Horseheads

Start of the march on day 46

Start of the march on day 46

[Spanish translation here]

Sofia, July 31.

Dear people,

Let me tell you a story. It’s the kind of story you would hear around the fire in winter. Now in summer, you can hear it around the piano.

It was told to me by comrade M., the man who carries a styrofoam horsehead on a stick every evening, in protest against the mafia. Comrade M. is a repatriate. There is no way for me to verify if his story is true, but frankly I don’t care. A good story doesn’t need to be weighed down by truthfulness.

Holland is with us ;)

Day 47. Holland is with us 😉

M. was 17 years old when he fled from communist Bulgaria in 1980, together with his dad. They didn’t really have a choice at the time. His dad was an engineer who had invented a device for the quick and even distribution of cocoa powder. The authorities seized his machine, and employed it for military purposes, replacing the cocoa with gunpowder. M’s dad was furious. He had constructed his device for the joy of all man kind, not to sow death and destruction. So he raised hell.

Criticizing authorities in a communist regime can be very dangerous, deadly even. Faced with the choice to die at the hands of the secret police, or to die while trying to escape to the free world, the inventor chose the latter. His son decided to take the risk and come along.

For one month they were in hiding along the border with Yugoslavia, observing every single defensive measure that the Bulgarian state used to protect their citizens from the evil temptation to leave.

There were mine fields, electric fences, watch towers with armed border guards, and booby traps linked to invisible fishing lines strung between distant poles. On the day of their attempt, they made it through the minefield, they crossed the electric fence with a special ladder constructed for the purpose, they avoided the booby traps, but they didn’t manage to escape the attention of the border guards.

For fifteen kilometres into Yugoslavian territory, the Bulgarian border guards came after them with dogs. Fortunately, they were prepared for this. They used little bundles of pepper to disorient the dogs’ sense of smell. Until they lost them, finally, somewhere deep in the forests of Serbia.

Crowd arriving at parliament. Day 47.

Crowd arriving at parliament. Day 47.

It meant by no means that they were safe. Yugoslavia wasn’t part of the eastern block, but it was a communist country and it had supposedly struck a deal with the Bulgarians to curb illegal emigration. For every refugee caught and returned by Yugoslav authorities, the Bulgarians offered a trainload of salt as a reward.

M. and his dad had to walk, all through the country, 32 days to the Austrian border. They couldn’t fool the locals they encountered. Everyone could tell that they were refugees, but in all the republics they past – Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia – none of the locals turned them in.

The border between Yugoslavia and Austria was practically unprotected. They stayed in observation for three days, fearing that it might be a trap. Finally, they took their chances and successfully crossed into the free world.

M. ended up as a shop owner in Chicago, where he a made a decent living for more than a decade. Then the Wall came down and in 1992 he decided to return to his home country, convinced that a new age of freedom and opportunity was dawning on Bulgaria.

Oh, how bitterly wrong he was! The Communist Party was replaced by the mafia, although the people remained more or less the same. Because of his contacts in the U.S., he was offered to become part of the organization. He refused. And ever since, for over twenty years, he has been struggling to get by.

In front of parliament.

In front of parliament.

Now he is one of the familiar faces of the protest. He proudly carries the horsehead, a new one each day, because every evening at the end of the march from Communist Party HQ he throws it over the barrier onto the steps of parliament. A friend of his always carries a sign that explains that these heads are fake, but that the real ones are coming, once the people will get rid of the ‘red scum’.

I don’t know what happens to the horseheads, but I already imagine a future museum of democracy, where they are all lined up, one after the other, each with a sign that shows the date, right up to the end, when the government came down, and the people took power.

M. notices my glass, it’s empty. “Here, have a refill.”

“Just a little bit.” He pours the homemade wine from a plastic bottle until the glass overflows.

“To the brim, man. To the brim!”

I smile, I lift the glass. “Cheers, mate.”

Orthodox priest handing out candles.

Orthodox priest handing out candles.


International Intrigue

Pipeline projects. All images Wikipedia.

Pipeline projects. All images Wikipedia.

[Spanish translation here]

Sofia, July 30.

Dear people,

Like most eastern European countries, Bulgaria has rarely been master of its own destiny. Things were decided either in Constantinople, or in Moscow, or more recently in Brussels and Washington. As part of the next layer, I will concentrate on the country’s geopolitical importance.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the West swiftly moved to incorporate eastern Europe in its expanding sphere of influence. Bulgaria became a member of NATO in 2004, and of the EU in 2007.

As far as Europe is concerned there is a disequilibrium in the relationship between Sofia and Brussels. Bulgarians long to be as free and prosperous as the West, but Brussels doesn’t really seem to care for them. They are a second rate member, outside of the Schengen area and outside of the euro. If the EU ever bothered to welcome Bulgaria in its ranks, it was most of all to prevent other powers (Turkey, Russia) from re-asserting their influence over the region.

From a Realpolitik point of view there is indeed no reason why the European Union should care too much for democracy in a corrupt little nation of seven million souls on its far periphery. But in the grand global scheme of things, Bulgaria is an important link between East and West. So forget democracy, forget freedom, opportunity, human rights. It’s all about energy. And Russia has everything to do with it.

