Tear Gas and Rainbows: Citizen Protest & Resistance in Turkey

Tear Gas and Rainbows: Citizen Protest & Resistance in Turkey
Published: Nov 13, 2013
An action in a small park throws a match at a country's tinderbox of fury.

Photo credit: Reuters/Osman Orsal

Gezi Park is one of the last green spaces in the heart of Istanbul, an international metropolis of 14-16 million residents. In the intense summer heat, Gezi Park provides an oasis of calm where young couples picnic on the grass, families snack on simit (Turkish pretzels) and ice cream, backgammon players and tea drinkers perch on stools at low tables, and homeless people shelter under the trees.

In the past several years I have spent considerable time in the city, living for a while at the corner of Taksim Square, facing Gezi Park. This spring, this public space used by so many of Istanbul’s residents and visitors was slated for demolition by a government intent on urban redevelopment. Giant trucks began taking bites out of the 9-acre park, knocking down trees. “The government wanted to build a shopping mall on the only public green space left in Beyoğlu,” wrote my friend Cağla (“chala”) Arslan from Istanbul. Cağla was a classmate of mine at the London School of Economics. She now works as a trade officer in a foreign consulate in Istanbul. “A park doesn’t make as much money as a new mall,” she said. On May 27th, a small group of activists formed a human barrier to prevent the destruction of the park.

Using their shields and the first sprays of tear gas, riot police removed the activists from the park. Word of the destruction and police response spread throughout the city. In short order tens of thousands of people filled the small green spaces bordered by orderly pathways leading to a circular fountain. The gathering had a festive air, with speeches, singing and dancing. Many children and elderly were present in the park. People brought tents and stayed overnight to prevent demolition under cover of darkness.

Plainclothes police who had infiltrated the protest set fire to the tents.

Pelin Batu, a Turkish actress, political activist and PhD in Ottoman history, played a leading role in the film production that first took me to Istanbul. In the documentary film, The Sultan’s Women, Pelin plays the role of Halide Edib, considered by some the mother of modern Turkey and a leader in the fight for women’s emancipation. In a matter of life imitating art, Pelin was at the frontlines of the protests this June. She said

What started as a protest for a couple of trees soon turned into something much bigger; it turned into a call for democracy, and women’s, gay, and animal rights… In short, it was a public not fueled by any political party or leader. We united under a single slogan: that we wanted to be heard and we wanted to have a say. It was unprecedented.

The protests and police retaliation that transpired this summer in Gezi Park and that are still occurring across Turkey today indicate deep societal fractures in the country. In the early hours of the morning of May 30th, while those gathered in Gezi Park were still sleeping, riot police in gleaming white helmets and dark blue flak jackets used tear gas and water cannons to evict the protestors. People fled their tents. Plainclothes police who had infiltrated the protest set fire to the tents.


Photo credit: Unison Tours.

Istanbul of the Mind

Before my first trip to Turkey in 2010, I imagined an “Istanbul of the mind” made up of 16th century mosques and 19th century palaces. I did not expect the gleaming towers, steel and glass of the 21st century. Everywhere in Istanbul today one sees the cranes and scaffolding of construction and urban renewal. “There is no place to breathe,” says Cağla.

Istanbul is one of the most naturally beautiful cities in the world. Located at the confluence of three waterways (the Bosphorus Strait, the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn inlet), the city bridges the continental divide between Europe and Asia. This city of seven hills is composed of many diverse and vibrant neighborhoods. Across the Golden Horn from the legendary Aya Sofia and Topkapi Palace, the heart of the modern European side is Taksim Square. A nondescript square, bounded by luxury hotels, the streets and passageways branching off the square lead visitors into the narrow twisting alleys of historic neighborhoods. Wandering the cobbled streets, stray cats and dogs underfoot, one sees Turks of all colors, sizes and ages; women in all styles of dress – from short shorts and tight jeans to headscarves and full burkhas (I only saw a handful of Turkish women fully covered, the majority in burkhas were Saudi tourists on holiday). Istiklal Street, a pedestrian shopping thoroughfare across the square from Gezi Park, and a main site of the protests, regularly draws tens of thousands of people out on a Friday or Saturday night.

It is not just about a park but about living like humans. 

