The protests in Turkey have seen fans of Istanbul’s rival football clubs, Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, unite together for the first time in history.
Istanbul’s football culture is notorious for it’s violence. The week before the protests began saw yet another stabbing related to disputes between warring fans.
However, when the demonstration in Gezi Park began to grow during the first few days of June, hard-core supporter groups or ‘ultras’ from each of the teams found themselves side-by-side in supporting the protesters.
Turkish expat Cemo, 24, whose British friends like to translate his name to Jimmy, explained:
“Normally, a Galatasaray fan wearing a Galatasaray tshirt, and a Beşiktaş or Fenerbahçe fan, if they see each other, they would stab each other. But for the first time, we are brothers. This is so unique.”
Most of these groups are linked with particular working class areas of Istanbul, and are no strangers to politics – protesting on local issues or against instances of repression or police brutality.
The group that Jimmy is a member of, Çarşı, is overtly leftist and has campaigned on many issues, including alongside Greenpeace against a nuclear power plant. “Our slogan is ‘Çarşı against everything.’” Explains Jimmy proudly.
“We are socialist yes, but for humanitarian reasons. If someone is getting badly treated, we are against that.”
However, nothing in their history prefigured what happened on June the 8th. Following growing interaction on social media, ultras from all of Istanbul’s teams marched together against Erdogan’s conservative government. The image of fans walking arm in arm, singing together and swapping shirts is one of the most surprising and powerful this wave of unrest has produced.
Jimmy and Londra Çarşı (the 100 or so strong Çarşı sister group made of London-based Beşiktaş fans) has played an active role in the struggle.
Using videos and images captured by his friends on the ground, Jimmy catalogues reports of illegal behaviour by the police, including beatings, firing tear gas canisters at protester’s heads, using out-dated gas canisters – and even an allegation of torture.
Londra Çarşı also tries to get this information out to the western media, and have been trying to encourage reporting on relatively unknown issues such as the spate of police suicides.
Jimmy explained what Çarşı feel the protests are about.
“First it was a protest about a tree, but the tree now represents a lot to the majority of the Turkish people.”
This boils down to the fact that Gezi park was planned by President Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey. Erdogan’s plans to replace the park with a shopping mall are symbolic both of the both his neo-liberalism, turning over even the most hallowed of public spaces to corporate interests, and his attack upon the legacy of Ataturk.
All the political sentiment attached to Ataturk and the notion of a secular nation that protects people’s rights to free speech and so on, has become ascribed to the tree. And simultaneously, the tree has become a symbol of that which gets destroyed in the relentless drive for profit and development.
It is often said in the media that many people in Turkey do not understand the motivations of the protesters in Istanbul, and that the protesters only represent a subsection of educated young people. Erdogan has repeatedly implied the same, labelling the protesters as tearaway youths and opportunistic looters.
And yet, Jimmy insists that protests have aroused eclectic support: “Right wing, left wing, Muslim, non-Muslim – we are united against a common enemy.”
Indeed there are many conservatives desperate to protect Ataturk’s legacy from the AKP’s plans to remove him from school text books and even from coins. “The NMP [a nationalist party], and the right wing of CHP, which is Ataturk’s political party, is obviously against Erdogan.” Explains Jimmy.
Then there is overtly religious dissent, with a group calling itself Muslim Anti-Capitalists playing a prominent role in the protests, making speeches in Gezi park, and organising services for protesters, including a prayer tent.
“There is one video of this of a woman wearing the full veil who must be about 70 years old. She is shouting at the police ‘why are you throwing gas bombs at these innocent children?’”
According to Jimmy, Erdogan’s opposition to Ataturk’s legacy, his draconian attitude to dissent, and his use of the state to protect and further corporate interests, have created a popular front against the government not seen in Turkey since the republic.
The wave of dissent emanating from Gezi park has brought together not just warring football ultras, but perhaps even less likely bedfellows; for instance transvestite campaigners with religiously motivated Muslim protesters
Who knows how long such alliances will last, but for the moment the disparate groups seem to be having a profound effect on each other – for instance Beşiktaş fans complying with requests from feminists that they remove sexism from their football chants.
Whether people support the protests or not, it is obvious to every Turk that they concern differing visions of what Turkey is – either an inclusive nation, as Ataturk envisioned, or a nation where the pursuit of profit has no barriers, and where (supposed) conservative Islamic values are used as an excuse to crush dissent.
“At the end of things we want the Turkish, the Kurdish, Muslims and atheists to have equal rights. We want everyone to be united.”