During the Cold War, Bulgaria was the closest ally of the Soviet Union, and even today the Russians are considered more positively here than elsewhere in the former Warsaw Pact. They have considerable investments in the country and a big influence over the post-communist government. The Kremlin’s great project for which Bulgaria is vital is the South Stream pipeline.

Moscow, the Kremlin.

Moscow, the Kremlin.

If Russia is still of any importance internationally, it’s because they sell weapons, they got nukes, they got good chess and ice-hockey players, and because they deal in fossil fuels to a wide range of junky states. Many of those are in Europe, and they get their supply of natural gas through pipelines. At the moment the major pipelines pass through Poland and Ukraine. In order to bypass these troublesome countries and strengthen its hold on customers in the Balkans, the Putin government intends to build another pipeline under the Black Sea, through Bulgaria and Serbia up to Slovenia and into Italy.

The post-communist governments in Bulgaria are always most willing to collaborate with the Russians, while the right-wing governments have traditionally been more oriented towards Washington. The Americans have four military bases in Bulgaria, and just before being toppled the government of Boyko Borisov requested indefinite American military presence on Bulgarian soil.

For the West, Bulgaria is vital in keeping the Russians away from the Mediterranean, and has been so ever since the modern Bulgarian state came into existence in the late 19th century. Today, the country is also crucial as a link in an alternative pipeline project called Nabucco.

The idea behind Nabucco is to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russia as its natural gas dealer in favour or smaller nations which are more easy to control. The Nabucco pipeline would pass through Turkey, a loyal US ally, into the Southern Caucasus, through the Caspian oil fields, towards Central Asia, with offramps to the Middle East, thus completely avoiding Russian soil.

Since the project was conceived in 2002, the Russians have frowned on it with suspicion. It was in reaction to the Nabucco project that state controlled Gazprom announced the South Stream pipeline in 2007. The Nabucco project has one major drawback on which the Russians wanted to capitalize with their South Stream alternative: it has to tap into significant energy sources outside of Russia. The conquest of Iraq by US forces, and the constant western threat on Iran cannot be properly understood without taking the global energy question into account.

Washington, the White House.

Washington, the White House.

Bulgaria will host both pipeline projects, and so the Kremlin and the White House will prefer the Bulgarian government to be controlled by themselves rather than by, for example, the Bulgarian citizens.

Of course, there is a way around all these schemes, and it’s called ‘renewable energy’. If Bulgaria, or any other country for that matter, will one day want to be independent, they will have to switch to home-produced sustainable energy. And this is being done, indeed. The Bulgarian government has granted huge incentives for the creation of renewable energy supplies. Foreign investors jumped on it. Solar panels and wind parks popped up like crazy in the last few years.

Great, you’d say. Well, no. Picture this. In practice, the boom in renewables resulted in an overload of the antiquated infrastructure. The grid couldn’t handle it. So the government cut the incentives, which resulted in rising prices. It’s one of those strange occasions were a rise in supply (of something that’s basically free), caused prices to rise, which in turn caused the people to revolt, last February.

So we’re back at our starting point. Everything is more complicated than it seems. Renewable energy is part of the solution. Direct democracy is part of the solution. An end to foreign influence, be it Russian or American, is another part of solution. The difficulty is to find a way to fit all these things together. But we’ll have time to think about it, to talk about it. Tonight is day 47. Yesterday was day 46. And it was good. Lots of noise. More people than the day before, and great discussions until late at night, fueled by homemade wine. This time, for a change, the piano man played songs from Jesus Christ Superstar.

[With thanks to Stratfor Global Intelligence Agency for their reports. And to Wikileaks for leaking them 🙂 ]


Water Melon Day

Statuary protest along the road to Parliament, July 28.

Statuary protest along the road to Parliament, July 28.

[Spanish translation here]

Sofia, July 29.

Dear people,

I haven’t seen people dancing in circles out on the streets since early June when Taksim Square was ours. Yesterday, the Bulgarians danced in front of parliament. It was the 45th consecutive day of protest.

For the occasion, some people had brought water melons. It took a while for me to figure out the reference. It was an intricate one. The Bulgarian word for water melon (диня, dinya) is similar to the words for ‘day’ (ден, den)  and ‘year’ (година, godina). The communists ruled the country for 45 years, the protest is lasting for 45 days, the melons meant to say that it has been enough. It’s time for the ‘mafia’ to leave. So, on the beat of the drums the crowd chanted the unambiguous slogan of ‘оставка’ (ostavka, resignation).

As I promised, I will try to onion my way around the core to capture as much of the Bulgarian situation as I can. First of all, the political context.

Call for resignation on national monument

Call for resignation on national monument

Most of you will know that a revolution sometimes comes in two different stages. This is the case in Bulgaria. It started with the February Revolution, earlier this year, which was sparked by a dramatic increase in electricity prices. For almost a decade now, the Bulgarian energy sector has been sold off to foreign companies as a result of privatization frenzy. These companies have no trouble to raise prices even if they are completely out of proportion with the average wage in Bulgaria, which is the lowest in the EU. For many families, the electricity bill swallowed up more than their entire income this winter.

All over Bulgaria, people took the streets. As if to underline exactly how desperate the situation was, six people died after they set themselves on fire out of protest. These gruesome acts got hardly any attention from international media.

