The Two Sides of Turkey’s Summer Protests: Political upheaval in Istanbul simultaneously frightens and inspires.

December 23, 2013 • Features, Print, South Africa • Views: 899

By Emma Banchoff

On my first Friday night in Istanbul, shouting and chanting drew me outside my apartment and into the street. At 1:30 am, masses of young men and women waved Turkish flags, and I listened as their anti-government slogans and honking cars disturbed the night stillness.

A young woman came up to me as I stood on the curb of the street and, recognizing me as a foreigner, explained why the protestors’ cause was important, how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was allegedly going against the will of the people to impose a more strictly Islamic political and social agenda.

“He thinks he can take my rights away,” she said, out of breath and angry. “He is like a dictator.” I didn’t catch her name before she rolled up her pants and rejoined the crowd in the street. About half an hour later, a lone police car drove up to the barricade the protestors had built. Before it was able to come to a halt, it was overcome by men who shattered the windshield and windows, pursuing the car as it tried to escape the crowd.

In my time there, I experienced two sides of the Turkish protests. There were the sensational scenes like the destruction of a police car, violent and angry, extensively covered by the international media. But then there was the sense of hope and spirit that had permeated the streets of Istanbul in the two months, a feeling of community, of solidarity and political purpose, of life with a constant undercurrent of resistance that could only be felt and experienced in person.

Protesters near Gezi Park in Istanbul (Banchoff/TYG).

Protesters near Gezi Park in Istanbul (Banchoff/TYG).

What started as a small sit-in to protect a popular city park from being converted into a shopping mall quickly became a collective fight for freedom of expression and assembly. Taksim Square and the adjoining Gezi Park, the epicenter of the protest movement, had been the site of cultural gatherings one day and rioting the next, giving the movement a sense of unpredictability and heightened level of intrigue.

“You have to visit Gezi Park. It is the best place to experience Turkey’s culture,” my supervisor at work, Levent Yücel, told me two weeks into my stay.

I took his advice.

What I encountered at Gezi and Taksim was intoxicating — abandoned construction sites had been overtaken. The glass of the bulldozers was shattered and their bodies were painted in bright colors. Banners and flags were everywhere, on buildings and near kiosks, representing different political movements and groups.

The park had been transformed into a surreal utopian town. Strings of lights hung above hundreds of tents. People lined up for free food; others nursed the injured at a medical tent. A makeshift library had been built on stacked cinderblocks, a man planted flowers in the rubble, and another cut people’s hair for a cheap price. Messages of support were strung on clotheslines across the greenery. On stages in the park, people sang and held political rallies. Men and women danced to traditional music, floating lanterns filled the evening sky, and street vendors sold beer, flags, scarves, roasted chestnuts, and fresh fruit. The park and square were packed with every kind of person: mothers with young children, elderly women in headscarves, foreigners like me and businessmen still in their suits.

Protest signs cover a building near Taksim Square in Istanbul (Banchoff/TYG).

Protest signs cover a building near Taksim Square in Istanbul (Banchoff/TYG).

Peace quickly became chaos a few days later when, while leaving a café not far from Taksim, I felt an immediate burning in my lungs, nose, and eyes. Realizing it was tear gas, I ran towards my apartment. coughing and covering my face for the entire stumble back.,  My skin did not stop burning until an hour after I got home.

I was lucky that afternoon. Many of my friends were caught much closer to the square, and were forced to enter restaurants for shelter. One of my friends was locked out of a restaurant and had to run from riot policemen marching down the street. A gas canister flew by his leg as he ran.

Safely in our apartment, the other Yale students on the trip and I watched the news, dumbfounded by the images of flames in the park we had spent so much time in a few days earlier. Taksim and Gezi had been forcefully cleared of people, inciting a night of violent clashes in Istanbul’s streets. Late that night, police again broke up demonstrations outside our building, where protestors had set up barricades. Thick gas filled the street and lingered well after it was devoid of people.

We watched from our tightly-sealed windows until even the masked police were gone. As my coworker Caterina La Rosa, a young Italian woman, put it, the use of gas had turned from a defensive technique to a “show-off of power.”

Riot police near Gezi Park in Istanbul (Banchoff/TYG)

Riot police near Gezi Park in Istanbul (Banchoff/TYG)

The protests had become a constant backdrop for our lives there. Every night at nine PM, pedestrians clapped and shouted and shopkeepers blew horns and banged pots in order to show their solidarity with the “Occupy Gezi” movement. I often walked down a busy shopping street and passed fifty riot policemen leaning on their shields with their helmets off and smoking, laughing, and talking together.

Ten minutes later, they had already formed a new barricade against the approaching protesters.

Emma Banchoff ’16 is an Anthropology major in Branford College. She can be reached at emma.banchoff@yale.edu. 

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