As I climbed to my apartment on the fourth floor of my building on Sunday morning, lingering tear gas trapped overnight in the stairwell struck me full on. I was crying as I fumbled for my keys and lurched into my apartment; it seems I’d taken off my mask a little too early.
But the day was like any other. I worked. I was tired; I napped. Then I woke up and joined my friends in Gezi Park once more. On my way there I saw a beautiful sight: Protesters carrying trash bags and cleaning up the mess made during clashes the night before. There was something different in the air. The groups had become organized. They were vigilant about picking up trash, feeding hungry protesters and providing everyone with masks and ponchos. We sat in the grass and took in the cool night air, glad the rain had washed away any remaining gas.
Fast-forward four hours and a friend comes stumbling into the apartment where some of us are taking cover for the night (my street was once again a site of serious clashes). His face streaming with tears (no, not because he was sad), he tells us how he made it right outside Dolmabahçe Palace with a large group of protestors blocked by police when all of a sudden a bulldozer appears on the street to help them push the cops back. He said it was like a dragon at the head of a battle, rallying them to forge on. Maybe a bit heavy on the “Game of Thrones” rhetoric, but it was a glorious image in my mind. After gaining much ground, abruptly – either by provocateur or police doing – the backhoe caught on fire. Mayhem ensued. Protestors made a run for it as police started making arrests. A friend was caught, but she luckily escaped.
It sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? The constant barrage of intense updates and photos probably don’t help, either. Also, I tend to have a flair for exaggeration… Let me clear the air (if only I could do that in my stairwell!): I’m safe. I’m sound. I myself am not in any real danger. And I’m being careful – though it may not sound like it, I really, really am.
These incidences are mostly isolated in the Beşiktaş district (which, ok, is my hood) and around Taksim Square. There is so so so so much more of Istanbul. The city is not under attack. If you have plans to visit, you should still come here. I don’t need to leave. I can merely go to work, in an office building an hour away, and (for now) it’s like the protests don’t even exist outside the lines of ink on our daily paper.
There are a lot of misconceptions, both nationally and internationally, about these protests here in Turkey — what’s happening and what they mean.
Here are a few bullet points, so if you take anything away from this post, I hope it’s this stuff:
- This is not a “Turkish Spring.” Turkey is a democratic country. There are issues with the system here, worrisome issues. But these protests are not a nationwide revolution intent on overthrowing an oppressive totalitarian regime. These are people expressing discontent with a prime minister who has increasingly alienated himself from the public, and doesn’t seem to care. This is not civil war — the weapons here are tear gas, rubber bullets, batons and water cannons from the police side, and bits of pried up pavement from the protesters’.
- It started with an environmental sit-in to save Gezi Park. But when a pre-dawn raid involved the police setting fire to tents and using tear gas and pressurized water to disperse a peaceful crowd, people were outraged. In a way, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Thousands and thousands have since marched to Taksim Square and the Beşiktaş distrcit in Istanbul, as well as cities all over Turkey, to show solidarity in the face of excessive police brutality. Videos of police shoving people into metro stations then tossing in tear gas bombs, climbing onto the facades of houses to shoot gas canisters into open windows, dropping canisters from helicopters to land on the unprotected heads of protestors, brutally beating protesters and innocent bystanders alike and much, much more have only kept protesters coming back with a vengeance.
- So what was brewing? Discontent has grown against the prime minister because of the many projects that have been approved by the ruling AK Party without the consent of the people they directly affect, and without concern for green space and the environment. This includes: A third Bosporus bridge, a 30-mile canal for Bosporus traffic, an ill-approved mosque in Çamlıca, a luxury mall/apartment complex on the Bosporus, gentrification of historic ethnic neighborhoods like Tarlıbaşı, the demolition of the famous Emek cinema in Beyoğlu, the razing of some 2 million trees in untouched forestland to build the “world’s largest airport,” high-rise hotels that overshadow the historic silhouette of the Golden Horn, and, of course, the re-construction of army barracks that could house a shopping mall on top of what is now Gezi Park.
- There are also a ton of social policies that have people shaking their heads (and fists) in irony and frustration. The AKP — whose power comes from the representation of a once-repressed, conservative majority within the country whose right to religious freedom was severely strangled by the national secularist regime — has recently been introducing greater conservative “family-value” policies. These include: restrictions on alcohol sales and advertisement, prohibitions against PDA on public transport, a call by the PM for women to have “at lest 3 children” and a past attempt to limit abortion rights. To say that Turkey is an Islamist state that is being put under Sharia Law, as I have read on a few sites, is just inaccurate and reactionary. But these religious policies are certainly concerning for a republic built on secularism.
- There are many marginalized and especially unrecognized religious and ethnic minorities in Turkey. Kurds, Alevis, Armenians, Circasians, Greeks, Syriacs, Roma, the list goes on. The recent naming of the 3rd Bosporus Bridge after Yavuz Sultan Selim (the Grim) has, with good reason, upset Turkey’s large Alevi community, whose forefathers were massacred under his rule.
- There was the canceling of the May 1 Labor Day rally in Taksim this year. The rally holds a great significance to the Turkish people and this was another instance of the government stepping in and refusing the right of Turks to peaceably assemble.
- This is not a campaign organized by the political opposition parties. Sure, they have their own people rallying and protesting, but they are not the only ones out there. If this protest has done anything amazing in my eyes, it has bridged ideological gaps I never would have thought possible here in Turkey. From nationalists to anti-capitalist Muslims to anarchist to Galatasaray soccer fans to Fenerbahçe soccer fans to environmentalists to old women in headscarves to expats who hate living here — each of these groups have their own reasons for dissatisfaction with the PM Erdoğan, but they are coming together to say one thing: They want to be heard.
- And then there is the issue of the lack of coverage in the Turkish media. Only on the sixth day, once protests grew increasingly violent (at the initiation of the police), did other news channels besides Halk TV and perhaps Samanyolu start broadcasting live footage, though it was only short clips of protesters and no displays of the brutal aggression from the police. In fact, when I arrived home Saturday night from Gezi Park to see tear gas bombings in my neighborhood, I turned on CNN Türk only to find a segment on penguins. It’s no wonder — Turkey is ranked toward the bottom in press freedom and has almost 50 journalists in jail.
Some good resources to learn more:
Foreign Policy: Why Turks are fighting to take back
The Economist: Resentment against Erdoğan explodes
Fellow expat friend Noah Blaser for Today’s Zaman
oh, and here are my posts from Friday and Saturday.
Let me know if you there’s anything you’d like me to add and, once more, Save Gezi Park!