The right wing government of Boyko Borisov resigned as a result of the protests. When he got elected Borisov had presented himself as a strong man, the ‘roll up your sleeves’ type of guy, who likes to be pictured as a doer in the style of Benito Mussolini or Vladimir Putin. And yes, quite literally, he is a strong man. He had been a bodyguard of Bulgaria’s long time communist leader Todor Zhivkov before he embarked on a career in organized crime during the Wild West years that followed the communist collapse. His policies of strict austerity, combined with a sell-out of state property in an atmosphere of endemic corruption quickly made him lose support of the population.

During the February Revolution, councils of citizens were formed which formulated a series of more or less practical demands. The first was the re-nationalization of the energy sector. Others included criminal accountability for politicians, a change in the electoral system and increased citizens’ control over the nation’s political life.

When the government resigned, the protest collapsed. I was here in April, I spoke to people about the political situation, about the upcoming elections, and all I harvested was complete apathy. Elections or not, there was nothing to elect, the next government would be as bad as the previous one, and probably worse. That was the general idea.

Indeed, for some strange reason, Borisov’s party won the most seats in parliament. Only half of the people bothered to vote. There were widespread allegations of electoral fraud. I heard stories of dead people who miraculously turned in a ballot paper. I asked people about it.

“Yeah, sure. That’s normal in Bulgaria.” Apparently it’s such a normal practice that it isn’t even considered fraud anymore. No, this time it went beyond these minor ‘adjustments’. Printing presses were running overtime to deliver extra ballot papers.

Fraud or not, Borisov’s party finally renounced to form a new government and preferred to let the post-communists handle the mess. They had come in second in the election and managed to form a highly unlikely coalition with hardcore nationalists and the Turkish minority party.

I say highly unlikely, but in practice it may be less so than it seems. Vox popoli says that both the nationalist and the Turkish minority parties are ‘inventions’ of the post-communists, designed to give an appearance of democratic plurality to what is otherwise an attempt to continue the hegemony of Bulgaria’s former Communist Party.

When the post-communists returned to power in June, they nominated a minister who had gotten his hands dirty with a controversial building project on the coast of the Black Sea. Environmentalists staged a protest against his nomination starting on May 28 (the same day that environmentalists in Turkey started protesting against the destruction of Gezi Park). The minister withdrew from his post over the protests.

On June 14, the new government made an ever more controversial nomination. In less than half an hour they agreed to make 32-year old Delyan Peevski the head of almighty ДАНС (DANS, the Bulgarian KGB). As any candidate for a serious post in government, Mr. Peevski possessed the necessary credentials he gained from organized crime. On top of that, his mom owns the majority of Bulgarian press outlets.

Bulgarian people calling on the Oresharski government to get out of parliament.

Bulgarian people calling on the Oresharski government to get out of parliament.

This nomination sparked the current protests in Bulgaria. June 14 was day 1. The appointment of Peevski was quickly withdrawn, but the protests have continued ever since. For the people it’s not about conflicts of interests or lurid characters being placed in sensitive positions. It’s about the whole political culture being rotten to the bone from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Yesterday, on day 45, the people took it easy. They marched around parliament, blowing their whistles and beating their drums. They sat down in front of the Alexander Nevski cathedral, and then most of them went home. Those who remained gathered around the piano for a concert that varied from classic waltzers to ragtime, to Abba…

It’s not sure if the protest will last throughout August when parliament is on holiday. But even if it doesn’t, it’s bound to flare up again. As the citizen committees stated earlier this year, ‘We are not a protest, we are a process.’

The Bulgarian civil society has started the long process of laying the foundations for a new way of doing politics. This process must and will continue, because the current political game is not an option any more.

"Europe listen to us, because the Bulgarian parliament refuses."

“Europe listen to us, because the Bulgarian parliament refuses.”


Bulgarian Summer

44th day of Bulgarian protest

44th day of Bulgarian protest

[Spanish translation here]

Sofia, July 28

Dear people,

You notice the difference at the border. The Turkish side is super fancy, with neon lights and grand unified architecture that announces a proud nation on the rise. The Bulgarian side is a run-down dump with a few shacks that nobody cared to replace since communist times. Inside one of the shacks it’s a mess. Apparently, a router had recently been installed and they never bothered to tidy up the wiring. The only piece of 21st century is the chip-reader for passports, for which the router was necessary. Everyone passes without a problem. When it’s my turn the border guard starts asking questions. I wonder what popped up on his screen. He seems reluctant to let me in.

I’m here for tourism, sure. I considered telling him that I’m a foreign agent intent on bringing down the Bulgarian government, but I realized it wouldn’t be too smart. Besides, it would be just as untrue as saying that I’m a tourist. The Bulgarian people don’t need anybody’s help to bring down their government. But they can always do with someone to report on their revolt. Now that is my real purpose.

The whole question is complicated, weird even. I have been reading the scant material on the protests and some historic context, I have been talking to people, and it gets ever more complicated as I go along. For now, I will go straight to the core, and try to onion my way around it at a later stage.

It’s actually quite amazing what’s going on. For 44 consecutive days, thousands of people have been demonstrating against the government. They are camping outside parliament, and they don’t plan to let go.

