Friday, June 21, 2013

What's Happening in Turkey?

So, it turns out that I haven't written a blog post, on Gezi Park or anything else, in just over two weeks. I'm not quite sure how that happened -- I suppose I could say that we've just returned from a five-day trip to Ankara and we're moving out of our apartment in nine days, but that would be an excuse. If I'm being honest with myself, the real reason is that I just feel so disappointed with everything that's been happening in Turkey. I could spend hours analyzing  the prime minister's divisive rhetoric or the government's lies (and don't be fooled, they are lying), but I got to a point where I felt like, Why bother? And then it just seemed silly to blog about other, mundane things. If nothing else, the protests in Turkey have been all-consuming; I swear, it's all anybody can talk or think about.

At the same time, there's been a disturbing lack of information about what's been happening in Turkey's cities. While the domestic TV news channels are now reporting on the various protests and everything related to them, the footage usually covers what happened about 18 to 24 hours before. It's been really hard to get a handle on what's happening at the moment, and even Twitter and Facebook doesn't always provide the answers. It turns out that there's something very disorienting about living in a city and not actually knowing what's going on there.

To be honest, I'm not sure where the Gezi Park protests are headed next. The issue of the park's development, which is what sparked this whole thing, has been more or less resolved -- a court has suspended the building project and should the government win on appeal, they have pledged to hold a referendum to determine Gezi Park's future. And while not everyone believes that the government intends to fairly follow this outlined process, there's nothing more to be done about the park right now. So technically, the protests should be over, but the protests are no longer just about Gezi Park.

I actually thought the whole thing was over after the police surprised the protesters with an attack in Taksim Square on Saturday. People were angry, certainly, but this time, the police took a much stronger stand in keeping protesters out of the park and square, and that action -- combined with later throwing tear gas into nearby hotels -- seemed like the final blow. But I was wrong -- the protesters have not given up. The "standing man" protest -- where one just stands silently in a quiet act of civil disobedience -- has caught on, and groups of people have begun meeting in parks around the city to discuss their next steps.

I sincerely hope that the protesters do not give up. I have stopped deliberately going out to protest areas as I fully believe that this is a Turkish issue that has to be solved by the Turkish people, and my presence as a foreigner is irrelevant. (It may even be harmful, considering that the government has partially blamed the demonstrations on foreign agents.) But if the Turks stop protesting, I believe that the situation here will be worse than before, and that instead of expanding civil engagement, the Gezi Park protests will have resulted in Turkey becoming a more repressive country. And that thought just makes me really, really sad. People have died for this.

Yes, Gezi Park has seemingly been saved. But what is being lost? Even more journalists have been arrested, the few TV channels that showed the initial protests have been fined for "harming the physical, moral and mental development of children and young people," the Health Ministry wants to investigate the doctors who helped the wounded, lawyers have been detained, and there are reports that the government is drafting some kind of bill on the use of social media (although the govt is saying now that the bill will only affect "crimes over the Internet," whatever that actually means). Various AKP ministers have also said that the government plans to strengthen the power of the police force and will bring out the military if necessary. With this kind of rhetoric, is it that much of a surprise that a group peacefully meeting in one of Istanbul's parks was violently attacked (by civilians of a different political viewpoint) last night? Instead of offering conciliatory messages, the government has instead decided to display its strength, and I think it's fair to say that they have no intention of backing down on their general policies. Half the country apparently agrees with them, and half don't. So the question becomes, what will the other 50 percent do? As we near the end of week four of the Gezi Park protests, I still think the answer is that only time will tell.

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Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Walk Around Taksim Square

Yesterday, we went down to Taksim Square and Gezi Park to check out what was going on. While it's a little harder for me to keep up with events considering my Turkish is only intermediate, I think it's fair to say that if you judged the situation here just by the news, you'd think that the protests were over and everything had returned completely back to normal. But as we saw yesterday, that is definitely not the case... The violence has ended, at least in Istanbul, but the large-scale protests continue.

