Football fans threw smoke bombs on İstiklal Caddesi.
The orange smoke billowed upwards, blocking out the buildings of Istanbul’s grandest boulevard. Riot cops lined up in front of a water cannon. The protesters could not go forward. They would not go back.
Fans of Istanbul’s three main football teams- Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, and Beşiktaş – have shared enmity nearly since the clubs were formed. But since the 2013 Gezi protests, which came to symbolize the battle against state authoritarianism, they’ve united. They share one enemy now, the police.
It’s April 20th, I’m with them on the streets of Turkey’s largest city, as they protest a new e-ticketing system for games. Now, to buy a ticket, a fan must first purchase a special debit card displaying his or her photo and identifying information. If he chants political slogans, he can be tracked. Surveillance sold as convenience. Passolig, the company that came up with this gem, is owned by a friend of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Used to battling cops at games, football fans formed Gezi’s frontlines. Now, the police are so afraid they plead with protestors to please disperse. “Children of whores,” the fans chant back. It’s a sweet change from the last few years of New York demonstrations, where cops often forced demonstrators into pens, beat them, and arrested them like cattle. Next to hundreds of football fans spoiling for a fight, I finally feel safe from the police.
I dive to the front. Amidst the A.C.A.B. (All Cops Are Bastards) scarves and E-ticket fuck no graffiti spray-painted on the sidewalks, a masked boy holds up a flare. It burns neon. From Galatasaray gates, fans have hung a banner emblazoned with the words “There is no description for our love.” Flyers fluttered like ten thousand birds.
The riot cops advance. The fans flee, pursued by special sports police. In the smoke, a water-cannon rolls forward. It aims, fires, dripping water like a spent cock.
A street-cleaning vehicle follows, sucking up flyers. Except for the parked water cannon, within a half hour, not a trace of the protest remains.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “Justice and Development Party” (known as the A.K.P.) party came to power, in 2002, bucking the secularism of his predecessors and advancing what Western journalists like to dub a “moderate” Islamism, mixed with its neo-liberal economic agenda. After years of the “White Turks” (the Kemalist elite, urbane, well-educated, with eyes towards Europe), the AKP promised to speak for the Black Turks (religious Sunnis of Anatolian origin who the White Turks mostly scorned).
Erdoğan’s triumph was a break with his country’s history. Turkey’s national hero is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded a modern nation from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire. His portrait is omnipresent. While some outsiders might confuse it with a personality cult, most Turks revere Atatürk with sincerity and passion. Atatürk made Turkey educated, Europe-facing, technologically advanced, and sometimes heavy-handedly secular – with an unusual amount of gender equality.
Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish academic, told me “My grandmother was pulled from school and on a path to be married off as a youngster when Atatürk came to power. The government pressured her family to let her go to school instead, on a scholarship paid by the government. She has pictures of Atatürk everywhere in her room–her savior.”
But even as much of Turkey still reveres him, Atatürk’s Westernization was no panacea; it was enforced at gunpoint. He closed dervish lodges, banned the niqab, instituted state control of mosques, and even killed men who protested his ban on the fez. During both civilian governments and military coups, Turkey made it increasingly clear that secularism did not equal freedom. When Erdoğan was elected, some thought that his religious sentiment might be compatible with a liberalization of human rights.
But as the years passed, Erdoğan’s populism was swapped for authoritarianism. Historic neighborhoods have been leveled by zealous real estate developers with ties to the Prime Minister’s office. In 2012, Erdoğan’s jailed more journalists than China and Iran combined (mostly, these have been Kurds). His government has censored twitter, and used government press to whip up hysteria against dissidents.
With Erdoğan’s help, the Gülenists, a religious brotherhood led by exiled imam Fethullah Gülen, infiltrated the police and judiciary, where they allegedly leaked sex tapes and concocted fake evidence to jail his rivals.
But in 2013, Erdoğan turned on his former allies. The Gülen movement draws much of its power from charter schools, which exist across the world, including the US. When Erdoğan ordered the schools closed, a war broke out between the AKP and the “Deep State” it helped Gülen infiltrate. On December 17th, leaked audio recordings appeared implicating Erdoğan and his inner circle in abuse of power and graft.
On April 28th, Önder Aytaç, a journalist sympathetic to Gülen, was sentenced to ten months in jail, for mocking the Prime Minister on twitter.
Indeed it seems Erdoğan has tried to control most aspects of civil society – from mosques, to trade unions, to the media, to football clubs. The internet, however, keeps wriggling from his grasp. In Erdoğan’s Turkey, all dissent is conspiracy. To paint it most starkly: As in America, a politician’s rhetoric pits god-fearing ordinary folk against big city elitists, sluts and freaks. As in America, this rhetoric hides a far more complicated reality.
On May 31st, 2013, Turkey’s contradictions boiled over. Protests over Gezi Park in Istanbul turned into a national insurrection. From grandmothers to street kids, every strata of society manned a barricade. For most, it was the first time. They would never be the same.
Gezi did not bring down Erdoğan’s party in the March 31st local elections this year. Twitter whispered ballot fraud, ballot fraud, but even if the accusations are true, a substantial percentage of Turkey still supports the AKP. As Erdoğan prepares for the presidential and general elections this summer, on May Day, his opposition will take to the streets. Erdoğan has promised to crack down if protesters march on Taksim Square. Protesters promised to march.
On May 1, two sides of Turkey will battle to define its future.
The support for Erdoğan does not come from nowhere. In the last 12 years, Turkey’s economy has boomed. Construction exploded, providing airports, roads, and electricity for parts of the country past governments had been happy to ignore. Historic beauty may be a sentimental impediment to progress, but progress has been made. In a country where it is a taboo to speak of the Armenian Holocaust, last week Erdoğan offered condolences to Armenians killed during WWI. He’s greeted over a million Syrian refugees with model camps and free healthcare. It’s a far cry from Jordan’s tent city Zaatari. A virtual prison, the refugee camp is now the fourth largest city in Jordan, known for its harsh living conditions and despair.
On April 18th, I interviewed a Syrian refugee in Istanbul. One year short of getting an advanced degree when arrest attempts forced him to flee Aleppo, the refugee spoke English with a measured intensity. Turkey had opened its borders, he said. Though he is atheist, Turks treated him like a brother, based on what they assumed was a shared Muslim identity. “We believe that if the [Turkish] opposition wins an election they’ll throw us into the sea.” the refugee told me. “The AKP is authoritarian. They should lose. But it’s in my personal interest that they win.” Understandably, the refugee asked me not to reveal his name. In February, Turkey deported an Azerbaijani journalist in revenge for his criticizing the government.
One reason Erdoğan remains in power is that his opposition is so weak. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party or CHP, was the party of Atatürk. In this millennium it seems to offer little else, beyond that sepia toned legacy, once synonymous with shiny modernity. While many CHP members are leftists, a substantial chunk of the party are hardcore nationalists, uncomfortably cozy with the military. They remain opposed to Kurdish aspirations. They’re also associated with a particularly controversial bit of Kemalist Westernization. Until 2008, women who wore headscarves were not allowed to be public servants – or even to attend university. Here, secularism, like so many other ideologies, was enforced on women’s bodies. A young woman who protested at Gezi told me the headscarf ban was the greatest mistake Turkey’s secularists made.
While these days CHP paints themselves as champions of freedom, in contrast to Erdoğan’s tightened fist, this too could be seen as a position of political convenience. Back in 2007, they were only too happy to cheer on Turkey’s first YouTube ban. The censorship began with a single offending video that was perceived to be insulting Atatürk. After a few days hanging with Turkish rich kids, it struck me that Erdoğan’s culture war rhetoric stings so sharply because some CHP supporters are elitists who sneer at AKP voters as fundamentalist hicks.
Yet this simplification – Snobs versus Volk – conceals more than it reveals. For every rich kid on Gezi’s barricades, there was a sports fan, a working class member of the Alevi religious minority, a feminist worried about a prime minister who seemed to see women only as, in the words of one protester I met, “breeding machines.” Gezi was not a class war so much as an idea war – a conversation about the future, rather than a pacifying ritual of party politics.
Erdoğan crushed the Gezi protests, but old cities are bad at forgetting. Istanbul is still in love with last year’s rebellion. The streets seethe with graffiti. “Everywhere Gezi. Everywhere Resist.”
