When at the end of May protesters in Istanbul began their occupation of Gezi Park, to stop its planned transformation into a mall, they also built barricades on the streets surrounding it. Some of the barricades were ad hoc structures: plant pots, rubbish bins, paving slabs and an occasional street sign, assembled hastily at night and lost to the police in the morning. Others were more permanent: urban fortifications made from burned-out vehicles, metal sheeting propped up against rubble from construction sites, reinforced by iron rods. These barricades grew every day, with constant alterations and modifications. In two weeks of clashes, Istanbul acquired that distinctive, delicious air of normality in a time of upheaval, when life and war brush shoulders, both waking up each morning bemused and surprised to find that the other still exists. The park, perched on the edge of a vast building site that was threatening to consume it, became a tent city and a centre of protest for all kinds of noble cause, a platform from which to vent grievances against an increasingly authoritarian prime minister.

The barricades became a fixture of the city, another Istanbul tourist attraction. Teenagers took pictures of one another in burned-out buses and climbed to the top of the mounds of debris to hold their arms up high. They raised flags and banners, and broke out into rude chants against the prime minister and his party. Trade in the ubiquitous Guy Fawkes masks, the symbol of modern-day revolutions, flourished around the barricades, along with swimming goggles and surgical masks. Municipal workers cleared the battle debris soon after dawn so tourists could take their morning stroll down boulevards where the prickly smell of yesterday’s tear gas still hung in the air. Police sat tired and harmless on pavements that had been ripped up a few hours earlier so that the paving slabs could be flung at them. There were long bald patches. But as time went on the police managed to chip away at most of the barricades, leaving only half a dozen as the protesters’ final defences. Then, early on the morning of 11 June, the police entered Taksim Square, stopping a few metres short of the park.

Seven police TOMA vehicles, armoured water cannon, their white paint damaged in previous street clashes, formed a line with riot police units in helmets and shields. The line stretched from the north to the south of Taksim Square, facing the park and the barricades. By megaphone, the police assured the jittery demonstrators, in brotherly tones, that they had come to remove the remaining barricades and reopen the square to traffic. They were not going to enter the park. The mayor of Istanbul tweeted that the park would not be touched. A silent mass of packed bodies stood on the park’s perimeter, in front of the festively coloured tents and banners, watching apprehensively.

The previous night, the Taksim Solidarity Platform, the collective committee that first called for the demonstrations and ran the occupation, had held a democratic debate on whether to lift the barricades and put a stop to the night clashes with the police. If the flags and banners of the many and various – mainly leftist – political parties were removed from the tents, one argument went, perhaps the government would be deprived of a pretext to enter the park. Prime Minister Erdoğan and his ministers had been building a narrative which held that a small group of well-intentioned, naive environmentalists had had their cause hijacked by extremists of all kinds: leftists, football hooligans, Kurds etc. ‘But why would we surrender the barricades without fighting to defend them?’ a militant from the SDP, a little-known Marxist-Leninist group asked me. ‘We voted to stay and fight.’

When the police fired the first volley of tear gas, three white columns of smoke rose, and drifted silently across the square. Then the smell hit and kicked hard, somewhere between nostrils, eyes and stomach. A small woman in her mid-fifties leaned back against a bus stop outside a brothel, calmly smoking. Two young men sat on the pavement outside a liquor store, clinging to their beer bottles, laughing at the tears rolling down their cheeks. Three Arab men, Libyans or Egyptians, strode past wearing surgical masks. Office workers in grey trousers and white shirts walked back and forth confused, eyes red, convulsively coughing and spitting. A girl in a short skirt, knee-high socks and gas mask ran across the square, holding hands with her boyfriend, and took shelter behind the biggest barricade. I followed her.

The barricade was actually a series of smaller barricades attached to parts of the construction fence that ran around the square. It was an ingenious piece of architecture: two layers of metal sheets three metres high, supported by mounds of debris and building materials and buttressed by steel rods. Horizontal plywood sheets formed a rampart. 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.

