What is unfolding in Turkey is not a “Turkish Spring,” as many abroad have been calling it. Nor it is the result of a long-lasting struggle between secularists and Islamists. Instead, the Gezi Park protests are simply the long-muted, suppressed voice of Turkey’s diverse population having grown tired of the increasingly authoritarian grip of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP).
“I feel like I finally belong somewhere,” said one a young protester from Istanbul as I joined many of the people gathering at a neighborhood park in Istanbul’s Cihangir neighborhood. This was not the first time I have heard this reaction. Many people I spoke to during the Gezi Park protests repeated this view-–with some adding that people have been quiet for far too long.
From Gezi Park to the Neighborhood
Back at the Cihangir’s park, the crowd is diverse. Many who appear at the protests are local residents. Cihangir is a trendy area of Istanbul, known for its stately homes and a vibrant restaurant, café, and bar scene. For many of the people at the protests, it is the first time they have been driven to become involed in a public demonstration. People congregate not only to demonstrate, but to discuss their experiences and talk about what can be done in the future. In many ways, it’s as much a neighborhood forum as it is a protest.
But Cihangir is not the only neighborhood where such public forums are taking place these past two weeks. All across Istanbul, residents share meeting times for these new forums on Twitter, with 9pm being the widely agreed-upon time. Attendees are welcome to bring guests, food, and their children. There is a list of volunteer speakers and an allocated time for each person who takes the microphone.
From Environmentalist Plea to Mass Protests
The story actually began in October of last year when the government virtually shut down tourist-hotspot Taksim Square as part of its controversial Taksim pedestrian project. The roads were shut, the digging began, and locals’ patience was tested. A month later, Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas announced plans for re-development of Gezi Park, where a mall was to be built. In a global metropolis with a famously undersized share of public green space, a park for a mall.
On May 27, a group of environmentalists and activists from a group called Taksim Solidarity gathered at Gezi Park as bulldozers were brought in to demolish the trees. Taksim Solidarity has been trying to prevent the local government from demolishing the park for some time now. They have been unsuccessful. The next day, it was a member of the Istanbul Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Sirri Sureyya Onder, who boldly blocked the path of an excavator to prevent it from cutting more trees. Later that day, police moved into the park and began dispersing the crowd using tear gas. Yet this time, a woman in a red dress (who later became one of the icons of the protests) stood bravely in front of the police officers as they sprayed her directly in the face. That image quickly went viral on social networks, which PM Erdogan later referred to as a “menace.” It is hard to say whether this was the trigger of what followed. Certainly, it was a spark.
The next day, May 29, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was resolute, adding, “whatever they do, we have made up our minds and we will do it!” This was a warning. The next day, during the early morning hours, police stormed the park and set protesters’ tents on fire. But this only prompted renewed calls on social media to gather at Gezi.
May 31. Yet another dawn operation by the police dispersed the few hundred protesters and set up a barricade around the park. But by 8pm, major streets leading to Taksim Square were occupied by tens of thousands of protesters. Tear gas and water cannons were employed liberally. Even the metro at Taksim was before it was shut down, stranding evening commuters. Soon,other cities and neighborhoods joined in the protests. At around 4am, hundreds of residents walked over from the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Those who couldn’t join protestors in the streets banged pots and pans from their homes in support.
The clashes continued but so did the Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric towards the protesters. Erdogan referred to the protesters as riffraff, hooligans, and at times even terrorists. Instead of restraining police forces and preventing excessive violence, the PM showed little interest. Not even once did he apologize for the crackdown. Police received plaudits and were patted on their backs for the great job that they did.
It has been a month now. On the surface, nothing seems to have changed. No one in government has resigned. Most of the protests have been dispersed. And the AKP’s majoritarianism remains intact. However, there is a sense in the air that the mood has shifted. People feel stronger; there is a hidden smile on everyone’s’ face. There is hope. Turkey’s youth, frequently lambasted for their perceived political apathy, revealed themselves to be as energetic and politically savvy as anyone. These days, not a day goes by without friends and families speaking of Gezi Park; sharing their stories of being gassed and firehosed and what’s next for the Park, the people, and Turkey.
In the meantime, Turkey’s Prime Minister reveals more of the same. He blames outside countries and nefarious interests “plotting” against Turkey. He even went as far as to hold these very same “foreign influences” responsible for Brazil’s outbreak of protests.
From Protests to Elections — Whats Next?
We are all waiting to see what the future holds for Gezi Park. A court decision, followed by a city-wide referendum is a possibility. But will it be successful? It is hard to predict the honesty of the ruling party, given the past several weeks of protests and the government’s reaction. Surely, things could have been very different had the Prime Minister restrained the police and let people protest in the early days of the Gezi Park protests.
There are local elections coming up in January of next year–a point that was often used by the ruling party in the past month. “Let the people decide in the polls,” has been the general AKP refrain, dismissing the calls by protesters for the Prime Minister to resign.
But the winds might be changing in Turkey after all. Though Erdogan was brought to power through democratic elections, his authoritarian grip on power, a series of conservative reforms sweeping the country, and his polarizing influence has been undermined. Even if no serious political changes occur, there is a genuine understanding that the people will not remain silent forever.