TURKEY’S ULTRAS AT THE FOREFRONT OF RESISTANCE
Al Jazeera , Qatar
December 16, 2014 Tuesday 2:27 PM GMT
by Mark Bergfeld
Football fans were at the forefront of the Gezi protests, now they
are at the sharp end of the Turkish justice system.
Being a Besiktas suporter, a member of the renowned Carsi ultras,
is not just about being a football fan. Founded by a group of school
friends in 1982, the Carsi ultras have been struggling against
despotism and tyranny for more than thirty years now. The famous
Turkish writer Esber Yagmurdereli once said: “I am not in opposition
because I’m a Besiktas fan, I’m a Besiktas fan so I am in opposition.”
For 35 Carsi ultras this idea is all too real. Today they are facing
trial in Turkey for their participation in the Gezi protests last
year. The have been charged with plotting to overthrow the government
and are facing lengthy prison sentences. They are also accused of
being part of an “armed group” and “possessing unlicensed weapons”.
Leading Gezi protests
The Carsi ultras were at the forefront of the demonstrations against
the government. When police decided to remove environment protesters
from Gezi Park – one of the last green spaces in Istanbul’s city centre
– the Carsi ultras were the first to respond and show solidarity. It
was their energy and mobilisation power that drew in hundreds of
thousands of people from diverse backgrounds, including religious and
ethnic minorities, leftists and groups such as the Anti-Capitalist
Astonishingly, it even brought out supporters of rival football clubs
who have been at odds with each other since the 1980s. While other
football fan groups dispersed in the face of repression, the Carsi
ultras stood their ground.
Some Besiktas fans were arrested during the protests and others –
in house raids in September 2013. According to Ali Usluer, a Carsi
ultra, this is a clear case of “revenge” for not backing down.
More than a year after the protests, nearly 6,000 people have been
charged in 97 different trials.
Coup suspicions and conspiracy theories are not without substance
in Turkish history. The Turkish military has interfered in civilian
matters throughout the 20th century.
But the Carsi ultras – famous for their slogan “Carsi is against
everything!” – claim to have never been aligned with the military or
subversive political groups in any way.
“It is ludicrous to accuse the Carsi of an attempted coup,” Ali
tells me over the phone. “Carsi members suffered under the military
dictatorship in 1983. Just because we were organised, doesn’t mean
we are for a coup.”
A history of opposition
The Carsi ultras have a mass appeal and popularity in Turkey and
abroad. Carsi’s Twitter account has more than 700,000 followers. They
are also said to be the loudest football fans on the planet. The noise
level in their 32,000 capacity stadium once reached 132 decibels
at a home game against Fenerbahce in 2007. Ali remembers that day:
“My jaw almost broke, I was screaming so loud.” Despite rising ticket
prices and commercialisation, the Inonu Stadium remains a place of
political protest, Ali says.
Their opposition goes beyond mere symbolism. In the past, they
demonstrated against the war in Iraq and the construction of a
nuclear power station; they collected money for earthquake victims,
and continue to donate blood regularly.
In a country where the Armenian genocide of 1915 is not recognised as
such, it is significant that one of their former leaders Alen Markaryan
is Armenian. After the murder of the Armenian-Turkish writer Hrant
Dink, they held up banners saying “We are all Armenians”. After a
Black Besiktas player was insulted by other fans, they held up a
banner which read: “We are all black!” Most recently fans showed
their solidarity with the protests in Ferguson.
Minorities such as Kurds and Alevis strongly identify with the club
as well. Kemal Kunes, a Besiktas supporter in London said: “Coming
from a lefty Alevi/Kurd family I have always seen Besiktas as the
club to support in Turkey.”
During the days and nights of street fights against the Erdogan
government, their opposition took new heights. Thousands of Carsi
ultras adorned their Facebook cover photo with the slogan “Give us 100
gas masks and we’ll take back the park”. Carsi ultras even hijacked
an excavator to erect barricades and move against police lines.
Accusations of terrorism
Ipek Demirsu, a human rights researcher based in Istanbul told me:
“The Carsi trial signifies two interconnected processes that have been
working to paralyse fundamental rights and liberties in Turkey. On
the one hand, it exemplifies how public dissent has become coterminous
with ‘terrorism’ and thereby silenced. It also signals the blurring of
boundaries for the separation of powers, jeopardising the rule of law.”
The trial, which started today, has gathered a lot of publicity. At
a US State Department press briefing, State Department Deputy
Spokesperson Marie Harf acknowledged they were looking into the case.
In Germany, Borussia Dortmund supporters showed solidarity with the
football fans facing trial. Their banners read in Turkish “Carsi
ultras: Your way is the struggle! Never give up! Freedom for the
ultras, also in Turkey!”
And at home, the progressive political party HDP (Peoples’ Democratic
Party) declared that they will provide legal assistance to Carsi
members. Rival supporter groups “Sol Acik” (Outer Left) of the
football club Fernerbahce and Galatsaray’s “Tek Yumruk” (One Fist)
also showed their support on the first day of the trial.
Ali is very optimistic that his fellow ultras will be acquitted.
Yavuz, another Besiktas supporter, confirms this view over Facebook:
“We recently have seen many cases based on trumped up evidence
overturned as the police and prosecution ‘belonged’ to another group
once in cahoots with the government, but not anymore.”
Yet the future of the defendants remains uncertain, and so does the
future of political protest in Turkey. Solidarity can make all the
Mark Bergfeld grew up in the suburbs of Koeln, Germany. He holds a
Bachelor’s in PPE and a Master’s in Sociology, and is an activist