Worldwide attention has been focused on Turkey over the past two weeks as massive protests have come to life in cities all over the country.
Worldwide attention has been focused on Turkey over the past two weeks as massive protests have come to life in cities all over the country. Plans to develop a shopping mall in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, a nine-acre area next to the transportation hub of Taksim Square that stands as one of the city’s last urban green spaces, sparked a small protest that began peacefully on May 28 before a violent breakup by police days later. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s dismissiveness of the protests only aggravated the situation in Taksim Square, and news of the police brutality sparked unrest in other cities across Turkey.
Gezi Park was the breaking point, but this uprising was the result of a buildup of resentment about infringement of individual rights, authoritarian control, and cronyism by Erdoğan’s regime. The Turkish media was silent at the beginning of the protests. More journalists are jailed without charges in Turkey than anywhere else in the world, and a fear of rebuke has rendered the media powerless. At the height of the first weekend’s events, when there were estimates of 100,000 people in Taksim Square, Turkish television stations chose to broadcast regular programming instead of covering the protests. Social media picked up the slack.
As Erdoğan calls for pro-government rallies across Turkey, the words of his televised speech from June 1 reverberate: “If this is about holding meetings, if this is a social movement, where they gather 20, I will get up and gather 200,000 people. Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together one million from my party.” His message is one of division, not unity.
The solidarity between different religious groups, age groups, rival football teams, and political groups left and right during these protests has been inspiring. It has sparked a revolutionary tone, galvanizing a much larger movement than the initial protest in Gezi Park. While Erdoğan refers to the protesters as “looters,” having them pelted with canisters of tear gas, shot with rubber bullets, and blasted with water cannons, they have stood up for their right to participate in the decisions their government makes for them, even as their own media leaves them in the dark. The global implications of this movement are not lost on the masses. It remains to be seen whether the same can be said for their leader.
The quotes accompanying these photographs are from protesters I interviewed in Istanbul during the first week of demonstrations. As many of them expressed concern about their names being used, I have kept the quotes anonymous.
Thousands congregate in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, ground zero for the protests that began on May 28, 2013.
Banner: GAS BOMBS ARE CHEMICAL WEAPONS. THEY MUST BE MADE ILLEGAL
“At the beginning, you really did not recognize any bad things. At the beginning, when he was in Israel and Davos, I was really proud of him. I was like, ‘Wow, somebody stands up against Israel. Somebody's really saying something.’ I was kind of proud of it. The economy is going well, but the people working here—I don't know if you know how much they earn—it's like 500 Euro maybe. And they're working six, seven days a week. I studied economics in Holland, and I have a really good education, and I believe here you really get the worst jobs. I know people working for 700 Turkish Liras, seven days a week, and the companies do not even pay your insurance, nothing. The economy may rise, but the people don't see it. The people really live on the minimum. The richest are really rich. But you know, the system in America is the same. It's really the same.”
Taksim Square is a major transportation hub in Istanbul. Except for ambulances, which make quick paths through parting crowds, it has been closed to vehicular traffic since the protests began. June 2, 2013.
Banner: GOVERNMENT GET TO WORK TO PROTECT WOMEN (at left), WE SHALL STOP THE MURDERINGS OF WOMEN (in circle at front right)
“We were here for the first time on Thursday night because we heard that people were protesting against the government cutting down the trees in the park and going to build a shopping center. It was a big, peaceful event, just like a festival. Amateur bands were playing music and everybody was shouting slogans together, but it was really peaceful... And after we went home, we hear that police came here. They just tear gassed people, sprayed people, and they burned down their tents. And then, the day after that, on Friday, something just snapped, and everyone wanted to riot against the police. They wanted to protest, to resist. And I don't know—I always feared police, and I always feared the tear gas. I didn't want to get involved in anything, but I found myself in the middle of all this, and suddenly I wasn't afraid anymore. I just wanted to resist. And everybody felt safe. Nobody stand before the police before. Nobody had been affected by tear gas before. Not many people. They always ran away. But on Friday, everybody was just standing on their places... They started to run away less and less with time. Everybody was affected by tear gas more and more, and with that, they felt like they have to resist more. And on Saturday, the police left this place—Taksim Square—and it was peaceful again here. But many other groups, many political groups and some provocators came here, they started burning some places. Protesters started carrying water to put down the fire, because everybody felt like this is a peaceful event. This is a peaceful protest. It shouldn't turn into something violent.”
Black Sea horon dancing in Taksim Square. June 5, 2013.
