Protests in Istanbul, Turkey over a park in that city have spiraled into ongoing violent clashes between protesters and police. Tension between an increasingly conservative Turkish government and a large percentage of the Turkish population that desires to retain its personal freedoms appears to be a prime reason for the growing conflict.
Throughout the events, which began on May 31, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has maintained a defiant tone against the protesters, calling them “looters” and “extremists.” On Tuesday, June 11, as riot police forced protesters out of Taksim Square with tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons, Erdogan insisted again that the unrest was part of a “conspiracy against his government,” reported the National Turk. However, eyewitness accounts tell another story, with citizens asserting that the violence and scale of police attacks prove the government and its police to be untrustworthy.
In the beginning
The protests were initially sparked by a peaceful citizen “occupation” of Istanbul’s Gezi Park in an attempt to save its trees and greenspace from demolition for a new shopping mall. Dissatisfied with increasing restrictions on social freedoms and outraged over Erdoğan’s brutish handling of the demonstrations, tens of thousands of Turkish citizens have swelled the throng occupying Gezi park and its adjacent Taksim Square over the past twelve days. Accounts and images of spontaneous yoga classes, a 5,000 book “library,” classical music concerts and free meals and goods distributed amongst the protesters, have filled social media networks in recent days, capturing the interest of people worldwide.
However, in the early hours of June 11, as fresh crowds of riot police advanced on the crowd with tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons, the situation quickly devolved into chaos and unrest, and the peaceful and inspiring images distributed through social media have been replaced with disturbing images and eyewitness accounts documenting these brutal attacks.
One such account, by a man identifying himself as “Can Oz, the owner of the biggest literary publishing house in [Turkey]” was published by the Guardian UK on June 11. Oz reports:
“I am scared. With every speech that prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gives, I feel the hatred and disgust against me and young people of my generation increase. All we are after is a bit of freedom, a bit of space to live and a few trees. It reminds me of a line from Jimi Hendrix’s If 6 Was 9: “I’m the one that has to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.”
Today [June 11] I was in Taksim Square again, a few hours after withstanding another gas attack, cheering, singing chants and sharing food in the park – and I haven’t encountered any signs of weapons or violence on their behalf. These people made me feel like I’m living a dream.with water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets, and protesters hurled fireworks and fire bombs. Some say the protesters’ firebomb attack was staged, and while I don’t have certain proof that this was the case, it wouldn’t surprise me: over the past few days I have witnessed so many lies from the police and government that I don’t think I can ever trust them again. I have spent days with the protesters –
The purpose of my visit to Taksim Square was to listen to the press conference the Taksim Solidarity movement had prepared; and I was confident that I could trust the chief of police and Istanbul mayor’s assurance that the park would not be attacked. Then, right before the press conference was about to start, gas rained down over our heads once again. It was a moment of crushing disappointment. Coughing, wiping tears out of my eyes, practically blind, I realised that our government would never understand the meaning of the passive resistance that Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi were famous for. That’s when I ran out of the park.
I am the owner of the biggest literary publishing house in the country. In the past few days I have received hate mail and death threats, just because I was publicly part of this passive resistance movement. After each speech Erdoğan gave, the language in these emails became more violent. Today, the lawyers who arrived at the main courthouse of Istanbul were beaten and arrested by the police. These were the lawyers who were there to defend the protesters who had been arrested.
I am scared, not for myself, but for my girlfriend, my mother, my sister, and for my country. It is quite clear at this point that Erdoğan’s only way to cope with problems is to ratchet up aggression levels. If he continues to do so, I fear that this aggression will lead to a civil war in Turkey.
For the past few years, I have lived in fear of expressing my ideas. I didn’t do enough to criticise Erdoğan, or speak up loudly enough about the misdeeds of public officials that I had witnessed. But not any more. I am not afraid to lose my business, my wealth, or even my freedom by being jailed and sentenced; but I can not bear to live a dishonorable life any more.
What do I and my fellow protesters want? Well, here is the official list of Taksim Solidarity Platform:
1. We want the park to stay as a park.
2. We want the arrested protesters to be released.
3. We want the police aggression to stop, and prosecuted.
4. We want our right to demonstrate and protest in public areas respected, as it is respected in the constitution, hence to have the bans on those rights revoked.
5. We want Erdoğan to stop increasing the tension, and hence, peace.”
Whether peace be the outcome of these historic events, or more destruction (and possible revolution) for Turkey remains to be seen. A peaceful demonstration that began two weeks ago has grown into “the biggest test of Erdogan’s authority” (National Turk.) With events still developing and police attacks ongoing, it is possible that, as eyewitnesses assert, trust between Turkey’s government and a great number of its citizens could prove to be damaged beyond repair.
Written by Cybelle Clements