The first protest weekend I viewed the events catapulting Istanbul into international news mostly through my computer screen. I have borrowed most of the photos here from friends’ Facebook posts.
Facebook and Twitter posts from friends in the thick of it have been my window, along with Turkish and global news sources all over the world. We live in a quiet neighborhood with no massive gatherings, but with obvious protest I’ll describe later.
A caveat: I don’t know the lay of the land, lack adequate context, am not Turkish, haven’t been here long, don’t speak the language (not for lack of trying), and don’t understand the nuances or the politics of the culture. My American lens is likely inaccurate. This isn’t my fight. Also, I am a guest in the country and unclear on my rights of expression. I have no role in influencing politics and am free to leave.
It is an interesting time here, and I’ll try to offer a considered look at the situation. I find these events give me perspective on my own country and its system. For me, it gives insight into plights of the other fledgling democracies in the region too.
Taksim Square is one commercial center of the city, and THE political center of the city. It is where protests traditionally are held. It is a main touristic area as well as a destination for Istanbullular after work and on weekends. It is also a neighborhood where many people live.
You’ve seen my earlier photos of Istiklal Caddesi, an iconic outdoor pedestrian mall, along the lines of La Rambla in Barcelona and Calle Florida in Buenos Aires. Istanbullar flock to the meyhanes (taverns) and night life in the streets and alleyways off of it. Political rallies and parades often weave their way through weekend crowds on Istiklal Caddesi. The highest point of Istiklal connects at Taksim Square, a huge plaza and transit hub where the Metro stations, bus and dolmuş (shared taxis) lines convene.
On November 5, sections of Taksim Square were blocked off with corrugated aluminum fencing and a big development project was begun. We arrived one month later, and immediately heard complaints about how it had destroyed local businesses, and the public had no involvement in its conception or approval. Less than a week after we arrived, I picked my cold rainy way through the muddy chunky mess to go to a life drawing session nearby. I got lost in Gezi Parkı that first night, which was dark but not dangerous.
Gezi Park was Lucy’s best exercise place. She needs to run, and we had three choices. Narrow Fıstıklı Parki on the Bosphorus, a close-by church parking lot obstructed by a cranky priest, and Gezi Park. The month we lived there, we found much of Beyoğlu and Cihangir just down the hill from Taksim Square pretty unlivable because of the huge muddy construction projects gentrifying the area. If we still lived in Cihangir, we would have closed our windows to tear gas, and worried about our pets..
The small group of young activists began protesting in the park Monday two weeks ago. By that Friday, riot police trying to disperse the reportedly peaceful group used harsh measures of tear and pepper gas, and water cannon. For the first few days there was very little coverage of the skirmish on local mainstream news, evoking cries of media suppression by the party. The prime minister, at a ceremony announcing a (controversial) third bridge project across the Bosphorus had dismissed the 3-day old protest by stating the park decision was made and final. Period.
The general complaint against the current government is of authoritarian behavior, and headlong, unrestrained, crony-enriching development (sound familiar?). I have Islamist friends who share that complaint. Secular Turks who experience the ruling party as Islamist autocrats imposing religiously motivated lifestyle restraints are really unhappy.
The PM is very popular and powerful, and as he is timed out of office after 2015, he is working to change the constitution to a presidential system, so to run again – a la Michael Bloomberg in New York. The protest began over trees, but has evolved to become directly critical of the prime minister, due to how he has reacted. The president, and deputy prime minister have met with representatives of the protesters and acknowledged the need for democratic dialogue.
Most of my expat friends, while riveted to the subject, skirt the protest areas, however, many people live in the Taksim area or need to travel through its hub in their daily life, and are thereby impacted.
We had a life drawing day planned on the violent Saturday in the Harbiye flat mentioned above. Friday night, with protesters and tear gas on her street and trapped in her apartment, my friend cancelled the event and spent her time offering lemon juice to wash out the eyes of those gassed. I’ve learned that antidotes are vinegar, milk and lemon juice. Ayran works well too. 🙂
Clashes moved to Beşiktaş, because the PM’s Istanbul office is close by. A different friend trying to skirt a blockage on the main shore road between Kabataş and Beşiktaş, took ferries to and from Kadıköy zigzagging across the Bosphorus, where she then sought tearful refuge in the smoke of fires set by protesters also as (interestingly) tear gas antidotes. She reported that people on top outside decks of the boat moved inside with eyes streaming…gas from a helicopter they said…!!??
The government has characterized the protesters as hooligans, extremists, and marginals, although they look like students and citizens of all ages who care about their life in Istanbul and Turkey. I suspect there are criminals mixed in — those who seek a situation to prey on. I’ve also seen some reports that plain-clothed police officers have roughed up protesters and caused damage.
All over Istanbul, including on our street, in our building, citizens have protested from their homes by hanging the Turkish flag, and banging pots and pans. Called cacerolazo in the Latin world, this form of protest gathers steam because it is easy to participate. The practice began in Salvador Allende’s Chile in 1971. Listening to a neighborhood chant, whistle, clap hands, ring bells and bang on cook pots is an amazing sound. It sounds like entering an airport gate full of Hare Krishna. I found it charming, for a short while. It erupted here the first Saturday and Sunday nights at the dusk call to prayer. Its acoustic nature is compelling. The first Sunday evening it took on its own life, and like a car alarm that someone is ignoring, it got tedious and sent Rita running to her most scary hidey-hole. Over the last 10 days It has settled into a ten-fifteen minute 9 PM ritual. One evening it was preceded by a recording of the Turkish anthem.
An American friend who has lived in Turkey for many years said this protest reminded her of the 60’s in the US, rather than the Occupy movement. Our Turkish friends agree that this is a watershed, but can’t tell us how. The protest songs I learned in college are playing in my head…”pave paradise, put up a parking lot…”