Once again İrfan Aktan is the one who shines a light, more necessary than ever, following the liberation under surveillance of one of the teachers on hunger strike. He does so through the intervention of Veli Saçılık, who has been of one of the protagonists since the very beginning of this power struggle.
Because Veli Saçılık does not mince words, he sheds light on the shadowy areas of non convergence in the social struggles against the successive decrees by the AKP regime in Turkey. The outlook is blunt on the divisions in the opposition, and their role in the apparent stability of the ruling power faced with isolated protesters.
Of course, any resemblance with situations in European would be pure coincidence…
If the extreme fatigue of those who have struggled alone for months shows in this casual exchange, it also reveals the difficulty of taking onto one’s self a struggle that should be massive and collective against a regime dictating its rules against of background of State terrorism.
İrfan Aktan • An interview published October 21 2017, on Gazete Duvar
Veli Saçılık : “Seeing Nuriye’s condition could provoke indignation”
The good news landed as I was finishing the transcription of this conversation and was preparing the introduction : Semih Özakça, the teacher jailed since May 23, was released on the condition that he wear an electronic bracelet. However, the same decision was not taken concerning Nuriye Gülmen, arrested with Semih, whose health has deteriorated to the point of requiring her transfer into intensive care. According to Saçılık, Gülmen was not liberated for fear of the indignation the sight of her might set off.
Semih Özakça and Nuriye Gülmen started their resistance together at the same period, led the same fight, spoke the same words, and expressed the same demands. The fact that Özakça was freed, following the hearing on October 20, but that Gülmen’s incarceration continues appears to be a persistent topic of discussion. According to Veli Saçılık, the fear that seeing Nuriye might set off indignation in the public is the reason for keeping her out of sight.
While hundreds of thousands of public sector employees were fired under the state of emergency, declared on July 20 2016 and constantly extended ever since, reactions to this practice has remained limited to the resistance of a handful of persons saying “I want my job back” in front of the monument to Human Rights on Ankara’s Yüksel avenue. Veli Saçılık, who also descended on Yüksel Avenue demanding his job back at the same time as Gülmen and Özakça did, has been one of that handful of people to come forward.
Saçılık, who has been harassed by the police almost every day, taken into custody a countless number of times, now complains mostly of the fact their union did not stand by them. Saçılık, whose mother and companion are also facing trials, says “I’m tired now”. But he adds immediately: “This is about the survival of two comrades, of Nuriye and of Semih. I have to go down [into the street] for her and for him. When no one speaks up, I must say ‘our work, our bread, our freedom’. Otherwise, at this very moment, I would be at home with my companion and my daughter, I would be living like a human being. But since no one is taking to the street, since no one is saying anything, I must compromise.”
With Veli Saçılık, we examined the resistance on Yüksel, now going on a year, and Özakça’s liberation while Gülmen remains imprisoned.
Following our conversation, we learned of Semih’s liberation. What does this liberation signify?
In my opinion, the tribunal in question wants to impress abroad, as if there was a real judicial process underway. Of course, we consider recuperating Semih a victory. We freed him from captivity. And the hunger strike will go on in public. It will be an argument against those who say “They are not conducting a hunger strike”. We will continue to speak out on Yüksel Avenue. And I think we’ll also remove Nuriye from their hands and have (her and Semih) get their jobs back. I have hope in this area. Beyond the hope, I’m determined to keep up the fight.
In your opinion, why wasn’t Nuriye Gülmen set free?
There is supposed to have been confessions from a so-called repentant. Yet, today on October 20 at the hearing, everything this person said was futile. Such a decision was taken because they are pretending they are conducting a legal judicial process. Moreover, since the sight of Nuriye would provoke public indignation, they continue to keep her out of sight.
Because Nuriye’s condition is very bad, to the point of making the sight of her impossible. The government does not want to step on its own prestige. Yet, with this struggle, we’ve given that prestige quite a shaking.
On November 9, it will be a year since you began the resistance at Yüksel-Ankara. Hundreds of person were fired from their jobs by decree, but we have followed the reaction against these widespread liquidations through the resistance conducted by a few persons, including yourself. What is your appraisal of the year [gone by]?