As parks go, Gezi is nothing special. A few blocks of Central Istanbul, with scraggly trees and a Cthulhu-looking fountain, it is neither the city’s biggest park nor its prettiest. But when Erdoğan revealed plans to replace the park with reconstructed Ottoman barracks, and then convert those into a shopping mall, city dwellers saw it as the final straw in his sale of Istanbul to developers.
On May 31, environmentalists camped in the park. Police began with tear gas, then burnt their tents.
A year later protesters still divide their lives into before and after Gezi.
The boundary is made of tear gas.
Truncheons break bones. Rubber bullets gouge out eyes. Tear gas radicalizes neighborhoods. Gezi borders Taksim Square, Istanbul’s heart, right off of İstiklal, its commercial artery. It was as if the NYPD decided to gas Times Square and Fifth Avenue at once. Police shot gas till birds fell from the sky. Canisters flew into apartments. Nearly a hundred of Istanbul’s street cats died of gas inhalation. The gassing went on for weeks – till people took their gas masks to work, or wore them out clubbing. Evening gowns met riot chic.
Tear gas makes you choke and weep, burn and cough, till protesters told me they thought they would die. They bought gas masks and returned to the streets.
The protesters would learn to pick up gas canisters with their gloved hands and hurl them back at the police.
Gezi’s anthem became “Sık Bakalım.” Bring on the gas.
At Gezi, anarchists fought alongside Atatürk-worshipping nationalists, hackers, office workers, artists, former elites worried about increasing government piety. They had in common little but anti-AKP sentiments and the gas burning in their throats.
Şafak, a football fan in his mid 30’s, pounded the table with passion when spoke about Gezi. We met over beers with a mutual friend. Şafak has a kid and an teaching job, but he’s been going to games since he was on his dad’s shoulders. The Beşiktaş fans he cheers with are a family – one that, during the protests, would turn into frontline warriors.
On May 31, Şafak was checking his twitter feed, when he saw the park was under attack. He went to the pharmacy to stock up on anti-acid used to counteract teargas. (Take a spray bottle, fill it half with Maalox, half with water. Bring it to protests where gassing is a risk) The pharmacist was weeping. “I have a baby, I can’t come. But my heart is with you.” she said.
“It was the first time in my life that someone whose name I didn’t know was like a brother or sister to me,” Şafak said.
This brotherhood extended to Turkey’s traditionally marginalized LGBT community. One photo shows a masked man astride a barricade. He waves a rainbow flag like a cast member in a 21st century Les Misérables. He is an actor in the hushed up history of queer resistance – like the drag queens that fought the cops at Stonewall.
The football fans of Çarşı used to chant: “Jump! The ones who aren’t jumping are faggots.” Then, they fought shoulder to shoulder with queer kids. The chant is now “Jump, the ones who aren’t jumping are Tayyip”.
Gezi meant communion, says Turk after Turk I met. You could flee into a stranger’s apartment. Someone might buy you 2,000 lira of groceries to take to the park. People went to work, then fought on the streets at night. The Divan Hotel became a refuge for the wounded. Disgusted by police, protesters called Çarşı their army.
With the police expelled from İstiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s grandest boulevard became a rebel utopia, a “commune,” in the word’s of a college student I met. During Gezi, you took care of each other. You fought the state.
Şafak told me that if he died now, he’d die knowing that he had done something.
On June 15, 2013 police cleared the park. They destroyed everything – the trees protesters planted, the art, the scrawled poetry. They scrubbed the park like they were a parent soaping defiant words from the mouth of a child.
I remember the night Bloomberg cleared Zuccotti Park of Occupy Wall Street. There is universal vindictiveness to the way governments destroy mini protest cities. They speak of them as disease vectors – as dirt.
Amidst the tents, there grows something so dangerous that power must allow no seeds to remain.
Police killed eight people during the protests around Gezi. The last to die was a fourteen-year-old boy named Berkin Elvan.
Elvan was buying bread for his family when a police officer shot him in the head with a tear gas canister Elvan lingered in a coma, dying 269 days later. Unsurprisingly, his killer was never identified.
Nearly a million people marched at Elvan’s funeral.
Berkin Elvan became Gezi’s child.
