taksim with a green area. Just around the corner to it is the Atatürk Kültür Merkezi (Atatürk Cultural Centre). Simply called the AKM, it is the focal point of Taksim Square, as a multi-purpose cultural centre and opera house, and as an icon of Istanbul and sixties Turkish architecture.

Along with Gezi Park, the AKM came under the threat of demolition as part of the proposed redevelopment plans for the Taksim Square area. In the proposed plans, which included a new shopping mall and barracks, the AKM was going to be knocked down to be replaced with a new opera house and a mosque.

Let's pass over the fact that the centre carries the name of the founder of the Turkish Republic, who is surrounded by his own legend of protecting a tree from being cut down, and who - whether we like it or not - has achieved iconic status for the secularists in Turkey. But for many in Istanbul, cementing over the park to make more urban space, whilst building a new mosque, mall and barracks meant interfering with the historic look of the place.

I had wondered back then, as I read my friend's animated words, if this was more than just a reaction against commercial modernisation. For some Turks, the proposed reconstruction of the barracks would have, I knew, a symbolic significance. I was mindful of my father telling me there were barracks there before, demolished in 1940. It was at those barracks that a failed mutiny by Islamic-minded insurgent soldiers was initiated in 1909 intent on bringing in Sharia law - the moral code and religious law of Islam.

According to some accounts, attempts to rebuild them over a hundred years later were seen by opponents of the government's proposals, especially left-wing groups, to be the knell of Islamism chiming against the rule of Turkish secular law.

For Turks, symbolism matters. I followed the development of the proposals with some concern, when on 27 May, the city project started with the demolition of a part of the park. Five historic trees were uprooted. Depending on the context, the Turkish word "Taksim" means division, and with the felling of five trees the country's symbolic divisions were about to show.

Gezi Park restoredIstanbul's Gezi Park
With the uprooting of the trees, a group of about fifty people set up tents in the park and began to sleep there. These were just environmentalists who wanted to save what there was of the green areas of Istanbul. The next day the number of demonstrators started to rapidly increase in response to the cutting of the trees, because people were already uneasy about the larger development plans. The demolition work was stopped. On that day, 28 May, academician Ceyda Sungur, wearing a bright red dress, came over to the park after work to show her support for the peaceful environmentalists camped out at the park. She was met by the pepper spray of riot police. Osman Orsal was there to photograph it. And the rest was set to become history.

When the Turkish media failed to take the protests seriously (or used their editorial bias in favour of the government), Turks deprived of TV turned to Twitter for protest news, and to protest against what felt like a media blackout. The Turks discovered the power of the "worldwide trend"; the hashtags #direngezi (#resistgezi) and #occupygezi and many of its derivatives remained in the top trends for days and weeks on end. The social media began to play a major role in the protests; local celebrities tweeted their support, and came out to the park in support of the protests. They contacted their world famous friends, and soon Hollywood celebrities started to tweet about Gezi Park. An advert was was taken out in the New York Times, by an unidentified group "from around the world", asking what was happening in Turkey.

All the while, attached to this response was the image of Orsal's lady in red. She became a symbolic shout of free speech for activists that reached the ears of the international media. The place she had been gassed, a shady alley of elegant plane trees became the hub of a vast, vibrant open-air democracy festival. However the avalanche of reaction had taken everyone by surprise. Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was away on a diplomatic tour; but to him, from a distance it looked like a small group of extremists was now manipulating what had started as an environmental protest.

Consequently, Erdoğan did nothing to assuage fears in the speeches he gave abroad. Instead he chose to label the demonstrators as "terrorists" and foreign interventionists who were trying to destabilise the country, and the protests became about more than just Gezi Park. But it had always been more than about just a park.

Secular fears, uprooted with the trees, came out from its soil; extreme left-wing groups began to retaliate against police presence. Sungur, the lady in red, saddened about her unplanned part in the protests refused to talk to the media, but volunteered her services to look after those wounded as the protests became increasingly violent.

