As I began to write this, at 4:00 am on May 31, protests against Turkish police—prompted by their crackdown on demonstrators opposing the demolition of Taksim Square’s Gezi Park—were spreading from the heart of Istanbul to the entire country. As of today, the headline on Drudge reads—not inaccurately—TURK BERSERK.
The story began when the government in Ankara decided that Gezi Park, in the center of Istanbul, should be demolished and replaced by a shopping mall. Now, Gezi Park is hardly the Jardins de Luxembourg. It’s a shabby rat trap that you wouldn’t walk through alone at night, and you’re more apt to find used condoms on its lawns than daisies and cowslips. But it is, all the same, one of the last remaining spaces with trees in the neighborhood.
Over the past decade, Istanbul has seen a massive construction boom. Lovely old buildings have been razed by the hundreds and replaced by shopping malls. Until this week, I would have said that while this transformation was not to my taste, it was very much to the liking of the people who live here: after all, they were certainly doing a lot of shopping. Apparently, I was wrong.
When the company building the shopping mall began cutting down trees, protesters occupied the park—peacefully. But in truth, these protests weren’t about the park or even about the shopping malls. They were about a people exhausted by Istanbul’s uncontrolled growth; by its relentless traffic; by the incessant noise (especially that of construction); by massive immigration from the countryside; by predatory construction companies—widely and for good reason believed to be in bed with the government—which have, over the past decade, destroyed a great deal of the city’s loveliness and cultural heritage. But most of all, they are about a nation’s fury with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism, symbolized by Istanbul’s omnipresent police, the phalanxes of so-called Robocops. They are so notoriously trigger-happy that journalists on Twitter post a daily tear-gas report.
Of late, almost every sector of the electorate has felt unease about one part or another of Erdoğan’s agenda. Restrictive new alcohol legislation, rammed through parliament, as usual, with contempt for the minority opposition, has prompted outrage; the so-called peace process with the PKK, which no one understands, has caused great unease. Anxiety is growing as well, not only about press censorship, but also about the prosecution of those who insult government officials or “Islamic values” on social media. There is outrage about the bombing in Reyhanlı that left 52 Turks dead and which appears to have been attributable to a series of inexcusable police and intelligence blunders (but no one knows, and no one believes what the press writes); there is fear of war with Syria; there is concern about strange reports that al-Nusra, a Syrian militant group affiliated with al-Qaida, has been cooking up Sarin gas in Adana, five miles east of the United States’ Incirlik Air Base; and there is deep skepticism about Erdoğan’s plans for grandiose construction projects—such as a third airport, a second Bosphorus canal, and a gigantesque mega-mosque intended to exceed in size every mosque left behind by his Ottoman predecessors. The thing will dominate Istanbul’s already-martyred skyline, and replace yet another pleasant and leafy park.
The recent announcement that a new bridge over the Bosphorus was to be named after Sultan Selim the Grim, slayer of the Alevis—a substantial and beleaguered Turkish religious minority—didn’t help matters. Nor did it soothe fears when a minor AKP official from the sticks wrote on Twitter that “My blood boils when spineless psychopaths pretending to be atheists swear at my religion. These people, who have been raped, should be annihilated.” Two weeks ago in Ankara, a disembodied voice on the subway, having apparently espied them by means of a security camera, denounced a couple for kissing. The voice demanded that they “act in accordance with moral rules.” In return, incensed Ankara lovers staged kissing protests: as the couples shyly smooched outside the subway station, a group of young men confronted them, chanting “Allahu Akbar!” It was reported but not confirmed that one of the kissers was stabbed; but given the mood of hysteria here right now, it would be unwise to believe every rumor one hears.
Erdoğan, it seems, severely underestimated the degree of his subjects’ displeasure, confident that God, a strong economy, and a weak opposition were all he needed to ensure his hegemony. He brusquely dismissed the tree protesters’ concerns: “We’ve made our decision, and we will do as we have decided.” An AKP parliamentarian then unwisely announced that some young people “are in need of gas.”
So the Robocops once again used pepper spray and water cannon against the protesters. A photographer captured them spraying tear gas directly into the face of a vulnerable, middle-aged woman in a pretty red dress. The photo went viral and enraged the public: she was clearly no hooligan. As one conservative journalist noted, she looked “decent.”