Listen, several of us are resisting but for once, I will speak in my own name. I was fired on November 22 2016 and I joined the resistance on November 24. Nuriye Gülmen was the first to go down to Yüksel Avenue with a placard that read “I want my job!” One day later, Semih Özakça joined up with Nuriye. The following day, I was on Yüksel also. Then, other comrades such as Acun Karadağ, Mehmet Dersulu joined us. The dose of [police] violence targeting us did not change from the first day onward. Frankly, I thought that these demonstrations of resistance would spread to other places, that serious public opinions would build up in several regions and that, short of being able to clearly reverse the process, we would manage to transform this into a mass movement. Individual resistance multiplied in front of establishments in different places, beginning with Ankara and Istanbul. But the AKP government was so “uncompromising”, to use their own term, that the people taking to the street were put into custody and subjected to abuse. During that period where tear gas and rubber bullets were at the rendez-vous, and countless trials opened besides, the birth of a mass movement was thwarted. I’m in front of tribunals every day. Lawsuits have been launched against my mother, against my companion. In this way, the threats started to affect the families also.
Does the fact acts of resistance do not converge result simply from these acts of repression?
In reference to the film “The silence of the lambs”, we would have to say “the silence of the unions”. I, for one, have trouble understanding the silence of the KESK [Confederation of public service workers’ unions, member of the CSI and CES]. There have been over 130 thousand liquidations and some 3 500 of the terminated workers are members of the KESK. It shouldn’t have been too hard to mobilize those 3 500. What we are doing doesn’t demand superhuman strength. We go out and sit in front of the Human Rights monument, we read press releases and we put up with police violence. People aren’t cowards in Turkey. During [the protests in] Gezi, we saw what people were capable of. But the unions behaved as if there was no tomorrow, enclosing the demands in bureaucratic insulation, they constantly applied the brakes on mass movement and stopped it. They did not know how to lead, or they did not want to lead.
The unions have become a cog in the climate of terror
By playing dead.
They figured, “by playing dead, there won’t be other firings of our members, and we, the leaders, won’t get arrested”. The unions have become on the of the instruments in the climate created by the AKP.
But we know that the leaders of the KESK (confederation) have criticisms concerning your action. They say that Gülmen and Özakça did not consult them when they began their hunger strike and even that this action was imposed on them, and that those leading the Yüksel resistance aren’t too hot on the idea of coordination with the union.
They are not speaking the truth. I am not from the same political tradition as Semih and Nuriye. Everyone knows that. Nor did I join this resistance after long conversations and discussions with Nuriye and Semih. I moved with the KESK from day one. The day I was fired, I held a press conference with the KESK. Then, I tried to participate in all the actions and meetings organized by the KESK around the liquidations by decree. But the KESK mainly worked at doing nothing and at applying the brakes. For instance, they organized something called “the Congress on liquidations”, but none of the decisions voted there were put into practice. That said, individuals or unions aren’t obliged to come to Yüksel. They’re not obliged to go on hunger strike, as Nuriye and Semih have done, or to resist in the same way I have done. There are no rules of the sort. The only rule is to resist. You can resist in other venues, in other ways. At this point, the KESK is in such a sorry sate that it can’t even hold a sit-in on Sakarya boulevard in Ankara. We’re talking about a union that can’t even bring itself to do that much.
But in Istanbul, in the neighborhoods of Bakırköy and Kadıköy, there is a resistance by members of the KESK…
Yes, they are my friends, and I know they are not organized by the KESK, and that they pursue their resistance on their own initiative. They are members of the KESK, like me, but they take to the street of their own free will. The KESK can’t even manage to take care of its members resisting in front of their places of work in Ankara. And yet the KESK had voted a decision on “Mobilizations and actions in front of work places”.
The union leader said “We’re beaten because of you.”
Did you talk to them about this?