As the numbers of wounded grew, anti-government slogans appeared. The prime minister angered by some of the personal attacks on the slogans became more divisive in his public statements, and a part of the huge majority that had democratically elected him to power, came out in their thousands to welcome him back in support of his tough stance, chanting that on his order they would "crush Taksim". Rather than mere symbolic divisions converging on Taksim Square, the country's "taksim" itself was looking more and more dangerously real.

In response to this televised prime ministerial homecoming, the protests grew and spread across to almost every region of the country. As their democratically elected prime minster, Erdoğan had described them as drunkards and looters, using the Turkish terms ayaş and çapulcu. These was rapidly re-appropriated by the protesters, especially the term çapulcu. It became a neologism, both in its original form and in English as "chapuller" and "chapulling", to mean "fighting for your rights".

On slogans, chapulling began to be used in Turkish, in its English form and in the hybrid word form çapuling. It caught the imagination of the ordinary citizen, where the everyday chap in the street was shutting up shop to go chapulling. Mothers would come out to go chapulling with their children. For those asking what was happening in Turkey, it became a rhetorical question. What was happening in Turkey was change.

Everday I am ChapullingThe saying was adapted to artwork
on T-shirts, posters and graffiti, contributing to the reclaiming of the term çapulcu. It plays on the lyrics "Every day I'm shuffling" in LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem", which is itself a parody of "Hustlin'" by Rick Ross.
The word quickly caught on, adopted by the demonstrators and online activists across the world, and went viral. The image of a penguin became widespread, too, as a dig at CNN Türk, who aired a nature documentary on penguins during the initial protests. The gas mask became an accompanying icon, while some demonstrators began to wear an iconic mask popularised by the film "V for Vendetta" and the loosely associated network of hacktivists calling themselves Anonymous. Turkey, it seemed, had found some new symbols to believe in.

But for all the good intentions of supporting groups, Wikipedia editors began their anti-Turkish bias, while the social network trolls came out in full form to take advantage of a very real struggle. What had initially helped, was becoming a hindrance. Twitter users spread conspiracy theories about the Turkish government and police, re-printed by journalists with anti-Turkish bias in the Western press. Misreporting alongside images of causalities with no connection to the growing riots were tweeted online as "evidence" of police brutality, and as the violence increased on both sides, the original protesters felt manipulated.

Away from Gezi Park, violent factions were trying to storm government buildings. Posters of fringe groups considered terrorists by Turkey and the European Union were being seen side by side with Gezi Park slogans, hanging from the AKM. The environmentalist protest was becoming increasingly politicised. Under the orders of the government, the governor of Istanbul called in the riot police to clean up the front of the cultural centre, whilst leaving the protesters in the park untouched.

In retaliation, a violent riot group - said to be police in plain clothes by conspiracy theorists - attacked the police with Molotov cocktails, all under the live spotlight of a Turkish media that had finally sat up and taken notice of the major news story unfolding on their very doorstep. With some activist groups choosing violence as a form of protest, it seemed that Erdoğan's accusations of terrorism were not as misguided as first thought. A fog as dense as tear gas descended on the chapulling public as to why this had all started - and where it would end.

The Turkish celebrities that had come out in support began to act as intermediaries between the government and the protesters. The prime minister met personally with protesters at the ground level in last minute crisis talks, and concessions were made over the redevelopment proposals.

But, after occupying Gezi Park for over two weeks, was it a little too late to open dialogue? Extreme left-wing groups who had taken control of the protests decided that they had been given an opportunity too good to miss - the eyes of the world were on Turkey. The longer the protests continued the more it would undermine the trust built between Turkey and Western nations in the last decade, and dent its hard earned financial reputation.

As Turkish unions called a strike to protest against the police crackdown on demonstrators, the left-wing groups vowed to stay on, citing that their aims had not been met. They wanted the use of tear gas and water cannons to be banned, they wanted the release of every protester that had been detained - and although not expressly stated in any manifesto apart from street slogans, they wanted Prime Minister Erdoğan out, at all costs.

