A western style ‘occupy’ movement which started on Monday to protest against the removal of Gezi Park in Istanbul (one of the last green spaces in the city centre) for the construction of a controversial shopping centre has quickly escalated into a widespread mobilisation against the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The police were trying to make the protesters leave the site from the beginning of the sit-in, but on Friday, the situation got violent as police started to use brutal force – teargas, pepper spray and water cannons were used in an attempt to ‘encourage’ people to leave. Dozens of people, including bystanders, were injured. At an early press conference, the organisers of the protest announced that 13 people had to be taken to the hospital with brain trauma and also, that one died of heart failure – information which has not been confirmed, but which caused alarm nonetheless.
Rather than disappearing, the protest grew and has spread noticeably – also to other cities in Turkey. It has been reported that some 40,000 protestors have taken to the streets of Istanbul. Ever since the security forces intervention started, the main commercial district looks like a war zone. All means of transportation have been shut down to prevent people from joining the demonstrations, but thousands of people have crossed the bridge from the Asian to the European side on foot, to join the protesting groups.
There are some notable victims who had to be hospitalised with traumatic injuries, such as a pro-Kurdish MP, a prominent journalist, as well as the president of a search and rescue NGO. And hundreds of people in the area are having respiratory problems due to the use of tear gas and pepper spray.
It is now a protest movement of all opposition groups, from the extreme left to the extreme right.
The three parliamentary opposition parties CHP (social democrats), MHP (nationalist) and BDP (Kurdish) have joined the protest. Meanwhile, there are 80 NGOs that have joined the demonstrations, claiming that ‘it’s not about a park, it’s about the future of Turkey’ – whether it goes in the direction of what the Turkish PM Regep Tayip Erdogan calls ‘modern Islam’, or in the direction of a free, secular society where civil liberties are safeguarded.
Indeed, due to the size of the protests, and the speed with which they have grown, they are seen as manifestation of built up anger. The Turkish police have used heavy-handed tactics to break up other large protests – a May Day manifestation, protests against the government’s stance on the conflict in Syria, protests about the recent tightening of restrictions on the sale of alcohol and the construction of a controversial third bridge across the Bosporus Strait, which would damage the forest areas outside Istanbul.
There has been very limited coverage of these protests in the Turkish media. While the streets of Istanbul were turning into a battleground, TV channels were showing cooking programmes and beauty pageants. As with the recent car bombs near the Syrian border, this news ‘blackout’ seems to be the government’s method of keeping things in the dark, in order to stop them from growing. It is incredible to see such attempts despite the known power of social media, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. As there are only a few local TV channels that attempt to portray the events, the main source of related news is social media, amateur video footages and foreign TV.
In summary, the government has been trying to use police force, media censorship and the blocking of transportation to stop the protests, instead of dialogue. This has had the opposite effect than intended, by giving more fuel to the flame of the opposition, who are organising over social media and walking their way to protest areas from all over Istanbul in large numbers.
PM Erdogan and the interior minister have mostly defended the crackdown, claiming that officers have been carrying out their duties against the illegal occupation of Gezi Park, and they describe protesters as extremists. Erdogan refuses to take a step back, and says that the police will continue to show their presence. In his speech at an exporters’ conference he attended today – having not changed his agenda in spite of current events – he mentioned he did not see any legitimacy in the protests, and his argument was that many projects he has succeeded with were opposed at first, but are now major sources of public good. Even if this could be the case with the current large scale construction plans he has for Istanbul, it is sad to see that he is still not taking any responsibility for the mass violence, and is not taking any steps to calm the situation.
These happenings will, surely, be used by those opposing Turkey’s potential EU accession, pointing out the unpreparedness of a country in which civil liberties are not respected. But the story is a little more complex: judging by the size of the demonstrations and the solidarity shown during them, there is clearly a growing active and politically aware civil society, which is tired of human rights abuses and infringements on their civil liberties, which is in line with the ideals that the EU claims to have.
An amateur video posted on Saturday, 1 May: