What started last week as an effort to save Gezi Park in Istanbul from being razed to reconstruct a 19th century Ottoman Barracks, to house yet another shopping complex has grown into much more. It was the tipping point that has released years of pent up frustration and anger at the authoritarian leadership style of the Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan.
So where did I leave off on June 2nd? How can so much change in a country in two weeks? I woke up at 03:30 to the sound of people marching through the streets of my neighborhood chanting, banging pots and blowing whistles. As I write this now, it is 9:00 pm and our now nightly ritual of banging pots and blowing whistles has just started up and is now growing in intensity. There is true passion in this action as there are strong reactions to the sound and to the implications that life in Turkey needs adjusting. Tempers have flared with yelling and pushing right under my balcony.
The protest continues due to a prime minister who is not very good with the concept of diplomacy and with a governance style that makes people feel they have a voice and a choice. He did try to meet the Gezi Park protestors but I am not sure it was very sincere. He has quickly resumed his insulting rhetoric, accusing the protestors of being terrorists, looters, of being manipulated by foreign interests or the western media. His insults have led to the protestors adopting his word of insult of looter as a “chapulcu”. Now it is said those who protest wanting personal freedoms are chapuling! The penguin has become the mascot because on June 1st when people were looking for news of what was happening, while CNN International showed the riots in Taksim, CNN Turk was showing a documentary on penguins. News was difficult to come by, but social media has changed the way we report and document. Facebook and Twitter spread reports and shared sources of first aid and legal assistance, during the periods when the conflict between the protestors and the police was the most intense. I was never very tied to my Facebook account until three weeks ago when it suddenly was flooded with messages in English and Turkish of what others perceived was happening. Sometimes the reports have been exaggerated and misleading. But often the stories and thoughts shared are very accurate and extremely reflective on the meaning of democracy as well as the continual stories of extreme abuse by the police.
I went over to Gezi Park on June 9th when the park was full of joy, a library, newsstands and a playground with people sharing food. The collection of groups ranged from the Maoists, Marxists, feminist groups, the LGBT group, the Armenian radio station Nor, college student groups, high school groups, independent people, a variety of political parties, all were represented and happy to have such a strange mixture of people as company. Not all these groups necessarily get along but for now they have a common cause. Morning groups of people did yoga. A German man even had his specially equipped piano flown into the middle of the square and gave a concert for a couple of nights. It reminded me so very much of my college days in the 60’s and early 70’s when my own country erupted in protest over the Vietnam War, civil rights, women’s rights and environmental issues. There are strong parallels to what is happening in Turkey.
My life has been profoundly touched as have the lives of those with whom I live and work. I am thankful that we are finished with exams and the students have begun their vacation. Students and teachers were protesting by night and trying to handle exams by day. We are all exhausted, unsettled, upset, angry, sad, a bit scared, and wondering where all of this is going. The biggest fear is the increased polarization within the country.
Last week Prime Minister Erdogan had had enough. He collected a huge group in Ankara and swore that Gezi Park would be cleared out in 24 hours before his huge rally in Istanbul on Sunday June 16th. The evening of June 15th thousands of police moved into Taksim Square and Gezi Park, and drove the protestors into the streets. Pepper gas, pepper gas containers, water cannons and beatings hurt many. When the Divan Hotel opened its doors for a second time in a week to injured protestors, this time the police threw pepper gas into the hotel and blocked the exits. Battles raged throughout the night and all day Sunday. Almost 500 people have been arrested or have “disappeared”. All of this happened on Day 2 of the two-weekend marathon of Turkish university entrance exams our seniors are taking. In talking to several of our seniors, they said they were not able to sleep or to concentrate. I truly wonder why a Prime Minister who knew of the hundreds of thousands entering these exams could not have waited one night for his inevitable move on Gezi Park? But he needed to fulfill his promise to have the park cleared by the time of his rally on June 16th.
The AK Party (the Justice and Development Party and the current ruling party in Turkey) had distributed flyers throughout Uskudar (the area where I live and work) publicizing a meeting Sunday, June 16th at 18:00 in Kazlıçeşme. The flyer described (in my rough summarizing translation) "how they have watched with sorrow, anxiety and patience the events in Gezi Park. What started out innocently has spread into a big game that is bringing dark clouds casting a shadow over all of the successes that have been achieved over the past 11 years."
The AK Party had arranged assembly places throughout the city where they provided free transportation to the rally. One of my colleagues even saw them handing out free microwave ovens to some people. While the AKP supporters were provided with free transportation and open roads, people trying to assemble in Taksim were blocked from the square, being sprayed with endless tear gas and water canon. This is freedom of assembly, at least for the 50% of the population that voted for him.
Prime Minister Erdogan must have been watching a different TV channel than me me. A "democratic, free, independent, strong" country cannot be complacent with being lulled into the superficial peace brought about by a prosperous people. Of course economic growth and comfort are nice for a people. But democracy also needs for all of the people to know that they have a voice and a choice and to exercise that voice and choice.
So on Sunday, I gathered up our new intern from Global Ministries and rather than going sightseeing, we went to visit a friend of mine. We walked over to the local mall for lunch and it was as though the interior of the mall was on a totally different planet. We spent most of the day watching Erdogan on TV as he inflamed his viewers and violence once again erupted throughout the country.
Today we all went to work but two major labor unions went out on strike. Protesting groups of protesters still exist in pockets throughout the city. The pans actually banged for 45 minutes tonight rather than the usual 30 minutes and life and laughter can be heard on the street below my apartment. Life can seem very normal in many parts of the city. But uncertainty hangs in the air. Erdogan has threatened repercussions for those who took actions “against him”. These protests have not been against Islam, they have not been against the AKP government per se. They have for the most part been directed at one person, the prime minister, whose leadership style and enacted agenda that restricts personal freedoms and imposes an increasing conservative life style. This is the problem. But as I said in my last communiqué, democracy needs expression and acknowledgement of a variety of opinions even when we do not agree with them. I believe even seasoned democracies have something to learn from the people of Turkey.
"I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Voltaire
Greetings from Istanbul
Alison Stendahl serves with the Near East Mission, Istanbul, Turkey. She is Academic Dean of and a math teacher at Uskudar American Academy in Istanbul Turkey.