Were they fighting for trees, for freedom, or for their own political ends? Possibly for all three, but when I saw this turning point in the story of Gezi Park play itself out, I was reminded of the miners' strike in eighties Britain. That decade saw a fateful war between prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the miners in her country. The police were so brutal against the rioting miners, that it took two generations for the police to clean up its image at home.

Nevertheless, during the mine pit disputes with union leader Arthur Scargill, Thatcher triumphed because - although she came close to making concessions - Scargill's refusal to budge brought failure to his epic struggle with her government. His union's crushing defeat and the subsequent devastation of the mining communities meant people starved in Britain's north, while the south got richer under Thatcher's premiership to deepen Britain's north-south divide.

To some extent, the decision to remain in occupation of Gezi Park, played into the Turkish prime minister's hands, as Scargill did with Thatcher. Late one night in Gezi Park, after 18 days of occupation, it took riot squads using tear gas and water cannons just under half an hour to eject the demonstrators. Only history will show whether it was the wrong decision to make, and if indeed, Erdoğan's political legacy will have further parallels with Thatcher's own.

As Britain's first female prime minister, her policies made her impoverished country financially strong, and turned London back into the financial capital of the world, but Thatcher was a divisive woman. Although the right loved her because she transformed the economy and reduced the stranglehold of the trade unions, the left hated her because she ruined communities and condemned many to abject poverty. And after three consecutive terms in office, Thatcher had become so authoritarian that she lost the backing of her cabinet, resulting in her resigning her office.

Like Thatcher, Erdoğan has also been in power for 10 years, and turned his country into an economic success story, at a time when other nations in the West were struggling with an austere economic climate. But the man whose reforms instituted unprecedented democratic freedoms can not, apparently, cope with their consequences. Many were surprised by Erdoğan's paranoid stance over the protests, while others claim his paranoia was well founded, especially with the leaks made by intelligence analyst Edward Snowden that Britain had bugged some of Erdoğan's private cabinet meetings.

All theories aside, the fact remains that Erdoğan's divisive talks helped to continue a month of unrest. When rioters took sanctuary and received medical aid in mosques, he accused them of consuming alcohol on the holy sites of a religion that strictly prohibits its use (even when there was no evidence of this), as though trying to mark the protesters out as "infidels". Many have been critical of Erdoğan - especially some in his own party, which he had founded. There are political rumours that some senior members of Erdoğan's party are not happy with the hard-line he took with the protesters, and his political armour seems dented. But history forgives, too, especially if your political party happens to be in power.

When Thatcher died this year, although there were celebrations by parts of the British public to the soundtrack of "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead!", her Conservative party, currently in power in Britain, decided to give her a funeral to match that of Winston Churchill. The majority of the public did not object, as many political commentators feared they would, but London has always idolised Thatcher for putting it back on the financial map after the crippling seventies (even though it has also got the biggest concentration of poverty in the United Kingdom). Similarly, hard-line supporters of Erdoğan see him as the financial saviour of Turkey, up there with the founder of the country. He is a hero to many in his nation.

Moreover, the Gezi Parks were nowhere near as brutal as the eighties miners' strike in Britain, which left many communities decimated in its wake. Distinguished from Thatcher's hard stance, the Turkish government have made concessions - but they have more lessons to take from history. Thatcher was a product of her time; we live in a different world today. Misreading the climate of the times meant that the environmentalist protest broadened into a wider expression of anger at what protesters saw as the government's increasing authoritarianism - while the heavy-handed tactics of police who used tear gas and water cannon to disperse a peaceful rally, resulted in scores of injuries and - now - five deaths.

Just a day after the reopening of Gezi Park, 19 year-old Ali Ismail Korkmaz became the fourth demonstrator and fifth official fatality of the protests. He was buried yesterday in his home province of Hatay in southern Turkey, near the border with Syria. A country over which the Turkish government has consistently protested the lack of human rights and democracy, until the death of Korkmaz, and others like him, have indicated to some outsiders that it is not practising what it preaches in its own backyard. This is where the intellectual debate stops short. It is easy to connect the dots now, but although history is written in hindsight, it is forged in the heat of the moment that burns out any thought of consequence.