I talked to them a number of times. “All right, don’t come to Yüksel, I can be there and other comrades can show up” I told them, “But let’s not back down from our positions, for instance on Sakarya avenue. When the police orders us to disperse, let’s stay put in front of our work places, stubbornly”. They keep taking us into custody. Following this interview, I’ll go to Yüksel and be taken into custody again. Tomorrow also, I’ll be arrested, and the day after… If there were five hundred of us there, in different spaces, two by two, and in rotation, wouldn’t we be more efficient? Do I have to suffer so many hardships? You claim to head a union, you obtain the position then, you do nothing! A KESK leader told some youngsters who took action during the commemoration of the October 10 attack [attack at the Ankara Station during a Peace meeting, that caused 102 deaths in 2015]: “We’re beaten because of you.”
Who said that?
I don’t name names but he’s one of the top leaders of the KESK. And he said that to youngsters who were disobeying the police. This sentence was spoken on the occasion of the tribute to the 102 people who were massacred. It wasn’t addressed to the police spreading tear gas inside a enclosed space but to the youngsters reacting against this [police] violence. It’s a serious comment. I don’t accept it. I go further and reply : “I’m the one getting beaten because of you”. We get beaten because you don’t mobilize your union of 250 thousand members, because you don’t take the offensive, you don’t display the required resistance and, as leaders, you do not put your hand under the stone [Turkish expression meaning ‘taking risks’]. My criticism is clear and determined. But that criticism doesn’t mean “Veli has an action plan, he has an objective, and everyone must follow him”. The actions I undertake may or may not find support… People can say “What Veli says isn’t correct” and I respect that. But if what I say is not correct, it is their job to bring to light what is just, to move into the zone [of resistance] with their own vision, to produce the words and the actions. Those comrades – never mind actions – they have no comment concerning the decrees. Concerning the zone [of resistance], I manage to produce slogans, I speak, newspapers and websites publish my words, whether they agree with me or not. But in those same media, we don’t see a single declaration from the KESK’s co-presidents. Because they make no declarations and even if they do, they say nothing of interest, they don’t think on the topic, they have no plan to move those actions [into a mass movement].
Don’t the members force the KESK to move?
They did, at first. In Ankara, approximately 250 members were fired from their jobs, we managed to hold meetings with hundreds of people. I never saw members who weren’t fired raise a single demand to the KESK on the topic. We kept asking the unions, “What should we do?” and the answer we got was always the same “Wait, we’ll reach a decision”. They did nothing.
I told Nuriye and Semih “hand over your hunger strike to me”
The fact Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça started a hunger strike was a critical element that moved the resistance into international news. Why then did you not start a hunger strike?
I want my job back and I think a hunger strike that threatens to end in death doesn’t fit into that equation. But Nuriye and Semih think this is how it must be done. Personally, I think my point of view is the correct one, but I respect theirs. The fact I don’t agree with them never turns into a judgment against their choice.
Many calls went out asking that Gülmen and Özakça stop their hunger strike. Did you make any such suggestions?
At the fifty day mark, I offered my comrades “stop and I’ll take over the strike, for fifty days”. I offered to turn it into a rotating strike. But when they said “this is our decision and this is how we’re going to do it”, I respected their choice. From there on, it would have made no sense to tell my friends “why are you on hunger strike, this isn’t the right way”. In all circumstances, in my practice, I do what is correct for me. And my comrades, with their own practices, say what is correct for them. So we have two action models before us : that practiced by Nuriye and Semih, and the one Acun Karadağ’ın, Mehmet Dersulu and others including myself practice. If others who don’t think like we do, suggest others things, I will never tell them “why are you doing it that way, why are you resisting in that fashion”. Take the example of a comrade in Bodrum, Engin Karataş [a teacher]. One day, he writes the word “Justice” everywhere, using wrapping tape. Another time, he does a parachute jump, or he dives into the sea, another day he writes “Justice” using marine rope, he flies a baloon with the slogan “I want my students” attached to it. He comes to Ankara, he manages to evade the police and places a slogan on the Human Rights monument. As far as modes of action go, Master Engin is not orthodox, as I am, but he does a number of things to express in a dignified way “I want my students”. Following which what does the Eğitim-Sen [Teachers’ Union, member of the KESK] do to Master à Engin?
The Bodrum representative says “Master, do not come to the Eğitim-Sen, the police is pressuring us.” At that point, will we keep our distance from unique actions like those undertaken by Master Engin?
Do you consider you action to be radical?
