#OccupyGezi: Turks Continue Protest for Freedom (Updated)
Protests that began earlier this week in Istanbul because of a park threatened by bulldozers have spread throughout Turkey as Turks call for the saving of democracy and not just trees.
On Monday, May 27, bulldozers began to uproot trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. One of the few green areas left in central Istanbul, Gezi Park, near the historic Taksim district, has become a symbol of something precious that is disappearing in Turkey: democracy. People began to protest the trees’ uprooting, and by Friday, the protests had spread and were violently confronted by Turkish police.
In Istanbul, at least 100 people were injured (including some foreigners) when police fired rockets of tear gas canisters into the crowd. The police, with helmets, shields, and gas masks, fired water canon and advanced on people in tank-like riot vehicles. Some protesters made plastic gas masks out of large water bottles but could not avoid respiratory problems. One journalist suffered a head wound, and several people lost their eyes. Helicopters circled in the skies, and the scene looked like a war zone.
On Friday, protests also occurred in the capital city of Ankara. Other Turkish cities like Konya (in the conservative central area) and Izmir by the Aegean Sea, also saw protests.
This morning, the United States Consulate in Istanbul sent an email warning to all Americans in Turkey, stating that “protests continued throughout the night and have spread to other parts of Istanbul to include Sariyer, Besiktas, Kadikoy, Bakirkoy, Sisli, and Atasehir neighborhoods. The Consulate has learned that the first bridge, Bogazici Bridge, has been closed since 0500 due to protest activity. These protests have the potential to continue spreading to other neighborhoods as well. Public transportation has also been disrupted. U.S. citizens traveling or residing in Turkey should be alert to the potential for violence, avoid those areas where disturbances have occurred, and avoid demonstrations and large gatherings.”
The protest for Gezi Park is really the protest against Islamist Prime Minister Erdogan’s increasingly fascist policies. One banner at Friday’s protest included a cartoon of Mr Erdogan dressed as an Ottoman sultan with the slogan: “The people will not bow down to you.”
“We do not have a government, we have Tayyip Erdogan,” political scientist and protester Koray Caliskan told the Reuters news agency. “They are not listening to us,” he added. “This is the beginning of a summer of discontent.”
Erdogan has received world criticism over his violent police tactics. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “We believe that Turkey’s long-term stability, security and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association, which is what it seems these individuals were doing. These freedoms are crucial to any healthy democracy.”
Linguist Noam Chomsky called the recent events “the most shameful moments of Turkish history.” Even the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister stated that the protesters should be reasoned with and not attacked.
Amnesty International also condemned the police’s tactics against “peaceful protesters.” “The Turkish authorities must order police to halt any excessive use of force and urgently investigate all reports of abuse,” said John Dalhuisen, director of Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asia Programme. “They have a duty to ensure that people can exercise their right to free expression and assembly.”
The Hurriyet newspaper’s English edition headlined today’s paper with “Police Hold Taksim under Siege.”
Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who represents the secular democratic ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is perhaps the only man who could offer Turkey an alternative to Prime Minister Erdogan. He called on Erdogan to withdraw police from Istanbul because the “people are defending their city.” He also appeared on Turkish television and stated that the people of Turkey want to protect democracy, not just Gezi Park, which has become a symbol of freedom. “Erdogan should apologize to the people,” he added. “I am waiting.”
Erdogan has stressed that since he was elected as Prime Minister, he can do what he wants. He insisted that he will go ahead with the redevelopment plan in Istanbul athough bulldozers were temporarily stopped from uprooting all the old trees that had grown in Gezi Park for over a century.
“Turkey needs to be a democracy again,” one Turkish man told me. “We miss Ataturk. Erdogan takes away our freedom.”
In Izmit, an industrial city near Istanbul, some protesters chanted,
“Save Gezi Park. Save the trees. Save freedom!”
(Video by Lonna Lisa Williams)
Reporter’s Update June 2:
I filmed the Izmit protest on Saturday evening, June 1. I wanted to see who these people were, up-close. Prime Minister Erdogan had called them Left-Wing Provocateurs. Instead, I saw a long line of peaceful people walking along Izmit city center. Teenagers, university students, young professionals, middle-aged, and even older people joined the mix. Some women were even clothed in conservative head coverings (“turbans”). One man carried his son on his shoulders. Most smiled at me as they walked past, lifted up banners, flashed a peace sign, or held up a can of beer in a toast (Erdogan recently put strict controls on alcohol).
Many waved flags, draped themselves with flags, or carried flags. Red and white were the dominant colors. When the long parade ended, I followed, still filming as we approached a busy intersection. Cars all around us showed their solidarity by honking horns. People on top of an apartment building shouted support as they waved giant flags. These were not trouble-makers. These were the Turkish people wanting their voice to be heard. These were the Turks protesting for democracy.
Reporter’s Update June 3:
Despite rain, protesters again took to the streets and parks on Sunday throughout Turkey, even as far away from Istanbul as Antalya. They called for Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to resign. Over 2000 people have been injured, and police especially target journalists with tear gas. Erdogan has limited news coverage on Turkish television but cannot control Facebook or Twitter (which he called an “evil force”). He appeared in a short television statement Sunday and denied being a dictator. He called the protesters a “handful of looters” and refused to back down on plans to destroy Gezi Park and limit alcohol sale. He even mentioned plans to build a new mosque in Taksim (Istanbul has over 3000 mosques), thus further limiting green space and igniting more controversy among secular democratists.
The Occupy Taksim movement continues and moves toward Turkish Spring.
Lonna Lisa Williams is a journalist, author and teacher based in Izmit, Turkey.
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