BLOG: The country where even mourning is an act of dissent

BLOG: The country where even mourning is an act of dissent

Özgün Özçer
BLOG: The country where even mourning is an act of dissent

People gather to commemorate the Soma mine disaster victims and protest the government's labor policy in Istanbul's Kadıköy neighborhood, May 16.

Candles, carnations, a few helmets, and a couple of waterproof boots... Nothing more than a modest vigil. But enough to draw more than 100 police officers to the streets on a Friday night in Istanbul. A rather small group is gathered in Kadıköy with the sole intention of mourning the memory of at least 301 miners who perished in the horrible disaster in Soma. However, an unnecessary tension is filling the air. The organizers – neighborhood solidarity groups created during the Gezi protests – look quite concerned. Cops, as always, are not eager to allow even the most meager gathering. Negotiations go on, police are assured that there will be no flags, no banners, not even a slogan… They repeat that the vigil will be held in silence, just as innocent than that. But there is no more innocence left in the eyes of the authorities for anyone who wants to speak out. No doubt, the crowd would be much bigger if police did not give off the air of an imminent crackdown, as if it were a sword of Damocles hanging over each demonstration.

The one in charge has probably mumbled a reluctant OK, with threats involved. Mourners can finally start sitting in two rows facing each other on the tramway track. Organizers, for their part, are standing, nervous, trying to sort out if everyone will play their part in keeping silent for 20 minutes. Anything can be used as an excuse to crack down on the vigil, a flag, a mere poster, chantish shouts… Twenty or so minutes pass by, just enough to disconnect with the surrounding hostile atmosphere and meditate about the tragedy. The organizers probably feel it as if it were eternity. Then, people stand up to disperse, and slogans escape from the mouths of the angry participants as they walk away. A handful of those who came to the vigil are setting up barricades. If that had happened a year ago at the beginning of Gezi protests, anyone witnessing it would have told them to desist. Now, they let them do it, worn out after so much confrontation.

Next day, on İstiklal Avenue, it’s another affair. A crowd is showered with water cannon amid a haze of tear gas as soon as it gathers. Quite a lot of people are detained by plainclothes police that pop out of the woodwork. Riot police units and TOMAs are on full alert along the pedestrian road during the rest of the evening, imposing themselves on the Saturday revelers.

Isn’t it after all, déjà vu, the same pressure that happened after Berkin Elvan tragically passed away two months ago? You want to believe this time it will be different, that 301 victims of a mining accident will not become pawns on a political checker board… But, after all, how can you expect that this subject will not become politicized if any attempt at expressing criticism, thoughts and feelings are repressed? Because dissent is not just a kitsch item of the elite vs. the majority represented by the Justice and Democracy Party (AKP), it is a necessity. As a matter of fact, dissent is crucial in averting more disaster.

Reclaiming dissent

True, safety at the mine was at fault. Inspections were superficial, international regulations were not enforced. Agreed, this is the result of rampant capitalist exploitation in Turkey. But that’s not the whole point.

Who knew better about the poor state of the mine than anyone else? The miners themselves. As we hear the survivors telling their own accounts of the disaster, none of them are fools. They were very well aware that they were risking their lives every day and about all the dangers they were forced to face, but they could do nothing about it, for fear of losing their job or having their wages cut – just like those Zonguldak miners who staged a one-day strike to hold a vigil for their colleagues in western Turkey. Taking the right to dissent from the hands of workers means leaving them in the hands of the bosses and the mercy of the state. If both were only to deign to improve workers’ conditions, the workers would be very obliged…

So the AKP represents the people, the pious majority who have long been disdained by the elite for their provincial roots and conservatism. Fine. But it also represents a way of thinking about people’s role in society, which is far, quite far from empowering people. Quite on the contrary, in their perspective, people should only shut up and appreciate the benevolence of the state.

Who needs public debate when the prime minister opens roads or tunnels or puts buses into service? Why complain, when there are billions of dollars’ worth of contracts for mega-construction projects? Why the dissent, when there is growth? Plus, nobody else can solve the Kurdish issue. If they say all is well, that should suffice.

So no need to criticize the authorities for the horrible disaster in Soma, where the energy minister “shines,” to quote a fellow newspaper, amid black coal dust. Dare to boo the prime minister? You deserve a “slap,” to quote the person concerned.

Bottom line: You can mourn, but as long as you keep yourself well-behaved. If you make a fuss, that means you are against the people, perhaps provoked by the old guard, but certainly conspiring to overthrow the representatives of the majority.

And what if the miners had denounced the practices of the company long ago, without that paralyzing fear that any action could cost their job? What if they had launched a strike, asserting that they would not enter back into the mine without a guarantee that refuge chambers would be established ASAP? And finally, what if unions’ powers were strengthened against the bosses so that some of them would not become an organization conniving with the authorities?

The government and its press corpse’s defensive guidelines are now to see in each vigil a so-called attempt at “using the dead for politics.” Hürriyet’s resident brownshirt columnist Yılmaz Özdil said the victims "deserved to die for voting AKP," giving the government a gift that it will probably do its upmost to take advantage of. Now, the AKP claims that criticisms are an act of disrespect to the families of the victims. Perhaps, but remembering Soma and denouncing exploitation is part of our job to make sure that they didn’t die in vain. They must be more than pawns to some jackasses' chess board.

In a country where dissent is a luxury, even holding a vigil turns into the ultimate act of fighting for one’s rights. So now light a candle, write a line our two, sing along and take back their due. Reclaim what they have been lacking, as most workers still do: The right to dissent.