No, I’m doing nothing radical, I’m only getting beaten. Is getting beaten something radical? I turn my back on them, they hit me over the head and kick me for good measure. Frontwise, they spray my face with tear gas, they shoot rubber bullets into my body. I practice passive resistance, an action in accordance with the dignity of a public sector worker. And if someone tells me “this is not a just action”, let him or her speak through his or her practice, without running away.
What arguments do KESK leaders oppose to your criticism?
“The AKP has forbidden it, the police attacks”. That is their argument. True, the AKP has forbidden it and the police attacks but I go out (in the street) anyway. Is it possible for a union to base its action on “never being taken into custody”? If Lami Özgen, KESK’s co-president had demonstrated the will I displayed the first time I went down into the street, would things be the same today? If he had spoken up, as he saw fit, wherever he saw fit and said “my members acted on my instructions and I take responsibility for it” Was that not possible? They say of our action “the decision was not taken in coordination with the union”. Why then don’t they put into effect the decisions that were taken in coordination with the union?
What kind of decisions were taken?
For instance, it was decided to have actions underway, every day of the week, in front of all the establishments.
When was that decision taken?
About eight months ago. Indeed, there are decisions such as “In important spots in the towns, we will carry out actions of four hours duration, every day”, “We will develop generalized propaganda tools against the state of emergency” , all these decision were written down and registered. The decisions taken by the KESK itself aren’t even respected by the members of its administration board.
Listen, KESK’s ten minute action does not satisfy me. Myself, I’m fired, I have a child, I must resist. I say, “I’m not going home, I’m resisting” and they answer “no, we decided on a ten minute action, the ten minutes are up, go home.” They can’t tell me that, they have registered decisions.
Are there ideological oppositions between you and the union?
No, we don’t have ideological differences. I don’t tell anyone “you are of such and such a political family, this is why you do this or that”. We have a tradition at the KESK : legitimate and active struggle. It finds its strength, not from the law, but from its legitimacy. Which is to say that, if your action is legitimate, even if the police forbids it, you do it. I go every day to Yüksel and what I do is legitimate. But some go to Sakarya avenue and the police tells them “don’t stay there, go in front of the commissariat”, they go and they stand in front of the 5th commissariat… I don’t accept that. Listen, when some demonstrators announce “for those who were fired : we will close our eyes for a minute and think of them”, the police tells them “your action is illegal, we shall intervene.” And they answer “OK, OK, we’ll open our eyes.” The situation should never have reached that point.
You have been up against police violence almost every day for close to a year. How is your health?
Aching neck constantly, fractured shoulder, I can’t lie down on that side. Following the tearing of a muscle in my left shoulder, I can’t make some movements. I still have the bruises from the latest police intervention. As I’m subjected to gazing regularly, respiratory problems are showing up. I had excellent eyesight, now, I don’t see as well.
I never lived through another period where I was beaten, morning and night
Are you tired?
I’m tired! I don’t say it in a negative sense, but yes, I am tired! I’ve been interested in politics since 1993, but since that time, I’ve never been involved in an action for close to 350 days. I’ve never lived through such a period where I am beaten, morning and night. I live that now and I am tired. I’ve said it a number of times : so many people were fired, why are there only four, five people shouldering the burden by themselves? Henceforth, this burden must be taken from us. Listen, the Human Rights monument in Ankara is surrounded now. If the unions, the IHD (Human Rights Association) and other similar organisations don’t act, if they don’t at least organize a campaign for the “liberation” of the monument… The Human Rights monument is barricaded, this is shameful for all of us!
Does the fact you are tired mean you will not go out to Yüksel anymore?
Personally, I don’t want to to down in Yüksel street like that. I have to go into the street for her and for him. While everyone keeps mum, I have to say ‘our work, our bread, our freedom’. If this was not the case, at this very moment I would be with my companion and my daughter at home, living like a human being. But since no one goes out [on the street], since no one speak up, I must compromise. How could I turn my back on news that four or five people who went in my place were beaten? I’ll continue. In a little while, I’ll go back in action, I’ll get sprayed with tear gas again, I’ll get beaten again, I’ll get taken into custody again.
There’s an eventuality that the government might resolve the hunger strike issue.