Modern Turkey, it seems, has never shied from brutalizing kids. Ece Ayhan’s 1973 poem, Monument to an Unknown Student, commemorates a youth murdered by the police during the aftermath of the 1971 coup. The tradition continues. One young anarchist, whom I knew through an activist twitter account, agreed to meet me at a flower-stand in Beşiktaş. He did not want to tell me his name. The anarchist had first been arrested at age 15, for putting up a flier on May Day. An officer had crushed his head under his boots. He showed me scars police left on his hands and forehead.
Elvan became one in a long line of the Middle East’s boy martyrs, mourned for his innocence destroyed.
During this April week in Istanbul, each morning I’d get breakfast at Urban Bar, in an alley behind Galatasaray. The alley drips with lilacs. Graffiti gilds its walls. The largest piece is a portrait of Berkin Elvan.
One day, police buses filled the alley. The cops lounged at a cafe across from Urban, drinking tea and playing backgammon. The sun glinted off of their pistol butts. They were handsome men, big and swaggering, checking their phones beneath that portrait of Berkin Elvan.
The dead boy smiles back at them from the wall.
Well after the first deaths were reported at Gezi, Erdoğan called the police heroes. This did not hurt him with his base.
Americans often conflate democracy and elections. Press may be censored, unions nationalized, imams punished for refusing to denounce protesters, but in Turkey, elections are going strong. The last one was March 31st, for local offices, but the presidential election, which Erdoğan is rumored to be considering running in, is this summer.
Government opponents widely believe the elections were far from ‘free’ or ‘fair.” During voting, electricity was cut in over 40 cities. The Energy Minister blamed a naughty cat who got into a power substation.
Citizen journalism startup 140journos took to twitter with proof of ballot irregularities. 140journos is a project of Institute of Creative Minds, a creative network. Their other gig is Gastronomika, an initiative to rebrand Anatolian cuisine.
I interviewed one of their founders, Engin Önder, 21. His English is flawless, his work experience international, and he talks like a branding consultant wisely refusing to claim sides. During Gezi, the government cut off all funding for Gastronomika, seemingly in revenge for 140journos coverage of the protests.
During the local elections, social media buzzed with reports of fraud. 140journos called on their followers to act as poll monitors – twittering photos of the final vote tallies. Over six thousand tallies were posted, mostly from Istanbul and Ankara.
Comparing these vote-tallies to the official counts, 140journos revealed subtle but important inconsistencies. According to Önder, in opposition neighborhoods, small chunks of votes were shifted from opposition parties to the AKP. Since the opposition didn’t lose, few people would notice. But, when the individual tallies were added together, the differences sifted through, and the AKP’s electoral base looked much larger than the reality.
Önder says, in cities, the fraud didn’t take place at the ballot box itself, which is supervised – but was carried out by corrupt officials typing false vote counts into a computer at the High Election Board.
Önder showed me a twitpic of a district’s vote tally. It said that AKP got 77 votes. But the official tally claimed that AKP got 177.
All Turkish TV channels broadcast a map, showing which district went to which party with colors. AKP’s color is yellow-orange. On election night, the Turkish map was lit up like a field of sunflowers.
140journos gives a glimpse at why Erdoğan hates social media. It just can’t keep a secret. From the Gülenists who leaked audio of Erdoğan ordering his son-in-law to dispose of incriminating cash, to the Gezi protesters who warned each other of the location of water cannons, Twitter is everything AKP hates. It is irreverent, anarchic, disrespectful, uncontrolled. No wonder Erdoğan’s called it the “worst menace to society.”
“People do whatever they want in the virtual world,” deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç said. “Even in the animal kingdom you don’t find these types of freedom.” In the AKP’s mind, twitter can slander a housewife into a porn star, or a Prime Minister into a despotic buffoon. Both the foreign company and its users must learn to obey him. “We’ll eradicate Twitter,” Erdoğan shouted at a rally in March. “I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic!” The following day, ten million twitter users in Turkey complained access had been cut.
The Communication Minister announced that social media was so lawless that Turkey might have to establish an Turkish intranet, “ttt not www.” If they did, Turkey would have dubious company: the only two other countries with intranets are North Korea and Cuba.
In response to court orders that threaten its ability to operate in Turkey, Twitter has location-blocked two accounts that leak recordings of Erdoğan’s corruption. Youtube is still banned.
