The Romance of Gezi Park

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has a wonderfully descriptive piece on Gezi Park in the latest issue of the London Review of Books. I am excerpting the below passages because it conveys a sense of the romance and hope associated with all revolutionary (even if only incipient) uprisings. Iraqi-born Abdul-Ahad captures the magical atmosphere present when people get a sense of their own power, of what real democracy, of having an actual say in one’s own life and community. It reminds me of the writings of Maurice Brinton when he narrated the electric excitement coupled with the machinations of the different left groups and actors at play in European uprisings he witnessed in the latter half of the 20th century.

Behind the barricade were three large metal crates filled with ammunition: stones and bottles. Building defences in a construction site gave an unusual advantage. There were red flags inscribed with the words ‘Dev Sol’ in yellow and emblazoned with a red star. A yellow banner stretched the length of the barricade and declared in red: ‘OUR FIGHT WILL CONTINUE. KURTULUŞ.’ A portrait of Abdullah Öcalan helped to give the barricade the aura of a rock concert, though one headlined by long defunct groups: to most people, Kurtuluş, Dev Sol and Öcalan – the Kurdish militant leader who languishes on a prison island serving a life sentence – were relics from a romantic past.

Street fighting has its logic. Despite the chaos, the tear gas and mayhem, there is a collective spirit, and something approaching order. There is usually a cadre of a few young men, crazed by tear gas, who lead the clashes against the police, occupying no-man’s-land and engaging the enemy. Behind them are several dozen on the actual front line; behind them are the masses. The crazies bait the police, the dozens man the barricades and the masses occupy. There are no radios, no orders and no chain of command – just the ubiquitous shout ‘Gal, gal, gal,’ Turkish for ‘Go, go, go.’ Street fighting is very different from real war: it feels as though you can defeat your enemy by sheer weight of numbers; the projectiles are slow and easy to dodge; there is a sense that your numbers and the power of the police combine to create a roughly even fight, which gives a sense of empowerment but more important a sense of collective purpose. The insurgency wars I have seen are individualistic: they are led by the rare hero or martyr who is prepared to expose himself to bullets or tank fire. You win, you die: it’s your call, or Allah’s. In a street battle, by contrast, everyone is part of the effort: every stone, every bottle, every firecracker.


The Turkish deep state had spent decades fighting militants of all stripes: leftists, Kurds, Islamists. They infiltrated the militants’ ranks and assassinated their commanders. They hired fascist thugs, mafia, militant Islamists and death squads to do their dirty work. And for the demonstrators to claim that they had been infiltrated by agent provocateurs was also nothing new. It was in Taksim Square 36 years ago, in 1977, that a small number of militant leftists had provided the pretext for a massacre during a peaceful demonstration called by the trade unions. When an Albanian Maoist fringe group tried to force its way into the march, firing in the air, pro-government men opened fire from hotel rooftops. More than thirty people died in the shooting and in the stampede that followed.

On 15 June, Gezi Park was taken back by the police and the square cleared. In the days that followed, as further clashes took place across Istanbul and activists were rounded up from their homes, I went to meet the editor of a Communist Party magazine. ‘To be a member of a leftist organisation in Turkey,’ he told me, ‘means you have to devote your life to the struggle. It’s not like our comrades in Europe, who have a life, and a job, and are leftists at the same time. Here you do whatever work you can just to get enough money to eat. The rest of your life is for the revolution.’ The government, he said, had been fighting the revolutionary parties since the 1960s, and had learned to play the long game. To my untrained eyes, it had always seemed that the left was a marginal presence in Turkey. The protesters I occasionally saw demonstrating on Istiklal Street, no more than a dozen or so at a time, always had a slightly sad and earnest air, chanting away while tourists and shoppers flooded around them. Their red and yellow flags, with stars, hammers and sickles and multiple obscure acronyms, were a colourful addition to Istanbul’s most famous street, along with the city’s red trams.

