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."

But the main reason he and other Gazi youths take to the streets most nights, according to Erginyaviz, is rage at years of feeling marginalized by the Turkish government.

'The Alevi people have been insulted and oppressed in this country for hundreds of years. We're treated like second-class citizens, " he says. "Our houses of worship aren't recognized, even though we pay taxes and do military duty...the police use brutal and excessive force on our peaceful protesters all the time. So our people have always been on the side of the oppressed, never on the side of the oppressor; never on the side of the capitalist and imperialist order."

There does appear to be another, perhaps less publicized, side to this story. Utku, who prefers not to use his last name, is a protester from the Gezi Park/Taksim area. He describes an incident a few days ago in which he visited Gazi out of curiosity for a glimpse of the resistance's grittier side.

"I had never been to Gazi before in my life and I just want to see it, to see what is happening there," he says. "We live in Taksim, we see this peaceful protest even though we got a lot of gas, but we don't know what is happening in Gazi really...I started taking pictures of kids and trees, and then I saw the big flag, the big Turkish one on the police station. I started taking pictures of that...and I posted on my Facebook while I was standing there, because there was a lot of activity."

"See this?" he asks? "They take off the numbers so you don't know what kind of gas they use. Some, we can tell. But this -- who knows what we're breathing?"

Utku says that as he was walking away, he was detained and taken back to the police station for interrogation.

"They didn't really hit me or anything...but they were very violent with their language, shouting at me," he says. "They asked why would a 30-year-old investment banker living in Nişantaşı go to Gazi? And I said now something is happening, and we start hearing about this neighborhood on the news, but we don't really know what is happening. We hear people are on the streets, and that police are using tear gas on them...they said that isn't the reality, that they are in a war zone, that they fight with illegal groups and people throwing Molotov cocktails at them...they started talking about their friend who died in December when an illegal group threw a Molotov cocktail and he burned. It was crazy. His picture was on the wall and they kept showing his picture, saying nobody knows about him, nobody talks about him."

When asked, police officers at the Gazi station said they weren't allowed to speak to the press without permission, although a few of them seemed as though they would have liked to, given the chance. When prompted about the two photographs of officers in full regalia prominently displayed in the waiting room, one of the police did confirm that the men died when a Molotov cocktail was thrown at them during a protest last year.

But then, of course, there's the more brutal side of the Turkish police the world has witnessed in the past two weeks. After the clashes die down in Gazi on Monday and the tanks do one last sweep, spraying water and gas in their wake, a teenager and his 10-year-old brother walk casually behind them. The older boy picks up a spent gas pellet that's had its serial identification number removed.

"See this?" he asks? "They take off the numbers so you don't know what kind of gas they use. Some, we can tell. But this -- who knows what we're breathing?"

According to Erginyaviz, police violence has led to many deaths and injuries among neighborhood protesters. "The cops are picking targets," he says. "It's written on the gas pellets, 'Do not shoot directly into the crowd.' But two of our friends are in intensive care from being targeted by cops, and there are many who've been less critically wounded in recent days."

While the notoriously fickle international media seems, at least for the moment, to have maintained interest in the sustained protest in Taksim, Gazi residents say journalists are rarely seen in the neighborhood, and only when Gezi Park is quiet. There seems to be a fair amount of collaboration occurring between the two, very different areas of Istanbul, though -- despite reservations on the part of some Taksim protesters, who see their Gazi counterparts as violent outsiders.

"Gazi is known as a nest for terrorists," says Kartal Yuksel, a Gezi Park protest leader, taking a 3 a.m. break from a drawn-out battle with police on June 12. "Even the young kids start as terrorists against cops. They burn buses for no reason. They don't need provocation to attack the cops. They don't want to accept the force of the government. It's just a way of life for them. They know how to make Molotov cocktails, how to protect themselves from the gas."

Although he mistrusts their motivations, Yuksel says the Gazi demonstrators have proven to be invaluable to the determined, if somewhat clueless, middle-class kids clashing with police in Taksim.

"The Gazi guys are happy because up until now, they've been labeled as radical groups," he says. "Right now, most of them are in Taksim. They've helped us a lot, actually...today, I'm grateful for them, because most of the techniques we've used have been taken from them."

That's something that Yuksel, Erginyaviz, and many others protesting across Turkey seem to agree upon -- that this movement is heterogeneous and represents people from a spectrum of Turkish society.

"This is the richness of this resistance," says Erginyaviz. "It's impossible that so many people would have the exact same demands, but the thing is, one person says, '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. The Gezi resistance united all these people. It was the spark."

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Sulome Anderson

Sulome Anderson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.

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