NYC Turkish Protests: Accidental Activists

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The crowd of 150 or more outside the Turkish consulate in midtown June 4 was not filled with seasoned activists. Mostly in their early twenties and studying in the New York area while working low-wage service jobs, if they can find any, these solidarity protesters appear to be like their Turkish peers back home who we’re watching on TV and YouTube. In fact, they are the brothers and sisters and friends of the Turks taking to the streets in dozens of cities.

Few of the students I talked to at the solidarity protest had considered themselves self-consciously political before the rebellion that started in Istanbul began to consume their every waking hour. They are mostly young, the children of Turkey’s middle class and they see themselves fighting for their futures and the direction of their country.

Fadime is a CUNY Grad student whose first words to me were, “We do not want US intervention. We want to be heard, we can take care of this ourselves.” It was a sentiment echoed by many concerned that the United States would try and manipulate this crisis for its own ends. They are right to be cautious about US intentions.

One of the few explicit demands of the crowd was for the US government to stop sending tear gas to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party. According to RT News, Turkey has imported  62 tons of “tear gas and pepper spray—mainly from US and Brazil—over the past 12 years.”

Every protester had stories of family and friends suffering terribly from the beatings and gas.

Destine Özuygur says according to friends’ texts and tweets, “There are far more than two people dead so far. I know two people myself who are dead from wounds and the gas. Police are attacking universities and hospitals,” she said. “One friend died from a gas canister tossed into a metro tunnel, people were trapped down there. Police are taping over their ID numbers so they can act anonymously.”

June 4 was Destine’s birthday and she awoke to birthday messages from friends back in Turkey saying they wanted to send her early wishes because they aren’t certain they’ll be safe or even alive by evening. The extreme brutality of the Erdogan regime is driving an intensity and political focus many here—and there, it appears—had never felt before.

What’s striking is how adamant these young Turkish women and men are about the need for winning a secular and democratic society back home. One where Kurds, Jews, Armenians, gays, everyone feels welcome, safe and respected. Over and over again, they repeated their desires for universalism and their hostility to Erdogan’s power grab and religious sectarianism.

One student who preferred to be identified simply by her initials, MK, insisted, “I am here for the women who have lost their lives.” She talked about the lack of punishment and public condemnation of honor killings and domestic violence generally.

Another student who works part time in a restaurant, Cagri Sayin, looked at me intently. “We support gay people. We don’t think anyone should live in shame.”

These protesters do not adhere, at least not yet, to any particular ideological program. They do not yet see a party or platform that they support in significant numbers. But they are intent on being heard and respected and winning, at the very least, public acknowledgment of their grievances.

It is the start of something for them, but it’s not yet clear what. When I told them of a mass trade union march in NYC on June 12 at City Hall, they were excited at the prospect of linking their struggle with ordinary US workers.

When I suggested they leaflet at this weekend’s Left Forum where at least 2,500 are expected at Pace University, they diligently wrote down the details. They are just now joining the global rebellion against the status quo. They’re hopeful and outraged.

The flyer being distributed at the daily protests is addressed “to the members of the press, international human rights organizations and the people of the United States of America.” It calls for support for the rights of protesters back home to peacefully assemble, demands an independent investigation of the violence and prosecution of law enforcement officials responsible for “arbitrary and abusive use of force.”

It ends with one single, and far from radical, demand: “We demand that Erdogan should publicly apologize to the people of Turkey.”

It’s signed #OccupyGeziNYC

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