Communist-free zone outside of former Party HQ

Communist-free zone outside of former Party HQ

So what do they want? In short, they want a complete reboot of the system. The democratic experiment in Bulgaria has failed. The country is arguably the worst example of a post-communist kleptocracy in eastern Europe. Ever since the Wall came down it has been ruled by recycled apparatchiks, bandits, buffoons, bullies, racists and the likes. It has been two decades of medieval freak show. Almost a quarter of the population has emigrated. Those who remain are thoroughly fed up. They demand honest professionals who look after the interests of the people, instead of the business interests of what they call ‘the mafia’. They want to be a serious European country with a decent standard of living.

So every night around seven o’ clock the people start to gather in front of the former Communist Party headquarters, with drums and whistles and flags. There are no party flags, no union flags, just the Bulgarian one, and to a lesser extent the European one.

Yesterday it started off with just a few dozen people, then it went almost imperceptibly to a few hundred, to a few thousand. The Bulgarians claim they have mobilized at least 10k people every day since the start. This time, my personal estimate was five thousand people maximum. They are all ages, many families, many young children. They make a lot of noise as they march to parliament, two hundred meters down the road.

Rather differently from Turkey, police is on their side. I can imagine why. I talked to a police officer last time I was here, and they suffer as much from government incompetence and corruption as anybody else. There were a few dozen of them who guarded one of the ministries and the presidency of the republic. No water cannons, no scorpions, no riot gear. The officers who walked along with the march were completely unarmed. No guns, no billy clubs, no nothing. Just one of those fluorescent vests over their uniforms, which had ‘security police’ printed on it. Instead of creating new vests, they had tried to cancel it out and printed ‘anti-conflict police’ on top of it. It’s a charming nation, Bulgaria.

Eloquent statement against the mafia

Eloquent statement against the mafia

Parliament is fenced off. There are maybe twenty officers on duty, without shields or helmets. A few dozen more are on stand-by. Ever since the start, the protest has been peaceful, with the crowd only making noise and calling for resignation. The exception was last Wednesday, when protesters refused to let the parliamentarians leave the building. They opened up the pavements and built barricades around. They smashed the windows of the bus that was supposed to bring the parliamentarians to safety. It was only then – after forty days – that the protest gained some significant attention by international media. The police were ordered to charge the crowd. They also went for journalists and in particular their cameras. It took until four o’ clock in the morning before the parliamentarians were finally liberated.

In the following days, the protest continued, peaceful as before. Yesterday, like custom, people went on a seemingly spontaneous march of a few miles around the centre and part of the suburbs. At the end, they occupied a six lane boulevard in small groups. Some of them just sat around in circles, some played football, or volleyball, others listened to music from a 1980s ghetto blaster. In front of parliament, at the heart of the small encampment, there stands a white concert piano, like the one we had for a few nights in Taksim Square. People gathered around to sing songs. “All we are saying is give peace a chance…”

Elderly member of the 'Anti-Government Police'. Real cops in the background.

Elderly member of the ‘Anti-Government Police’. Real cops in the background.

It’s a very strange situation. There is no legitimate authority in Bulgaria at the moment. The government has no credibility at all. To me, it seems like the country is in a revolutionary limbo. The people have the power, and police might not comply with an order of repression. It would only take a small push, and the whole state apparatus would crumble.

But this is not the point for most people. The last thing they want is for the protest to turn violent. It would divide society, it would give motive for authorities to assert themselves. “What is being accomplished now is much more valuable than a revolution,” someone told me. “People are coming together to build society. They are no longer locked up in their own small spaces.”

Soon, the government will go on holiday. They hope and expect people to get tired and return to their homes. But everyone I spoke to is determined to continue, for as long as it takes to bring about a peaceful change. There is this feeling in the air that if they give up now, they will be slaves of the post-communist mafia forever.


Diversity of Tactics

Nikolai Kochergin, Storming of the Winter Palace.

Nikolai Kochergin, Storming of the Winter Palace.

[Spanish translation here]

Istanbul, July 24

Dear people,

My time is running out. Soon I will have to leave the country. It prompts me to make another reflection on the concept of revolution, on the real, substantial change that all of us – or almost – want to see in this world.

Many people who call themselves revolutionaries consider the revolution to be something serious. Especially in Turkey. They hide out in their coves, plotting, drinking tea, smoking, theorizing, and accusing other revolutionaries of not being revolutionary enough. When they go out onto the streets with their banners, they sing their ominous chants, they spell doom to the ruling class, and they dream of Judgment Day when all counts will be settled.

This is old school, this won’t happen. A real revolution means joy, unity, and fun. The Turks have understood this at Occupy Gezi, like the Spaniards before them. Satire is one of the most powerful weapons against authorities. It exposes their absurdity and their lack of moral justification. It shows the world that the emperor wears no clothes. And there’s no way to defend against it.

Classic revolutionaries base their ideas on theories, many of which have devolved into dogma’s. This is not a solid base for change. All the present political currents are rooted in philosophies that go back to the 18th and 19th centuries, sometimes even further. In our present, rapidly evolving information society, they are all heavily outdated.

Personally, I don’t believe in communism, or socialism, or nationalism. Up to a certain point I do believe in liberalism (the European original) and at the same time I’m fascinated by the idea of anarchism. All these -isms address social and economic issues, but in their core they are political theories. This is a major flaw. Nowadays, the most basic level is not political, but ecological. A 21st century revolution can only be aimed at a transition towards sustainability. This means in the first place environmental and energetic sustainability. Without it, there is no way to attain the necessary sustainability on a demographic, social, economic and political level.