‘When you look from outside,’ the editor said, ‘the left is weak. But seen from inside it is strong and still enjoys a lot of support. The unions and the universities are still dominated by the left. The AKP doesn’t even have a youth organisation.’ He and his comrades, he said, were orthodox Marxists, who believed in the traditions of the Soviet Union. His words seemed to come from a distant past. All the militants, conspirators and agitators against the status quo I have met over the last decade are religious. Islamic militancy appeared to have monopolised words like revolution and social justice, and yet here was a man who believed in resistance based on a totally different ideology. One thing that he had in common with them, though, was his utter commitment to his cause.

I’m including this passage because it serves as a nice capsule history of the Turkish left:

The Turkish Communist Party was founded in 1920 by a small group of Turkish socialists in exile in Baku. It was a time when the Soviets saw Atatürk as an ally: he was a radical moderniser, after all, and they supplied him with weapons to support him in his fight against the imperialists. In 1921 the Baku Communists all drowned in what is universally believed to have been a state-planned assassination. The Communist Party was banned and for decades socialists spent their time in and out of jail.

The coup of 1960, in which a military junta delivered what is still the most liberal constitution Turkey has had, was a new beginning for the Turkish left. Unions were legalised and leftist publications tolerated. The Turkish Workers Party (TIC), a new umbrella organisation for various leftist groups, demanded land reforms and campaigned for the rights of the Kurdish minority; in 1965 the party even won 15 seats in parliament, an electoral success that hasn’t been repeated. From the beginning the debate over the nature of the Turkish state split the left into two main currents. The socialist revolutionaries argued that capitalism was already established in Turkey and that a socialist revolution was possible, even through legal and democratic parliamentary means. The main supporters of this school were the TIC and the mainstream pro-Soviet Communists. And then there were the national democratic revolutionaries, who saw Turkey as a feudal state, without a proletariat class to lead the revolution. An alliance of peasants, workers, students and progressive elements of the bourgeoisie, they believed, was needed to bring about a national democratic revolution; only then could a socialist revolution follow. Influenced by Maoism and Latin American guerrilla literature, and by the movements in Algeria and Palestine, they also believed that change wouldn’t come about without violence and armed struggle.

After the coup of 1980 thousands of socialists were liquidated or imprisoned or fled to Germany or France. ‘The defeat was both physical and ideological,’ the editor said. ‘People lost faith in the left because of the infighting.’ An already fractured left split into many feuding militant groups that were sometimes willing to use force not only against the state but against each other. The history of the Turkish left is littered with tragedies and fallen heroes, whose pictures and names covered the banners in Taksim Square. But the new generation doesn’t know or care about divisions between Chinese Maoists and Albanian Maoists: those joining the protests today, the editor said, are more concerned about Kurdish issues, human rights and the environment. ‘Clashes with the police have been taking place for decades. It’s nothing new. The one thing that’s changed is that it’s no longer a few marginal groups fighting alone but the whole street. The people have seen that the police can be beaten, that if you’re stubborn enough the police can’t resist you.’

The police now formed a single line in the middle of a sea of demonstrators. They were fighting on two fronts. A water cannon sprayed at police and demonstrators alike; in their panic the police fired tear-gas canisters, forgetting they weren’t wearing masks. Two of them were dragged into the crowd, shields and helmets trampled on by the mass of feet.

I asked him where the demonstrators had learned to fight like that. He said they were a combination of experienced militants – who had a history of fighting against fascist groups and in university demonstrations – and newcomers from the recent protests. But the last fight in Taksim Square had been a mistake, he said. Everyone knew from the start that it was impossible to defend the park: the enemy was too well armed, and there was no single group strong enough to lead the fight. Historically, most leftist organisations had a legal section – a party organisation, an association, a magazine – and an illegal military wing. Most of the illegal units are now extinct. Some still keep their weapons: they are sleeper cells, ready to be activated. ‘Personally,’ the editor said, ‘I am not against the armed struggle. I don’t have ethical issues with it. But I don’t think the conditions are right for it now. It wouldn’t help us to shoot police officers. It would destroy the legitimacy of our demos. I think what we did was wrong.’ He said that the Sosyalist Demokrasi Partisi (SDP), the party which had done most to engage the police in Taksim Square, wasn’t the ultra-left organisation it appeared to be. ‘There is nothing radical about their programme. They call for democracy. Their methods are radical because they are a small party so they become militant revolutionaries in the street.’    *

Two days later he sent me a note, saying that a member of the SDP had agreed to meet me. At that point I wanted to meet someone from the SDP not because I believed the conspiracy theory that they were agents of the police but because I wanted to understand why they had decided to fight so viciously, why they had fallen into what could be seen as a government trap.