Part of the reason for this, in my opinion, is that the government has not backed down an inch. What they are thinking, I cannot say, but it's undeniable that the protests became what they are because of the police response and the government's aggressive and dismissive statements about the protesters and their motives. So far, three people have been killed and over 4,000 injured. The protesters come from all walks of Turkish life, but government officials have called them drunks, "looters, marginal and members of illegal organizations" and "foreign enemies who envy Turkey." While President Gul and deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc have made conciliatory statements in recent days -- Arinc said two days ago that he would meet with members of the Taksim Platform (the group originally campaigning to save the park) and suggested that a referendum might be held -- the prime minister went on a diplomatic trip to North Africa, which many people saw as a sign that he didn't consider the issue worthy of his attention or time.  Throughout it all and as recently as today, the prime minister has insisted that the Topcu Barracks will be rebuit in Gezi Park; a few days ago, he also added that they would be building a mosque in another part of Taksim Square. "'A mosque will be built in Taksim,' said Erdogan adding that he did not have to receive permission from the main opposition leader or a 'few marauders' for the projects," according to a recent newspaper report. Even though the Turkish stock market and the Turkish lira have taken a hit, I think it's fair to say the message has not gotten through. :(

So, no surprise, people are still out at Taksim and in Gezi Park "occupying."

We first walked down Istiklal Street to check out the graffiti and damage. There were a number of store windows broken, and almost all of the ATM machines we saw had been destroyed.

There was also a TON of graffiti. Some of it was quite funny -- in the photo below, the one to the right that shows part of a red ATM machine, the top piece of graffiti reads, "We will find you, Joffrey the blond! The brave ones are on their way from Winterfell," for all you Game of Thrones fans.

The graffiti showing the man's face portrays Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in a variety of poses. "Kimyasal Tayyip" means "Chemical Tayyip." I assume the penguins are there because over the weekend, CNN Turkey aired a documentary on penguins instead of covering the violent clashes between the protesters and the police, and the penguins have become a bit of a symbol of the local news media's lack of coverage here (which is a whole other story).

There had also been a multi-day public sector strike going on, and while we were there, we saw a number of groups marching.

But despite all the damage and the continued peaceful protests, I was also surprised by how easily everyone was going about their regular business -- while things are not back to normal in the sense that this is still a burning issue, people have cheerfully rebounded from the chaos that was Friday and Saturday. While some people gave away free face masks during the height of the violence (and people continue to give away free food and drinks), we saw some entrepreneurial souls selling cotton candy, drinks, and V is for Vendetta and gas masks around Istiklal.

After our stroll down Istiklal, we walked the perimeter of Taksim Square. There are still a number of damaged and overturned vehicles blocking the roads up to the square, and they've seemingly become photo ops for gawkers like ourselves. There were also a couple of destroyed city buses next to Gezi Park, and those have seemingly turned into hangout areas for local teenagers, teenagers who I suspect aren't much interested in the actual protests. :)

Our last stop was Gezi Park. I was actually shocked by how many people were in the park -- it was absolutely packed, and there were still a lot of tents up, which suggests that there is a permanent group camped out there.

In the area where the trees were taken down, some people had planted a small garden. Some of the little plants had an IV bag attached.

So, that's what's happening here. I'm not sure where or how it will end...stay tuned. But I hope there can be some actual reconciliation on the issue of the park. Because just look at this city -- so much concrete, so few trees...

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

All You Need to Know About Gezi Park -- Christiane Amanpour's interview with the AKP

The proposed reconstruction of the Topcu Barracks*
While the Gezi Park protests may have started over some trees, they have grown to encompass a wide-range of issues, mostly stemming from concerns that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AKP government has grown increasingly autocratic. There have been a number of laws and rules passed recently that suggest the government is trying to push a more religious lifestyle, while at the same time, a number of large city projects have begun (or continue) seemingly without public input. In short, the secular citizens of Turkey feel that they their country is changing and they have no say in the matter.

