Taking the next step in Turkey

Turks inspired by protests hold public meetings on how to bring about lasting change.

Crowd at Abbasaga Park forum, Istanbul
Thousands have gathered at Abbasaga Park, in Istanbul's seaside suburb of Besiktas [Nigel O'Connor/Al Jazeera]

Istanbul, Turkey – On the edge of Taksim Square’s bustle, the singing birds of Gezi Park can be heard, as police sit on park benches under trees.

The square and the surrounding suburbs of Istanbul have remained subject to a considerable police operation after authorities retook Taksim, following an 11-day sit-in and prolonged street battle. Scores of police line intersections, alongside armoured vehicles and transportation buses, as authorities attempt to prevent a re-emergence of the massive protests that began in late May.

“It’s over,” Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared as the police moved into Taksim in June.

Control of the square may be important for returning a sense of normality to downtown Istanbul, but the protest movement spawned its own momentum – and police remain on edge. Protecting the trees of Gezi Park was merely the expression for a litany of grievances against the government led by Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, which critics have said has become increasingly authoritarian.

Downhill from Taksim, in the seaside suburb of Besiktas, thousands have been gathering in Abbasaga Park each night. There are the usual chants and political grandstanding, but the focus of the gatherings is to discuss how to convert the energy of Taksim into tangible change.

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Two men arrive early to find good seats in the crowd. Kaan Benli says he and his friend have come each night since the fora began. “It’s a really good atmosphere and an important process,” said the 26-year-old, adding he comes to hear discussions about how to make Turkey more democratic.

“I like that the forums are open to anybody that wants to talk,” he says. “The problem of Turkish society is that the government doesn’t want to do anything for the people.”

Benli says the divisions within Turkish society are such that some would fear of consequences of attending such events. “There’s a 50-50 split in Turkish society,” he said. “Many people support us are but afraid to lose their jobs. I know many people who were fired from their jobs for taking part in the protest movement.”

The crowds gather from about 7pm until 11:30pm. Speakers and performers take to the stage in an amphitheatre overlooked by a series of statues of martyrs to the cause of democracy. “Heroes of democracy,” the commemorative stone describes them.

As the crowd assembles, an artist creates a five-metre sculpture of a cocoon being opened by hands emerging from within, while a theatre group entertains the audience with dance performances. The elderly and middle-aged sit alongside young professionals and fashionable young Turks earnestly smoking cigarettes.

Hanging behind the speakers and performers, alongside a Turkish flag, is a painted banner of a large tree made up of multi-coloured hands. “Taksim” is written beneath the tree’s roots, as a reminder of the forum’s origin. Hand signals are used by the crowd to indicate applause, interest and rejection so as not to disturb residents living near the park.

One of the speakers, Ali Ergin Demirhan, works the crowd into an agitated frustration. Following his speech, a large portion of them march, chanting, to a nearby square before returning.

I want to take the next step, and that's action. We can form a political party focused on no ethnic, religious or ideological basis but on social solutions.

by - Aysegul Aksu

He describes government repression as normal in Turkish society. “Maybe tomorrow things will change,” he says. “We are struggling. We have had a different Turkey since May 31 [the day the Gezi Park protest became a broader social movement] and the government isn’t as strong as it was before.”

Demirhan describes the success of the events at Taksim as awakening a broader awareness of like-minded individuals and organisations. “We’ve created a consciousness,” he said. “This is a coming together of organised movements and unorganised movements. It’s going to be hard to create a new political power, but this is a beginning.”

Coffee and tea vendors ply the crowd and various groups maintain stalls handing out pamphlets and newspapers. The Carsi – hardcore supporters of the Besiktas football club – offer first aid classes as well as lessons on how to resist police crowd control measures. In the park around the central forum small groups break off to discuss issues, while professional and interest groups form their own workshops.

One of the groups discusses the importance of cross-cultural understanding in achieving a more just Turkish society. Ferit Altinsu, an Assyrian from Mardin in the country’s southeast, tells the group of the genocide perpetrated against his people in the days of the Ottoman Empire and the early years of the Turkish Republic.

“It makes people learn things they never knew,” he says afterwards. “Many people sitting here would have ideas dictated to them by the state and the media about non-Turkish people and cultures.”

Altinsu says mainstream opinions in Turkey are dictated by the government and the media. “They are trying to make us [Assyrians] a tourist object and we don’t want that,” he says. “If we don’t fit what they want, they don’t want to know us.”

A young anarchist interrupts to call the speakers to the streets rather than continue their discussion. He’s respectfully heard until some laughter erupts, and the conversation continues.

Aysegul Aksu organised the workshop following her experiences at Gezi Park and Taksim Square, where many different groups of people were brought together for the first time – Kurds, Alevi, Sunni, LGBT and the handicapped. “After the protest we got together wanting the same thing – a more democratic country,” she said.

Referring to the death of a Kurdish protester earlier in the day, killed when Turkish police opened fire on demonstrators in Diyarbakir, she said discrimination was prevalent in Turkish society and needed overcoming. “That death was discrimination,” she claimed. “Why do they use tear gas on us, but live ammunition on the Kurds?”

Aksu hopes the energy of Abbasaga’s discussions will be transferred into political action. “This isn’t about Taksim any more,” she said. “The way to get civil rights is awareness.”

While some prefer not to politicise the gatherings, others want to align them with existing political movements. Others, such as Aksu, favour a new political direction.

“I want to take the next step, and that’s action,” she says. “We can form a political party focused on no ethnic, religious or ideological basis but on social solutions. It can begin by running for municipal elections.

“It shouldn’t be just about campaigning, but doing things.”

Follow Nigel O’Connor on Twitter: @nigel_oconnor

Source: Al Jazeera