Tear gas gives way to festivity in Turkey's Taksim Square

Protesters in Turkey celebrated their hold – for now – on Istanbul's Taksim Square. But it's unclear what will happen next in the anti-government movement. 

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/CSMonitor
Young Turkish protesters pose for a snapshot atop a burned police car, as protesters celebrate their seizure of central Taksim Square after two days of violent street battles with police in Istanbul, Turkey, on June 2. Initially a local protest over the fate of a park, it has broadened into anger over what are seen to be heavy-handed actions of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party.

Thousands of anti-government Turkish protesters turned Taksim Square into a must-see local tourism site today, posing on burned-out vehicles and barricades after two days of street battles, as the prime ministerial target of their anger defended his policies. 

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed the protests against his rule, saying he had “no words” for those who “call someone who has served the people a ‘dictator.’ ”

Mr. Erdogan said: “I am not the master of the people. Dictatorship does not run in my blood or in my character. I am the servant of the people.”

Tens of thousands of mostly secular protesters waged pitched battles with police, and finally seized control of Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Saturday afternoon. What started as a small sit-in protest over the protection of trees in Gezi Park, due for demolition to make a shopping mall, turned into a wave of anger against what protesters see as Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian rule.

In the exact spot where yesterday protesters choked by volleys of tear gas tried to wash their eyes of the sting, today they posed for photos of each other climbing on makeshift barricades with arms raised in triumph.

Uncertainty ahead

Despite the festive ambiance and proclamations of “victory” today, many questions remain about how this protest – conducted largely by a secular minority, against the decade-long leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – will change long-term politics in Turkey.

Also uncertain is whether even the coming days will see a peaceful resolution and calming of tension, or further eruptions of violence with police trying again to clear the square. Turkey’s Interior Ministry announced that nearly 1,000 arrests had been made, and that protests spread to dozens of cities in half of Turkey’s provinces. Violent clashes between police and protesters in the capital, Ankara, continued today, unabated.

“Our prime minister is like a fascist. He takes everything he wants, but we are standing up, we want our rights, and I am very happy for that because with this AKP government they have been pushed down,” says a middle-aged housewife named Derya, who was taking photos with her husband beside an overturned police car.

“Not now, there won’t be change. But if [Erdogan] insists, there will be many protests. It could be like World War I, which started with the death of just one person, and then spread into that war,” says Derya.

She says recent decisions by the Islamist-rooted AKP to rush through legislation limiting alcohol consumption, and lack of coverage of the protests on Turkish television, added to the unease. Derya also notes that the secular Turks on the streets now are not the majority who have elected Erdogan three times in a row – most recently in 2011 with nearly half the electorate.

“We have to protest, but we are a minority, not the majority. They try to buy people with money and a little food,” she says. She bristles at Erdogan’s description of those on the street as terrorists. 

They are the terrorists, the police,” says Derya. “The government does terrorism to us. Everyone should have their rights.”

Street party atmosphere

Taksim today resembled a street party, with chants against “fascism,” waving of Turkish and opposition party flags, and denunciations of police tactics that left sizable and affluent neighborhoods repeatedly swathed in tear gas.

Families pushed children in strollers next to burned vehicles for a photo opportunity. Young Turks clamored atop smashed buses. Other protesters – some still wearing surgical masks and with goggles around their necks, like badges of participation in the tear gas-soaked revolt – climbed on the makeshift barricades that blocked every entrance to the square.

In some places, volunteers with trash bags collected every scrap of garbage from the square, and an adjacent construction site.

In a speech and interviews, Erdogan sought to portray the protests as ideologically motivated against him, and not about trees, claiming that as the former mayor of Istanbul and then premier, he had overseen the planting of 2 billion trees and creation of 160 national parks – and that he was “still planting.”

Erdogan also stated that he would complete a controversial mosque project in Taksim: “I am not going to seek the permission of the [opposition] or a handful of plunderers,” he said.

The prime minister asked why people were revolting: “Did we take your democratic and voting rights away?” He called Twitter and social media a “menace” to society, and vowed that the development project of Gezi Park – removal of a tree-lined park to make way for shops built into a new facade of an Ottoman barracks, which sparked the protest, would continue.

“We are living in a historical moment; we don’t know what will happen because we have never been here before,” says Eda, a history student at Bogazici University.

“As Turkish youth, we have been sleeping since the AKP came, for more than 10 years, and now we are just awake,” says Eda, who asks that only her first name be used. “For 10 years we knew what was happening, but only commented. I don’t know what fueled us, but now we are acting.”

Don't call it a Spring

She and others dislike comparisons between Turkey’s protest and the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011. Those were distinctly Arab events, they say, while Turkey’s protest is about more inclusive democratic leadership.

“This is the radicalism of the moment,” Eda says, pointing to a nearby police car, where other students cavorted and took photos of themselves, as if on a new playground toy. “This is not the consensus. It’s just a show.”

Passersby also kicked at the overturned satellite van of Turkish NTV news, while one man banged at the satellite set-up with a wrench. One student with a Turkish flag draped over her back added her own graffiti to the vehicle. Joking about how Turkish media – especially TV channels – were slow to show the worst anti-government violence in years, she penned: “Unbiased? He he, yes,” and added a smiley face. 

* Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Tear gas gives way to festivity in Turkey's Taksim Square
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today