Turkey Erupts in Rage: Anti-Government Protests Spread to 60 Cities
Turkish riot police in Istanbul.
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Turkey is seeing its biggest wave of protests against the ruling government in many years. Tens of thousands of people rallied across the country Sunday for a third consecutive day of mass demonstrations. The unrest erupted last week when thousands of people converged at Istanbul’s Taksim Square, a public space reportedly set for demolition. The protests have grown to include grievances against the government on a range of issues, and protesters have managed to remain despite a heavy police crackdown, including tear gas and rubber bullets. The Turkish government says around 1,000 people have been detained at more than 200 protests nationwide. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has dismissed the uproar as the work of political opponents and "extremists," vowing to proceed with governments plans to remake Taksim Square. "I cannot tell you how empowering this is," says Turkish scholar and activist Nazan Ustundag. "This is a country known for [police] brutality and for the Turkish people’s unquestioned loyalty to the state. So it’s very exciting all these different sections of people [are] standing [up for] the last public space which wasn’t given to private interests."
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Turkey, where protests that began last week in the capital have now brought tens of thousands into the streets in cities across the country. The demonstrations started last Monday when about a hundred activists in Istanbul tried to block the demolition of trees in Gezi Park by setting up Occupy-like encampment. They succeeded by sitting in the trees and blocking bulldozers, until early Thursday morning when police fired tear gas into the park and reportedly set their tents on fire around 5:00 a.m. By Friday, the protests had spread to the much larger Taksim Square nearby, one of the last public gathering spaces in the city. The square was already the focus of protests because of plans to tear it down and replace it with a shopping mall. By Friday, tens of thousands were drawn to Taksim Square by word of mouth and reports on social media, only to be met by a massive show of police force, including tear gas and rubber bullets.
Some say demonstrators were also upset over new laws passed last week that place strict new restrictions on alcohol. Among the most controversial new rules is a ban on sales of alcohol within 110 yards of a mosque or a school. This is one of the protesters.
PROTESTER: I think we feel that intervention in all parts of our lives. This is just the tipping point. I think that’s why.
AMY GOODMAN: Many people were injured as police tried to disperse the week-long protest. One widely shared photo showed an officer in Taksim Square wearing a face mask and directly spraying tear gas or pepper spray into the face of an unarmed young woman. Journalists were also reportedly targeted. Photos posted on Twitter show well-known Turkish investigative reporter Ahmet Şik bleeding after he was hit in the head with a police tear-gas canister. Still, protests continued throughout the weekend. On Saturday, the Turkish interior minister, Muammer Güler, said police had detained almost a thousand people at demonstrations across the country
MUAMMER GÜLER: [translated] There have been 939 detentions in various cities. Some of them have already been released, and some of them are arrested pending trial. During these protests, 26 police officers and 53 civilians were wounded. Nineteen of them are from Istanbul. One of the wounded is in critical condition.
AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. ambassador to Turkey released a statement on the protests, saying, quote, "I wish a speedy recovery to all those injured; get well soon. But if you are asking me about U.S. foreign policy, as you know, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and the right to have peaceful protests are fundamentals of a democracy. I am not going to say anything further," he said.
As all of this unfolded, CNN-Turkey was widely criticized for airing a three-part documentary on penguins while CNN International was covering the protests. Few of the television stations in the country covered the protests while they were happening. And on Sunday, the Turkish prime minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, dismissed the unrest.
PRIME MINISTER TAYYIP ERDOĞAN: [translated] Unfortunately, we have been witnessing undesired incidents, attacks and provocations over the past few days. We are once again experiencing the traps that were sent in the past to threaten governments and create chaotic scenes in order to pave the way for interventions against democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Protests in solidarity with those in Turkey were also held around the world over the weekend, from New York to Belgium. The Turkish demonstrations are being compared to the Egyptian uprising that began in Tahrir Square and to the Occupy Movement that begins with—began with the occupation of Zuccotti Park near Wall Street.
For more, we go to Istanbul, where we’re joined by Koray Çalişkan. He is assistant professor of political science at a university in Istanbul. He participated in the protests, is now at his office, where he joins us via Democracy Now! video stream.
Professor, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you describe for us what is happening in the streets of Istanbul, in the capital Ankara and other places?
KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: Yes. Right now, in more than 60 cities of the country, there are more than a hundred demonstrations, bringing together more than three million people. The Taksim Square, the main avenue, this is like the Times Square of New York City, exactly. And imagine that there’s a public park, you know, this park right in front of the public library, and the president wants to build a shopping mall on a public park or cutting a part of Central Park to build a mall and a residential tower. This is what happened, what Prime Minister Erdogan wanted to do in Istanbul. And as you nicely put it, three days ago, 700 people gathered to protest this, and police gassed them. Next day, 7,000 people gathered in the same square, and the police gassed them. And on Saturday, 700,000 people came together, and then the police fled.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain the tension that has clearly been mounting well before even these protests began in Istanbul.
KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: The triggering mechanism is—was to demolish that park, Gezi Park. However, this was the tip of the iceberg. The main problem was the increasing authoritarian regime of Islamist Erdogan government. First, we had the September 11th of Turkey. We lost a whole neighborhood of a district of Reyhanli, losing 51 people. And prime minister, instead of changing people’s attention to a different topic, decided to introduce a ban on wine and beer and other spirits in the country. And then, when people protested that, he said, "How come two drunk men can write a law, and what our religion, Islam, says cannot be a law?" And he was alluding to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder, the founding father of modern Turkey. You can be a Kemalist; you can be an anti-Kemalist—it doesn’t matter. There is some democracy in the country. You can raise your opinions. But he is the main hero of our only common story in this country. And when he looked down on Atatürk, it was a red line.
And afterwards, his mayor, from his own party, the mayor of Istanbul, said there won’t be any shopping mall or a residential center in that park. And his minister of culture, former minister of culture, said they are—they were not planning to build a mall on it. He said, "We are going to cut the trees, the park is going to go, and we’re going to bring a mall and a residential center in that city center." Everyone took to the streets. That’s what’s happened.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking to Professor Koray Çalişkan, who is assistant professor of political science at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. We’re also joined by Nazan Üstündağ, who is an activist and scholar. She’s in the streets right now in Istanbul. Nazan, can you describe what has been happening there?
NAZAN ÜSTÜNDAĞ: Well, today or the last couple of days?
AMY GOODMAN: You can go through the whole weekend.
NAZAN ÜSTÜNDAĞ: Well, people have been arriving more and more. And since Thursday, there have been resistance against the police, and the police have been gassing people, and—but more and more people have joined. And now, basically, the whole main square of Taksim is occupied. Police cannot enter. And more and more cities are joining in.
AMY GOODMAN: And describe what people are saying in the streets and what the police response has been.
NAZAN ÜSTÜNDAĞ: Well, it all started with the park, but it has become bigger than the park. Basically, the whole—Istanbul has been under a variety of different renovation projects for a long time now. And people have not—and there have been—actually, AKP is foremost a neoliberal party. More than being Islamist, I would describe AKP as a neoliberal party. And it has applied all its neoliberal policies for a long time, and people have lost their—the spaces they were living in, because of the renovation projects, because of the reconstruction projects. And there hasn’t been a great resistance against it, because the economy was going well, there was the war in Kurdistan, so people were more concerned with the Kurdish problem. But with the park, all this resistance, all this dissatisfaction with the government has come out. It has started as a urban movement, actually, to protect the urban areas that AKP has been transforming without consulting with people. It has been transforming them without consulting with people for a long time now, without opening any democratic channels for people to participate in their—in the making of their urban futures.
So, everybody has a different reason for being here. Women have the—women are here because they have been attacked to their reproductive rights. There have been new laws passed for restricting abortion, which has been a relaxed issue in Turkey until very recently. There are the—there are LGBT people. They are here because last week there was a meeting in the Parliament about LGBT rights, but the government and people in the government have insulted, in various ways, them and their rights. So everybody has a different reason for being here. And because of the peace process that’s going on, I guess people have found, for the first time in 30 years, the space to react against the oppressive policies of—that have been culminating.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion in a moment. We have to break. We’re speaking with going to take a break. We’re speaking to Nazan Üstündağ, who has been in the streets for the last days, activist and scholar, and Koray Çalişkan, who is an assistant professor of political science at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Back in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the mass protests in the streets, with, it’s believed, at least a thousand people injured and a number dead in the streets of Turkey. I want to go to the Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s comments about the protesters in Taksim Square in Istanbul and around the country.
PRIME MINISTER TAYYIP ERDOĞAN: [translated] They have been removing pavestones and breaking the windows of local stores. Is this democracy? They say Tayyip Erdoğan is a dictator. I have nothing to say if they call the person who has committed himself to serving his nation a dictator.
