Note: This is by no means intended to be an accurate account of the recent events in Turkey. Rather, it’s my perception of the protests and research I’ve done on my own. Please do your own research to learn more.
When I first came to Istanbul, I knew nothing about Turkey. Admittedly, I had done a few Google searches, read a few tourist books and asked a few questions to people who had visited this foreign county. Despite my meager attempt to do some preliminary research, I had done nothing in the way of educating myself about the political atmosphere currently encompassing Turkey. In the last three days, I have witnessed a whirlwind of political events before my eyes: a citizen uprising, brutal law enforcement retaliation and an era of change signified by a blanket of tear gas covering the city. Allow me to elaborate.
Background on #occupygezi:
Taksim is one of the most popular areas in all of Istanbul (if not THE most popular). As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the overdeveloped area is home to restaurants, movie theaters, shopping centers and night clubs which attract people nearly 24/7. Despite the abundance of businesses, the Turkish government has unveiled plans to demolish the only patch of green space left in Taksim, Gezi Park. The plans call to replace the historic park with a grandiose shopping center (it would be one of nearly 100 shopping centers in the city). Over the last week, an increasing amount of environmentalists and protestors have gathered to show their opposition for the demolition of their beloved park. Gatherings consisted of people lying on blankets, listening to live music and simply enjoying the park’s atmosphere.
A few days after the group began to swell to larger numbers, the peoples’ peaceful presence was met with aggressive force when law enforcement raided the scene with tear gas and pressurized water cannons during an early-morning raid on protestors who camped out in the park overnight. Over the last few days, the protests have grown from a disagreement on land use to a human rights issue. Rather than protecting its people, the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has instructed law enforcement to flex its muscles against citizens who are merely using their freedom of speech.
The protesting group in Istanbul has grown from 50 people to more than 50,000. Beyond the borders of Istanbul, tens of thousands of like-minded people are gathering in cities throughout Turkey as well. Reports of death, head trauma and other physical abuses are the result of excessive force used by police through tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, water cannons and other weapons. Despite the newsworthiness of the events, a majority Turkish media sources have failed to air the protests for fear of the Turkish government. The ruling party in Turkey, the AKP, also blocked access to Twitter and Facebook for a window of time in order to create a “media blackout” across the country.
Initially the protests began with a love for green space in a city undergoing rapid development, but it’s now grown to something much bigger than that. Even though Turkey is a democratic nation, Tayyip and the AKP have limited the liberties of people for years. As history has taught us, if you suppress people long enough, they’re bound to retaliate. Now citizens who normally would have no business with each other are coming together as one because they’re all fighting for the same thing: they want their civil liberties, government reformation and, above all, to be heard without fear of punishment.
Now it’s my turn to share my insight as a foreigner:
As I said before, I had virtually no knowledge of the political climate in Turkey prior to arriving here. Now, I find myself absorbing any bit of information I can find to give me a better understanding of how a peaceful protest can turn into a revolution.
I first learned about the protests while I was lying on a beach chair along the Black Sea. One of my Turkish friends announced, “There’s a war going on Taksim.” I kind of chuckled to myself thinking he was exaggerating a street fight, but as we began following reports on Twitter, we learned that it indeed was a battle resembling war.
Over the last few days nearly every friend I know has attended the protests. However, because I’m an American woman who doesn’t speak Turkish, I’ve been urged not to attend the demonstrations. I’ve resorted to following the events via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using hashtags, such as #occupygezi, #occupyistanbul and #occupyturkey. Through these media channels, I’ve seen unspeakable violence that makes me sick to my stomach. I’ve been raised to respect and trust law enforcement, so seeing the acts of Turkish police has shocked me beyond belief. As an American, I ask myself, “Who’s supposed to protect these people when the officials hired to protect them are the ones inflicting the abuse?”
Due to the severity of events, I assumed traditional media outlets would cover the story as well. Contrary to this belief, when we turn on the television here, all we can find are soap operas, movie reruns and news stories about nothing important. Turkish citizens are attempting to ignite a revolution, yet supposedly “unbiased” media outlets would rather show a documentary about penguins.
It’s interesting because everything I’m saying may sound terrifying, yet there is an air of excitement throughout Istanbul. Ask people and they’ll tell you this is the “Turkish Spring,” or that for the first time in more than a decade, people feel liberated. I truly believe this is an exciting time to be in a city where a revolution is taking place. The citizens aren’t going to bow down to authoritarian-style government and allow themselves to be oppressed any longer.
My heart swelled yesterday morning when I scrolled through my newsfeed to find pictures of protestors gathering with trash bags to clean up the battle scenes. I imagine these people saying: “You can tear gas us till we’re blind and beat the shit out of us until we’re bloody, but we’re still humane enough to clean this mess you’ve brought upon us.”
Finally, I want to share my eye witness account of last night’s events:
Because we were told to steer clear of the demonstrations, my friend Ashton and I relocated to an apartment further away from the city center to stay with a Turkish guy friend. We were aware that the protests were becoming increasingly violent in two main areas of town, but we were staying in a relatively safe location where Turkish waffles are very popular (if you don’t know what these are, you’re missing out on life). As we sat in the apartment following the events on social media, we became hungry for some of those delectable waffles and asked our friend to walk us down the street to satisfy our craving.
As we neared the waffle stand, we noticed a large group of people headed in the opposite direction down the main street, so we asked if we could go a bit closer to see some of the action. Curiosity got the best of us and we ended up walking with the crowd a ways down the street which turns into a tunnel of sorts. It seemed rather peaceful with people singing the national anthem, gathering together in large groups and parking their cars in the middle of the road to be a part of the group.
Then, without any warning, people turned back in the other direction and began sprinting down the corridor, jumping over fences and climbing up walls. Unsure of what was going on, we followed suit and suddenly the sound of tear gas guns firing made us realize why we were running. Eyes tearing and throats burning, we ran back in the direction we came from and returned home where we were safe and sound once again.
As naive as it sounds, I was thankful to have witnessed the event firsthand. It gave me a greater understanding of the peoples’ strong feelings against the police and why they feel the innate desire to stand up for themselves. Thank goodness we’re unharmed and didn’t witness any direct brutality. Now that I got a taste of the protests, I promise to avoid the demonstrations at all costs.