Turkey’s ultras at the forefront of resistance

Football fans were at the forefront of the Gezi protests, now they are at the sharp end of the Turkish justice system.

Turkish soccer club Besiktas' fan group 'Carsi' members gather in front of a courthouse to protest against the trial of 35 'Carsi' fans who took part in mass anti-government protests in 2013 [EPA]

Being a Besiktas suporter, a member of the renowned Carsi ultras, is not just about being a football fan. Founded by a group of school friends in 1982, the Carsi ultras have been struggling against despotism and tyranny for more than thirty years now. The famous Turkish writer Esber Yagmurdereli once said: “I am not in opposition because I’m a Besiktas fan, I’m a Besiktas fan so I am in opposition.”

For 35 Carsi ultras this idea is all too real. Today they are facing trial in Turkey for their participation in the Gezi protests last year. The have been charged with plotting to overthrow the government and are facing lengthy prison sentences. They are also accused of being part of an “armed group” and “possessing unlicensed weapons”.

Leading Gezi protests

The Carsi ultras were at the forefront of the demonstrations against the government. When police decided to remove environment protesters from Gezi Park – one of the last green spaces in Istanbul’s city centre – the Carsi ultras were the first to respond and show solidarity. It was their energy and mobilisation power that drew in hundreds of thousands of people from diverse backgrounds, including religious and ethnic minorities, leftists and groups such as the Anti-Capitalist Muslims.

Astonishingly, it even brought out supporters of rival football clubs who have been at odds with each other since the 1980s. While other football fan groups dispersed in the face of repression, the Carsi ultras stood their ground.

A Besiktas fan shouts slogans during a protest against the trial of 35 fans that took part in the 2013 Gezi protests [AFP]

Some Besiktas fans were arrested during the protests and others – in house raids in September 2013. According to Ali Usluer, a Carsi ultra, this is a clear case of “revenge” for not backing down.

More than a year after the protests, nearly 6,000 people have been charged in 97 different trials.

Coup suspicions and conspiracy theories are not without substance in Turkish history. The Turkish military has interfered in civilian matters throughout the 20th century.

But the Carsi ultras – famous for their slogan “Carsi is against everything!” – claim to have never been aligned with the military or subversive political groups in any way.

“It is ludicrous to accuse the Carsi of an attempted coup,” Ali tells me over the phone. “Carsi members suffered under the military dictatorship in 1983. Just because we were organised, doesn’t mean we are for a coup.”

A history of opposition

The Carsi ultras have a mass appeal and popularity in Turkey and abroad. Carsi’s Twitter account has more than 700,000 followers. They are also said to be the loudest football fans on the planet. The noise level in their 32,000 capacity stadium once reached 132 decibels at a home game against Fenerbahce in 2007. Ali remembers that day: “My jaw almost broke, I was screaming so loud.” Despite rising ticket prices and commercialisation, the Inonu Stadium remains a place of political protest, Ali says.

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Their opposition goes beyond mere symbolism. In the past, they demonstrated against the war in Iraq and the construction of a nuclear power station; they collected money for earthquake victims, and continue to donate blood regularly.

In a country where the Armenian genocide of 1915 is not recognised as such, it is significant that one of their former leaders Alen Markaryan is Armenian. After the murder of the Armenian-Turkish writer Hrant Dink, they held up banners saying “We are all Armenians”. After a Black Besiktas player was insulted by other fans, they held up a banner which read: “We are all black!” Most recently fans showed their solidarity with the protests in Ferguson.

Minorities such as Kurds and Alevis strongly identify with the club as well. Kemal Kunes, a Besiktas supporter in London said: “Coming from a lefty Alevi/Kurd family I have always seen Besiktas as the club to support in Turkey.”

During the days and nights of street fights against the Erdogan government, their opposition took new heights. Thousands of Carsi ultras adorned their Facebook cover photo with the slogan “Give us 100 gas masks and we’ll take back the park”. Carsi ultras even hijacked an excavator to erect barricades and move against police lines.

Accusations of terrorism

Ipek Demirsu, a human rights researcher based in Istanbul told me: “The Carsi trial signifies two interconnected processes that have been working to paralyse fundamental rights and liberties in Turkey. On the one hand, it exemplifies how public dissent has become coterminous with ‘terrorism’ and thereby silenced. It also signals the blurring of boundaries for the separation of powers, jeopardising the rule of law.”

The trial, which started today, has gathered a lot of publicity. At a US State Department press briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf acknowledged they were looking into the case. In Germany, Borussia Dortmund supporters showed solidarity with the football fans facing trial. Their banners read in Turkish “Carsi ultras: Your way is the struggle! Never give up! Freedom for the ultras, also in Turkey!”

And at home, the progressive political party HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) declared that they will provide legal assistance to Carsi members. Rival supporter groups “Sol Acik” (Outer Left) of the football club Fernerbahce and Galatsaray’s “Tek Yumruk” (One Fist) also showed their support on the first day of the trial.

Ali is very optimistic that his fellow ultras will be acquitted. Yavuz, another Besiktas supporter, confirms this view over Facebook: “We recently have seen many cases based on trumped up evidence overturned as the police and prosecution ‘belonged’ to another group once in cahoots with the government, but not anymore.”

Yet the future of the defendants remains uncertain, and so does the future of political protest in Turkey. Solidarity can make all the difference.

Mark Bergfeld grew up in the suburbs of Koeln, Germany. He holds a Bachelor’s in PPE and a Master’s in Sociology, and is an activist and writer.