AMY GOODMAN: Prime Minister Erdoğan also condemned the way social media was used to spread the news about the protests. He said, quote, "There is now a menace which is called Twitter. ... The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society." I want to get the response of both of our guests. Nazan Üstündağ is with us, activist and scholar, and Koray Çalişkan, associate professor of political science at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Professor Çalişkan, first of all, it is my understanding that the prime minister of Turkey was one of the first Turkish leaders to sign onto Twitter and retweets quite a lot, if not him, his staff. But the significance of the blackout on news in Turkey, and his comments about social media?
KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: Yes, this is what happened. But we see this in every authoritarian leader in the Middle East. Twitter is a wonderful tool for people to edit their own newspapers and write comments about life and history. And Twitter usage is—has blasted in the next three days. Only in the last four days, my followers increased by 30 percent in the country. Right now, I just came back from the Department of Computer Engineering at Boğaziçi University, and I sat down with one industrial engineer, who works on bit data from Sabanci University, a computer scientist, Ani phon.. We are writing an article for the daily newspaper Radikal, imagining and analyzing this new, interesting relationship between Twitter and social political movements in the country.
The prime minister, Erdoğan, uses Twitter very well. But when people take to the streets against him, he looks down upon Twitter. Prime Minister Erdoğan says that he is also a follower of Atatürk. When it comes to talking about alcohol ban in the country, he says, "How come a drunken man cannot write a law, and our Islam—we don’t listen to our Islam?" So, he is an ultra-pragmatic leader who bends reality according to his own interests.
AMY GOODMAN: CNN International’s Ivan Watson was filing a report on live television when he started to cough after police used pepper spray in Istanbul’s Taksim Park. I want to go to an excerpt from Ivan’s report.
IVAN WATSON: You can see the riot police here in the central Taksim Square squaring off against demonstrators who are starting to set up burning barricades. They’re hurling rocks and bottles. It’s very overwhelming. And this is the commercial heart of Turkey’s largest city. This started as a protest movement against plans to bulldoze that park over there and replace it with a shopping mall.
AMY GOODMAN: At the end of that report, CNN’s Ivan Watson said it was hard to breathe without wearing a gas mask in the area near Taksim Square and Gezi Park. I’m wondering, Nazan, if you can talk about the police use of tear gas at the protests in Istanbul and Ankara and in other related demonstrations?
NAZAN ÜSTÜNDAĞ: We call this the gas state of the state, because it has been going on here for a very, very long time. This is not the first time that the police have been gassing us. As you might recall, in October there was a really large hunger strike in Turkey, 10,000—in the end, it culminated to 10,000 people. They were protesting also the government, because it had finished a peace process, which had started a couple of—three years ago. So—and during that time, this time it was the Kurds who were on—who had taken over the streets, and thousands and thousands of people were on the streets for weeks. And that was also a mass gassing of people. So, in Istanbul, people had witnessed that. And there are—I think there is a subconscious contamination, because we have seen, as Turks, how the Kurds have taken over the streets and how they have claimed actually their rights by taking the streets. And it was a legend—it was legendary how they bended one of the most authoritarian police force in the world to their wishes. I think we were subconsciously contaminated by it.
And I cannot believe that we can stand now this amazing tear gas, which prevents you from breathing and from talking and from doing anything. But I see people—I mean, I have seen, not now, but I have seen people standing in the midst of this gas without moving, and actually police had to, in the end, move. [inaudible] empowering. I cannot tell you how empowering this is, because this is a country which is—which has been known for its brutality of its police force and for actually Turkish people’s unquestioned—unquestioned loyalty to the state, to its own police forces and to its army. So it’s very exciting to see all these different sections of people standing against this gas, against this police force, and just to—and how it was actually initiated, just protect a park and achieve in that park the last resort, the last public space, where—which wasn’t given to private interests. And from that, now, in Beşiktaş, for people who know Istanbul, in all the neighborhoods, people are now trying to open up spaces, stateless spaces, where they collaborate and where they show solidarity with each other, where they share bandages, where they share lemons to protect each other from gas. So it’s very exciting to be here at this moment.
AMY GOODMAN: The mayor of Istanbul, Kadir Topbaş, said on Friday that the concerns about the demolition of Gezi Park and Taksim Square were not accurate. He said, quote, "It is simply the mandatory removal and transfer of trees in the area in order to enlarge the pedestrian walk. ... The work that will be done is not on the scale of a shopping mall, and what we see here is the exploitation of our nature-loving citizens with misinformation. ... Sadly there are those who exploit people over this, and who expect political gains from this." Professor, I would like to go to your response, Professor Çalişkan.
KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you—do you know the number of dead at this point? Doctors are saying more than a thousand wounded.
KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: More than a thousand wounded. I have may friends, at least 10, who are wounded. Unfortunately, we lost one person, and five people are in critical condition because of the tear gas that they had on their heads. The police is aiming at the head with their tear-gas bullets, and they maim people. They shot people on the head, on their bodies.
The mayor—what the mayor said is not right. This is a clear sign of looking down upon people’s intelligence. He is just telling that 700,000 Turks are so easily manipulated that 700,000 people can just follow a number of tweets, and they find themselves in Taksim Square. This is not the case. Turkish people know that they tried to—due to all the tweets of this park, by changing a corner of it. And the work started without any news about the nature of the work. If you start any construction project, Amy—it’s very much like New York City or Washington, D.C. A major construction project, even a minor one at a city center, should have a sign on it—the contractor, the permit, everything, all right? Even the budget should be written on the construction project, OK? There was nothing in Taksim Square. They started killing the trees, cutting them, and razing and taking the soil and moving it with bulldozers. And people said, "No." The mayor should not look down upon people’s intelligence on the ground.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Nazan Üstündağ, where do you see this going? Can you talk about communicating with people in other cities, like in the capital Ankara, and also, in terms of the police, the targeting of the tear-gas canisters, aiming for heads, the reports we’re hearing over the weekend?
NAZAN ÜSTÜNDAĞ: Mm-hmm. Well, I really don’t—things like this, you know, are unpredictable. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Four demands have been pronounced. One of them is the banning of the tear gas, actually. The other is the release of people who have been arrested, and then, of course, the stopping of the mall project at Gezi Park. And there was one more that I can’t remember right now. So, there are four demands. And until these four demands are met, we are not going to leave this place. But this—I’m not sure that the police—at some point, the police will try to enter, and so the whole thing can start again. Actually, at night, there are other districts where people demonstrate, and when they demonstrate, the police arrive there. And there been—yesterday, actually, one person died because he was—I mean, he was actually run by a car during the demonstrations, during the fight against the police. So, the police did not kill him, but it was during the demonstration. So, we don’t really know how long—whether these demands will be met.
But the good news—and I would like to share this now to you, as well—there have been—unions are calling for a general strike, so the whole thing will take another form once the strike starts. And this will bring in new demands, once the workers join in. So, we are trying to—what we are expecting, I can—I think I can say this, for all of us who are here, to hear, once in this 10 years, the truth coming out through the lips of the president, saying something truthful, saying, you know, he has done something wrong, saying that people are protesting against him, saying that he has been pressuring the media to not to speak, not to give any news, saying that he has been—he hasn’t been doing the constitution that we have all been expecting for the last 10 years, saying that these renovation projects are oppressive, totalitarian projects, saying at least one of these, saying once in his lifetime something truthful. That’s all we are expecting.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the president responding to this. The prime minister, Erdoğan himself, has just left, is that right? He was speaking to reporters before he began a four-day trip to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
NAZAN ÜSTÜNDAĞ: Right, yeah. I mean, I meant the prime minister. Sorry for saying "the president." I meant the prime minister. Yes, he has left. And that’s exactly what he has done during the hunger strikes, too. He has—that’s what he does. He just leaves the country and hopes for the best. And then, when he comes back and the best has not happened, so then he makes a concession, but pretending as if he doesn’t make the concession. But I don’t think this time concession will be enough.
AMY GOODMAN: And the number you estimate, Nazan, of dead in the protests?
NAZAN ÜSTÜNDAĞ: There hasn’t—I mean, I can’t—I can only tell you what the association of doctors is saying, and they are saying there hasn’t—there has been only one death due to police violence, and that has happened in Ankara. There are very, very badly wounded people, some of them in coma, but there has been only one dead until now. Thousands of people are injured. And a lot of people have lost their eyes because of the—I don’t know how you call it in English, these bullets that are not real, but—
AMY GOODMAN: Rubber bullets.
NAZAN ÜSTÜNDAĞ: Yeah, when they come to your eye, your eye gets—comes out. And a lot of people—as far as I know, 12 people have lost their eye.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Nazan Üstündağ, on the streets, activist and scholar, and Koray Çalişkan, assistant professor of political science at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, speaking to us about the mass protests that have been taking place throughout Turkey now, begun in Istanbul, with about, it’s believed, a thousand people injured.