Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Turks and chaos

Young 'brothers and sisters' may lose short-term battle with authoritarian leader, but war for future is far from over

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A protester holding a Turkish flag is thrown off his feat by a stream of water from a police water canon during clashes in Taksim square in Istanbul.

KOSTAS TSIRONIS / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

A protester holding a Turkish flag is thrown off his feat by a stream of water from a police water canon during clashes in Taksim square in Istanbul.

Typically, Istiklal Caddesi is a pedestrian shopping corridor leading to Taksim Square. Tonight the store fronts are shuttered, graffiti covers the walls and everywhere there are people chanting, fists raised, faces covered in gas masks. They shout slogans like "We stand shoulder to shoulder" and "Taksim is everywhere."

The water cannon mounted on the top of the truck sprays a torrent of water at a group of activists who turn tail and run. Suddenly, tear gas canisters hit the ground with loud clanks and everyone is surrounded by smoke. Two men rush to one of the cans and fling it back towards the truck, but it is too late. Tear gas floods the street. People rush away with their eyes watering and faces drenched, most gagging and coughing along the way.

Other protesters greet them with lemon juice, pouring it onto their hands and wiping it under their eyes. Talha Sivis, an 18-year-old high school student-turned-activist, told me that once the gas starts flying "everyone is like brothers and sisters."

The improvised tear gas remedy and the mutual aid they offer each other are just some of the protest tactics many young Turks have become good at over the past two weeks.

The protests began in late May over plans to scrap Gezi Park, a green space within Taksim Square, in favour of a new shopping mall. On May 31, police moved to clear the demonstrators with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons. This show of force was seen by many as the latest example of an authoritarian streak running through Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party. In recent months he has restricted alcohol sales, made snide comments about the founders of modern Turkey and fired up the religious element in his base. Taken together, many fear Erdogan is trying to move Turkey away from the free and secular society that it is today.

For his part, Erdogan has remained defiant, calling for the protests to end and labelling the participants alternately as "liars," "provocateurs" and "terrorists."

It is difficult to square that with what I saw in Taksim Square last weekend. On Saturday night, hundreds of thousands of people filled the area with music, dance circles and chants. The mood was celebratory, more dance party than political party. The air was thick with the smell of cooked meats, grilled corn and, yes, alcohol. Parents walked through the throngs with young children on their shoulders. Seniors walked about. Women in hijabs and modest clothing walked alongside others who looked like they were going to a nightclub. In one of the most telling displays, fans from local soccer clubs, normally bitter rivals, put aside their differences and marched on the square together. The scene was a powerful testament to Turkey's potential: an energetic, pluralistic society with room for both a bright future and a rich past.

I returned to the park Monday to visit the tent city that had sprung up in Gezi Park. The banners, teach-ins and megaphones are reminiscent of the Occupy movement. Gezi even had its own self-organized cleanup crews, kitchen and medical tent. Gediz Er, a 35-year-old former industrial engineer, summed up the prevailing idealism nicely: "Personally, I would like this to inspire everybody. To inspire and be inspired -- around the globe."

While there were people of all ages present, most were in their teens and 20s. They spoke about wanting to protect their civil liberties. They told me they want reproductive freedom (Erdogan has said everyone should have three children), religious freedom and of course, the freedom to drink alcohol if they like.

Sivis, the high school student, has never voted before, never even been politically engaged before. Taksim Square and Gezi Park have awakened something in him. "When I am not here I feel like I'm away from home," he said gesturing to the tents sprawled about behind him.

On Tuesday night, with the tent city in flames and thousands of young people like Sivis in the streets battling with police, it is unclear which vision of Turkey will win out. Will it be the multicultural street party from Taksim last weekend? Will it be the communally minded version favoured in Gezi park? Or will Erdogan and AK push ahead with the course they have been pursuing so far?

When the tear gas clears, there is a good chance that Erdogan may appear to be strengthened in the short term. Even thousands of protesters are really no match for hundreds of armed police officers.

But the long run favours the young, those "brothers and sisters" passing lemon juice to each other today are forming opinions and relationships that they will carry with them tomorrow. And that will inform how they lead the rest of their lives. Already Sivis says he plans to vote in the next election, due in 2015. "Not for AK" he adds.

 

Wab Kinew is the director of indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 13, 2013 c7

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