I could link to a thousand things to support various points and arguments, but if you want to understand the basic situation in Istanbul right now, and how the two sides do not see eye-to-eye, here's what you need to watch: Christiane Amanpour's 8-minute interview with Mevlut Cavusoglu, an AKP guy from Antalya who is currently with the prime minister in Morocco. I'll even provide a guide to go along with his statements.

Minute 0:37: Cavusoglu says, "Well, first of all, I have to correct the fake information, that building a shopping mall has never been considered here in Taksim Square. What is considered is the pedestrian way and the putting the car traffic under the tunnel, and enlarging the Taksim Square. Only old military barrack is considered to rebuilt, the old military barrack." The grammar isn't perfect, but he's referring to the defense recently put forth that the trees were only cut down to widen the sidewalk, and that the only construction that will happen in Taksim Square will be the reconstruction of former military barracks on the site. While I won't call his statement an outright lie -- although according to multiple local newspapers, Erdogan himself confirmed that the reconstructed barracks "are to be converted into a shopping mall and might serve as a residence with social facilities" in a speech on April 29 -- Cavusoglu is certainly obfuscating the issue. First of all, the mall (or whatever else) was going to be in the barracks -- it's not a questions of the barracks vs the mall. But let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say they never intended to build a mall in the barracks. Fine, no mall. Maybe they intend to create a hotel. The fact is, IT DOESN'T MATTER. It's the barracks that are the issue because no matter what the barracks are used for, their construction destroys the park -- and the park is the point, not the mall.

Minute 1:14: Cavusoglu says,"And this project was actually supported by all the political parties in the city council, and it was adopted unanimously by the city council." This is an absolute simplification of a much more complicated approval process, one that was met with controversy. The project was first approved by the municipality, but the decision was later nullified by another board over concerns about the park. Then that decision was overruled by High Council for Protection of Cultural and Natural Assets in February or March (depending on your source). "Professor Betul Tanbay from the [Taksim] platform told Sunday's Zaman that many people feel betrayed by the lack of consultation and the secrecy with which the plans were passed through official channels," according to an article published in February.

Minute 4:04: Cavusoglu says, "We have been elected by the people, and in last election, more than 50 percent of the population supported us." Nitpicky perhaps, but in the 2011 elections, the AKP won 49.83 percent of the popular vote. But I mention this because I think his statement is meant to suggest that a vast majority of the Turkish people support the AKP and their policies, and it simply isn't true. Half the country supports their general policies and half don't.

Minute 5:45: Starting at minute 5, you can start to hear Christiane Amanpour's frustration with Mevlut Cavusoglu as he continues to talk and won't let her speak. Finally, Amanpour says, "Sir...Sir, please, this is an interview, sir. I need to ask you some questions...I need to ask you some questions, this is an interview, sir, not a speech. It involves me asking you some questions." Along with "Do whatever you want to do, but we've made our decision," Erdogan's statement last Wednesday, Cavusoglu's attitude during this interview is, for me, the personification of the government's attitude to both the people and the recent protests. Imagine how they must listen to their citizens!

Min 6:58: Cavusoglu says, "Regarding the second group [the radical and marginal groups], we cannot negotiate with the terrorists and the marginals." This actually made me laugh out loud since the government did, in fact, negotiate with the Kurdistan Workers' Party [PKK] this spring, allowing the members of the terrorist group to lay down their arms and leave Turkey without any sort of punishment. During the PKK's 30-year clash with the Turkish government, some 40,000 people were killed.

*The rendering of the proposed reconstruction of the Topcu Barracks comes from a local newspaper's website. The barracks surround what is now Gezi Park. A version of this image was used during an interview  Prime Minister Erdogan gave over the weekend; in the video, it appears just after 1:25:24.

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Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Sounds of Protest

I thought everything in Istanbul would be calming down since the riot police left Taksim Square late this afternoon, allowing the thousands of protesters to gather unimpeded in the square. But unfortunately, we're hearing on Twitter that the police have used (are still using?) water cannons and tear gas against protesters this evening in Besiktas. Which happens to be the municipality we live in, but that's cool. :(  Social networks indicate that protesters are heading to Besiktas now and that the police are trying to stop them from getting there. The prime minister's Istanbul office is over there (it was right across from where we were standing when we encountered the CHP parade this afternoon, in fact), and I am not sure if that has anything to do with it, either really or as an excuse. I think it's fair to say we can expect another day of chaos tomorrow.

