Over the past few weeks we’ve had plenty of information about the Turkey protests. We might be familiar with the political reasons behind them, but what about people’s feelings on the situation? Miranda Holmqvist brings us the voices of those spending days and nights in Taksim Square.

As unrest has spread through Istanbul, we could not help but approach the events from the heart. Miranda Holmqvist walks us through her personal experience with Istanbul and brings us the voices and experiences  from the people living the situation.

A group of women during a protest in Taksim Square in 2012. | Photo: Niko Björkman (all rights reserved)

The last few days I have been losing some sleep following the growing stream of information on what has been happening in Istanbul, Turkey. On a Facebook post, I have seen my friends sitting on the lawn of Gezi Park, in a display of claim and manifesting their support of the movement. A movement has started, unique in connecting people from different groups, ages, of different backgrounds and all interests, from non-political mothers and grandfathers, to actual activists.

It’s hard to explain just how many separate groups live in Istanbul and Turkey that normally don’t have any common grounds and never co-operate. What is happening right now in Istanbul is telling, because it shows just how deeply rooted the problems of the authoritarian Turkish government are.

A story that repeats itself

I recall when I visited Istanbul last year, the CCTV cameras were surveying every street corner. It took me a week to even notice. When my friend and I politely asked a train conductor for directions, a police officer approached us with his gun holster prominently displayed. Another female officer, sporting a brown uniform, rattling keys, a baton to the side, and a holstered gun, followed me from a café to a public bathroom in a shopping mall, and stood there, just staring at me, for two or three minutes while I was washing my hands and putting up my hair.

I remember the night in Tarlabasi when a tear gas canister landed just outside the window of our hotel, and how it stung when we opened the window to take pictures. I remember the boys and young men throwing stones and bottles from just around the corner, the police storming the narrow backstreets where the local vendors had closed for the day. I remember the old woman sitting on her front porch step, across the street from our window, gasping for air and not being able to get up, being offered a small bottle of water from a neighbor. We observed this through the window, waiting for the gas to settle so that we could step downstairs to help the old woman from choking. I remember the shiny metal cylinder on the roof the next day.

I remember the women on Taksim square, a brave group of twenty, brandishing their megaphones and bright, colourful signs with hand-written messages, chanting and smoking cigarettes, a small group, vulnerable and defiant. I remember the men in black leather jackets, walkie-talkies beeping and screeching, forcing their way to form a circle around the protesters and the small group of bystanders surrounding them. The police had taken it upon themselves to make rule by intimidation the law.

When we returned to the square thirty minutes later, the spot was empty.

The young generation takes the lead

During these tumultuous days I have tried to understand what is really happening in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey, and the best way I could think of was to gather some reports from people who live in the midst of the turmoil:

Alina Lehtinen, 28, is a freelance journalist from Finland, living in Istanbul, where she is working as a translator, journalist and writer. She is currently working on a book manuscript, and she told me about her experiences during the first week of the riots:

“My first experience with the demonstrations was while working in my office that is located right next to the square. Every day I walk through Taksim to go from my home to the office and back. On that day, it was still business as usual but around 11 AM a lot of people were moving along the street, filling the street where my office is located, chanting slogans and clapping their hands. They were on their way to Gezi Park  to demonstrate over what happened earlier that morning, when the police attacked some people peacefully demonstrating. This park is the only green area in Istanbul’s central Taksim square, and the government is planning to demolish it. People are not happy about this at all.

Taksim Square during the first days of protests. | Photo: Cagri Ozuturk (all rights reserved)

The construction has been going on for about 18 months, but on that day the bulldozers moved into the park. The police violence has caused the whole situation to escalate. As more and more people joined in, the police began using more and more tear gas. Because of this my office closed its doors early. When I was walking across Taksim at around 6PM there was heavy tear gas in the air and I got my share of it. I live only 5 minutes from Taksim. All Friday night and Saturday morning I couldn’t have my windows open because of its intensity. I  did take part in the street celebrations after the police left Taksim on Saturday evening. I also went to the Gezi Park and Besiktas area to talk to protestors and see what was going on every day after the demonstrations escalated. The most memorable moment has been seeing people help each other out on the streets, and seeing complete strangers come together. In my neighborhood people have put signs outside their flats inviting protestors in to use the toilet and the wireless internet. There has been a strong feeling of community in Istanbul.  I will always remember the moment, about 2 AM in the morning, when people began flickering their lights on and off and banging pots and pans in their homes to show support to the people outside demonstrating.”

Charlie Ozuturk, 26, student at ITU and journalist, living in Istanbul, told me about his experiences during the second week of the protests:

(When I first called Charlie, he was standing on the roof of a city building, and I could hear the whistles and chants of the crowd below. He told me he had to get down, because he was being attacked by seagulls. For a moment I only overheard ‘attacked’, but he reassured me that he was just fine. The next day when I talked to him again, he told me he’d been injured during the night, from a gas can shot at his knee.)

