Column In Istanbul citizens remain united and committed to peaceful protest

first_imgAfter days of protests and riots across Turkey, Irishwoman Arlene Crilly writes about her experiences of living in Istanbul and her impressions of the recent unrest…A WEEK NEVER passes when I don’t take a trip to Taksim and its square. An area packed with shops, restaurants, theatres and bars, its streets are always choc-a-bloc with people eager to get somewhere different. During the protests around one million marched to Taksim Square and everyone was there for the exact same reason.As I looked around at everybody in masks and goggles chanting and waving their Turkish flags I began to wonder how it had all come to this. How was it that these protests had touched every neighbourhood – so much so that even those who couldn’t leave their houses stood at doors or hung out of windows chanting and banging pots and pans together in support? I began to wonder how a small protest about turning a park into yet another shopping centre could garner such support and outrage and how long this dissatisfaction had being brewing?Never-ending ‘development’I had to bring myself back five months at least, when I first received a flyer expressing concern about what would be built in the historic square. It was the first time that the “renewal” of Taksim came on my radar even though the bulldozers had been hanging around for months.  When I inquired about the redevelopment, my Turkish friends told me that they had no idea what would be built there. The government had remained tight-lipped about the project, arousing people’s suspicions that whatever it was might not benefit them.As an outsider, I was shocked that people didn’t have to be consulted or even told what was going to be built in a public space. Wasn’t I living in a democracy, a country with a prime minister who has tried his utmost to court EU membership?In recent weeks the fears of my friends were confirmed when it was announced that the squares neighbouring park (and prime real estate ) would be cleared to make way for yet another mall (there are already 150 new shopping centres planned for next year).  The prime minister told critics that he would not change his mind. The protests started on Wednesday, although  I didn’t even hear about the protests until Thursday when I saw a video from the night before of protesters offering police burek and other snacks. A few seconds later they hit them with water cannons and tear-gas.A sense of solidarityOn Thursday, I too joined the protest. People were chanting and singing songs and there was what I could describe as a chilled party-like atmosphere. I planned to return to the park on Friday but by about 6pm that day there were reports of protest escalating into police brutality in Taksim and it was clear that the police had made it a no-go area.Living just two metro stops from the area, joining the protest simply meant stepping out on to my front door. The protest was everywhere. Since the metro to Taksim had been halted people simply came and took over the roads leading to it. With some friends, Turkish and foreign alike, I joined thousands of others and we marched as close as we could get to the square.Men, women, old and young came out onto the streets in the surrounding areas of Taksim wearing  their masks and carried bags of lemons (an antidote to teargas). They chanted “Prime Minister resign!” and “Our Istanbul, not yours!” Those who got too close to the tear-gas canisters or injured were helped by strangers and residents hotels and restaurants opened up their doors to everyone without a second thought.Then the Turkish news channels broadcast a speech by the prime minister, saying the protests were purely the work of hooligans and extremists led by the opposition party. Since I live here and have many Turkish friends I know that this is completely untrue. All of my Turkish friends are involved in these protests one way or another. As I write this, my newsfeed on Facebook is full of  the latest updates encouraging everyone to stay in Taksim and keep up their peaceful protest.The creeping de-secularisation of TurkeyThe fight over the park has in fact now been won. People are saying that, thanks to the protests, no business or brand would ever want to be associated with tearing down Taksim’s last green area. But  it is not about a park any more. Everyone has a different if not many different  reasons for protesting. For some it’s about tear-gas and the brutality of police who even I have watched brutally break up tiny harmless protests by blasting water cannons. For others it’s about the fact that their voices are not heard or about the prime minister creeping away from secularism as he tightens drinking laws and spends public funds on ornate mosques.But the Turkish mass media, particularly television stations, are keeping schtum for the moment. People are saying they always knew that the media was being controlled by the government, and on a night when millions of people are taking to the streets and the TV is showing modelling competitions and shows about ‘the world’s strangest cats’ their suspicions were confirmed.Many of the TV channels that did turn up at Taksim square, such as Turk CNN, had their vans vandalised and I noticed somebody had spray-painted ‘media for sale’ across them. But by and large what I witnessed was the most peaceful protest I can imagine on such a large scale.  My friends here in Istanbul tell me that they are hopeful that if people stay peaceful and stay united that change will come.Arlene Crilly is an Irish journalism graduate living in Istanbul. She blogs at istanbullies.wordpress.comlast_img