While Erdoğan may demonize social media, his party is happy to use it for their own ends. Many AKP politicians have twitter accounts. The Mayor of Ankara’s tweets incite troll armies against journalists who write in English. Ergün Diler, editor in chief of the pro-government newspaper Takvim, has even tweeted to defend the twitter ban. Twitter, he wrote, was secretly run by Jews.
Yet, what is good for AKP leadership may be less so for its base. The Diyanet (Ministry of Religious Affairs), is under the control of the Prime Minister’s Office. It pays the salary of every Sunni imam in the country. In return, they must read the Diyanet’s Friday sermons. Over the last few months, the Diyanet has produced several sermons denouncing social media. Imams read them from every mosque.
Social is media is vital because mainstream media is not free.
Turkey jails more journalists than any other country. But this isn’t the whole story. While Turkey locks up Kurdish reporters on fictitious terrorism charges, for the mainstream media, the problem is self-censorship. Since mainstream media is owned by corporations who, in other areas, have government contracts, firing critical journalists becomes a cost of doing business. Disobedient media can find themselves buried in government tax and libel suits – a tactic that is no less effective for its respectable veneer.
As protesters bled at the height of the Gezi protests, CNN Turkey ran documentaries about penguins. Penguin Media soon became slang for hackdom. Stencils of penguins in gas masks adorned the streets.
I visited one opposition paper, too late. With a name that means “Against”, Karşı promised to “gain back of tiny bit of journalism’s honor,” said journalist Ayşegul Altin. Editors there promised to bring rigorous honesty to a media landscape that is anything but.
But Karşı closed abruptly after the election, stiffing its workers for months of wages. They took over its offices. Drivers, cleaners and journalists shared cigarettes from a communal pile, and slept in conference rooms where their bosses once bloviated. Sleep-deprived young reporters hunched over their iPhones. Karşı’s workers aren’t just occupying – they’re putting out a newspaper of the occupation – Karşı Resists.
Over tea, reporters told me they were targeted during protests by police who aimed tear gas canisters at their heads, or forced to leave mainstream jobs because they could no longer live with censorship. Several had been jailed for their work. One, Sami Menteş, was arrested on his 22nd birthday. Held for 9 months, he was the world’s youngest imprisoned journalist. “Being a journalist has become an act of stubbornness,” Sami laughed.
The next day I had coffee with one of Turkey’s most stubborn journalists. He is also the most celebrated.
Winner of the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize, Ahmet Şık embodies journalism’s mission to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” A blunt, muscular man who’s gotten in trouble with every Turkish regime he’s lived under, Şık’s been put into the hospital by a pro-police mob, had to flee the country, and keeps being dragged before the courts on charges like “insulting the Turkish-ness of the army.”
It was not his articles, but his book Imam’s Army, an investigation of the Gülen movement, that brought him the most pain. In 2011, Erdoğan and Gülen were still in love. Before Imam’s Army was even finished, police arrested Şık at dawn and chucked him into jail for over a year.
When asked about Şık’s detention, Erdoğan said “some books are more dangerous than bombs.”
Imam’s Army was banned in Turkey. Police raided Şık’s publisher’s office, attempting to delete every existing copy of the file. But in the internet era, information is less easily eradicated. A PDF of the book was downloaded over 100,000 times.
Şık’s charges were part of Ergenokon, a rat-king of cases against hundreds of military officers, academics, NGO workers and journalists, who were accused of fomenting chaos to organize a coup. Much of the evidence was obviously faked. Ergenokon was an attempt by Erdoğan and the Gülen-dominated judiciary to break the traditional power of the military. Locking up critics like Şık was a bonus.
If Erdoğan and Gülen hadn’t split, Şık believes he’d still be in jail. He faces new charges for criticizing his prosecutor.
“When focusing on civil rights, you shouldn’t just look at the AKP,” Şık told me over coffee. “Civil and journalistic rights in Turkey are a historical problem. In the ’90s, you used to get killed, especially if you were Kurdish or working in the East. Journalists were subjected to police and military violence. Some ‘disappeared’ while in detention.”
“Right now we’re just jailed with false evidence. More and more mainstream media workers are getting detained. Free speech is under attack.”
According to Şık, what makes the situation so dangerous that the AKP is so dominant. In coalition governments, parties balance each other, providing loopholes for journalists like him to work. But the AKP has defeated all challengers.