Korkmaz is just one story made out of many from Gezi Park that begins with a violent end. The sting in the tale is that most of the deaths, like his, happened outside of Istanbul, and not directly as a result of police intervention, but between opposing groups of civilians when the protests turned violent. Were all investigations to show no death was strictly speaking caused by police brutality, it would be irrelevant however.

What matters is that people have died because of the protests, and there is still a chance for the protests to claim a sixth victim. News stories reporting on Korkmaz's funeral write that 17 year-old Mehmet Ali Tombul is still in a critical condition*. If he dies, he will be the second official fatality to have died in Istanbul.

The first Istanbul death was also the first fatality recorded - Mehmet Ayvalıtaş was run over by a civilian car driver who had ignored warnings to stop for protesters. The other deaths, including one of a police officer, took place during skirmishes in other areas of the country, when the Gezi Park protests spread out across the nation in support of demonstrators in Istanbul.

So many numbers, so many statistics; but the deaths serve to remind us that the protest has cut down young boys in the prime of life, who were merely young saplings in tree years. It reveals a different layer to the tale - one that symbolises not political or religious idealism, but the emotional cost and human face of the protests. Five lives for five trees. One life for each tree uprooted.

These are the stories about the absence of loved ones that will stretch over time like great scars across their families, to scab over and be picked by the slightest memory. For them, this isn't a story or the end of one, and for us, it is a side we rarely want to see. Yet, in our failure to see, we can become blinded. Those who feel indignant at the deaths and continue the violence in the name of the dead, only serve to disrespect the memory of those taken by violence.

But if we look to understand the Gezi Park protests only through these first stories, we would have a biased view of Turkey as a fractured society. We would only see a deeply divided country, along rigid lines of religion, politics and fundamental beliefs, partitioned by a hard-line government, a brutal police force and violent extremism. We would only see families burying their sons, and the loss of unfulfilled promise, echoing Turkey's economic successes and hitherto democratic progress.

Huffpost reports a show of unity for Ramadan
However, Thursday had a second side to show and different story to tell. One of unity, sprung from death to give life to a togetherness nurtured by the protests. Of old enmities put aside in defence of peaceful assembly and the freedom to speak out. From this reading of events, we see a story of a Turkey that is as tightly knit as the branches of a tree, deep rooted in its own special soil.

A month of Islamic fasting - the length of Lent - has begun in Turkey and the rest of the Islamic world, and on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, people of all denominations and beliefs peaceably came together to break bread. In a show of unity during a traditional time of social reflection, Istanbul protesters broke their fast in a massive open-air banquet that stretched far along the avenues of the city - while the police looked on, and did nothing.

Imagine if we knew of only one story of Gezi Park, we would think it was a tug-of-war fought over secular and religious groups. But read further and you discover that leftist Muslim groups sympathetic to the protests hosted fast-breaking dinners in a nearby pedestrian street by Gezi Park. As human beings, with all the complexity and uniqueness and similarities it entails, we often blur idealogical lines: we can at once be secular and religious. There are many Turks who are simultaneously proud of their Islamic Ottoman heritage, and proud of the country's secular founding father, too. For them, these ideologies are not in opposition to each other, but compliment each other when personal belief remains a private matter for the individual, and not for the state, to decide.

And if you had stopped reading at the first part of this post, you would think that the Istanbul authorities were completely against their own city's people. How would you learn, then, that the local municipality also hosted a dinner in Taksim Square by the park, with people marching in the park afterwards? Police used loudspeakers to warn people to leave, while people booed and clapped, but the police did not intervene.

How many reports were there of this development? How many from the international media wanted to see this picture? Only one news wire deemed it newsworthy enough to report, but not as headline news. If it is not sexy enough to make the headlines, it is because we often think people have stopped reading once the excitement is over.

But people are better than that, and intelligent enough to know that the story is far from over. Questions remain. Will the state understand what people have been trying to say with the protests? Will the constitutional right to enter a public space and protest peacefully be strengthened as a result? Will the authorities be persuaded to ban the use of tear gas and water cannons by the police? Will the demonstrators allow for the due process of law to work for the release of those wrongly detained*, and to bring to justice all those who caused harm? We wait and see.