The struggle must be fought on all fronts, simultaneously. There are infinite ways to do this. Opinions on the matter differ up to the point that many people have lost sight of their shared objectives, and instead engaged in conflicts over methodology. Some people who think of themselves as true revolutionaries are convinced that we should destroy and rebuild. Others think that we should try to change the system from within.

For me, all roads are fine as long as they lead to Rome. What’s important is that we agree on a starting point. Logically, this should be the idea of equality between peoples, races, creeds, genders, sexual orientations, etc. Until we cease to think that some of us are inherently better than others, we will keep causing conflict, suffering, death and destruction. The revolution will need to be a revolution of all humanity.

So let’s look at some of the fronts. Political, economic, legal, military and communicational. With regard to each of these I will make a case for ‘diversity of tactics’.

In Spain 2011, people rose up against a corrupt political class, shouting ‘they don’t represent us.’ In the occupied squares, citizens started organising in leaderless assemblies to provide a model for direct democracy. It was a glorious experiment, but in its radical ambition it was also very dogmatic. A wholesale rejection of representative politics is a severe limitation of your range of action. There is nothing wrong with founding a political party, or supporting an existing party, if it can help you reach an objective. You can always withdraw your support, and it doesn’t exclude simultaneous experiments with direct democracy in the squares or online.

Also, the idea of a movement being leaderless is completely unrealistic. There are always leaders, whether explicit or not, and you are going to need them. But there is a difference between ‘leaders’ and ‘authority’. A leader is someone who gets things done, either by him- or herself, or by inspiring other people to collaborate. Authority on the other hand implies coercion. “Do as I say, because I say so.” I have a problem with that, and with any society that is based on it. Authority is to be questioned, and to be fought if necessary. Another difference is that authority is tied to a person, whereas leadership is connected to a specific goal, and as such limited in time. A true leader is someone who steps up to do something, and who steps back when it has been accomplished.

Delacroix, Liberty leading the people.

Delacroix, Liberty leading the people.

On the economic front, there is a hell of a lot you can do. You can camp out in the square and shout slogans against capitalism, but it won’t really make a difference if you get your beer and chips at the local discount supermarket. You can also retreat to the countryside, work the land every day and try to be completely self-sufficient. This is already a lot more useful, but there are only few of us who can bear the hardships and the satisfactions of this kind of life. In between, there is a world of possibilities. You can support organic producers, as an individual or as a collective. You can support small businesses. You can boycott big businesses or any venture that is not respectful of its workers or the environment. You can set up cooperatives. You can start your own business. Why not? Capitalism offers opportunities, also the opportunity to erode it from within. The transition towards an energetically sustainable economic model is the biggest investment opportunity since the industrial revolution. There are whole new empires to be built, and old ones to be destroyed. There are new technologies to be developed, systems to be decentralised, people and potentials to be liberated. If you treat profit as a means and not an end, you can go a very long way.

On the legal front, injustice has to be denounced, remembered, and fought, everywhere. It’s not about what is legal or not, but about what is right and what is wrong. I don’t believe any of these two to be absolute, but I’m convinced that people have a very well developed sense of justice. Whenever possible, make use of the legal system with all its cavities to frustrate attempts at punishing people who were in their right, and to get the real crooks locked up. The laws are not sacred, not even the sacred ones. A law that is unjust should be challenged on the political front, and massively disobeyed until it is repealed.

Then there is the military front, for lack of a better word. In Spain, one of the founding principles of the indignado movement was the idea of nonviolence. I used to adhere to that. I substantially agreed with the notion that any society born in violence will be violent as a result. But since I came to Turkey I changed my mind. Gezi Park was the most joyful and peaceful society I have ever been part of, but it would never have been possible without active, violent resistance. The people who threw the Molotovs, who burned the buses, who beat back police and who manned the barricades in defence of our free republic were among the kindest and most generous people in all of Gezi. They responded proportionately to police aggression, and they were supported by the great majority of people who didn’t engage in active resistance themselves.

Nonviolence can be extremely powerful in many circumstances, but in others it can be utterly useless. Not many authorities will allow a peaceful revolution to happen. So if you are dedicated to real change, you will need to be willing to use force, or to support the use of force, whenever there is no viable alternative. As the saying goes, “si vis pacem, para bellum”. If you want peace, prepare for war.

Emanuel Leutze, Washington crossing the Delaware

Emanuel Leutze, Washington crossing the Delaware

Like any other action, violent action needs to have a clear, justified scope. Usually, it will be about repulsing an invader, or conquering a space. It makes no sense to smash up banks or put Starbucks franchises to the torch simply because you don’t like capitalism. Remember, the capitalists never pay. They are insured, and the insurance companies will take it out on the people. You and your neighbour will end up paying for the bank you destroy, not the bank itself.

The primary opponent in a potentially violent struggle will be the police. In theory, their role is to ‘serve and protect’ the population, but in most societies they are an instrument of repression at the service of abusive authorities. A healthy society doesn’t need police. In Gezi Park, and in Puerta del Sol, the commitment of the citizens themselves was enough to guarantee everybody’s safety. If at any time I felt unsafe in Istanbul, it was because of the police being around, not because of them being absent.