“What the AKP is doing right now can only be described as behaving like a mafia gang, with Erdoğan as the criminal boss,” Şık said.
But victory has made Erdoğan no less paranoid. He sees only enemies – military jonesing for a coup, a “deep state” under the control of Gülenists, rich kids twittering amidst the tear gas.
I ask Şık if he is afraid. He laughed. “In countries like Turkey if you battle the system, you’ll always pay the price. The fight for democracy here is like digging a well with a needle. We’re not doing it for today, but for the future.”
In journalism, objectivity is bullshit. But Turkish media sometimes makes you yearn for those who at least pretend to believe in the myth. Both pro-government and pro-Gülen media are conspiracy carnivals. In the pages of pro-AKP papers like Yeni Şafak, the CIA controls everything, coups lurk around each corner, and the Rothschild family disappeared the missing Malaysian airliner.
Facts are laughable encumbrances. Yeni Şafak once ran an interview with Noam Chomsky in which he praised Erdoğan as an exemplar of the Arab Spring. But Chomsky denied some of the quotes. Since no English transcript of those quotes existed, the reporter tried to show the Turkish text mangled into English by Google translate as “proof” of their existence. Yeni Şafak retracted the interview.
Just as Western journalists often ignore AKP’s religious base, they ignore the media that speaks to it. With a Turkish friend I visited Yeni Şafak’s headquarters, in a suburb on the raw edges of the construction boom. Their skyscraper is as sleek as Karşı’s offices were humble. My friend began panicking as soon as we got in the door. Yeni Şafak is widely regarded as akin to an arm of the government. She worried she might lose a job, or her family would be targeted. She ran out of the room minutes after the interview began.
In Turkish, a reporter badgered my friend as to why an American was there. In English, a translator politely offered me tea.
Recep Yeter, the paper’s Chief of Intelligence, sets his phone to record the interview next to mine. This was “in case there are problems later.” It’s a good thing, because days after my return to the states he’d begin denying what he’d said. Yeter conducted this interview in Turkish, with his colleague from Yeni Şafak acting as an interpreter.
Yeter paints a picture of foreign journalists as obsessed with social media and hip neighborhoods like Beşiktaş, never venturing outside to get to know the facts of the country, or the rural parts of Anatolia from which the AKP draws much of its support.. “The face of the real Turkey is the 45.6% of the country who voted for the AKP.” said Yeter.
The remaining 54.4% of the country is presumably fake.
To Yeter, Gezi was a protest of sore losers, manipulated by shadowy forces, lashing out because the CHP keeps failing to deliver. They were vandals who had wrecked shops and kept people out of Taksim Square with their danger and their dirt. It was as though there was one playbook: the language reminded me of the way in which pundits like Bill O’Reilly denounced Occupy Wall Street. After mocking their filthy hippy-hood, O’Reilly said “they are terrorists. They are trying to create trouble, that’s what terrorists do.”
The ballot discrepancies that twitter highlighted are fakes made by CHP members- a “perception operation” meant to convince Westerners the elections were a fraud.
Yeter insisted the AKP is the party of freedom, particularly freedom of expression. Under the AKP, he told us excitedly, a commercial starred a woman in a headscarf. Over and over, Yeter hinted at conspiracies against the Turkish government. When I asked him who was behind them, he’d change the subject. It’s important to remember, he’d say, that AKP got 45.6% of the vote.
Yeter himself uses twitter. Over 5,000 users follow on his account. When I asked him about Erdoğan’s twitter ban, he chalked the matter up to national sovereignty.
In America, Twitter has turned over information on users who have made bomb threats. It will not turn over users who Turkish courts charge with leaking photographs or “violating one’s personal life.”
“If a bad rumor about me, my life, or my family, is spreading around through Twitter—and if I go to court, and it’s something very insulting and affecting my life, and the court says ‘I can’t do anything because the relation between the government and Twitter,’ and then I go to Twitter and it says, ‘I can’t do anything.’, what am I going to do?” Yeter asked, as if a Twitter ban was the self-evident answer.
Yet even if this argument held weight, his paper, Yeni Şafak, itself does not shrink from insult.
