A Turkish Spring? Over 1,000 Injured as Anti-Government Protests Spread Outside of Istanbul

Democracy Now
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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.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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.

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