Of course, Nuriye Gülmen, Semih Özakça and Esra Ökzakça’s hunger strike continues in the meantime. Consequently, the risk for their life increases with every passing day. Apparently, there won’t be any evolution on the part of the government…
I think there will be an evolution. The hunger strike is reaching its 222nd day and its an irreversible process. Even if they liberate them this very day, the fact our friends will remain handicaped is an unfortunate certainty. Although four or five of us carry out our actions, we know that people’s hearts are with us, their eyes are on us. The State gives us importance. It thinks this action can generate a revolt of the Gezi type. Consequently, so this tension will stop, I think there’s a possibility that the government will resolve the hunger strike issue, through parallel means.
Are there signals of this, that we don’t see, but that are visible to you?
Anadolu Ajansı [AA State News Agency] has started attending our press conferences… so, something is going on. AA was also present at the press conference in front of Numune hospital where Nuriye is detained.
But there are no other signals besides that one…
I think they’ll try to find a parallel way through the state of emergency Commission or the CEDH. The government will devise a tactic rather than reaching a solution. This will allow it to find a way allowing for a pause. But that means our friends will lose their life, and when we will go back to work, we will be sitting on their remains. And that will be inscribed in indelible ink in the case against the government.
During this year, both the HDP and the CHP attempted different approaches. Do you think the opposition parties are assuming their responsibilities?
We can’t say that this is fully the case but but we did see that the CHP (People’s Republican Party) provided support above what they traditionally do. The HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) also gave us its support. Several members of parliament came to see us and members and sympathizers of the HDP joined in actions with us. So did the other parties of the Leftist socialists. Even if there was no decision at the centralized level, they were by our side. However, the CHP still insists on institutional approaches. The HDP is coherent with its discourse at a political level. I’m happy to see that. A KESK leader coming from the HDP, who is a member of the HDP in politics, does not adopt the same positions. HDP members involved in political action appear much more coherent. The same holds true for members of the ÖDP (Party for Liberty and Solidarity) and the others. Because they understand that a breach that would open here would affect all the decrees and the state of emergency.
Wouldn’t the fact the government would take a step in a direction allowing Gülmen and Ösakça to end their hunger strike represent an opening of the breach for it also?
We don’t much care about what the government will do, we think about what we must do ourselves. For 350 days, the government has demonstrated that it does not want a solution. At times, to decrease the effect on public opinion, it diminishes the violence against me or against Acun. And when we raise our voices, they beat on us saying “you talked too much”. They haven’t found the balance yet. The government wants to shut us up, but not everything can go according to its wishes, life doesn’t play out that way.
This stubborness is a good stubborness, a solid one
For months now, almost every day, you face the police, and you cannot guess from one day to the next what kind of intervention you will deal with. What is your state of mind when you arrive at Yüksel?
I don’t think about what the police will do, but about what I must do. Following their argument with the Brotherhood [the organization of preacher Fetullah Gülen, former friend of Erdoğan’s, now turned into Public Enemy n°1], with whom I had no ties whatsoever, as I am a Socialist, they fired me. Moreover, as if I had been stripped of my nationality, they took away all my rights, my right to study, to open a cooperative, to travel, to go abroad, everything. Had I been condemned for belonging to an [illegal] organization, I wouldn’t have been punished so harshly, but when you are fired by decree, this is how it goes. They said “Let them eat the roots of trees” [sic Osman Zabun, AKP party leader, Isparta October 7 2016 ], they said “those ones, we’ve transformed into the social dead” [an AKP minister].
I’m not only angry for political reasons. I don’t go down in the street because I’m a Socialist. I am there as a fired public service worker. And I’m very angry at them. It’s a personal anger. As I say “They can’t do this to us”, I also say “they can’t do this to me“. I know, I could get killed suddenly, by a gas canister. They can hurt my friends. On the one hand, when you arrive, you experience fear. It comes from not knowing what will happen, but once you’re on the spot, it ends. A few days ago, they did something I could not stand. They threw me to the ground and with their boots, they pressed on the place where my arm was amputated. Living through such moments is hard to tolerate. But I also know that everything they have done to us will be tallied up. I don’t say this to provoke agitation but we are not writing on sands but in History. Before, I called those who tortured us “fascists”. But for people who handcuffed us in the back, even mama Perihan who is 75 years old, I don’t use political terms any more. Every time we think they won’t go that far, they do. But every time they tell themselves, “this time, they will be afraid”, we are not afraid. This stubborness is a good stubborness, a solid one.