Six months before Gezi started, a group of Turkish theater folks put on a play called Mi Minör. Set in an imaginary state, Mi Minör had little in common with the protests except for a piano. Like many artists, the Mi Minör crew later tweeted in support of Gezi.
Based on these tweets, Yeni Şafak published editorials accusing the crew of organizing the entirety of Gezi themselves. They maintained the play was a dry run for the protests. Further: the actors, director and playwright were not artists. They were international spies plotting a coup. Soon, the accusations began flying. The Mayor of Ankara denounced them on TV, then Erdoğan himself before an AKP rally. The cast began receiving hundreds of rape and death threats per hour. After a stalker scrawled “YOU ARE DEAD” on the playwright’s car, most of the Mi Minör crew fled Turkey.
Nor is it the only time Yeni Şafak has been “very insulting.” Last September they accused BBC and Bloomberg News journalists of being CIA agents – accusations again repeated by the Mayor of Ankara. The article was rich with errors, but short on proof.
Yeter claimed never to have heard these accusations. When his translator printed the article up, he shrugged. Columnists can write what they like.
“It’s an opinion;” Yeter said. “It doesn’t have to be true.”
Before I left, Yeter told me a story. As a schoolboy, he was taken to a museum in Ankara to see an airplane – so rare were they in the lives of Turks. Now, even low-income people can fly. Yeter told me that the AKP is a car that for the last twelve years has kept the Turkish nation safely on course. You wouldn’t throw that car in the trash just because a tire is flat.
He graciously ordered me a ride back to my hotel.
That night, I took the ferry out to Üsküdar, to visit a man who rebelled against the Turkish government long before AKP’s triumph. Hikmet was once a member of the armed Marxist group Dev Sol. Active from 1978-1994 (when was renamed due to infighting), Dev Sol was known for assassinations carried out to protest imperialism. Imprisoned under the brutal coup years of the 1980’s, during which US-backed generals jailed more then 500,000 people, Hikmet took part in the notorious hunger strikes then carried out by political prisoners. For many, these would be death fasts. Hikmet is a elegant man in tweed, who rolls his cigarettes using tobacco from Iran. His English is eloquent, theoretical, peppered with obscenities. He laughs at the idea that the years may have diminished his radicalism.
Hikmet saw in Gezi a new form of protest – non-hierarchical , unbound by traditional leftist organizations. While he was unimpressed by the intellectual analysis of protesters, when he saw a girl he knew teetering around Taksim in high heels and a gas mask, he said to himself, “If she’s here, Erdoğan is fucked.”
“The photos from Gezi are beautiful. These kids have seen The Matrix. They have the right clothes, the right poses. They think that if they can take over a water cannon, they will make a revolution. But the cops have guns.”
Hikmet cooked us some kebabs. As the chili peppers grilled, their smoke filled the room, making an ersatz tear gas. “Whatever happens, there will be another Erdoğan,” Hikmet said. “No matter who wins, they’ll privatize the public assets, if there are any left.
“People need to lose the cheap hopes they place in the election. Useless dreams need some disappointment.”
It was the night before the football protest.
I took the ferry back across the Bosphorus from Uskudar and walked down İstiklal Caddesi. This is not the real Turkey. This is not the real anywhere. It is the grandest boulevard in the world, lit by fairy lights. I walked past the chestnut sellers, the doner shops, the Syrian beggar kids, the men hawking tar-thick ice cream from Kahramanmaraş, past the street cats and bubble blowers, the crush of couples hand in hand. I walked down the side streets crawling with graffiti. “May 1, to Taksim.”
May 1 is Labor Day. Though Labor Day was born in America, here its radical history has been largely forgotten. But in Europe and Turkey, Labor Day is massive. Traditionally, unions protest in Taksim. This year, Erdoğan banned this – relegating them to “boutique squares.” The unions vowed to march anyway. Over two dozen organizations pledged to join them. To many, May 1st is practice for May 31st, the first anniversary of Gezi.
On May 1st, these streets will be white with tear gas.
“The AKP has built an empire of fear.” Ahmet Şık told me, when I asked him what he thought of Gezi “Gezi brought an end to this. It was the most beautiful month of my life.”
About The Author
Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer living in New York. A columnist for VICE, she has written for The New York Times, The Paris Review, CNN and The Guardian. She is working on a book, DRAWING BLOOD, for Harper Collins.