A boy wandered around behind the barricade wearing a backpack strapped to his front filled with beer bottles. Each had a coloured piece of cloth sprouting out of it: Molotov cocktails. A young man in a gas mask and yellow hard hat emblazoned with a red star called him over. The boy with the backpack started running, bottles clanking: he was an ammunition mule. To my right, the man in the hard hat grabbed a bottle; someone else lit it and he threw it into the air, to fall just a few metres beyond the barricade. To my left, two boys pulled at a cord attached to a pair of metal bars, a gigantic catapult, until they were almost horizontal; they let go, sending another Molotov bomb flying. This one hit the barricade itself: the metal sheeting blazed with flames that quickly died. The man in the hard hat and a couple of others were using slings to fire ball bearings at the enemy, loading them up from a cardboard box set on the ground between them.

Then there was the sound of objects falling on the ground: tear-gas canisters. I ran for cover. When a canister falls it hisses violently. A boy raced to grab one but the canister was shaking and spinning: he looked, fumbled, but couldn’t find it. The fumes were moving faster than his hand: they engulfed him, reducing him to an outline, then he vanished. He emerged staggering, defeated, and fell onto the tarmac. A girl went over to douse his face with milk and vinegar. The man in the hard hat carried him away. Another canister was picked up and hurled back at the police.

The TOMA lumbered up, like a blind elephant, spraying water everywhere. Water alone isn’t so bad, but you have to keep an eye out for the colour: when it’s yellow it will be laced with pepper spray, and you need to run. The TOMA rammed into the barricade with its reinforced front-mounted bumper, and pushed forward; the structure creaked and shook, but held. Two boys climbed the ramparts, dodging the water cannons. One threw a Molotov cocktail that hit the white metal of the TOMA; it shattered, spilling liquid fire. Another TOMA sprayed it with water to extinguish the fire and both vehicles retreated.

In the middle of the chaos, a big bald man stood, wearing beige cargo pants and a vest with lots of pockets like those used by wire photographers. He was much older than the men throwing Molotovs. He stood still and commanding while everyone else ran back and forth. After each cloud of tear gas that sent us running for shelter he shouted at his men, or his boys, to come back to the front. He grabbed two of them by the collar, shouted instructions into their ears. He handed them each a Molotov and pushed them forward beyond the barricade, like a sergeant sending his men out of the trenches and over the top. They charged, in a moment of foolish heroism, across the tear-gassed no-man’s-land, one holding a makeshift shield inscribed with the letters SDP. They threw their bombs at the nearest TOMA; they missed. They ran back, pursued by tear-gas canisters and plastic bullets. A lone lunatic staggered around without a mask, in and out of the clouds of gas, carrying two Molotov bottles. Had he lost his mind because of the gas? Or was he like the man I had seen the day before, who marched up to the police bare-chested and stood shouting at them while they hid behind their shields?

That day, hitherto demonstration-shy, pro-government Turkish TV crews arrived with the police. From selected vantage points they broadcast the clashes live to the nation, confirming Erdoğan’s pronouncements that the protesters were violent ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors’. The crowds in Gezi Park watching the battle unfold started to question the theatrics of it. Twitter flooded with conspiracy theories. Social media pundits – and not a few foreign journalists – declared that the men fighting the police were agents provocateurs and undercover policemen attacking their own colleagues as part of a government plot to discredit the peaceful demonstrators. They were quick to point out inconsistencies in the battle – the sudden presence of the Turkish media, the drawn-out nature of the fight – but one piece of evidence was offered again and again: the presence of the big bald commander. They noted how different he looked from the trendy young people who filled the park and reported that his back pocket bulged, that it must have had a pistol in it.

That the government would resort to such fifth-columnist tactics wasn’t impossible. 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.

During one demonstration he and some of his friends were detained. They were piled on top of one another on the floor of a police bus, and while in legal limbo – after arrest but before reaching a police station – they were subjected to special treatment. They were driven around the city and beaten up. The bus became a mobile torture chamber, and the journey only ended when one of the detainees suffered a minor heart attack.