The Turkish uprising has taught us a wealth of tactics on how to deal with them, ranging from personal protection measures, to the practice of building barricades, to the weapons you can use to beat them. Popular support is vital for any aggressive tactic to succeed.

These tactics need to be shared and studied and improved. If there is one advantage the people have over authorities, it is their organic way of organisation. Rebels can operate in small independent cells, there is no command chain to disrupt, no single person to be held accountable.

In the majority of cases, the use of force against police will be pointless. Throwing stones at panzers is little more than symbolic. But there’s a psychological aspect to the matter as well, which a black block friend of mine once explained to me. Throwing a stone at police is about the sense of empowerment, the feeling that you are not defenseless. It’s about realising that you are indeed capable of active resistance against authorities.

Which leaves the communications front. We are making headway on this one. The internet is in itself a revolutionary medium because it offers everyone the opportunity to be an active newscaster instead of a passive consumer. It has broken the monopoly of the state and commercial enterprises. There is no ‘official’ version of the news any more.

Contrary to popular belief, the revolution will be televised. But only once it is well under way. The big networks typically arrive at the moment when everybody already knows what’s happening through other media, and the mainstream can no longer ignore it.

It’s true that nobody can predict the moment of revolution, but once it happens, you can be sure that someone will be there to report on it in word and image. The revolution will be live. And we will be here to broadcast it.

This is already a major accomplishment. The presence of cameras and the possibility to livestream footage directly onto the web has forced authorities to be much more cautious in their repression of dissent. During the 1980s and 1990s, close to 3000 Kurdish villages were burned down by the Turkish military. There was no press around, and no cameras to show the atrocities to the world. Nowadays, it would be different. We are watching, and they know it.

There’s a lot to be done on the communications front. For now, we are still experimenting with live broadcasting. The next stage will be collaborative editing. With a handful of dedicated people we can start creating content in real time that can beat mainstream media both in quality and velocity. We can set the tone for the narrative, we can present it in full 4-D from every imaginable perspective. As my brother Naber likes to quote, “we will be our own historians.”

In a few days I’m leaving for other fronts of resistance. But don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on Turkey. The latest news from here spells more trouble. The decision by the court to declare illegal the redevelopment of Taksim has been overturned by a higher court dominated by AKP judges. Tayyip doesn’t cede, and neither do the people. They have no reason to give in after all they have accomplished in the past two months.

Last Saturday a couple who had met at the Gezi occupation decided to marry in the park. As part of her wedding outfit, the girl wore a white helmet. All the people had been invited to attend, except for police on duty. The bastards showed up anyway, and they treated the wedding guests to tear gas, chemical water and rubber bullets.

In response, the people chanted, as they have been doing many times before. “This is only the beginning. The struggle continues.”

Occupy Gezi, by Alpist.

Occupy Gezi, by Alpist.


“Everywhere Armutlu”

Armutlu, via Sendika.org

Armutlu, via Sendika.org

[German translation here. Spanish translation here. Greek translation here.]

Istanbul, July 18

Dear people,

The resistance in Armutlu is becoming an inspiration for citizens all over Turkey. At the moment, the neighbourhood is firmly controlled by the people. Police don’t even try to conquer it any more. They have lifted the siege. A few days ago, they made a final attempt to enter. We saw footage of that, it was epic. People threw down burning sofa’s from the roofs. Police employed armoured vehicles to break through the barricades, and didn’t succeed.

Aside from the burning sofa’s, the most interesting aspect of the resistance is the effective use of strong laser beams. When the vehicles moved in, people were flashing dozens of them at the drivers from the windows of their houses. It turned into a spectacular light show.

The demoralizing effect of lasers on an invading force can be huge. When the beam hits you, there’s no way you can see where you are going, but you know full  well that’s it isn’t friendly terrain. The combined use of lasers and sound in the form of fireworks, flash bangs, chants and pot banging, may serve to further demoralise the invader.

Armutlu, via @imbrendal

Armutlu, via @imbrendal

The next evening. We are sitting on the grass of Yoğurtçu Park, plotting with comrades from all over Turkey. The occupation of the park keeps steadily gaining a more permanent form. The main Çapulcu cafe has its own storage space now. The library is growing. There is a fenced off playground for kids. There are a couple of tents, and some corners are turned into an open air living room. During the day, there had been organized a ‘free market’, where people could barter things with no money involved. In the evening, there was a forum as usual, and a concert. Above all, the parks have become a place for people to meet, outside of the commercial scenes that have come to dominate social interaction.

So we sit around, like many other groups of locals. We talk about the situation in Armutlu. “Police won’t be able to enter Armutlu,” one of the girls says, and she hints that the Kurds have something to do with it. The armed wing of the PKK is right around the corner from Antioch, in Syria, and they are not happy with what the government is doing.

A quick reminder of the delicate situation in the Kurdish lands at this moment. Ever since the second Gulf War, the Kurds in northern Iraq have established their own autonomous region. A year ago, they did the same in Syria in the midst of the ongoing civil war. Of course Turkey is extremely concerned about this. They know they’re next. They try to anticipate it by giving life to a peace process, but until now, the attacks of the Turkish army on Kurdish guerrilla’s inside and outside Turkey continue. The repression of the Gezi Park protests further angered many Kurds, so now their patience is wearing thin. They want some proof that the government is serious about the peace process. This week, from Iraq, the armed wing of PKK launched an ultimatum. ‘If you want peace, show it. If you want war, you can get it. You have until Wednesday,’ was more or less the content.