“He came with the democratic election, but he began to collect all the forces under his authority and he's becoming very dictatorial. It began with the park demonstration, because in Istanbul, as you can see, there is no such a park like Hyde Park or Central Park. We've got just small gardens. And all the Beyoğlu area got so many shopping centers, but we got only one small garden in there. And he said, ‘I want to make a shopping center in here.’ And we said, ‘No, we don't need a shopping center. We need trees, and some green.’ And he insisted with that. The demonstration begin with that, but it's become—we were fooled about that the last ten years. Because the armies—he want to control the armies, and he get control of the army. He want to control the press... And they are using so much power [against] demonstrators, any kind of demonstration. There were thirty, forty people in the park and they were making demonstrations, and the cops again, used so much power. They burned their tents, they used so much gas on them. And suddenly, many people begin to come to Taksim. And on fourth day there was about a thousand people. They used so much gas, but people didn't go. They would pick up the gas bombs and throw them back. Friday night and Saturday, there was big demonstration, and police forces—they used so much power. They used so much gas. But Saturday, about five o’clock, people didn't go. And police forces go back, and free the square. From that day to now, the square has belonged to the public.”
Music and dancing have been a constant at Gezi Park (pictured) and Taksim Square during the protests. June 5, 2013.
Vertical banners: ALLAH BREAD FREEDOM.
Front banner, left side: THE BIGGEST RIGHT TO WORSHIP IS THE RIGHT TO DEFEND; right side: THERE IS NO GOD BUT ALLAH.
“They had the park, so that's where they headquartered, and all their vehicles were there. The police was a complete phalanx around here at first. They would foray into the streets and then pull back. But the last time they pulled back up there to the park, it seemed like they were withdrawing, so people came out here—thousands of them. Three or four thousand, maybe. And then—they attack! I've never seen a gas barrage like that. I mean they were in full squads. It was like a scene from one of the revolutionary movies, from the American Revolution—you know how they'd line up and fire a volley while the other set loads? That's exactly how it was, and they sustained it for like a good five, six minutes. And of course it was gas—people were panicking, running away. And then they sent the Panzers—the water trucks. So they sprayed people a little bit, and they pulled back again, to the same place. People came back out again, and they did the same thing again, twice. And then the second time, the Panzers couldn't pull back in time. There were three of them. And people were really mad by then because... I mean, before, police were brutal and firing a lot and all of that, but this time, they knew that they were punishing. They were going to withdraw anyway, but they were punishing people. This was like the last punch on someone that's already on the ground. So, anger—real anger—was around, and then those three Panzers got surrounded. People were pelting him, and they were probably going to turn him over. And then they stopped firing, people pulled back, and the Panzers came through here and they all withdrew and were gone. Then everybody poured into here to the park, and that was the capture of the Gezi Park.”
Sign: DO YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH GAS? CONSULT YOUR PHARMACIST
A group of medical professionals and students gathered in Taksim Square on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 5, as a gypsy duo played music among them. The sign refers to a solution created from antacid liquid that helps relieve the burning sensation in the eyes associated with tear gas. Numerous doctors and nurses have made themselves available to help during the protests, often with bottles of this solution on hand (it does help).
Istiklal Avenue, June 4, 2013.
“We really started a great movement that wakes up people, but there's no use to continue it in this way anymore. Because if we continue it with barricades and with fighting, with occupying, I think they will occupy us some way. Because after some time passes, it's really easy for them to make us look aggressive, and fanatic, and everything. It really depends on the media. They cannot stop the public. The public is very strong, but the public is open to civil war also. The only thing that holds [back] the civil war, really, is… it's still passive in the mind. It started like that kind of view, and some people still stay passive, but you know there is a black hole of what they can do to people. It's infinite. Like, it's them doing nothing right now. They can make people disappear. The dark side of humanity in the system right now is very deep if they want to control something. So, you need all the public to stand up for that. I would talk differently if there was not a part of the public that supports fanatic leaders, a totality party—AKP. So there are brothers and sisters and they can try to make a civil war between them and us. And I think in that case, we shouldn't fight with each other.”
Taksim Square on June 2, 2013.
“This is not about Turkey. This is an understanding of totalitarianism. This could happen to America. This could happen anywhere, because it's the corruption in the way of approach to life. And the only way to change it, I think, is going through economy. Because it's all happening because of the money. This is the language that people understand, the powerful people. It's like that at the university also. Even if you talk to the dean, even if you talk to the directorate—the real owners of the university—only understands from the money. The real owners of the world only understands from money. And if you can fight money-wise, you can crash the economy, because they are selling us a lot of things that we don't need, and then maybe some things can change. But I am happy right now. I think all of us are happy, but I think also we are a bit scared, because we know from the world's and from our history where these things can lead. Your life can change in one second.”
Banner translations by Selin Maner. Matt Loftin also assisted with this article.