The editor’s parents had both been arrested after the 1980 military coup. His father was soon released but his mother, a leading figure in one of the many revolutionary parties, was tortured. When she was let go she had permanent brain damage and was sent to teach in the provinces. He grew up in poverty, constantly reminded of what the state had done to her. In his mind, her story was part of a long history of injustices. 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.’

He showed me a video shot on 5 May, three weeks before the Taksim protests. It showed a demonstration over an episode of police brutality that had taken place four days earlier. It was shot from the usual corner of Taksim Square, showing the usual harmless group of protesters, with their big red flags and chants. The camera moved away a bit. ‘Pay attention to this group of tourists standing behind the police.’ The demonstrators suddenly charged at the police, attacking them with banners and placards; the policemen raised their shields to protect themselves. At the same time, the group of ‘tourists’ charged at the police from behind, jumping on them and kicking them, almost climbing over them. 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.

I walked to the meeting point, a public park on the Asian side of Istanbul, late one afternoon. A group of women, young and old, sat and stood around in the shade of a big tree. One of them was talking into a microphone, fired up and waving her arms as she spoke. A man in dreadlocks and flowing yoga pants was teaching a woman how to juggle. Children played basketball and shouted at one another. My revolutionary contact was waiting for me under a yellow umbrella. She hardly looked like a militant. She was wearing denim shorts and a black vest, and was pushing a buggy backwards and forwards, trying to get her baby off to sleep. Her father, next to her, smiled; her friend was wearing a linen dress. This was a family picnic rather than a clandestine revolutionary cell. The father got up, lifted the child out of the buggy and walked her up and down the park. We drank tea, and I fumbled with my notebook. She laughed at me and said: ‘I’m sorry if we disappointed you.’

I was disappointed: all the talk of Maoist splinter groups, fascist militias and the deep state had affected me. I had even tried to dodge the deep state by walking around the park twice before approaching the meeting point. The name of the SDP member was Ekin; she was a PhD student and teacher of English literature at Istanbul University. Like the editor, she came from a leftist family. The kind-looking father was a Trotskyite and a Communist Party member; her mother was also a leftist. And against the wishes of her religious grandmother, who raised her, she too grew up as an activist. It began with music and concerts and evolved into street clashes and then proper political organisation. The SDP, she told me, was formed ten years ago. It is a Marxist-Leninist party that believes in the power of the proletariat as the revolutionary class. But it is also ‘a pluralistic party’ that includes ‘many social currents’: among the issues it champions are the Kurds’ right of self-determination, the emancipation of women and opposition to Nato and the IMF.

Many of the SDP’s founders were members of Kurtuluş, a group active on the left before the 1980 coup and prominently mentioned on the recent banners in Taksim Square. Like most movements of the 1970s Kurtuluş started first as a socialist magazine; it was linked to the original national democratic revolutionary movement but had none of its later Maoist sympathies. Along with its sister and competitor organisation Dev Yol it came to represent a third approach on the left between Chinese Maoism and the Soviet line. Its interest in the Kurdish issue and gay rights went back to its foundation; the SDP is the latest in a long series of attempts to unite many different factions and special interests under a single banner. Soon after its formation a split developed within the SDP, between the old guard and people like Ekin who grew up in an age of anti-globalisation activism, a more militant tendency tinged with anarchism. She and like-minded friends staged an internal coup – she prefers to put its success down to the fact that ‘we were the majority’ – and Ekin became a member of the party’s Central Committee.

After much fidgeting and many apologies on my part, I asked her about the big bald man. Was he … er, was he really a policemen? She laughed, and her friend put on a mock indignant face. Ekin showed me a picture on her phone. It showed her, the big bald man and her child, in Gezi Park. ‘His name is Ulaş and he is my husband.’ She pointed at the baby, who was now back in her buggy again, asleep. ‘This is our daughter,’ she said. ‘Her name is Dunya Kurtuluş.’ Ekin and Ulaş began as pen friends. She was a teenage activist and Ulaş was serving a ten-year prison sentence for robbing a bank. When he was released they fell in love and moved in together. A decade later, in 2010, when he was put in jail again (this time accused of being a member of Dev Karargah, an illegal leftist organisation), they got married so that she would be allowed to visit him in prison.