The strategic importance of Turkey to the West cannot be underestimated. With the second largest army in NATO, Turkey is a historic ally whose concerns merit Western attention and respect. Turkey has absorbed almost half a million refugees from the crisis in Syria next door and is a leading proponent of a heavier response to the Assad regime. Its concerns over the Syrian civil war have led to the deployment of NATO Patriot missiles along the Turkish-Syria border to protect the Turkish heartland. For decades the country has sought to join the European Union and in 1996 Turkey and the EU established a Customs Union to reduce trade tariffs. Full accession, however, has been blocked by several member states including Cyprus and France. The recent failed Turkish bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games is indicative of the government’s attempt to elevate Turkey’s position on the world stage. Instead, the government has fallen into a pattern of undermining its ambitions as a model secular democracy – illustrated by its handling of the protests.


Atatürk and Erdoğan. Photo credit: Getty.

Shopping malls and luxury condos are just the first step of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s development plans for Turkey. Urban development and renewal programs have been a foundation of the governing Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party or AKP) platform for the last decade. AKP is Islamist-leaning, centre-right and socially conservative. Born out of banned Islamic parties at the turn of the 21st century, AKP was first elected to power in 2002 with 34% of the popular vote. In the ten years since, AKP has sought to consolidate power with populist appeals to the Anatolian heartland. The party has also laid charges of conspiracy against the military and implemented intense media censorship leading to divisions in Turkish society. The conflict that started in Gezi Park is the result of these tensions. As Cağla declares, “it is not just about a park but about living like humans. We need nature and there is not even a small piece left in Istanbul.”

The government’s controversial plans for Istanbul include building a third bridge over the Bosphorus Strait, at a potential cost of $6 billion; a shipping canal across the Bosphorus to rival Panama and Suez; and a third airport with an intended 150 million annual passenger capacity. An 8.5-mile rail tunnel buried 200 feet under the Bosphorus seabed linking Europe and Asia opened at the end of October, coinciding with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic. Developed without input from residents or any sort of public accountability, such projects are intended for the benefit of a specific segment of the population.

. . . he sparked the embers into a raging fire of mass protests uniting people across a broad range of political and social groups.

“With a real estate sector gone mad and rents that have tripled, a class of nouveau riche arose from an informal anti-meritocratic relationship with the government,” explains Cağla. In an extreme and rapid form of gentrification, the poor, who are often migrants from central Anatolia living in unlicensed shantytowns, are being “displaced for the sake of development, with the government and its agencies not only confiscating land but also evicting and sometimes relocating residents to the city’s outskirts.”[i] According to Boğazici University professor Mine Eder, “There’s a deliberate demolishing to create more money, and really, to create this exclusionary zone for the rich. There is a whole re-appropriation, re-definition, and privatisation of the public space.”[ii]


The Agenda

The AKP’s agenda is to re-appropriate and redefine Turkish politics and society. In 2011, AKP reached nearly 50% of the popular vote, a figure Prime Minister Erdoğan favors when justifying his actions: claiming that electoral support from less than half the voters affords him complete political control. Erdoğan has stated that democracy is “a train that takes you to your destination, and then you get off.”[iii] His manner and understanding of governance sparked the embers of a small demonstration against the demolition of a park into a raging fire of mass protests uniting people across a broad range of political and social groups. Cağla writes from Istanbul, “Teargas and water cannons have become a daily practice and part of our life. After the police used an excessive amount of force to disperse the protesters, the whole public reacted.”

Photo credit: Bulent Kilic, AFP/Getty

Following the early morning raid on Gezi Park, protestors flooded the streets of Istanbul, concentrating on the historic Taksim Square. Turks of all ages, political ideologies and religious beliefs united. “To give you a brief idea of how it is like here at the moment [June 1],” reports Cağla, “It is almost one in the morning and no one is sleeping. There are crowds shouting "Erdoğan resign!” Old ladies who can't join the crowds are banging saucepans on their balconies.”

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken the brunt of the protestors’ ire. At 59, with graying hair and a smooth face save for a short mustache, Erdoğan carries himself with an air of vigor. With a deep voice and aggressive speaking style he projects the image of a strongman leader. Raised in an observant Muslim household, his political career began with Islamic parties that were banned in the 1990s. He served as mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998 before being jailed for four months for reading a poem that incited religious and racial hatred. A canny politician, he has manipulated the Turkish system of government to his advantage. As mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan proposed tearing down Gezi Park to rebuild an Ottoman artillery barracks, but was denied by the federal government. Now, with a parliamentary majority, he has sought to fulfill this plan.


Istanbul United

Nightly clashes between protestors and police continued as members of the city’s three football fan clubs (Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray), normally bitter adversaries, joined the protest movement under the banner “Istanbul United.” That the protests could bring together the fiercest of rival football hooligans in a common cause speaks to the passion behind the demands for democracy and freedom of expression in Turkey, or at least simmering anti-government sentiment.

