Gazi to Gezi: Turkish Protests Unite Minorities Who Distrust Each Other

The Taksim protests have brought together middle-class youth with another, longer-simmering conflict in one of Istanbul's Alevi neighborhoods.
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Sulome Anderson

It's the night of Monday, June 10 in the Gazi district of Istanbul, just 20 minutes away from Taksim Square, where massive protests against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have taken place over the past two weeks. While cameras are trained on the clashes between police and thousands of demonstrators in Taksim, ongoing battles in Gazi go largely unnoticed by the press. On this evening, crowds begin to gather for a rally in the neighborhood's main street just as the sun goes down.

Speakers deliver fiery orations from a makeshift podium as the audience grows and the chanting becomes louder. Unlike the Taksim protesters, who have been mostly students, in Gazi every age group is represented. Tiny children are held up on their parent's shoulders while grandmothers stand in doorways, and there appears to be an air of festivity about the affair. The only hint of danger occurs when a group of youths peels away from the crowd, quietly slipping bandannas on their faces.

'I'm being oppressed for wearing an earring,' another says, 'I'm being oppressed because I'm an Alevi,' others will say it's because they drink.

"From 7 to 70, everybody in this neighborhood is a member of the resistance," says Hasan Erginyaviz, head of the youth branch of the Republican People's Party, a local political group. "Because of the history of this neighborhood, people are very politically sensitive. It's very hard to find anyone who's apolitical, so it would be absurd to find anyone in Gazi who's not reacting to what's going on in Turkey at the moment."

The crisis in Turkey began in Istanbul on May 28, when a small group of environmental activists held a sit-in to protest the Turkish government's plans to raze Taksim Square's Gezi Park. Police violently dispersed the demonstration using tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons, sparking a public outcry and prompting thousands more demonstrators to pour into Taksim in a show of solidarity. Social reforms instituted in recent months by Erdogan's government, which is dominated by the conservative AKP party, helped fuel public sentiment against him. The incidents of police brutality that saturated social media in the week following the Gezi Park demonstration ignited massive protests in cities across Turkey.

According to active members of the protest movement in Gazi, their efforts are nothing more than an extension of the nationwide uprising inspired by the Gezi Park sit-in.

"This is our contribution to the people who are united in Taksim," says Ali Rencber, a local community leader. "Our demands are completely the same as the protesters in Gezi. Taksim is the main place of resistance; if the protest ends there, it will end here as well."

The Democracy ReportBut the atmosphere in Gazi is quite different from that of Taksim, where between clashes, a motley crew of college students camp out in Gezi Park's vivid, ragtag tents. At this hour, Gazi district still has an amicable quality to it -- despite their obvious anger at the government and their chanting against the Turkish police, most of the people in the neighborhood are friendly and warm. A heavy middle-aged woman bangs a giant metal pan, shouting about the resistance as she doles out hugs and invites everyone to her house for tea after the clashes are over.

There is a point, though, when the atmosphere shifts. It's not clear how it begins, but there seems to be an invisible signal, because many of the women and small children make their way home, and some of the teenage boys pull out bandannas. Some of the older ones are better prepared, with makeshift gas masks.

A little way up the road, fires burn at three hastily improvised barricades set up about a hundred yards apart. A tense, mostly younger crowd has formed at the one closest to the rally in the main street, while braver folk gather at the second. The truly daring crouch behind the first barricade, which stands in front of an impressive police tank like David before Goliath.

For a while, nothing happens, and this seems to disappoint the crowd, who begin to chant insults and whistle. Rocks are thrown, to no avail. The tank stands there, immovable, until it seems like nothing will happen. Then someone throws a firework, and the police lose their patience. Tear gas spews into the air as the tanks, topped with large water cannons, begin to move ponderously. Protesters scatter, impotently pelting the armored vehicles with stones as the barricades are crushed like matchsticks.

"Whatever you do, don't run," one of the boys cautions before he disappears into the dark. "If they see you run, they'll try to get you for sure."

Though Rencber and other local leaders insist the goals and motivations of residents in Gazi line up perfectly with the protesters in Gezi Park, others argue that socioeconomic and religious inequality mean people from Gazi and the protesters in Gezi are resisting Erdogan's government for very different reasons.

"Gazi is an Alevi neighborhood," says Turkan Karakus, correspondent for sendika.org, a news portal focusing on blue-collar rights. "Alevis are a minority Sufi sect in Turkey, so this is a minority neighborhood, and the clashes never really stop. Maybe one day they happen, maybe one day they don't. But they're ongoing. This is the neighborhood in Istanbul that has been the most isolated by the AKP. Every right of the people here has been ignored by the state, so the AKP is the focus of these demonstrations."

One interesting aspect of the anti-AKP sentiment in Gazi is the neighborhood's attitude towards Erdogan's aggressively interventionist policy regarding neighboring Syria. Although Alevism is technically a Sufi sect, it has much in common with the Alawite branch of Shiite Islam currently battling to maintain control of the Syrian state.

Erginyaviz maintains that sect plays no role in Gazi's rejection of Turkey's Syria policy; however, he's openly critical of what he calls the hypocrisy of Erdogan's tough stance on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

"This government has been oppressing the people of Turkey for ten years -- limiting their way of life, telling them to listen about the way people are being treated in Syria while oppressing its own citizens," he says. "There's no direct relationship with the situation in Syria, but it is an element. Our international policy regarding Syria doesn't make sense. We started down a road in which we had zero problems with our neighbors; now there are zero neighbors that we don't have problems with."

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Sulome Anderson

Sulome Anderson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.

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