Nevertheless, the show of street unity highlights that from one perspective, the Taksim Gezi Park events can be considered a form of civil resistance that has succeeded. It has prodded society from its stupor; as a result of the protests and the international attention it gained - however biased - government officials have now supported the decision to protect the city's green areas. A court decision has cancelled the redevelopment*. The park was reopened after a makeover. In memory of the trees that were uprooted, more trees and flowers were planted than were there before. Now they need time to be allowed to grow.

So, too, does human justice, for it is slow. Injured parties have filed claims against the government and the police; the wheels have been set in motion - but like in many nations, they turn slowly. In England, the failure of police crowd control at a football match in 1989 resulted in 96 fans being crushed to death, and hundreds more injured. Over twenty years later it was found that British police had deliberately altered more than 160 witness statements in an attempt to blame the fans for the fatal crush.

In 2010, a hard-line German police operation against demonstrators protesting against a new railway station project in Stuttgart shocked Germany, after more than 100 people were injured by tear gas and water cannon. German police carry live ammunition, and will shoot to kill, and commentators had warned of more violence to come.

Meanwhile just this last month France was accused of police brutality in the UN Human Rights Council for brutalising peaceful demonstrators in same-sex marriage marches. Videos show French police brutality, as they beat marriage demonstrators, using tear gas and clubs against women, men, elderly and children. Complaints have been filed, it is hoped justice will come.

None of these examples in any way excuse the actions of the Turkish police towards their peaceful protesters. Rather than have Turkish police be just as bad as their French and German counterparts, Turkish authorities can have the foresight to be better than them. Simply because police use deadly weapons in Europe, it doesn't mean in Turkey they have to follow suit.

It is hoped Turkish justice will be swifter too, with a healthy dose of the secular kind. National elections are next year. Those that wish to protest can use all the political vehicles at their disposal, to go out and rally people in the next elections to protest with their vote, as well as with their feet. Left-wing groups are free to form their own political parties, and become part of the established democratic process to bring about change.

Turkish secularists can take heart, they may live in what feels like an ever increasing Islamic society, but they do have a part to play within it, and the freedom to live as they wish to as part of it. You have the right to peacefully challenge the restrictions imposed upon you.

For if the portrait of Turkey shows anything, it is this: that behind every picture is a complex story of religious reformation, of unique differences and similarities, of individuals and groups, and that nothing is easy to understand from a distance, unless you can see the whole picture.

There is not a single story that illuminates the truth; the truth is many different stories all illuminating different parts of the same picture. Even this post, in its attempt to show three sides to the Gezi story, is just one reading of events.

There are stories I haven't touched upon due to time and space: those that lost their jobs as a result of supporting the protests, blacklisted as unpatriotic or for damaging the country's international reputation. Or the story that almost for every person who lost their job, someone else offered them another position instead, government officials amongst them. Or the story of the immense backing the Turkish police have received from a huge section of Turkish society.

There has been a surge in job applications from men and women to police departments around the Turkish provinces. Sociologists believe this to already be a part of the "Gezi Park" effect. As much as a symbol for freedom, the park has also become an inspiration for people to adopt law enforcement as their lifelong vocation. As the Gezi protests show, every story has more than one side, and there will always be a picture we have yet to see.

Possibly the point is that the truth is somewhere in all of the stories. This is what we fail to understand when we allow our biases to dictate to us, because it means we have to look at the bigger picture from a particular side or angle.

For those of us that look at this confusing tapestry from afar, our own biases help to play a part in the stories we see and the patterns they reveal. When we read of French or German brutality, for instance, we react differently than when we read of Turkish brutality - because the brutality of the "other" confirms our bias, while our own brutality is merely an exception to it.

When we allow our biases to dictate to us, it is like squinting at the page we're trying to read, or the picture we wish to decipher. It begs the question: Why do we squint our understanding towards people different than us?

Well, if you stick with me, we can find out together. That is the next part of this story.

Main Index | End of Part One | Part Two | Part Three

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