The protests have not been without their costs. More than 8,000 people were injured with many losing eyes and in critical condition. Three deaths have been linked to the abusive use of force by police, a result of gas canisters fired directly at demonstrators’ heads. A fourth protester was shot and killed with live ammunition and a fifth was beaten to death. Female protesters were systematically subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of law enforcement officials. As actress/activist Pelin Batu writes,

Five young protestors lost their lives. And many people were seriously injured because of police brutality. I sincerely hope that the spirit of the Gezi days will persevere, that it will be reflected in the upcoming elections so that those young kids did not die in vain. So that we can see a more democratic country where we can express ourselves freely without the impending fear of being fired [upon], fined or imprisoned.

The opposition expanded to other cities with the same brutal police reaction.

In a scene set in 1919 from the documentary The Sultan’s Women, Pelin, as activist Halide Edib, leads a crowd in a chant of “Governments are our enemies, peoples are our friends.” This was echoed this year in the chants in Gezi Park: “No salvation alone, all of us together, or none of us!” Lara Özlen, a university student who worked on the documentary production echoed Pelin’s sentiments:

The most striking thing for me was the police brutality and the fact that people went out on the streets [of] their own will without any call from any organization or political party, especially at the beginning…Social media was one of the key elements. I loved the spontaneous burst in other words.

Responding to a call for strikes by the unions and reacting to the aggressive dispersal of the park activists, hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of Istanbul in protest. Spurred by the angry rhetoric of Prime Minister Erdoğan, the police responded by shooting rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, sending billowing clouds of tear gas over the crowd. As the crowd coughed, cried, burned and bled, the streets of Taksim Square were reduced to rubble. Makeshift barricades sprang up. The anger of the protestors coalesced into a single demand: Erdoğan must resign. “People in Ankara gathered in the streets to show support for Istanbul,” writes Cağla. “Then the opposition expanded to Izmir, Adana, Antalya and many other cities, with the same brutal police reaction everywhere.”


Coming Up Penguins

From far away Toronto, I keep in touch with what is happening on the streets of Istanbul through Facebook – much as my Turkish friends do. The government’s control of traditional media means that social media – Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube – is the only accessible forum for Turks to publicize their protest and the violent response it received. The censorship was so pervasive that during one evening of protest while CNN International broadcast footage of clashes between police and protestors CNN Turk aired March of the Penguins. The government hoped to prevent its supporters outside Istanbul and the other centers of resistance from seeing the reality of the protests. As Cağla reports

Of course the pro-government media tries to show the protestors as marginalised groups. I’m not surprised. There is massive media disinformation in which AKP supporters are told that the protesters are controlled by foreign powers called the ‘Interest Group’ who are jealous of how well the Turkish economy is doing, and the position it occupies in the Middle East.

The government’s aggression has been met in many cases with humor and dedication. Riot police sprayed Ceyda Sungur, an academic at Istanbul Technical University, with tear gas at close range. An iconic photograph captured in the moment of the attack on Ceyda in her red dress has come to symbolize the protests. The image has been reproduced as stickers, posters, t-shirts, a billboard in Izmir, and used as profile pictures across social media. A man standing silently in Taksim Square has inspired similar protests across the country. Erdoğan’s angry rhetoric against the protestors has even inspired a music video. When he described the protestors with the derogatory çapulcu, (pronounced “chapul-ju”) meaning riffraff or looters, it became a buzzword of the opposition. In the music video, to the tune of American pop band LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” the lyrics “Everyday I’m shuffling” have been replaced with “Everyday I’m çapuling.”

Reporters Without Borders has ranked Turkey 154th in the World Press Freedom Index, behind Russia, DR Congo and Iraq. Journalists are intimidated and sometimes attacked, as they were during the course of this summer’s protests. According to the Turkish Union of Journalists, 22 journalists were fired and 37 forced to resign for covering the protests. Bianet, one of the few independent Turkish news outlets, reported: “During the Gezi Resistance, 105 journalists have been assaulted, 28 detained and 2 sent to prison.”[iv] Erdoğan has broadened the scale and scope of his censorship rampage, threatening to sue the Times of London for printing in an ad space a letter condemning Erdoğan’s ‘dictatorial rule,’ signed by international celebrities including Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.


Photo credit: @selsnmez

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has denounced Turkey as “the world’s worst jailer” of journalists, beating out China and Iran.[v] Speaking at the London School of Economics in spring 2012 Egemen Bağış, Turkish Minister for EU Affairs was asked about the number of jailed journalists. Brash and aggressive, he replied that the journalists in Turkish jails (many of whom are Kurds) are incarcerated not because they are journalists, but because they are rapists, arsonists and murderers, and that they had committed crimes for which they were being duly and justly punished. While this may be true for a handful of them, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have repeatedly brought the issue to international attention, defending the legitimate status of the imprisoned journalists.