The article goes on from there, interviewing figures in the SDP who adulate militant street battle tactics. The piece unfortunately does not relate much about anarchist currents. Those profiled seem more drawn from the ‘old’ left – colorful without quite being inspiring up close. Nonetheless, the parallels with the internal dynamics of Western Occupy movements are evident.

In other news, a UN official is drawing attention to Gaza’s  suffering – the consequence of General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, head of the Egyptian military, seizing power in the coup. It is surprisingly little noted that al-Sisi has long been known for being close to Washington. It is therefore unsurprising then that he has cracked down on the tunnel smuggling, provoking much suffering as a result. Like Cuba, the people must suffer for deviating from the U.S. playbook.

Egypt tunnel closures create ‘serious shortages’ in Gaza, 24/07/2013
The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process said Tuesday that Egypt’s crackdown on smuggling tunnels, together with ongoing Israeli restrictions, have created severe shortages in Gaza.
Robert Serry, speaking to the UN Security Council, said political developments in Egypt have led to an intensified campaign against smuggling tunnels along the shared border.
“As a result of these actions against illegal activity, according to some estimates, 80 percent of the tunnels are no longer functioning,” Serry was quoted as saying by Reuters.
The crackdown has led to serious shortages of fuel and basic building materials, Serry added.
The top UN official warned that access into Gaza through legal crossings must be liberalized, otherwise economic and humanitarian conditions would further deteriorate.


Gaza’s minister of economy said earlier this week that the economy had lost an estimated $230 million in June due to the closure of smuggling tunnels by Egyptian authorities.
Over 20,000 people have lost their jobs in the construction industry as a result of shortages in raw materials which usually arrive through the network of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, Alaa Rafati told Ma’an.

I defy you to read this without having to pause midway to contain your anger. Kudos to McClatchy for actually running this; though I fear it won’t be picked up by many papers.
Drew Brown, McClatchy Foreign Staff
Le and her daughter are second- and third-generation victims of dioxin exposure, the result of the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, when the U.S. Air Force sprayed more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides over parts of southern Vietnam and along the borders of neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The herbicides were contaminated with dioxin, a deadly compound that remains toxic for decades and causes birth defects, cancer and other illnesses.
To this day, dioxin continues to poison the land and the people. The United States has never accepted responsibility for these victims – it denies that Agent Orange is responsible for diseases among Vietnamese that are accepted as Agent Orange-caused among American veterans – and it’s unclear when this chain of misery will end.