Rather than dispersing for good, the protesters returned—and more gathered to support them. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The police panicked. At dawn, they attacked with pronounced violence, injuring not only students, but also journalists and opposition members of parliament who had come to show their support. They also seriously wounded the photographer who took the “red dress” photo, which was probably not a coincidence. Nor was it likely a coincidence that they fired a tear-gas canister “at close range” at the head of journalist Ahmet Şık, best known for writing about the infiltration and corruption of Turkey’s police forces by the followers of the Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen. For this, Şık was jailed as a “coup-plotter.” This time, he wound up in the hospital, though he is expected to recover.
Riot police blocked the roads leading to Taksim, the city’s central square, as well as those leading to Istanbul’s famous Istiklal Avenue. They fired gas bombs at everything that moved, including the city’s bewildered stray dogs. Helicopters circled the skies. Wi-Fi in the city center was jammed. The hospitals quickly filled with the injured. So far, reports of deaths have been hard to confirm, with some exceptions. Human-rights activist Ethem Sarısülük is now brain dead, having “come under fire” from police—what kind of fire, we don’t know. Mehmet Ayvalitas, reportedly a member of a banned group of left-wing hackers, is also dead. Human Rights Watch believes the casualty numbers are much higher than those claimed by the government. Reports of two other deaths, in particular, sound credible, but it’s impossible to be sure. I saw a video of a police vehicle crushing a woman under its wheels; I would be surprised if she survived.
I obtained casualty reports from the hospitals in my neighborhood, which is close to Taksim Square. From one: “A 22-year-old male has lost his left eye due to a plastic bullet. A 19-year-old male is being watched closely with a subdural hematoma diagnosis resulting from the impact of a gas capsule. A 22-year-old male patient has taken a frontal hit in the head and suffered a fractured skull and is under close watch due to acute hematoma diagnosis.” From another: “Over 100 injured patients were treated. Of these, nine suffer from significant trauma, five were admitted for surgery. Of these, one suffered trauma in the testicle, one subdural hematoma (brain), and two trauma of the left eye. One was operated on and has lost all eyesight. The other eye patient is being watched with the diagnosis of eye perforation. Of those planned to be operated on, two suffer from maxillofacial trauma, one with a broken left arm and another with multiple fracture of the collarbone.” From yet another: “Received hundreds of applications during the first two days due to central location. Majority were respiratory cases, eye irritation due to exposure to gas. Of the three patients with head injury, a 34-year-old female received emergency surgery due to brain hemorrhage and compression fracture. The same patient was also operated on the next day due to subdural hematoma. She is under surveillance in life threatening condition.”
It is confirmed that rubber bullets have knocked out the eyes of at least six people. Gas has covered the city like a volcanic cloud. Everyone, even those who stayed indoors, has been weeping and coughing. Adding insult to injury—and injury to injury—the cops fired gas into the accident and emergency ward of two hospitals close to Taksim Square. The police now seem to have moved from pepper spray to a more noxious lachrymatory agent—probably CS gas—causing panic among the public, which believes itself to be under attack by some terrifying species of chemical weapon.
Almost as chillingly, the muzzled and gutless Turkish media downplayed the events. The main source of news here was Twitter. Precisely as BBC World was showing shocking scenes of the protests, Turkey’s TV24 was featuring a lecture from Erdoğan about the dangers of smoking. While Taksim burned, NTV aired a cooking show, and another channel featured an incisive documentary about liposuction.
But as news of the injuries and deaths spread by word of mouth, and particularly as photos and videos of the clashes and the wounded began circulating on social media, the entire city rose up in fury. The three largest Turkish football teams, usually mortal rivals (in some cases literally), announced that they would unite to join the protests. Istanbullus poured out on the streets, some in their pajamas, banging pots and pans, whistling, clapping, and shouting “Erdoğan, resign!” Elderly women handed out lemons from their windows (people here erroneously believe these mitigate the effects of tear gas), and shouted at passersby to “keep resisting!” Taxi, bus, and minivan drivers honked their horns in support. Massive crowds crossed the Bosphorus bridge from the Asian side of the city, all marching to Taksim Square. I have never seen such a spontaneous outpouring of public rage—coupled, of course, with the hysterical joy of the mob. But others have seen it here before. In the 1980s, the great travel writer Jan Morris described Istanbul thus:
The leftists think of themselves as progressives, modernists, but they are really honoring a tradition even older than Islam: for long before the caliphate was invented, the city crowd was a force in Byzantium. In those days the rival factions of the Blues and the Greens, originally supporters of the competing charioteers in the Hippodrome, were infinitely more riotous than any soccer crowd today, and the great circuits of the racetrack, around whose purlieus the backpack nomads now drink their mint tea . . . was the supreme arena of anarchy, the place where the frustration of the people found its ferocious release in bloodshed and insurrection . . .
