Tear gas in the air in Taksim

June 6, 2013

It began as a protest against a development project in Istanbul, but mass protests and confrontations with police are spreading across Turkey and rocking the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Matthew Lynch is a journalist and a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of North Carolina. He was in Istanbul on a research trip when the protests began and joined in an effort to document what is happening. Here, he answers questions about what he's seen.

CAN YOU TALK about how the protests began?

I'VE BEEN in Turkey since May 13. Even at that point, there were some riot police stationed in Taksim Square. At that time, I wasn't aware of what was happening. A few days later, the law on alcohol sales went through, and I anticipated that would provoke some anger, as this area of Istanbul (Istiklal Street near Taksim) is the main commercial/bar/club/restaurant district.

Additionally, the plans to build a shopping mall on what was essentially one of the few remaining public spaces in the city had brought many out to the streets to voice their opposition. This area has never been very pro-AKP (Erdogan's party), and the government's actions only further alienated the people here, especially the youth.

On Thursday of last week, there was a large demonstration in the evening at the park, and the police apparently used some heavy tactics to disperse the crowd. I only arrived in the aftermath as everyone was trying to make their way home. On Friday afternoon, things escalated quickly--police used water cannons on people who were just sitting and having a picnic in the park, started shooting tear gas into crowds of protesters, and that essentially set the whole area into an uproar.

Turkish police use tear gas against protesters in Istanbul
Turkish police use tear gas against protesters in Istanbul (Eser Karadag)

We tried to get to the square to see what was happening, but the gas was too strong, so we took a side street that people had begun pouring down as they heard what was happening. Then police began firing tear gas down that street, which probably had 5,000 people in it. The crowd wasn't doing anything other than chanting and trying to get to the square.

A tear gas canister hit about three feet above my head, and another hit my girlfriend in the leg. We weren't even near the front of the crowd! So we did our best to both see what was happening and not get too close, as none of us had been prepared for the event.

Friday night is when things got really ugly. The tear gas filled every street in the area. The police would release the gas and then spray water, which seems to aid its dispersal. Most people only had a lemon or some milk-water mixture to help with their eyes. But people kept pushing toward the square. The crowd started smashing windows on Istiklal--smashing ATMs with hammers as they grew more and more frustrated.

Saturday, as thousands upon thousands poured into the area, the police used water cannons and more gas. I wasn't close enough to see it, but there were reports of unarmed people being beaten and shot at with non-lethal weapons. We joined in with the crowd on Istiklal, pushing towards the square, despite all the police. The police had just pulled out as I arrived in the square, and I witnessed the collective shout of victory.

Unfortunately, it was short-lived. Although the protesters still hold the square and the police haven't returned, the nearby neighborhood of Besiktas has turned into something of a war zone. I foolishly wandered down there Sunday night and saw firsthand police beating people and shooting unarmed people running away from them. This area is still the site of demonstrations.

WHAT DEMANDS are people making of the government?

THE MOST obvious demand is to stop this mall complex from being built. Some have likened it to building a Walmart in Central Park. The second is that Erdogan resign--some say due to claimed electoral fraud, others for his pro-business and Islamist policies, and others just for not corralling the overzealous police force. Third, I think people want more of a say in their own governance and want the central state apparatus to give them more autonomy, in everything from building projects to social living.

CAN YOU tell us a little bit about who's involved in this movement and its politics? Are there any major political parties taking part in the movement?

FROM WHAT I've seen, this came together very organically. There were organized demonstrations in Gezi Park, sort of an Occupy-style protest. As far as a political presence, I don't have any expertise on this, but several parties, including the TKP [Communist Party of Turkey], are very vocal on site. But what is happening now is beyond anyone's organization or control.

The AKP has control of the government due to the fracturing of the opposition. Perhaps the opposition will now coalesce in order to oppose the AKP.

SOME MEDIA outlets have characterized this as a secular outcry against the AKP's Islamist politics, citing a new law passed recently to restrict the sale and advertisement of alcoholic drinks? Do you think this is an accurate representation?

CERTAINLY THE ghost of Atatürk [the first president of modern-day Turkey, remembered as a secular nationalist] lingers. The secularist inclination of especially this area of Istanbul can be seen in everything from fashion to behavior to music.

But I'd say the protests seem just as much opposed to the pro-business policies of the government as its rather poorly considered social policies. Which is to say, it isn't specifically Islamist or anti-Islamist--this, at least, is clear. But yes, anytime you tell a bunch of young folks that all their places to hang out will be shut down at 10 p.m., you will provoke a backlash!

CAN YOU describe your impression of the government response?

AS FOR the police: Brutal and sloppy. Having witnessed the NATO summit in Chicago and the student strike and protests in Montreal last year, I can attest that the police are completely mismanaging the situation. They've lost control, alienated their base of support and resorting to heavy-handed tactics that are absolutely sickening. As one example, I saw several police firing tear gas into the Dolmubahce Mosque courtyard and then shooting tear gas directly at people who emerged and beating them up.

As for Erdogan: He seems like he doesn't know what to do. He's acknowledged the police overreach, but has done nothing to corral them. Further, he's used macho rhetoric that only further angered the opposition. As for the rest of the government, they haven't really done or said anything to calm the situation.

SOME ARE comparing Taksim to Tahrir Square, and some protesters are calling for the resignation of Erdego. ? Where do people expect the movement to go from here?

IN THE best-case scenario, the government backs off and gives in to some of the demands. I can say that I don't see how they could possibly demolish the park at this point without provoking even more massive unrest.

While many want Erdogan to resign, his broad support outside of the cities and his success with Turkey's economy makes that unlikely. However, if this manages to alienate the business community, it is hard to see how he will maintain enough support to continue on in any democratic sense.

So yes, I sense either a change in government by the next election--or a further state crackdown with no end in sight.

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