The Washington Post

Istanbul protesters redefine the label ‘chapul,’ or looter


“Every day, I’m capuling” has become a mantra for Turkish demonstrators.  (Patrick Adams for the Washington Post)

For someone who called Istanbul home until recently, the ongoing protests there seem surreal. Much of the news, such as learning that a friend was hit in the head with a teargas canister, is frustrating and depressing to me.

But to see Turks from different segments of society coming together gives me hope. “Every day, I’m capuling” has become a mantra for the demonstrators. Since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan first referred to the demonstrators as capulcu, or looters, they’ve claimed the word as their own, redefining it to mean fighting for one’s rights similar to the same way feminists in Canada and the United States have tried to own the word “slut” with slutwalks.

On May 28, a throng of demonstrators came peacefully, singing, dancing and camping, to protest the Turkish government’s plans to tear down Gezi Park and erect a shopping mall in its place. If the riot police had not hit demonstrators with tear gas and burnt their tents, thousands of Istanbulus wouldn’t have been angered enough to skip work and descend upon Taksim Square three days later. The prime minister’s response? The government had made its decision, and that was the end of it.

Or so Erdogan thought. Police and demonstrators continued to clash, transforming what is typically Istanbul’s dining, shopping and nightlife hub into the flashpoint for nationwide street protests. Though the prime minister, under fire for the increasingly violent crackdown on citizens, did pull the police from Taksim Square, he has not done the same in other cities.

“Occupy Gezi” does not belong to a single ideological, religious or ethnic group, and Kurds, Turks, Alevis, Armenians, moderate secularists, students, business leaders and Muslim socialists are all there in Taksim Square, passing out free food and medicine, cleaning up or just hanging out.

LGBT activists call the park a safe space from street harassment; advocates pass out fliers to raise awareness of violence against women in Turkey; and environmentalists have set up an organic garden where trees were uprooted.

While many Muslims meet in the square to perform Friday prayers, others enjoy the now-pedestrian space by raising their glasses of Efes and raki to Erdogan, whose actions sparked the protests. What began as a local protest to save a park in Istanbul has turned into a national resistance against the government’s authoritarian rule. And Erdogan only has himself to blame.

Scanning through photos, I pick out the Republic Monument in the middle of the square, my old bus stop on Tarlabasi Street, and the lights above Istiklal Street that always reminded me of Christmas. But people donning water-bottles-turned-gas masks and building community libraries out of destroyed buses and selling Guy Fawkes masks like they’re simit (Turkish-style bagels) – I’ve never seen anything of the sort in Turkey before.

The most uplifting images from the Turkish resistance, though, are the displays of solidarity not only inside Taksim but also throughout the streets of Istanbul, across the country and around the world. The clanging of pots and pans, which began as a show of support for the protesters as the police repeatedly gassed them, can be heard at precisely 9 p.m. in Istanbul. As demonstrators shared their stories via social media, their fellow citizens in other parts of the country and people around the world sent in photos and messages  of solidarity in different languages.

As unrest in Turkey enters its second week, neither the demonstrators nor the government appear to be backing down. And with the protesters demanding the withdrawal of the Gezi Park development plans, and Erdogan defiantly standing by them, what happens next in this truly historic moment in Turkey is anyone’s guess.

I was skeptical when demonstrators first called on Istanbulus to take off work and join them in Gezi Park. Tens of thousands responded. But important questions remain: The spirit of Occupy Gezi is beautiful, but how much longer can it last? Can meaningful change come from it?

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Cook has suggested that the European Union  show renewed enthusiasm for Turkey’s accession. Perhaps that would allow Erdogan, a fan of neither concession nor compromise, to save enough face by once again showing himself as the progressive, democratic reformer that propelled him to power in the first place. Perhaps.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have called on the Turkish government to end police violence, reveal the extent of injuries and uphold the right to peaceful protest.

“The police’s record on abusive policing has been surpassed as they use tear gas and water cannon fire against peaceful demonstrators,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week. “The government’s failure to respect the right to protest and to speak out is fueling discontent among people in Turkey.”

At least two protesters and one police officer are dead, and more than 4,000 people have been injured. More than 1,000 have been arrested for their involvement in the protests, according to Human Rights Watch.

While acknowledging the excessive use of teargas, Erdogan has argued that other European countries’ responses would have been harsher and has blamed everyone — opposition political parties, foreign nations, terrorists and even Twitter (where 2,839,333 people follow him and he follows no one) — save himself and his political party for the outbreak of violence.

The prime minister and his Justice and Development Party, whom critics see as increasingly authoritarian, weren’t always so out of touch with their electorate. Especially during his first two terms in office, Erdogan introduced a number of progressive military and civil reforms. But 11 years in power has made the ruling party and its leader overconfident in their ability to determine what is good for the country and the people.

Last year, Erdogan tried to ban safe access to abortion and to demand that women bear a minimum of three children. Equating drinking alcohol with abuse, Erdogan recently pushed through legislation restricting the sale of liquor. Oh, and if you’re going to kiss in public (aka not “act in accordance with moral rules”), just be sure to stay out of the security cameras’ line of sight. Gezi Park was simply the boiling point, the latest in a series of schemes devised without public consultation.

Still, not all Turks are out in the streets demanding Erdogan’s resignation, a point the prime minister made very clear in a string of rallies over the weekend. On Friday, thousands of supporters, some reportedly chanting, “Let’s crash Taksim,” greeted Erdogan in Istanbul after his four-day trip to Africa.

Erdogan, who has called for an “immediate end” to the protests, warned demonstrators on Sunday tht his patience “has a limit.” In a shrewd political move, Erdogan told supporters to “teach them [demonstrators] a lesson” at the ballot boxes and announced counter-rallies next weekend.

Those who’ve clanged pots, resisted the police and swept up broken glass and empty teargas canisters have not done so because of a park. They have, as they cleverly redefined Erdogan’s insult to mean fighting for their rights, chapulled. And there’s no turning back.

Alyson Neel recently returned to the United States after working for a newspaper in Istanbul for the last 2 1/2 years. In the fall, she plans to begin graduate studies in public affairs at Princeton University. Follow her on Twitter @AlysonNeel

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