We're safe and sound inside our apartment, and everything is fine in our immediate neighborhood. But I can hear the sounds of protest quite clearly -- honking horns, whistles and the banging of pots. Apparently it's what Turks do to show solidarity. Listen in:

These were the kinds of noises that woke me up in the middle of the night last night. It freaked me out in the seconds before I could figure out what was going on and that we weren't actually being attacked in our beds. :(

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This Week in Turkey: Protests in Istanbul's Taksim Square

As I'm sure most people have heard, Istanbul is going CRAZY right now. The police have just left Taksim Square, allowing thousands of protesters to pour in -- from what we can see on TV right now, Taksim is absolutely packed, with what looks like thousands and thousands of people. Hooray, victory for the people! Hahahaha, probably not -- although the prime minister today admitted that riot police have used excessive force, he also said that the controversial barracks project that started all of this will proceed.

We've just gotten back home, but we never actually made it to Taksim today. When we left the house this morning, we took the metro as far as we could, to Sisli-Mecidiyekoy (two stops from Taksim Square), and then we walked. At first, all was peaceful, but as we neared the Osmanbey stop, the crowd swelled and an advance-retreat with the riot police began. Everyone would be walking toward Taksim and then the police would fire pepper gas at us -- Cagatay and I weren't really all that near the front of the crowd, but that pepper gas was powerful stuff, making our eyes, noses and throats burn unbearably. At one point, a man gave us face masks.

Fleeing from the pepper gas, the crowd would back up a couple of blocks, but then, within a few minutes, everyone would advance again and then it would be more pepper gas, and the cycle would begin again. We got as far as Harbiye, perhaps five to seven minutes on foot from Taksim, before giving up and heading into Nisantasi to find something to eat. Because by that point, we could see the front of the crowd and the police were letting off pepper gas over and over again, creating these huge plumes of smoke -- and it was pretty alarming to suddenly have a wall of people running back towards us.

Later, as we walked through eerily silent neighborhoods, past all the closed shops and along traffic-less streets -- it was sort of like the Muslim Rapture had gone down -- we ended up running into the huge CHP parade heading for Taksim. We thought about joining them, but we didn't know what was happening in Taksim and we didn't want to deal with pepper gas again or water cannons, so instead, we headed home.

This whole situation began at the beginning of the week when people gathered in Gezi Park -- located on one side of historic Taksim Square -- to protest the destruction of the park's trees as part of a project to reconstruct an old military barracks on the site that will apparently serve as a mall and residences. As I understand it, the protests started because some of the trees on the edges of the park had been felled, which made people believe that construction on the project had begun. Yesterday, Istanbul's governor and mayor held a press conference and denied that there were any plans to build a mall there; they said that they were just widening the sidewalks, but there have been rumors about the planned use of the barracks for months and I think it's fair to say that comments from other leaders have confirmed this.

Although the police had entered the park in the mornings to try and evict the protesters (one morning they burned their tents), for the most part, things were peaceful at Gezi Park. From photos I saw on Facebook and Instagram, people were kind of just hanging out. I was in Taksim on Thursday afternoon, coming home from an outing with a friend, and I was so worn out from the sun that I forgot all about what was going on in the park, which I was about 30 steps from. That's how normal things were.

But on Friday, everything changed and the riot police just went nuts on the protesters. You've probably seen the videos on TV. We had just entered the metro, on our way to Taksim, when we heard that the Taksim station was closed -- in retrospect, it was probably a good thing as we would have walked right into tear gas and water cannons. Things were pretty normal in our neighborhood except that in the middle of the night, a bunch of people took to the streets in solidarity -- I woke up terrified around 2:30am to people yelling outside and banging pots.

Anyway, more on this later...

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