Yavuz Baydar, ombudsman of the former opposition paper Sabah (now controlled by Erdoğan’s son-in-law) was forced out of his position for his coverage of the protests. In a New York Times op-ed piece that enraged the government, he argues the media barons are undermining Turkish democracy. One only has to follow the money to understand why. Media censorship in Turkey is systemic – an endemic condition of rapid economic growth and an embrace of the neo-liberal Washington Consensus model. As the Turkish economy grows, new and existing corporations expand, increasing their share of different sectors. Conglomerates operating in telecommunications, banking, construction, and other infrastructure sectors own many of the large media companies, leading to a conflict of interest where objective journalism is the goal. Fearing the loss of lucrative government contracts in other sectors, moguls shut down their own media, preventing investigations, pulling stories and firing editors and journalists.

The oligarchs have seen what happens to those who do not fall in line. In 2009, the government levied a $2.5 billion fine for alleged tax offences against the Doğan media group, publishers of the leading Hurriyet Daily News. This July, in the midst of the public unrest, tax auditors raided Koç, another major family-based industrial conglomerate, whose holdings account for 10% of the Turkish economy. In a circus of the bizarre, the government has threatened criminal action against the luxury Divan Hotel in Taksim Square for sheltering protesters and providing emergency medical aid to those tear gassed. The Divan Hotel is owned by the Koç family.


Photo credit.

Conspiracies Everywhere

When looking at the recent turbulence in the region – the ongoing civil war next door in Syria, the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and the overthrow of Morsi in Egypt – one might expect the Turkish army to step in. Historically, the armed forces have seen themselves as the defenders of the secular Turkish Republic formed by Kemal Atatürk in 1923, leading to military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980. It is perhaps ironic that the government threatened to call in the army to suppress the current protests. Having dismantled the top leadership of each branch of the armed forces through a series of conspiracy trials, the armed forces appear to be firmly under Erdoğan’s control.

The largest of the trials centers around the “Ergenekon” conspiracy. Ergenekon, named after a mythical valley in the Altay Mountains, is an alleged terrorist organization aiming to take down the Turkish government. The trials raised charges against AKP opponents from the military, media, business and political worlds. Critics say the trials can be interpreted as Islamic reprisals against the secular establishment. “It is no coincidence,” writes E.P. Licursi an editor at Bidoun, a cultural journal, “that the two groups most affected – journalists and military officers – are seen as the most significant obstacles to the AKP’s political and ideological agenda.” [vi]

Protesters gathered behind police barricades miles down the road from the courthouse as sentences in the Ergenekon trial were handed down in the first week of August. The harsh verdicts, including life sentences for some of the most prominent defendants (İlker Başbuğ, a former military chief; Veli Küçük, a former brigadier general; Kemal Kerinçsiz, a lawyer; and Tuncay Özkan, a journalist) strike at the heart of the secular elite. As Licursi continues, “These capricious, vengeful arrests undermine Turkey’s aspiration to serve as a model and champion for the democracy movements of the Arab Spring, as well as its status as a potential member of the European Union.”[vii]


The Irony of Atatürk

Mustafa Kemal, an Ottoman military officer, who came to be known as Atatürk, or Father of the Turks, is revered throughout Turkey as a national hero. Kemal ruled Turkey as President from its founding as a Republic in 1923 until his death in 1938. Determined to bring Turkey into the 20th century, Kemal enforced a modern, secular and Western vision for the country, known as Kemalism, with such measures as outlawing the fez and giving the country six months to convert the language from Ottoman Arabic script to modern Turkish using the Roman alphabet. For all his reforms, Atatürk was an authoritarian ruler.

Seventy-five years after his death, the face of the founding father of the Turkish Republic is everywhere: on T-shirts and flags, on banners and posters, on restaurant and living room walls. A massive print of his face hangs on the Atatürk Cultural Center in Taksim Square, another target for redevelopment. Many protestors waved the Turkish flag bearing Atatürk’s face as a sign of their defiance against the government. Prime Minister Erdoğan took offense, telling a rally of his supporters to use only plain flags.

It is an overlapping axis of all of these segments of Turkish society coming together . . .

Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party have set themselves up in opposition to the Kemalist legacy: dismantling the deep state, and challenging major secular industrialists and the military top brass. Indeed, the current government has gone so far as to develop a neo-Ottoman policy – viewing themselves as the model Muslim democracy for a Middle East under the Turkish sphere of influence. They have chosen to emulate Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909), known to history as the ‘Red Sultan’ for his repressive regime and overthrown in a constitutional revolution in 1908. Erdoğan has even proposed using Ottoman symbols; at a pro-government rally in June, while making the case against Ataturk’s portrait on the national flag, Erdoğan encouraged supporters to hang the Ottoman symbol of three crescent moons outside their homes.

Many commentators attempt to break down contemporary Turkish politics into simple dichotomies: Islam vs. secularism, rich vs. poor, Kurd vs. Turk, urban vs. rural, military vs. government. However, the turbulent political scene is an overlapping axis of all of these segments of Turkish society coming together and dividing along different lines.

There has been some recognition within AKP ranks that this summer’s events were mishandled. A report released in mid-August by the Eurasia Global Research Center, an AKP think tank, characterized the Gezi unrest as a “strategic mistake.”[viii] The report, penned by an AKP deputy, argued that the protests could have been avoided if the situation were better handled by the Istanbul municipality and included community dialogue. While this may be a means to shift blame away from Erdoğan onto lower levels of government, taken at face value it recognizes the importance of the democratic process and the problematic use of force in response to the protests. Additionally, at the opening of the current judicial session in September, the president of the Supreme Court of Appeals warned of the threat of increased authoritarianism to Turkish democracy. At the highest level of Turkish politics the values of democracy are championed. Whether these values will be acted on remains in question.



The resistance movement continues to grow in Turkey. In late August and early September protest actions included a battle with local municipalities to paint public staircases and walkways with rainbows in a symbol of peace and solidarity. Students at Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) in Ankara, viewed by the government as a stronghold of opposition, have been protesting the building of a multi-lane highway through the middle of their forested campus. The project is seen as a punishment for anti-AKP sentiment. Clashes between students and riot police have led to marches and sit-ins supporting the students in cities around the country. A sixth young protestor was killed in one of these demonstrations. In the first week of October spectators at a soccer game in Izmir province unfurled a banner commemorating the victims of the Gezi protests chanting, “everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance!” On November 1st, 82 university students were expelled from their residences in Samsun on the Black Sea, losing their loans and scholarships for participating in the Gezi protests.

The resistance movement that began in response to the destruction of a park in Istanbul shows no sign of disappearing. The banner of resistance is waved across Turkey for a growing number of social justice causes. “We are demanding reformation of the state-society relationship. But I don’t want it to divide us into two: anti or pro-government,” says Cağla. As Erdoğan and AKP stay entrenched in their position, what remains to be seen is the path Turkey will follow out of this impasse. Will it be one of compromise and democracy at work or a spiraling spate of violence and destruction pitting Turkish citizens against their state and each other?



[i]    Kestler-D’Amours, Jillian. “Gezi Park Highlights Years of Destructive Urban Development.” Inter Press Service. June 6, 2013. http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/06/gezi-park-highlights-years-of-destructiv….

[ii]   Quoted in Kestler-D’Amours.

[iii]   Harvey, Benjamin et al. “Arabs Battling Regimes See Erdogan’s Muslim Democracy as Model.” Bloomberg. Feb 4, 2011. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-02-04/arabs-battling-regimes-see-erd….

[iv]   Gulcan, Emel. “#Resist Press Freedom.” Bianet. July 24, 2013. http://bianet.org/english/freedom-of-expression/148715-resist-press-fre….

[v]   Gardner, David. “Erdogan is eroding the freedom of the media.” The Financial Times. Aug 5, 2013. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6f70100a-fdba-11e2-a5b1-00144feabdc0.html#axz….

[vi]   Licursi, E.P. “The Ergenekon Case and Turkey’s Democratic Aspirations.” Freedom at Issue Blog, Freedom House, Feb 7, 2012. http://www.freedomhouse.org/blog/ergenekon-case-and-turkey%E2%80%99s-de….

[vii]  Licursi, “The Ergenekon Case.”

[viii] “Ruling AKP deputy report criticizes government handling of Gezi crisis.” Hurriyet Daily News. Aug 12, 2013. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/TurkRadio.aspx?pageID=238&nID=52419.


ZARA RABINOVITCH is a writer, researcher and volunteer program manager for the Society for the Preservation of Wild Culture, and a contributing editor to The Journal of Wild Culture. She holds degrees in Comparative Politics–Nationalism and Ethnicity from the London School of Economics and Political Science, English Literature Minor from the University of British Columbia. She has worked in documentary film production as co-writer and associate producer of The Sultan’s Women, a docudrama portraying the emancipation of women in the Ottoman Empire.




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