Turkish protest about more than just a park

Demonstrations across Turkey are about more than a shopping centre development; the mass protests stem from a deeper unease. Lisa Morrow lives in Istanbul and has witnessed the riots firsthand. The following is her account of the clashes.

Istanbul: June 1, 2013

By now most people around the world will be aware of the protests taking place in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other cities around Turkey.

Most likely the news reports are saying people are protesting against a new shopping centre and that the protests are violent. Both statements are half-truths that need to be explored.

For the last few months peaceful groups have been meeting on weekends in Gezi Park, the last green space in Taksim, central Istanbul. They are demonstrating against the planned destruction of the park, in order to build a shopping centre and a mosque.

Taksim Square has long been associated with Ataturk, democracy and modernity. It is a busy place and popular with students, tourists and activists from both sides of the political spectrum. The Gezi Park demonstrators have been meditating, holding barbeques, doing yoga, or singing in an attempt to publicise the threat to the park.

Things suddenly escalated in the last week when the bulldozers were moved in and a small group began to camp out in the park. On Friday morning about 5.00am local time, the police threw tear gas into the tents where people lay sleeping, and when they ran out police targeted them with water cannons. If this wasn’t enough the police then set fire to the tents.

By Friday night thousands had begun to gather in the square, despite the police building a barricade around the park to keep both them and the media out. Istiklal Street, a famous thoroughfare, was crammed with people, as was Cumhuriyet Boulevard. Police riot squads descended on them, forcing people to flee into nearby shops and cafes where others were just going about their normal day. When the water cannons were fired into Starbucks, tourists as well as Turks ran out screaming. Nearby side streets became battle fields and also sanctuaries, with chemists and other shops providing first aid and people hanging signs from their houses saying “Come to my apartment if you are injured”.

More police were sent to the scene with more tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons but nonetheless the momentum built quickly. This morning at 2.00am we were woken in our sleepy middle-class suburb of Göztepe, on the Asian side of the city, by the sound of clapping and chanting.

When we looked out the window we saw a group of people banging spoons against pots, slowly moving through the streets to Kadıköy. This group joined the estimated 40,000 people determined to walk across the Bosphorus Bridge to join the protests on the other side.

By 10.30am they had made it to Besiktaş, about a kilometre from the square, where they were stopped by police. Throughout the day I have received texts from friends, telling me they were safe after being sprayed with pepper and tear gas. Others told me how people are being beaten up for no reason and that family members had been trapped on the metro when the police turned their focus there. Facebook is full of photos of bloodied people of all ages, some there to protest, others just passing by. Some of the images are from journalists but most are from people living in the area whose lives are affected regardless of their political beliefs.

Yes, things are now violent. One person is dead and hundreds have been injured. However this is not because the demonstrators want violence. Peaceful actions have been met with violent overreaction as water cannons are targeted at men’s genital regions, at people standing in submission with arms raised, at men, women and children who are fighting for their country. What began as a small action against a proposed shopping centre has catapulted into a popular movement for government change from people who have had enough.

In the last few years the ruling party has fabricated evidence and arrested scores of former army officers for supposedly plotting a coup, done for the greater good of the people, in the name of democracy. In the name of democracy they have changed the laws so that students from religious Imam Hatip schools can freely enter universities even though they lack the basic educational requirements expected from everyone else.

The separation of religion and state has blurred more and more. Most recently new public transport ordinances were released requesting decorum on the metro in Ankara. A ‘kissing’ demonstration was curtailed by a heavy police presence and opponents wielding knives.

Permission to celebrate May Day was denied on the grounds a gathering of 50,000 people in Taksim Square was unsafe, although about a million people pass through there every day. Just last week the sale of alcohol was severely restricted in order to protect Turkish youth although there is no data to suggest alcohol consumption is a problem here. These and other incidents are behind this spontaneous uprising and calls for the prime minister to resign.

To repeatedly say it started due to a protest in a park, as is happening on a lot of international media, is to belittle the political intelligence of those involved. To report violent protests without clearly stating the violence began with heavy handed police actions, is to cast the demonstrators’ actions in a sinister light.

As I write this I am nearly being deafened by my neighbours, ordinary people, beating their saucepans and blowing whistles in support of the protestors. Thousands more are heading for Taksim square, seeking an end to government interference in their lives. Soldiers are posting pictures in support of the demonstrators and handing out gas masks to the protestors. The call for change has come to Turkey. Now it is up to the government to answer that call.

Istanbul: June 2, 2013

It is early Sunday morning and people are gearing up for more protests. A few hours after my last post the police withdrew from Taksim Square.

While this was reported on international media they did not cover the fact that the police moved down the hill to Besiktas (about 1km away), where the prime minister has an Istanbul office.

Around 200 demonstrators were trapped in a fast food outlet as police tried to push through the doors. They were frantically texting to ask more people to come and help them. In all nearly 10,000 people swarmed to the area where they were met with tear gas and more water cannons.

One thing not mentioned much is the fact that Turkish television, with the exception of Halk TV, is showing very little of this. The state-owned channel TRT and all the private channels (most of which have contracts with the government) did not cover the events until late Friday night and yesterday. Even then the events were given little import and the programming is full of game shows and local TV series.

4 June 2013
Lisa Morrow