Turkish anti-government protest 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ISTANBUL -- Sitting on a concrete ledge surrounding Istanbul's Gezi Park overlooking a roadblock constructed from piles of rubble, high school student Alper Kuzgun is working on his math homework.
“I am not a protester, I am a student,” Kuzgun told The Media Line. “But I am here. If the police come, I can help resist.”
Over the past five days, he has been joined by tens of thousands of others his age who have come to voice their frustrations with Turkey's government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Anti-government demonstrators are concerned secular Turkey is drifting towards a conservative, Islamist-backed state. Proposed changes to the constitution, restrictions on free speech and a recent law restricting the sale of alcohol have lit a fuse on years of pent-up emotions. Graffiti across Istanbul calls on Erdoğan, who's been at the country's helm for a decade, to resign.
So far, he has rejected calls to step down and has brushed off the protests saying he expects things to “normalize” soon. But inside protest camps around historic Taksim Square, there are no signs people are settling down.
Celebratory fireworks light up the sky above the crowds of people clogging the cobblestone center, and candles shine through the tear gas drifting from a nearby police barricade spelling out words: “Taksim belongs to the people.”
It is where a group of young people originally joined together last week to try to stop the destruction of one of the last strips of green around Taksim—part of plans backed by the government to build another mall there.
Since then, anti-government protests have spread across Turkey, led by tens of thousands of young people pouring into the streets of Istanbul, Ankara and other cities, waving flags, blowing whistles and banging pots and pans. They have been met with large numbers of police, firing tear gas and plastic bullets.
There have been at least two confirmed reports of deaths in the most intense demonstrations where police have intervened, including a 22-year-old man who was shot and killed while protesting in Antakya near the Syrian border late Monday. It is unclear exactly how the man was killed.
In Taksim, surrounded by five-star hotels and up-market restaurants, police have essentially retreated. Now kids play in the burned out shells of police vehicles. TV news trucks lay overturned and gutted after Turks directed their anger toward local media organizations they see as neglecting their uprising.
“This is one of the biggest meetings so far I have experience in my life,” Violet, a young woman who declined to give her last name told The Media Line. “We are very united, we are like brothers and sisters,” she said.
Many are comparing the current demonstrations to the protests in 2011 that came to be known as the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. But in Turkey, there is a parliamentary democracy, and voters can change the government through elections.
In those countries as well, students have flooded the front lines. But they are joined by many others.
“Some of them are activists,” protestor Turk Sevgi Hilton told The Media Line
“Some of them are students. Some of them are professional people. There are people from all walks of life.”
Hilton's British sister-in-law, Karen Hilton, agrees.
“I've come to support this because I disagree with what the police are doing and how they have treated the people here,” she said. “The people had a peaceful protest. They were peacefully demonstrating. And the police came in with brutality and caused the situation that has occurred now.”
Police had been determined to stop demonstrations until officials from Turkey's ally, the United States, and its largest trading partner the European Union, called for restraint to allow protesters to assemble peacefully.
The majority of people gathered in Gezi Park and Taksim are peaceful. At least during the daytime, it feels more like a carnival, with young people having picnics and singing and dancing.
As high-schooler Kuzgun continues to work on his homework, occasionally looking up at protesters, he says what people are really demanding is simple:
“We want some freedom.”