We only see the violence on Yüksel Avenue, but we don’t know what goes on during the custodies. Are you taken to the commissariat every time? What goes on after Yüksel?
This varies every time. In any event, we were never told what our crime was, precisely. These last few days, for instance, they would throw us into the vehicle while beating us and choking us with the gas. Then, they take us to the hospital, charge us a 227 turkish lira fine, for “obstruction to the law and incivilities”, which is to say the type of misdemeanor that consists of “throwing garbage on the public road”, and they set us free. Before that, they would arrest us for “obstruction to the law on demonstrations and assemblies” and there are several trials opened against us for that reason. Afterwards, they saw this wasn’t working. So they opened a trial against Nuriye and Semih, for “membership in an (illegal) organization”. At that time, I had appealed to the Minister of the Interior, saying “find an organization for me also”. Finally, they incorporated me into Nuriye and Semih’s trial. Now, I go and sign in at the commissariat every day [judicial control].
If I was a member of the organization, I would have been imprisoned a long time ago
What evidence is used to warrant a charge of “membership in an [illegal] organization”?
The shares I make on Twitter and Facebook, concerning our resistance at Yüksel. A prosecutor asked me “who do you take your instructions from?” I told him “you can’t ask me such a question, all you can say is ‘we have determined that you take your instructions from such and such’”. I told him “you forgot to enter the evidence in the file. Please, try to find some evidence before the trial, if you don’t it will be an insult to your profession”. I am a socialist, I am a revolutionary, I am not a member of any kind of illegal organization. I am in the street as a worker of the public sector, a member of the KESK. Anyway, if I was a member of an organization, they would have arrested me a number of times.
What has gone missing for things to reach this point?
If we were talking about a normal bourgeois government, we wouldn’t have been fired, there wouldn’t have been all these discussions. But when all this happened, if our union had been the least bit organized to deal with all these liquidations, if the leaders had mobilized from within the union, we could have made them back down. Unfortunately, everyone turned into another cog in this climate of fear, and backed down instead.
Some policemen come to us in order to apologize
In your opinion, on this road, those who were fired have been vanquished?
As long as the Yüksel avenue action isn’t vanquished, the fired workers cannot be considered as vanquished. Yüksel avenue has become the cornerstone, but this is not a good thing, it is a bad one. Our practice should not be like this. The fact our will has been subverted to that of the Prefect and of the Chief of Police, the fact we cannot say a word without their authorization is shameful for us.
For months now you have been face to face with policemen on Yüksel avenue. Over all this time, have you observed a transformation in the communications between you and them?
From what I’ve heard, part of the policemen would have sympathy for us. They say “As long as those ones occupy the news, it won’t be our turn” (He laughs). As for another part, they attack beyond what their orders call for. When some of them address me as “Veli”, I tell them “You cannot call me by my first name”. Some of them, when they shove me, they come and apologize afterwards. But on the whole they are in a stance of reflecting “the wind can turn in this business some day and Acun and Veli who are well in the forefront may come and ask for some accounting some day”. On some days, they turn on our supporters telling them “Acun and Veli can do that, but who do you think you are to allow yourself the same thing?” And when we go to the hospital, the policemen who seem the most respectable can say “we had nothing to do with it”…
İrfan Aktan began in journalism in 2000 on Bianet. He has worked as a journalist, a correspondent or an editor for l’Express, BirGün, Nokta, Yeni Aktüel, Newsweek Türkiye, Birikim, Radikal, birdirbir.org, zete.com. He was the Ankara representative for IMC-TV. He is the author of two books: “Nazê/Bir Göçüş Öyküsü” (Nazê/A tale of exodus ), “Zehir ve Panzehir: Kürt Sorunu” (Poison and antidote: The Kurdish Question). He presently writes for l’Express, Al Monitor, and Duvar.
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