‘People who saw him at the barricades said: “What’s he doing there with all those young people? He’s fat, bald and old. What’s he thinking?” Even I worried about what he was doing there. He is far too important to the organisation to lead a fight like that. But he couldn’t leave the young people helpless.’ In SDP meetings, she said, everyone agreed that the barricades should continue to be manned. ‘It was the big parties, and the unions, who wanted to lift the barricades and remove the party flags.’ The SDP decided that each group should defend their barricade at all costs. ‘When the battle began no one came to help us. For three and half hours we were the only group fighting. We fought openly: we didn’t cover our faces because we thought that everyone should be fighting. We believed the fight was legal.’ Their worst enemy, she said, was pacifist rhetoric. ‘They said: “Don’t throw stones at the police and they won’t fire at us with plastic bullets.” Their logic was that if we surrendered a few extremists the park would be left alone. I don’t know how they could fall for government propaganda so easily. They gave us up, and then the government turned and took the park from them.’ Not defending Taksim, she said, was a huge mistake. ‘We thought that groups from the provinces would organise themselves and resist the state. We thought that mass resistance would turn into a political agenda.’

When I asked her why the SDP was accused of being a tool of the regime her eyes welled up. ‘It started when Erdoğan tried to draw a line between ordinary environmentalist protesters and dangerous radical extremists. He was declaring who was good and who was bad and we became the bad. But in the early days of the demonstrations there was no difference: everyone was fighting together. We all threw stones at the police. It wasn’t just us: everyone was fighting.’ It was bound not to end well: an organisation bent on using street militancy to spread discontent; a large body of protesters from many different organisations, not all of whom were willing to use violence; a government that exploited this rift; a long history of betrayals and mistrust and a possibly delusional commander.

‘The mainstream left were scared that they would be labelled as violent extremists so they chose to sacrifice us,’ Ekin said. ‘Our dream is a socialist revolution. But realistically we want to exercise resistance against the police and the state. If we had lasted another week in Taksim the balance would have changed and that would have led to real disruption of the political status quo. Fear is the biggest barrier. Once you cross that threshold you have nothing to lose. The worst that can happen is that you end up in jail and a lot of us are in jail. But we have gained something. The people know now that if they resist they can win. The fear threshold has been broken. It may seem as though the protests are over, but there will be a second coming. Ordinary people have been seeing what’s happening with the Kurds in the east. More and more young people are joining us. They recognise government propaganda for what it is.’

After three and a half hours of fighting, the tear-gas canisters were falling non-stop. There were very few people left on the front line. Everyone was exhausted and despite Ulaş’s shouts of ‘Gal gal gal’ most of the protesters, young men and women, were now congregating in the back streets rather than behind the barricades. A group came up from behind us to say that the police had taken the barricade to our right and were outflanking us. Canisters were raining down on us from both sides, and people were running every which way. Ulaş tried to impose order: he ran forward but the riot police were climbing over the barricade firing rubber bullets. He retreated and his charges followed, blind kittens chasing their mother.

A dozen of them regrouped around him at an intersection open to three directions. The barricade was lost now: an overturned police sentry post was the new front line. Someone lit a Molotov but it felt like a toy, not a weapon. There was a way out: downhill towards Tarlabaşi, the area where the party HQ was. Ulaş made sure his charges had all started down the road before turning to follow them. But halfway along the alleyway everyone came running back: the police were coming up Tarlabaşi too. They group was completely surrounded.

Ulaş ran back and forth, looking for an exit. A hotel door opened, and the owner beckoned. He stood on the doorstep, making sure everything was safe. Everyone made their way quickly in, and disappeared. In a room on the second floor girls and boys sat on the floor and on the crumpled sheets on the bed. They had taken off their masks: all of them were teenagers, and they kept hissing at one another to keep quiet. A boy of maybe 12, wearing the party T-shirt, started crying. The Molotov mule was emptying out his bottles, pouring the petrol down the toilet and flushing it away. From the window the children watched police fill the streets, herding the protesters into corners and arresting them. It looked as though we were safe.

