Melis Cin '17 (center, wearing blue swim goggles and white mask) with fellow protestors in Istanbul's Taksim Square.
Protesting in Turkey
Turkey has been swept by unrest since a peaceful public demonstration in Istanbul’s Taksim Square on May 28 was met by police violence. The Istanbul event began as a protest against the government’s plan to demolish Gezi Park, which is located in the Square, to build a mosque and shopping center, and rebuild some Ottoman-era barracks. But after the police attack, what had begun with a small group of demonstrators mushroomed and thousands started pouring into the Square on June 1. Since then, protests have erupted in more than 78 cities and towns across the country, with citizens expressing unhappiness with the autocratic style of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a conservative Muslim, and what some see as the government’s shift away from Turkey’s long commitment to secularism.
Istanbul resident and incoming Haverford first-year student Melis Cin was in Taksim Square (along with fellow member of the Class of 2017, Can Emir Mutlu) for the protests. She answered a few questions via email about her experiences and the situation in Turkey.
Haverford College: What drew you to the protests in Gezi Park, and what do you see as the key issues involved?
Melis Cin: Gezi Park is one of the most beautiful parks in Istanbul and is located right in the middle of the Taksim Square, which is kind of the center of the city and the beating heart of Istanbul. So, the protest began as a reaction to the government’s plan, which included replacing the park with a mall and Ottoman-era military barracks.
However, these people faced a very cruel police intervention just because they wanted a green city where no buildings replace the forests. After Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s provocative speeches, thousands of young people streamed into the park. This time, the protest that started as an environmental move, turned into one where the young people voiced their discomfort [with] the government, the prime minister in particular. Most people said that he was acting as an autocrat and did not care about the comfort of half of the citizens—the ones who did not support him in the last election. So, the key issue to this incident was [the] freedom of people that was taken away by the prime minister, piece by piece. To stop the violence, and give the message that “the riot police cannot oppress us, we are here and we want to be heard, ” people left their homes to support their friends in Gezi Park.
I could not sit at home and watch this scene where police injured my friends and peers. Thus, I went out and became the part of the “resistance.”
HC: Can you describe what it was like in the Square?
MC: The events continued with the police intervention; they used pepper gas and water cannons. Whenever there was an attack we, the protestors, stepped back a little, but then when they stopped we returned to our places. The aim was not to be physically in a fight, but to show them that we would not give up seeking our rights. Later, our prime minister accused us [of being] members of “marginal groups” and “extremists.” Yet almost everyone in the park was a not member of any party or organization. Then we were marked as “looters” by our prime minister, who said the police would not step back and the Taksim military barracks were going to be built.
I saw hundreds of people who fainted because of the gas and screamed because they [could not] breathe. But I also saw people bringing antacid medicine to neutralize the effect of the pepper gas. I saw people bringing cartons of milk for the same reason. I witnessed an admirable cooperation. People bought snacks from the supermarkets to the park. Old ladies cooked at their home and brought [food] to the park. Citizens living overseas ordered food online that was worth thousands of dollars and shipped it to where the resistance took place. There were even “help” walls, where people left things they brought and not a single person touched these items [unless] they were really needed. There were homeless people, wearing gloves, grabbing the pepper gas bombs that the police used and throwing them away. There were volunteer doctors and nurses who took care of us and stitched the wounds that people had because they had been the direct targets of the gas bombs. They also provided asthma medicine to those in crisis because of the gas.
These protests brought even the oldest rivals together: the fans of Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Galatasaray football clubs. Everyone became a single spirit. I cannot express how proud I am [of] my peers and the youth of this country, well at least half of it… Our prime minister [said] that he had half of the country, his supporters, waiting [for] a sign from him to go to streets to fight against us.
I need to add that before the police attack, everything was so peaceful; people were singing and dancing at the park. In short, I witnessed riot police turn a festival-like atmosphere at Gezi Park into a nightmare.
HC: The BBC reports that more than 5,000 people have been injured in protests around the country. Do you know anyone, or have you observed people, injured by the forceful tactics of the police?
MC: My cousin in Izmir, a big Aegean city in Turkey, lost consciousness while facing a riot police attack after two of the pepper gas bombs fell right behind his leg. Luckily, he was carried away by other protestors [who] washed his face with milk. My best friend was shot with plastic bullets and beaten with a nightstick. One night, while riot police [were] throwing the gas, a man next to me had an asthma crisis, so I helped him and carried him away from the gas.
HC: How is the news media in Turkey reporting on the demonstrations?
MC: When everything started, not a single TV channel reported about [Gezi] Park. In fact, one of the most important channels, CNN-Turk, was broadcasting a documentary about penguins. Others had their routine TV shows, such as Survivor, etc. There was only one channel with a small budget that showed what happened in Taksim, Halk TV. Yet no one even knew about that channel until that point.
We learned about what was happening in Izmir, Ankara or Hatay via Facebook, Twitter and so on. Our own friends in the field told what was happening. I believe this was why the government shut down the Internet at Taksim and placed jammers so that no one could know about the protests and the police violence. Only 10 days later, the big TV channels started to show little scenes from Taksim, yet they were very short and vague. Most of them broadcasted the speeches that our prime minister gave in different parts of Turkey.
Since it has been almost four weeks, and everything has started cooling down, more journalists are writing about Gezi Park. Still, most of the newspapers do not even write about the protests. Personally, when I was not [in the Square], I followed the resistance through CNN International. They were broadcasting live when our own Turkish media did not.
HC: What is happening now in Taksim Square?
MC: The police completely invaded the park and rest of Taksim Square. Policemen and riot police are wandering around with pepper gas and guns with plastic bullets. The protestors changed the way they protest and started a new movement called “the standing man.” Basically, in the middle of the Taksim Square, hundreds of people are standing—doing nothing but just standing and facing the big poster of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk [who established Turkey as a secular republic in 1923 and became its first president]. They wonder when the next attack is going to take place. Some of them even have carnations in their hands that they will throw to the riot police as a symbol of their pacifist thoughts.