No way the Turkish government will ever answer to an ultimatum by people they consider terrorists. Yesterday – Wednesday – the Kurds were attacked by the Turkish army in Syria. They repulsed the attack and subsequently took one of the border posts. Turkish military was forced to retreat, allowing free traffic of people, supplies and weapons between the Kurdish territories in Syria and Turkey.

Armutlu, people using their furniture and cars to build barricades. Via @BerxwedanYARUK

Armutlu, people using their furniture and cars to build barricades. Via @BerxwedanYARUK

Effectively, the attack on the border may be the end of the peace process. If so, then politics will merely continue with different means, as the saying goes. For the Kurds, the ultimate goal to be attained through peace or armed struggle is not necessarily an independent Kurdish state any more. As a mountain people, the Kurds are suspicious of central government, even if it is their own. Many of them prefer local decentralised democracy. The autonomous regions in Syria and Iraq are a perfect testing ground for this. After militants conquered the border post yesterday, they reportedly handed control of the territory to the local people’s assembly.

Lately, the popular forums are beginning to spread to the universities. Yesterday we were at the campus of Boğaziçi Üniversitesi. Before the forum began, the students had organized an iftar, a Ramadan banquet, together with the Anti-Capitalist Muslims. Surely not all people who participated actually observe the Ramadan, and some were not even Muslims, but it perfectly fitted the spirit of Gezi Park. For one, because it is all about sharing and being together, and for two because it wasn’t organized by any authority, be it political or religious.

The students have good reason to organise themselves and to resist in the months to come, as the government is working on a law which will allow police to provide ‘security’ inside the universities. Contrary to the government’s stated aim, it will be more likely that the presence of police will turn the campuses into battlefields.

On the short term, resistance is spreading in the southeast. Inspired by the determination of the people in Armutlu, heavy clashes broke out in Adana last night. They will continue this evening. Police are reportedly moving extra forces into the city as the rebels call on all people of Adana to rise up.

Resistance in Adana last night.

Resistance in Adana last night.


Repression and Resistance

The people in Istanbul, via @RedHack_EN

The people in Istanbul, via @RedHack_EN

[Greek translation here (with more fotos) and in comments. Spanish translation here]

Istanbul, July 14.

Dear people,

For the past week, both the repression and the resistance are gaining steam again. On Monday, eight members of Taksim Solidarity were arrested on trumped up charges including the founding of an illegal organization with the ‘intent to commit crimes’. Other members were charged with the possession of suspicious materials, such as gas masks. Police raids were performed throughout Istanbul. Our own primary cove got raided twice in the aftermath of the Gezi occupation.

On Wednesday, fifty Occupy Gezi detainees started a hunger strike to protest against the witch hunt. Amnesty International and human rights organization IHD called for the immediate release of all peaceful protesters and for the government to protect the freedom of expression and demonstration. Pending trial, the Taksim Solidarity members were released on Thursday.

Four members of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) were arrested on Monday as well. The Union played a vital role in spearheading the occupation of Gezi Park by starting the lawsuit which finally canceled the redevelopment project of Taksim. The Union is important in Turkish daily life because it can grant final approval to certain urban planning projects. On Wednesday, the government launched an offensive against them by rushing through a midnight bill, which cancels the Union’s privileges and takes away an important part of its income.

Fans of Istanbul Utd support TMMOB protest. Via @rfatmete

Fans of Istanbul Utd support TMMOB protest. Via @rfatmete

Yesterday, the architects and engineers demonstrated in Istanbul and Ankara, together with thousands of sympathizers. Police attacked the crowd, leading to renewed clashes that lasted throughout the evening. Tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets were used.

For the last week there has been another worrisome development as small cells of AKP supporters have intimidated and attacked protesters with sticks. Yesterday they tried to do so as well in Istanbul, but they were quickly and effectively beaten back by the crowd. Gun shots were reported as the AKP supporters retreated.

Over a month ago, armed AKP goons attacked and severely brutalised 19-year old protester Ali Ismail Korkmaz in Eskişehir. After a month in coma, Korkmaz died last Wednesday, bringing the official death toll of the uprising to six (five plus one). Immediately after the news was published, demonstrations broke out all over the country, particularly in Eskişehir, Ankara, Antakya (Antioch) and in several districts of Istanbul.

A meeting of the Popular Forum of Kocamustafaşa in Istanbul’s Fatih district was attacked by armed AKP supporters on the same day as people were commemorating the murder of Ali Korkmaz. The attackers intimidated people to stop organizing forums. The day after, there were at least twenty times as many participants, and the AKP supporters didn’t dare to show up again.

In Antioch, on the coast near the Syrian border, the protests over Ali’s death were particularly fierce after police attacked people in order to prevent them from marching. The city has a rich history, not only as capital of the Seleucid Empire and as one of the original metropoles of early Christianity, but also as a place of popular resistance. “You can conquer Antioch,” they say, “but you can’t hold it.” Every night, there have been demonstrations and clashes, centered around the neighbourhood of Armutlu.

