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‘Occupation of Taksim Square was a mosaic of anger and ideas’

This article is over 10 years, 11 months old
A protest that originally set out to save an Istanbul park spread into a movement against the Turkish government. Carol Williams spoke to activists in Taksim Square, in the days before the police destroyed their occupation while Ken Olende looks at the issues raised by the protest
Issue 2358
Supplies for protesters who occupied Istanbuls Taksim Square

Supplies for protesters who occupied Istanbul’s Taksim Square (Pic: Carol Williams)

Anger still simmers in the streets around Taksim Square and the adjoining Gezi Park. Police water cannons and tear gas cleared out thousands of protesters who were revolting against the government.

Whatever happens to the demonstrations continuing around the country, the protest has shattered the illusion of Turkey as a haven of stability and strong government.

The protests—part violent confrontation, part joyful carnival—brought together people from many different backgrounds who want to see change.

The people who gathered in the square ranged from revolutionaries to pacifists, trade unionists to environmental protesters, socialists to nationalists. The mass protests began when police attacked a small camp opposing plans to replace Gezi Park with a shopping mall. 

Since then people with all sorts of grievances against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist AKP party have joined in.

The voices we present here show the diversity of opinions, but also reflect contradictions in the movement.

The AKP has won three successive elections on the back of Turkey’s booming economy and growth as major regional power. The party presents itself as “liberal” and has relaxed the implementation of the ban on Muslim dress, including headscarves, for public employees. 

It is also negotiating with the Kurdish minority. But many protesters are angry at what they see as the increasing “Islamisation” of society. In particular, they point to a new law that restricts some alcohol sales—a government attempt to show that it has not abandoned Islam-inspired morality.

The protests have also drawn in thousands of poor people angry at the AKP’s adoption of neoliberalism.

Nationalist parties have tried to gain with chauvinistic rhetoric and wrapping themselves in the Turkish flag. In the past, such gestures were used to sow divisions and direct anger towards ethnic and religious groups and national minorities. 

It is unsurprising that many new demonstrators see Turkish flags on their protests as unimportant. But others rightly point out that nationalism can reignite divisions that bedevilled Turkish politics in the past.

But our interviews show that Turks and Kurds, people with no faith and  practising Muslims all enthusiastically took part in protests.

The impetus from the streets could help revive Turkey’s once-strong trade union movement.The transmission of the spirit of the streets into offices and factories drove the Egyptian Revolution forward.

Once workers were involved as workers, striking and organising at work the movement had the power to challenge the police and the army.


Cetin (Pic: Carol Williams)

Cetin is 27 and Kurdish. The oil tanker sailor’s arm was broken when police beat him with a baton

“Erdogan tells other countries they need democracy—but this isn’t democracy.

We don’t believe or trust the government. For years Turkish people have been told lies about Kurdish people.

They were told we had no language, no culture, no flag or identity.

Every morning in school we had to say we were happy to be a Turk. I don’t believe the government will bring peace.”

Zuhal is a member of the HDK, an umbrella group of left organisations

“Everybody wants real peace for Kurds, with rights to language culture, and political rights. Nobody believes the government.

Troops are leaving the Kurdish area but we don’t see any new democratic processes.

They are discussing a new constitution but they are not making any progress. 

We need to force the government to make a real peace for all cultures, ethnicities and beliefs.

There are some nationalist groups here but the whole thing is not like that. Some people have the flag but it is not a political message for them.”


Ugur (Pic: Carol Williams)

Ugur Gumuskaya is 24 and a literature student in Istanbul 

“People are rebelling against the authoritarian government policies on alcohol, education, the environment and urban development.

We are also angry at the police pressure used against students. 

People carry the national flag because of this movement’s newness. Because the movement is so new there is not one symbol.

Everyone is coming with their own symbol which they feel comfortable with. 

We have been fighting for many years against the AKP. We don’t want their neoliberalism, and their Islamic and repressive policies.

We want the AKP to go but the other parties are not enough.

We don’t want any of them. We fight in the streets and the new world will be won in the streets. This process is now starting. 

We know Erdogan is thinking of strategies to destroy this place. He tries to divide protesters by talking about marginal groups and normal groups, but this is not true. 

People are here for one aim—Gezi Park.

Erdogan is trying to negotiate with people close to him, but they don’t reflect our ideas and we don’t recognise them.

Now he proposes a referendum on the park. Why have a referendum on this? We don’t have a referendum on cyanide poisoning in gold mining.”

Mehmet is 32 and a PhD student 

“A friend brought me to the occupation the day before the police first attacked. 

When I saw the crowds I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to stay’.

Everyone here does what they feel useful at. I work in the kitchen. I haven’t slept for 30 hours so I’m exhausted.  

Most people here haven’t been on the streets during a police attack—they haven’t experienced gas and don’t know what to do. 

But we are educating each other. We encourage people not to drink [alcohol] and to wear appropriate clothing.

The police hate us. You can see that when they attack you, so if they come again we won’t be surprised.

We are fed up with the old parties and Erdogan’s lies.

He said protesters broke into a mosque and drank alcohol there. He said women in headscarves had been attacked in the park. This is not true.

When Friday prayers were held in the square a circle of protesters protected them. 

People have been afraid of this government over the last ten years.

We are not afraid anymore. They can gas us and water cannon us, but we will come back. 

This uprising needs to turn into a political movement, a new entity with a strong leadership, because we can’t always be in the square and we don’t want to forget or to lose this collaboration.”


Sevgi (Pic: Carol Williams)

Sevgi is 33 and works for the Green Thought Association

“At first the uprising was about the trees. There is a very important green side to this—the trees, the nuclear issue, the third bridge across the Bosphorus which will mean devastation to large areas of green space. 

It is very important that for the first time people have said no.

And statistics show that most people came to join the protests after the police attack.

We have gained a lot of things. We now cooperate with huge numbers of people we didn’t work with before.  

This is not about Islam. I think this uprising has shown the AKP’s real face—they are autocratic.”

Ali Duman president of the Enerji-Sen union

“Neoliberalism has changed many areas like education, health, transportation and housing. These areas have got worse.

The people have to unite to struggle against neoliberalism, US [imperialism]and the AKP.

We believe that we can win by uniting people. But the working class is not well organised.

We have to organise the unconfident workers. 

I believe the unions can rebuild. Our union is very new, only two years old, and we have recruited 3,000 new members.

I feel very different after two weeks of protests. We didn’t know it could be this big. The people are confident.

Before we were afraid of the tear gas but we are not any more.”


Onur (Pic: Carol Williams)

Onur is 23 and a music student. He is a member of left party Partizan

“This action is not about Islam and nation. The government wants people to think this to divide them. Gezi Park is a mosaic, everyone has come together with their own ideas. 

Over the last 11 years people have been under extreme pressure and this is like a scream of the oppressed.

This current movement can’t finish off capitalism, though really that is its final purpose.

But it would  be much stronger if the working class becomes part of it—if there were strikes.”

Some interviewees’ names have been changed to protect their identities. Carol Williams is a socialist activist in Istanbul


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