Then there were heavy footsteps in the corridors and the boy cried more loudly. A girl next to him tried to shut him up. Someone was trying to push open the door and the kids in the room were struggling to keep it closed. It flew open, and a group of men in civilian clothes burst in: they were wearing gas masks and carrying sticks. They started beating the teenagers, pushing them out of the room into the corridor, where other policemen kicked them down the stairs. I stood in the corner holding out my press card; they grabbed at my camera but didn’t do anything to me.

They dragged the Molotov boy out of the bathroom. They started working systematically. Two men pulled the kids out of the room and flung them to the men on the stairs who kicked them down into the lobby. When the room was empty, the two men walked around, ripping open the curtains and opening the cupboard. Someone stumbled and fell: they kicked him harder than anyone else.

The defeated SDP cadre sat on the floor in the lobby. Riot police arrived to take over from the plainclothes officers and handcuffed everyone. One policeman walked over to two girls sitting on the floor and smacked them hard on their heads several times. He walked away, remembered something, and went back to smack them again.

At the beginning of July I met Ekin again. I waited for her outside a ferry terminal. She arrived with the baby and another friend. Ulaş was in jail. They didn’t know what he was charged with: that would remain a secret until an official indictment was issued. ‘They don’t usually find enough to accuse someone of so they try to connect it to something bigger instead of whatever happened that day. It might be terrorism, it might be involvement with chemical weapons. Now the head of the SDP is in jail for writing an article telling people to stop cheering about what’s happening in Athens because they should be getting on with turning Istanbul into Athens. They accuse us of masterminding the entire Gezi protest. It’s laughable. I wish we had that strength.’

One of the heroes of the Turkish left is a militant student leader called Mahir Çayan, who was killed in 1972 after leading a series of quixotic attacks against the Turkish state and kidnapping the Israeli ambassador. I asked Ekin if Ulaş could be seen as a modern-day Çayan. ‘That’s very flattering. Maybe there is a similarity. But Çayan was trying to lead the revolution from above: his theory was that a small band of militants should commit violence against the state in order to expose the state as weak. That shows the masses that the state can be defeated and helps lead to revolution. The strategy always depended on a small cadre of revolutionaries deciding everything. We are trying to do the opposite. We believe the proletariat are the revolutionary class and we want to recruit the masses for the revolution.’ What went wrong in 1977, she said, and what led to the Taksim Square massacre, was turf warfare between revolutionary groups. ‘That day in Taksim everyone knew the Maoists would be fighting the Communists and Kurtuluş. Everyone knew it was coming to a head. If there wasn’t such competition between the groups the government wouldn’t have been able to infiltrate them so easily. We won’t make that mistake again.’

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Vol. 35 No. 16 · 29 August 2013

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes about the protests in Gezi Park (LRB, 8 August). I participated in these and related protests every day from 31 May to 7 July. In focusing exclusively on street fighting and on the history of the Turkish left, Abdul-Ahad fails to identify the heart of what the protests were about. The street fighting that he describes happened on 11 June, the day the police returned to Taksim after having withdrawn for ten days. During that period Gezi Park had been turned into a festival area, even a small republic, with the emphasis on peaceful protest and co-operation between groups that had not co-operated before. The emphasis on non-violence led to radical political parties, all of them with tiny memberships, being expelled from the park by protesters and told to camp on Taksim Square itself. And they agreed. One of those groups was the Socialist Democracy Party (SDP), the history of which Abdul-Ahad describes at length. This is not uninteresting in itself but the SDP and parties like them were not central to the Gezi protest or to its spirit.

One small correction. Abdul-Ahad refers to the shout ‘“Gel, gel, gel," Turkish for “Go, go, go."’ It actually means ‘Come, come, come’ and was used in two contexts. In the first, it was shouted at people who were running away from the teargas: ‘Don’t go away, come back and stand with us.’ In the second, it was shouted by crowds of marchers, young and old, political and apolitical, at people who were cheering from their windows: ‘Don’t just cheer, come and join us.’ And in many cases they did.

Zeynep Talay
London EC1

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