Many Vietnamese say it’s time for the United States to do more to address the issue of Agent Orange and its victims, so that the last tragic chapter of the Vietnam War finally can be closed.
Le Thi Thu’s father served in the North Vietnamese army and was wounded in Quang Tri province, one of the most heavily sprayed areas of the country.
“Before he went to war, my father had two children: my older brother and sister,” said Le, who was born in 1970. “They were normal. But after he came back, he had me.”
“I could see the differences in myself and others right away,” she recalled. “When I was a small child, I felt pain inside my body all the time. My parents took me to the hospital, and the doctors determined that I had been affected by Agent Orange.”
When her daughter Ly was born, “we knew right away” Agent Orange was to blame, Le said.
The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that Agent Orange has affected 3 million people spanning three generations, including at least 150,000 children born with severe birth defects since the war ended in 1975.
“During the war, we were hostile, but after the war ended, we normalized our relations and are now building a strategic partnership between Vietnam and the United States,” said retired Col. Thai Thanh Hung, the chairman of the 16,500-member Da Nang Veterans Association. “We no longer have hatred towards the Americans and the U.S. government, but we want this one lingering and remaining issue to be addressed, which is that the United States help solve the Agent Orange and dioxin problem. That’s why we’re keeping an eye on this issue, to see if the United States is really interested in healing the wounds or not.”
The most significant event to date occurred last August – 37 years after the war ended – when U.S. contractors began a project to remove dioxin from 47 acres of contaminated soil at the Da Nang International Airport, which was one of the largest U.S. bases during the war.
The $84 million effort, which is expected to take until the end of 2016 to complete, has been hailed as an important milestone in U.S.-Vietnamese relations. The airport is one of the most heavily contaminated areas in the world, with dioxin levels measuring more than 365 times the acceptable limits set by the United States and other industrialized countries.
Observers say that while the project represents a long overdue first step, more work needs to be done. More than two dozen other known or potential dioxin “hot spots” have been identified at former U.S. bases. Also left unresolved is the thorny issue of how best to help Vietnamese who’ve been sickened and disabled because of Agent Orange and dioxin exposure.
U.S. aid for these people so far has amounted to a pittance. According to the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, only $11 million of the $61.4 million that Congress has allocated since 2007 – a year after then-President George W. Bush pledged to help clean up contaminated areas – has been earmarked for public health programs in Vietnam.
U.S. officials caution that the money is to help people with disabilities “regardless of cause,” and isn’t specifically for Agent Orange victims. This semantic sleight of hand outrages many American veterans of the war, who say the United States has a moral obligation to help Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, just as sick and dying U.S. veterans have received government help for the last two decades.
“There’s a hypocrisy there,” says Chuck Searcy, who served in Vietnam as an intelligence analyst during the war and has lived in Hanoi since 1998, heading up a project to clear battlefields of unexploded ordnance, which also continues to kill and maim Vietnamese. “It’s a glaring disconnect, and it’s embarrassing because the whole world can see it.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says that all 2.8 million Americans who served “boots on the ground” in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975 were exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides, which were in use from 1961 to 1971. They qualify for compensation if they become sick from any of 15 illnesses presumed to have been caused by their exposure. The VA also recognizes another 18 birth defects in the children of female veterans.
In 2011, the last year for which data was published, the VA paid nearly $18 billion in disability benefits to 1.2 million Vietnam-era veterans, including 303,000 who received compensation for diabetes mellitus, the most common of the 15 diseases associated with herbicide exposure.
U.S. officials have long held, however, that there’s no proof that Agent Orange is to blame for the same diseases and birth defects in Vietnam.
“Few independent studies have been conducted in Vietnam to assess possible health effects on the local population,” said Chris Hodges, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. “The lack of validated data and scientific review makes it difficult to estimate accurately the number of actual or potentially affected people or the extent of related health effects.”
In many ways, the fight for recognition of Vietnam’s Agent Orange victims mirrors the 20-year struggle that U.S. veterans endured before Congress granted them compensation in 1991.
Hoping to emulate a case that resulted in a 1984 settlement requiring Dow Chemical, the Monsanto Corp. and other Agent Orange manufacturers to pay $197 million in damages to sick U.S. veterans, a group of Vietnamese victims sued in 2004, only to have the same federal judge dismiss their case a year later, saying the companies were immune because they were following government orders. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2009.
As occurred with U.S. veterans, momentum in Congress appears to be shifting favorably toward the Vietnamese. In 2011, lawmakers directed the U.S. Agency for International Development to develop a plan for assisting Vietnam with Agent Orange programs in the coming years. The agency hasn’t yet released its proposals.

The Aspen Institute, a Washington-based research center, has called on the United States to spend $450 million over 10 years to clean up Vietnam’s dioxin hot spots, restored damaged ecosystems and expand health care for people with disabilities.
It’s unclear how much Congress is willing to do. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., introduced a bill last month that would commit the United States to cleaning up all remaining sites and would provide assistance to help Vietnam give better health care and other resources to Agent Orange victims. An identical bill introduced two years ago failed to make it out of committee.
Searcy, the former intelligence analyst who lives in Hanoi, points out that after nearly 40 years, Vietnam’s expectations of the United States remain modest.
“The Vietnamese have never demanded that the U.S. do for the Vietnamese what they’ve done for U.S. veterans,” he said. “But the Vietnamese have left the door open to do what’s fair.”


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