The weekend from Hell

UPDATE: Interior Minister Bulent Arinc has suggested for the first time that the Turkish army may be used to quell the protests. This is an important moment, as it would no doubt have to have followed on days of serious negotiations — the army is one of Erdogan’s biggest opponents (some even supported the protesters in early days) and is fiercely secular. Until now, Erdogan’s neutering of the political power of the army was thought to have ruled them out as a possible last resort, potentially explaining the brutality of police intervention. If the army does get involved, this will become very, very ugly.

It has been one hell of a weekend.

I headed to Ankara on Friday with the aim of covering ongoing clashes in the capital and an AKP rally scheduled for Sunday evening. The city of Ankara is a classic example of urban planning a la Erdogan — it is a city without a heart, a series of pockets and enclaves full of monolithic buildings, skyscraping apartment complexes (many still under construction), and shopping mall after shopping mall. There is no place like Taksim or Gezi — even the hub of Kizilay is surrounded by broad motorways, and was for most of the time I spent in downtown Ankara almost vacant.

This has had an effect on the nature of the protests. Unlike Gezi, where thousands joined in largely peaceful action, the protests in Ankara over the weeks preceding my visit were sporadic and dispersed clashes involving a few protesters hurling rocks and setting fires, and indiscriminate daytime gassing by police.

Perhaps, as my host put it, because there are so few large public spaces in Ankara, Prime Minister Erdogan’s rally was held far from the city centre — more than an hour’s transit — in the suburb of Sincan. Though the area is economically depressed, all the roads were recently resurfaced — on the day of our visit, some even still smelled like tar.

Thousands of people were brought in by municipal buses taken out of service for the purpose, filled with flag-waving supporters from across Ankara and the surrounding country. Erdogan’s speech — we could understand little of it at the actual event — was prophetically  militant. Two hours later, Gezi was cleared in one of the most brutal police actions of his government.

In Ankara, thousands took to the streets in protest, creating one of the most concentrated acts of defiance yet seen by the city. It has, after all, also seen its share of disproportionate, even shocking police aggression, including, just this weekend, an assault on a funeral procession for a protester killed by police.

Of all the warnings I got in Ankara, by far the most frequent was for being a journalist. Unlike in Istanbul, where international media is concentrated, journalists in Ankara continue to be the targets of assaults from police. Freelancers like myself are often arrested, detained, and sometimes beaten before they are released and deported.

This is perhaps another reason why the decision of Istanbul police to prevent media from covering the clearance of Gezi Park is so alarming. The media, both international and national, is now left relying on shaky second-hand reports, or else the frantic videos of those unlucky enough to be inside the police cordon.

In historical Sultanahmet, Erdogan again ratcheted up his rhetoric, calling protesters “terrorists”, “traitors”, and “foreigners” — it’s worth reading the quotes from this Hurriyet article for an idea of the level of obstinacy protesters face from this government. He continued his line of attack against the foreign media, international organizations, and the large body of opposition within his own country, accusing them of a cooperative effort to undermine the AKP. These are seriously dictatorial claims, approaching paranoia.

While hundreds of thousands were brought to this event by municipal ferries and buses taken off service to prevent protesters from entering Besiktas district, Istanbul was reeling from news of mothers losing their children, hotels and rescue centres gassed, and medics being gassed, arrested and detained (on charges of supporting a terror organization, a catch-all for protesters), violating numerous international conventions to which Turkey is signatory. The government continues to deny many of the claims, despite growing video evidence and testimony. The governor of Istanbul initially said only 24 were detained — this is now evidently false, with the Turkish Bar Association claiming more than 300. Thousands have been injured since the protests began.

The reaction to this news, and to the brazen swagger of Erdogan’s AKP rally in Istanbul, was to organize a counter-protest to retake Taksim Square. Thousands took the streets, but were unable to concentrate as police closed off and gassed all roads to the square. The entire urban centre of Istanbul was, at some points, under attack or otherwise occupied. Police blocked highways and sent water cannons and gas into crowds of people as far up as Sisli, on the edge of Istanbul’s urban core. Hurriyet reports an instance of supporter violence against the headquarters of the rival Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP).

Internationally, Turkey’s reputation may finally be suffering as much as Erdogan says it is. The EU is unlikely to grant accession after numerous criticisms, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel joining the fray. That is, if it truly cares six months down the road, which is doubtful.

Clashes are likely to continue tonight, with five unions now joining the protest. The Guardian mentions some grumblings within police, who have been bused from across Turkey to Istanbul, but for me these are unconvincing signals. No one is capable of stopping the police brutality but the protesters or the government. Given Erdogan’s paranoid statements in the face of expansive criticism, and the generally uncompromising stance of his supporters and police, I see no budge room there. Given that protesters are equally adamant and increasingly cornered and potentially violent, I think this will continue to escalate for a while.

If you’re looking for some entertainment in the meantime, read the updates from Andalou Agency, the government media outlet.

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