Kathreen O'Connor, an activist from Scotland, has been in Istanbul since the upsurge of riots and protests across the city and the rest of Turkey over the past few days. She reports from Taksim Square
Arriving in Taksim Square on the evening of Thursday 30th May, the scene was one of of tourists wandering, students mingling and families gathering to enjoy the sunset at this popular down town meet up point. Just behind the square in Gezi Park, clusters of people sat together beside banners, playing guitar, drinking and talking. If you hadn’t been looking for it, it would have been impossible to detect the tension burning beneath the surface; a tension which has been building in Istanbul for weeks.
Twelve hours later, the scene was very different. Taksim area has been overrun by tens of thousands of protesters and riot police are everywhere.
This recent escalation was prompted by the police's heavy-handed advance into Gezi Park in the early hours of Friday morning. Police set fire to tents whilst people slept inside, also using high pressure water hoses and tear gas on the protesters. It has sparked protests across Istanbul and the rest of Turkey.
“We came here first because we wanted to save the park, but now we want to get rid of our government” said a protester I spoke to on Friday evening.
Locals here have reported a drastic increase in the use of tear gas on protesters in recent weeks, and it appears that the past 72 hours have marked the culmination of a period of agitation and unrest in Istanbul. Weekly workers rights protests – which take place at Taksim due to its historical significance within the labor movement – have been broken up by riot police, and protests a fortnight ago against proposed amendments to licensing laws to ban the sale of alcohol after certain hours were met with a similarly heavy handed approach.
Prime Minister Tayyip Ergodan made a defiant speech on national television yesterday, during which time he called for an end to violence and for the protesters to back down. He declined to comment on the thousands of Turkish people who have been seriously injured and arrested, or to confirm reports that several people have now died.
From the surface it might appear that Erdogan’s party, the AKP, enjoy relatively broad public support among Turkish people, carefully treading the line between the ardent secularists and those who believe that the Turkish government should be more sympathetic towards its largely Muslim population.
In recent years however, and particularly since the controversial constitutional referendum in 2010 which saw a considerable numbers of powers passed from the military to the government, Erdogan is seen as posing a threat to the principles of secularism upon which the modern Turkish state was built.
Yesterday I spoke to Ibrahim Karaman, a 30 year old textile engineer who has been involved in the protests since Thursday evening. He began protesting against the AKP government six years ago. The AKP campaigned on a manifesto for democratic reform and market liberalisation, but Erdogan is now accused of being interested solely in serving the interests of the financial elite, evidenced by the proposed destruction of Giza Park to pave the way for a shopping mall. ‘Our government is trying to undo what Attaturk did for Turkey’, said Ibrahim. ‘We have a secular state but they want to make the government more Islamic (…) we are Muslim but we don’t want an Islamic government’.
Yesterday evening the atmosphere in Taksim was completely different; the police retreated from the square and tens of thousands of people gathered to celebrate this partial victory. Although riots continued in other parts of the city and around Turkey, protesters in Taksim enjoyed this period of respite before preparing to take to the streets again on Sunday morning. Everyone is well aware that the calm will not last, and that it will not be long before the riot police return to Taksim. With the exception of two Turkish channels the media blackout here continues, and jammers have been used to cut off phone/internet access in the Taksim area. This is largely due to the use of social media in organising the protests: at a given time there will be a message sent out to ‘march towards Taksim’. On Friday morning an estimated one thousand people crossed the Bosphorous river to join the fight here.
The park protests were started by environmentalist activists and a large number of students, but as the days have gone by the crowd has diversified. For each tear gas canister fired into the crowded side streets of Istiklal it seems one hundred new people join the protests. Bin lorries and public buses are left abandoned in the middle of streets to block the riot vans, and shop keepers and street vendors hand out water, lemons and milk to those returning from the barricades, freshly teargassed. The response from the police/government in the next couple of days will determine whether the protests continue, but the will to resist and fight is strong today in Taksim.
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