Burning barricade in Armutlu, July 13. Via @kirca_levent

Burning barricade in Armutlu, July 13. Via @kirca_levent

Friday night, the people of Armutlu actively resisted police aggression as toma’s moved in to try and pacify the neighbourhood. The toma is the backbone of police repression. Without it, they don’t dare to move. So in order to successfully resist, it’s vital for insurgents to neutralize them. There are various ways to do this, all of which have been experimented since the uprising started, and subsequently shared on the Internet up to the point that they made it to Wikipedia (though the ‘countermeasure’ reference has recently been removed).

The toma has a couple of weak spots, which include the engine, the tires and the turret. As I mentioned in an earlier post, paint bombs are used to temporarily disorient either the driver or the gunner by throwing them against the windshield or the camera next to the water cannon.

To immobilize it permanently, people use a remedy that works against any combustion engine and which consists simply in putting a wet towel over the exhaust. This can be difficult, because the exhaust is pretty well protected, and it means the crowd will have to be able to surround the toma. Be aware that a toma doesn’t only spray water through the cannon, it can also spray water vapour through a number of dispensers all around the vehicle. The water is treated with a chemical substance that burns the skin like pepper-spray.

If people do succeed in trapping the vehicle, they may also decide to overturn it by force. This may require leverage. But as Archimedes teaches us, even the world itself can be lifted out of place if you have a proper foothold.

Usually, it will not be possible to surround the toma, which leaves people with the option to try and neutralize them from a distance. The most effective measure that has been experimented for this is the Molotov cocktail.

Alexander Kosolapov, Molotov cocktail

Alexander Kosolapov, Molotov cocktail

Molotovs have been used with success against vehicles, including tanks, ever since they were first used by fascist militia in the Spanish Civil War. They got their name from Finnish soldiers who used them against the Soviets in the Winter War of 1939-40, as a present for Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, who tried to make the world believe that the bombs dropped on Finland were actually emergency aid packages.

In regard to toma’s, the Molotov is generally deployed to overheat the engine by creating a fire underneath, or to melt the tires. The device consists of a bottle filled with an inflammable substance and a rag. Usually, people stuff a soaked rag down the bottleneck, they light it and they throw it. This can be very dangerous if the resister in question doesn’t know what he or she is doing. When the mouth of the bottle is not properly sealed with ducktape it can cause a premature explosion. People with a certain experience use a safer and more effective way. They cork the bottle and ducktape the soaked rag to the other side. This allows the thrower to use the bottleneck as a handle, expanding both the reach and the precision. As for the inflammable substance, professional clashers prefer a mixture of gasoline and oil, which makes the fire burn longer and more difficult to extinguish, even with water.

This leaves the most vulnerable part of the toma, the turret. Those people determined to neutralize it are forced to attack it from above. This requires access to buildings and a friendly neighbourhood, a neighbourhood like Armutlu.

On Friday, police lost a toma in Armutlu when people dropped an entire 10.000 liter water container on it from the roofs, Neapolitan style. Other devices recommended by insurgents as effective countermeasures against toma’s include washing machines, dish washers and refrigerators. In the midst of the resistance in Armutlu some people even threw their furniture out of the window, not to damage the toma’s, but to help the defenders build their barricades.

Toma attacking roofs in Armutlu. Via @sinan_fdn

Toma attacking roofs in Armutlu. Via @sinan_fdn

After their humiliating defeat, police didn’t dare to enter Armutlu again yesterday evening. The neighbourhood has been liberated. The people are in control. In the evening it was not necessary to use refrigerators and dishwashers in combat. Instead, some very determined insurgents used them to further reinforce the barricades. They also covered access roads with oil, to prevent the easy passage of any type of vehicle.

These are just a few of last week’s highlights in Turkey. In Istanbul there has also been a demonstration by journalists and sympathizers on Friday, to protest against censorship and the ongoing smear campaign of government-friendly media. Police took a day off. Maybe they understood that it wouldn’t be smart to attack them, from a public relations point of view.

For the same reason they hesitated to attack the banquet of Anti-Capitalist Muslims that had been organized in Istiklal Street at sundown on Tuesday to celebrate the first day of Ramadan. For hundreds of meters, the faithful sat down to eat and share, together with the people of Gezi Park. Police was present, they lined up a toma and ordered people to disperse.

Using a washing machine to reinforce a barracade. Armutly, July 13. Via @gmzokumus

Using a washing machine to reinforce a barricade. Armutly, July 13. Via @gmzokumus

We were waiting for it. ‘Do it, Tayyip! Do it! Spray those Muslims in the midst of their ritual, and your government won’t last for another week!’

He didn’t do it. Police backed down. The government has no intention to de-escalate the situation, but they’re not stupid, not at all. Apparently, Tayyip hopes that people will give in under mounting pressure from subservient police, provocateurs, courts and press. From their side, protesters continue to defy him, all over the country, every day. One of their slogans which you will find on banners and t-shirts is, in fact, ‘Boyun eğme’.

Don’t bow your head.

P.S. A warm salute to all our comrades in France on this July 14. Remember the Bastille! Don’t wait for the situation to get desperate in order to rise up. The best time for revolution is now…

The people in Taksim, July 9. Via @15mBCN_int

The people in Taksim, July 9. Via @15mBCN_int