Clashes break out as çapulers march to reclaim their city

  • December 22, 2013

People & Protest

Scuffles briefly break out as tens of thousands march in Istanbul in an attempt to revive the Gezi spirit and fight for their right to the city.

“Reclaim the city” was the hopeful slogan of the protest organized in Kadiköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul today. Around noon two large marches culminated at the sea-side center of the neighborhood, where a large stage surrounded by police barriers would form the epicenter of the protest. How the çapulers imagined to be able to reclaim the city while being caged-up, voluntarily stopped and searched, and obediently repeating the slogans they were served from the MC’s on stage remains a mystery, but as a test-case to see whether the Gezi battle cries could still muster the çapuling troops, the protest can be considered a success.

Each of the two marches consisted of thousands and thousands of angry citizens, defiant students, rebellious workers, marching communists, anarchists and environmentalists, all up in arms. Banners were carried proudly on this sunny Sunday afternoon, and the slogans being shouted resonated in the small alleys and backstreets of this old, densely populated neighborhood. The police was present in full riot gear — obviously — hiding in the side streets along the main marching routes, the majority of them relatively young guys, joking about, having a cigarette or absent-mindedly staring into the void while leaning on their over-sized shields. They seem like guys you could probably have a beer with, in different circumstances. They look normal enough, without their gas masks and riot helmets.

However, there is something about this “normality” that makes them even more frightening. These guys are not monsters, just young lads “doing their jobs”. It sends shivers up my spine, thinking about the forces, either psychological or physical, that turn this innocent-looking bunch into an anonymous mass of masks, shields and helmets, aiming tear gas canisters at people’s heads, and slashing around with their batons as if they were cutting their way through a thick jungle.

For the first two hours, everything seems calm and quiet enough. The protesters have turned out in massive numbers, but all march calmly along the main avenues. This is not a spontaneous crowd like the one gathering on Taksim Square and in Gezi Park at the peak of the June uprising. Rather, this is a collection of isolated entities. The people are all safely gathered behind the banners of the group to which they happen to belong, sticking to one another, and careful not to mingle with the group marching in front or behind. Communists, anarchists, student organizations, labor unions, political parties, environmental action groups — all keen to get their voices heard, all keen to get their message across.

Common and familiar slogans are chanted: ‘This is only the beginning, the struggle will continue!’, ‘Government Resign!’, and ‘Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance!’ But instead of marching to the barricades, these people are marching towards a police-controlled and closely monitored cage, where they will line up, proudly wave their banners high up in the air — only to be seen and applauded by their fellow protesters. The lack of spirit and enthusiasm clearly shows. This protest is in reality not about reclaiming space, but about voicing popular dissent in a clearly demarcated and designated public area — a Speaker’s Corner writ large.

Things heat up a little when one of the marches passes by the local branch of the Halk Bank, whose director was recently arrested in an anti-corruption investigation after $2,5 million in cash was found hidden in shoe boxes in the basement of his home. The Halk Bank is covered in posters and graffiti; shoe boxes are symbolically piled up in front of the entrance, and loud cheers rise up from the crowds when the first eggs smash against the windows. The Galatasaray Ultras, carrying a large banner in their midst, light up some flares to the approval of the bystanders who applaud and encourage them.

The entire political arena seems present. Opposition parties like the communist TKP, the Kemalist CHP, the Kurdish BDP and the socialist SDP have rallied their members who march proudly under their party flags, and the AKP is ubiquitously present in the form of the police.

Suddenly we can hear the voice of the MC blasting through the speakers, begging the crowd to remain calm and the Partizans to stop. What’s going on? Apparently at the entrance to the designated protest area, some scuffles have broken out between members of the Partizan communist organization and the police who are doing the checks. The violence rapidly escalates and in no-time the first tear gas canisters are fired. One protester is lying on the ground; he appears unconscious and is carried away by a small group of people. Immediately the people start shouting “Killer police!”, and the first bricks and sticks can be seen flying through the air. Some volunteer guards desperately try to calm the angry crowds, to no avail.

The police retreat slightly, before enthusiastically starting to fire their tear gas canisters into the crowd, aiming directly for the protesters’ heads and bodies — Turkish duck hunt. When the crowd of angry protesters approaches the police, two TOMA water cannon start blasting their toxic-smelling water into the masses. Some people position themselves in front of the water cannon, attempting to prevent any further attacks. All around people are coughing; teary-eyed protesters and onlookers alike try to escape into the small streets that make up the commercial area of Kadiköy.

After a while the clashes die down. The organizers of the protest start playing music on the speakers, and life appears to return to ‘normal’ — whatever that means on the streets of Turkey nowadays. A middle-aged man, who minutes before was throwing rocks at the police reflects on the violence, and states that “somebody has to do it.”

When the organization tries to act as if nothing ever happened, and carries on with the show while police forces line up on the streets next to the stage, ready to attack at a moment’s notice, it becomes clear that no city will be reclaimed today. By succumbing to the authority’s rules of the game, any chance at re-inciting the Gezi spirit has been lost. As the sun sets the majority of the protestors quietly return home — no squares will be occupied today. However, a small group of several dozen youths carries the resistance into the night, lighting fires on the streets and building several barricades. They challenge the police to come and get them — a request to which the challenged eagerly respond.

Reclaiming the city by means of a government-authorized, closely monitored, and heavily securitized protest is nothing but a still-born attempt at revolt. The defiance is there, as was made clear by the sheer size of the protest, but the spirit has left the building. Months after Gezi Park having been successfully reclaimed by the public, thousands and thousands of Turks are still active, angry and appalled by violence, corruption and authoritarian rule of the AKP. But now people seem to rally more easily under the banners of their respective political party or activist collective than to spontaneously man the barricades and occupy the public space.

People no longer demand their right to the city as individuals, but as members of hierarchical organizations — with a few exceptions, like the different Gezi forums which are still active; the workers of the Kazova factory; the activists occupying Turkey’s first squat, and several others. Surely, it is a good thing to see the people organized, but if this means the silencing of the individual in favor of the majority there is an all-to-real danger of this movement turning into an attempt at fighting fire with fire; fighting hierarchy with hierarchy, and in doing so replacing authority with nothing else than authority.

Joris Leverink

Joris Leverink is the managing editor of ROAR Magazine.

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