I did not really sleep after laying down around 06:30 (16th July). A mixture of fear, tension, and hyper-alertness kept me awake. So at about 08:00 I moved back to the TV after listening for what might be going on outside. I could still hear gunfire, but it was further away.
On television were scenes of soldiers on the bridge surrendering and marching towards the waiting police in pairs, with their hands over their heads. Throughout the night, citizens had confronted the junta’s soldiers on both of the Bosphorus bridges. Those soldiers had fired on them, cutting them down in cold blood. One of the tanks had even fired its cannon at them. On one of the bridges, if you can imagine, there was even a sniper who had taken the lift to the top of one of the main towers, again firing down on unarmed civilians (before he in turn was shot down by a police sniper).
Around the same time reports emerged of clashes in downtown Istanbul, very close to Taksim. There, junta soldiers had occupied the TRT building at Harbiye, and shooting erupted between them and the police. A TV channels had reporters on the scene, so the footage was live. Fortunately that continued for only about twenty minutes as the troops inside the TRT building quickly surrendered. The on-site camera showed the soldiers lying on the ground with their hands behind their heads, being stripped of their weapons.
On the bridges, soldiers continuing to file out towards the police were being stripped of not only their weapons but also their equipment and uniforms. Later, atrocious rumors were purposefully spread on social media claiming that some of the soldiers on the bridges had been lynched. On television we did see some citizens kicking soldiers who had surrendered. Even this much, of course, is inexcusable. At the same time, those soldiers had spent the night killing unarmed citizens, and the crowd was furious. Furthermore, whatever police were present did not have entire control over the situation. Out there were thousands of people, all enraged by the coup attempt as well as the ruthless murder of their fellow-citizens. The situation could have been much worse, but under the circumstances citizens actually behaved with remarkable restraint. Subsequently, all those rumors of massacres of surrendering soldiers turned out to have been completely false, accompanied as they were by montage pictures from entirely different conflicts or even road accidents.
Because of what took place on the Bosphorus bridges during the coup attempt, the bridges have become a symbol of resistance. Both bridges have long been an important part of Istanbul’s persona, and both bridges were constructed by populist, popular politicians (the first bridge under Süleyman Demirel, the second under Turgut Özal). The appearance of soldiers on the bridges is how an entire nation realized what was afoot, and the numbers of people killed there were larger than in most other places. Yes, President Erdoğan’s actions that night were obviously important, but in the coming years the bridges will survive as the primary image and symbol associated with the coup and how it was overcome.
I want to devote the rest of this article to the Turkish people, who were the true heroes. What the citizens of Turkey did on the night of 15-16 July 2016 should be remembered along with other acts of heroic mass defiance and self-sacrifice in the face of murderous force exercised by the state: Tiananmen. Prague. Rabia Square. This selfless bravery in defense of their democratic will and rights cannot be overstated. Turkish citizens literally gave up their lives for democracy, and more than 250 were killed. People all over the world should know this: Turkish citizens have been heroes.
The peoples of Turkey have been subjected to the authoritarian Westernization projects of Ottoman and Turkish Republican state elites since the 19th century Tanzimat Era. Starting then, the modernization of Turkish society, usually according to concepts and models from Western Europe (especially France, later also Germany), has been carried out by a growing military-bureaucratic establishment in a top-down fashion, with little input from the citizens themselves. Until the end of the Ottoman Empire that was largely an issue of political policy and preferences on the part of bureaucrats. But after the foundation of the Turkish Republic, direct state violence began to accompany the effort to modernize.
In the mid-1920s, radical reform projects went hand in hand with capital punishment for anyone who dared oppose them even non-violently. The most infamous example may be the 1925 Hat Law (Şapka Kanunu), after the implementation of which dozens of citizens who refused to comply were executed. Later, even pressure on the various elements of Turkish society to conform to the new cultural norms also began to be accompanied by state violence. These reforms were rationalized as “for the people, despite the people” (halk için halka rağmen).
Eventually, democratic alternatives for the Turkish people did emerge, but only after decades of oppression. Even then, when they began to threaten the monopoly of control established by the Turkish military and its allies in the state bureaucracy and intelligentsia, those civilian, democratic alternatives were snuffed out repeatedly by more exercises of direct state violence. Coup followed coup at ten-year intervals (1960, 1971, 1980). Every takeover was accompanied by harsh repression and violence. But as Turkish society changed, as the economy developed, as the life opportunities of citizens improved and they gained better education, and Turkey moved from a rural to an urban society, fundamental democratic change became more and more inevitable.
Westerners may have trouble recognizing or admitting it, but the people on the streets last Friday were the forces of democracy. What the Turkish people did on the night of 15-16 July 2016 should be understood in that framework. The Turkish people will no longer tolerate the Turkish state deploying massive anti-democratic force against them. They will step in front of tanks, and armored cars, and soldiers with guns, and even in front of F-16s and Sikorsky helicopters in order to stand up for their rights. Turkish democracy is alive and well in the hands of the Turkish people.