Protests in Turkey entered their fifth day today, with demonstrators heading into the streets in cities across the country. The protests, which were initially aimed at protesting the demolition of Istanbul’s Gezi park, have transformed, because of police aggression, to include more general grievances with the Turkish government.
Mashallah News provides a good recap of the demonstrations’ development, thus far:
In Istanbul, just 1.5% of the land is devoted to public green space, of which nine acres are located in Gezi park. On Monday, construction crews began the demolition of the park to make way for a shopping mall. Protests of the demolition grew from around 50 people on Monday to around 10,000 by Thursday night, despite the use of pepper-spray and tear-gas to disperse protesters. Friday morning saw the most aggressive use of force yet, with police using water cannons and excessive force in an attempt to clear the park of people delivering speeches, chanting, singing, and preparing camps.
In a much anticipated speech on June 1, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to the growing protest movement. Repeating the tried, true, and mostly failed strategies used by regional dictators (many now ousted), the Prime Minister minimized the significance of the demonstrations, dismissed protesters’ demands, and blamed the discontent on “other” forces. EA World View summarizes Erdogan’s speech as follows:
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan… speaking about the police attacks on protesters, is defiant — he says of those who are demonstrating about the re-development of Gezi Park, ‘There are games being played….Nobody has the right to protest against the law and democracy.’
Erdogan said that police made mistakes in the use of pepper spray and tear gas on demonstrators and that the Ministry of Interior will investigate this; however, Taksim Square — where the protesters sat in for four days before the police assault on Friday — cannot be a ‘safe haven’ for demonstrations. He insisted that ‘illegal organisations [were] provoking naive protesters’.
The Prime Minister, invoking history and ideology, said that he will persist in the plans to turn the green space of Gezi Park into a shopping mall, housed in a replica Ottoman-era military barracks.
Erdogan declared that those opposing ‘urban transformation projects’ want ‘our people to live in shanty homes’.
Speaking more widely, Erdogan insisted his Government reflects the will of the people and the opposition should act through the ballot box and not on the streets. He is confident, however, of winning any challenge: ‘Don’t compete with us. If you gather 200,000 people, I can gather a million.’
Unsurprisingly, Erdogan’s speech failed to quell protests, which continue in large numbers.
While these demonstrations may appear to be isolated instances of discontent, other recently organized acts of public defiance suggest otherwise.
In December 2012, demonstrations were held to challenge the destruction of Ince Pastanesi, a historic pastry shop in Istanbul. After nearly seventy years in business, the store, like Gezi park, was slated to be replaced by a shopping mall. Though repeatedly calling upon the municipality to save the shop, protesters were ultimately unable to prevent its destruction.
On April 7, 2013, demonstrators gathered to protest the demolition of Istanbul’s historic Emek Theater, which was also slated to be replaced by a shopping mall. Then, as now, security officials responded aggressively:
Police deployed water cannon and tear gas on April 7 to disperse a group of thousands, including Greek-French director Costa-Gavras and many actors, who had marched on Istanbul’s iconic Emek Cinema to protest the demolition of the historic building.
Police had already blocked off access to the side street where the theater is located, forcing protesters to remain on İstiklal Avenue, the heart of Istanbul’s entertainment area. Following a warning that the demonstration was unauthorized, police started spraying water at the group, as well as tear gas, according to witnesses.
Movie critic Berke Göl and three other demonstrators were taken into custody, daily Radikal reported. One of the most venerable Turkish directors, Erden Kıral, reportedly fainted during the police attack.
A group of 200 demonstrators are camping in front of Beyoğlu police department to demand the release of those taken into custody, according to daily Radikal.
The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) issued a statement, slamming the ‘excessive force’ used by the police. ‘We condemn what has been inflicted to cinema lovers who did nothing other than protect Istanbul’s cultural memory,’ the statement said.
As the daily Radikal’s Elif Ince insightfully reports from the park, #OccupyGezi is an urban uprising against the Turkey’s conservative political elite and their neoliberal policies. One of the protesters explain to Ince that the shut down of Inci Pastanesi was not about profiterole, the protests against closing down of Emek Theater were not solely to preserve historic buildings, and solidarity at Gezi Parki is not just for and about trees, ‘Protestors are camping at the park because the city belongs to, and should be governed by, its people, not the capricious decisions of one political leader and his disciples in the government.’
This desire to have a say over one’s physical surroundings is, again, only part of the story. Attempts to curb certain social and cultural behaviors are also yielding defiant responses from some Turks. Only a few days before the Gezi protests began, on May 25, Turkish couples protested efforts to curb public displays of affection on Turkey’s subway system. As described in the Huffington Post:
Dozens of couples have locked lips at a subway stop in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, to protest subway authorities’ admonishment of a couple that kissed in public.
Turkish media say that, earlier in the week, Ankara subway officials made an announcement asking passengers “to act in accordance with moral rules” after security cameras spotted the couple kissing.
The issue prompted an opposition lawmaker to question the Islamist-rooted ruling party, which many secularists fear wants to expand the role of Islam in Turkey, about whether subway officials were authorized to make such demands.
Some 100 people in the station kissed for several minutes in protest Saturday. Demonstrators carried signs reading ‘Free Kisses’and chanted slogans.
And then there is Turkey’s recent alcohol ban. On May 24, the Turkish parliament passed a bill placing severe restrictions on the sale, marketing, and consumption of alcoholic beverages. One Turkish journalist described the prohibition as a form of public pressure, inherently restricting people’s ability to act freely in public spaces:
In Turkey, we are confronted with an ideologically motivated, extremely conservative and oppressive social engineering that is a part of the Islamic agenda of the AKP government. This project has no democratic legitimacy because it is in clear violation of Turkish rights and freedoms.
Another proof of this mindset is what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said to his party caucus at the parliament on May 28, when he reacted to those who claimed that alcohol bans are related to the Islamic agenda. He said, ‘No matter what religion it is, religion stipulates not the wrong but the right. If that is an appropriate stipulation, are you going to oppose [this] on the grounds it is religion-based? For you, a law prepared by two drunkards can be valid, but how come our convictions becomes something to be rejected?’
Erdogan, therefore, has openly declared that the alcohol ban is a religious requirement, and that he wants to reshape public life according to religious strictures. He went further and openly called ‘anti-religious’ anyone who opposes alcohol bans on the basis of personal rights and freedoms.
The relief felt by those who heard Erdogan say in the same speech, ‘The arrangements made are not interference in anybody’s way of life,’ did not last long because Erdogan immediately added, ‘If you want to drink, take your alcoholic drink and drink it at home. Drink whatever you want to drink. We are not against that.’
With these words, the Turkish prime minister has told a significant segment of the population, ‘Don’t pursue your way of life in public spaces.’ This in itself is a grave example of social pressure that goes far beyond the substance and context of existing alcohol legislation.
Not just the “destruction of trees,” or “the loss of profiteroles,” or the preservation of historic buildings,” but the feeling that public life in Turkey is being restricted and molded to fit one kind of ideological perspective seems to be motivating the protests over Gezi park and other recent displays of defiance across the country. These instances of discontent, as captured by this video from evening protests on May 31, are unlikely to dissipate any time soon.