“I just want the world to know what is really happening in Istanbul. The authorities will claim that the people protesting are terrorists, extremists or political activists. This is not true, they are students and moderate working people from all ethnic groups and of every possible opinion! This is the first time in years Istanbul has had young people and old people unite in the streets. People of all beliefs are joining together to resist this violence.

The students are the most active, and that is because they have the entire summer to protest against a state that has become too controlling, and they hope to change the power of the state controlling their lives. There are so many gradual steps that have built up to this, from the abortion laws debated last year, to the alcohol ban and the insults young people have endured at the hands of the government, the ban on kissing in public transportation, and the way people are not allowed to gather peacefully in public places.

The police are not concerned with assisting civilians who need help on an everyday basis. A female friend of mine was followed and sexually harassed by a group of men. When she turned to the police officers parked above Taksim square for help, they told her, ”You have yourself to blame, you shouldn’t even be out this late.”.My cousin was hit by a gas canister, but he got away with only a scratch and a bruise. If it had hit him inches lower, in the throat or the base of the head, he could have died.”

 Students in Turkey have made themselves the most visible, loud, ‘young and angry’ generation. Writers and artists are, in the role of culture carriers, another group of people who are facing censorship and a limited right to freely express themselves.

Selma May, author from Istanbul, living in Norway, published by small press Kultur Kafe Kitap, explains to me why Gezi Park is so important to the people:

“Gezi Park is a symbolic location, because of its historical importance, as the scene of the dethroning of the Sultan in 1908. Today, architects, city planners and environmental organizations all agree that the plans to build a new shopping mall at the location of a historic park are ill-advised and damaging to the city outlook. The formal plans for the new shopping center have been approved without regarding the people who live nearby, as the project is hugely profitable for the national construction conglomerates.

The protests seen from an office. | Photo: Maryna Er-Gorbach (all rights reserved)

The shopping mall of Gezi Park would be the 94th shopping center in the area, and it is just the latest of a construction boom of high profile, multi-million projects that have been forced upon the public within the last few years. The plans of a giant bridge across the Golden Horn, where the Bosporus split the European land part in two, is another. This project is intended to replace the ancient Galata-bridge, considered a cultural landmark and an important architectural monument.

The construction of a third airport has brought decisions to cut down an estimated 300,000 old trees and for the forest areas to be demolished. Plots of land along the coastline towards the new airport are being forcefully acquired.”

The Turkish press has been heavily critiziced  by the public in Turkey for its failure to properly cover the events, and a few of the local networks were broadcasting wildlife documentaries during the first days of the riots, instead of live news. Some independent media opened to cover the events, and now there is even a live radio station, Gezi Radio.org, the capul.tv and live streams from Ustream and other services.

Turkish foreign news editor, Emre Kizilkaya, Hurriyet Daily News, kindly shared a brief update of the riots, a status report as of June 5:

“Erdogan’s hometown Rize is very tense right now, and the clashes in Ankara are serious. In Istanbul and many other cities, the protests have taken a peaceful air due to tonight (June 5) being a religious eve, a holy night to Muslims. In Gezi Park, they won’t be drinking alcohol out of respect.

A group of people gather in Gezi Park, after 35 hours of gas attacking. | Photo: Maryna Er-Gorbach (all rights reserved)

As for what this will bring for the future, I believe Erdogan will start thinking twice about making one-sided decisions from Ankara about the lifestyles and environments of the people. A bit of de-centralisation, localisation and power-sharing is good for democracy. People are no longer in fear of the government, which has been systematically oppressing the opposition so far. Most AKP voters will not change their stance as AKP voters, but this psychological upgrading may bring better grassroots organisation and a stronger position for the opposition.

The impact of social media in the Arab Spring, as I see it, was very exaggerated, especially in places like Libya, where it didn’t have much of an effect. But in Turkey, it is really huge, and a lot of people have had access to it. It is like President Gul says, we should compare Turkey to the European countries, not to the Arab nations, because we are more similar structurally. These protests in Istanbul today remind more of the Indignado movement in Spain in 2011, rather than the Tahrir in Egypt.”

‘There is always a protest in Taksim square’

The remaining question is very simple but crucial; what will come of this in the future? In one month from today, when the streets are cleared, the tents taken down, and the unofficial banners and flags all gone, who will dare to speak up? 

What will remain when the teachers are preparing for the next semester, the students have all passed their exams and the people who were severely injured have all recovered? What will come of the governments ‘promise’ of repercussions for those involved, when no reporters or cameras are around?

There is a local saying: ‘There is always a protest in Taksim Square.’ Let us hope that in the future, there will still be a square or a park in Istanbul open to the public to gather and manifest their joy, anger and opinion.


Cover photo: Cagri Ozuturk (all rights reserved)

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