I see better now what she meant.
Turks held up signs calling their prime minister “Chemical Tayyip” and spread the slogan on Facebook. Then reports began pouring in from other cities—protesters, in the dead of night, marching to the parliament building in Ankara; protests in Konya (particularly amazing, because this is the ruling party’s base), and in Eskişehir, Trabzon, Adana, Edirne, Antalya, and Diyarbakır—protests spanning the whole geography of the country.
Yesterday, the riot police pulled out of Gezi Park. Cries of triumph echoed through the city. But the exuberance was short-lived, for the Robocops quickly turned their attention to gassing the rest of Istanbul. Beşiktaş (where the prime minister keeps his office), Dolmabahçe, Gaziosmanpaşa, and Baghdad Avenue became the new blood lands. So did the cities of Ankara, Antalya, Izmir, Adana, Kocaeli, Mersin, and Eskişehir. Interior Minister Muammer Güler announced that as of yesterday evening, 235 demonstrations had taken place over six days in 67 provinces, with 1,730 people detained. Unconfirmed reports tell of torture in Istanbul police stations.
The news from Ankara and Izmir has been particularly disgusting. Police threw gas bombs at the capital’s famous Swan Park, injuring (yes) the swans. Last night a friend, an MP from the main opposition party and a tireless campaigner for Internet freedom in Turkey, told me that his daughter, a junior in law school, had been wounded. She had sent him an SMS: “Police gassed the infirmary.” He asked if I would let the American media know. Police in Izmir called female protestors “sluts” and assaulted them; people there were begging to be let into buildings to escape. A journalist whom I trust, based in Izmir, wrote: “I’m telling you. No one threw one single stone this evening where I am. They are still gassing peaceful people.”
Friends have called to say that their social-media access has been restricted or blocked. Turkey’s telecoms regulator claims that this is due to a traffic surge, rather than an official block, which is plausible. But trust in the government, at this point, is low, to put it mildly.
Erdoğan may believe that he can outlast the protesters, and he may be right, particularly if the protesters succumb to the temptations of violence and vandalism. So far, they have been reasonably constrained. But the Robocops are exhausted—photos are circulating of them falling asleep on the street—and if there is one thing a prime minister best known for “taming the military” can’t do, it is to call in the army to settle things down. If the protests keep escalating and the crackdown intensifies, it’s hard to see how this can end well. Best case: the protests will spook the prime minister and give him a much-needed dose of humility. Worst case: The protests will spook the prime minister and leave him even more paranoid and vengeful.
Unfortunately, the early signs point toward the second scenario. Speaking of these events yesterday for the first time since the protests began, Erdoğan announced that the police had come under attack, and that the main opposition party and “certain media organizations” had provoked the events. He threatened to take the fight even deeper into the streets: “If they’ve got 20,000 people to go to Taksim, I can get 500,000 to turn out in Kazlıçeşme. We have that strength. . . . What is happening is entirely ideological. This approach is targeting my government, my person, and the municipal elections. They are thinking about how they can take the municipal authority from the AK Party.” He then suggested that anyone who drinks is an alcoholic—though he subsequently clarified that one or two drinks a year might be alright—and denounced Twitter, which has been trending for days with the slogan, “Tayyip, Resign!” That obviously displeased him. “There is now a menace which is called Twitter,” he said, and “the best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” Just last week, he thought it was alcohol. He did concede that the police had been a touch excessive. The words came out of his mouth, but there was no corresponding remorse on his face.
While no doubt some of the protesters committed vandalism, and some threw stones at the police, their social responsibility overall was impressive: as soon as the police pulled out of Taksim, they organized a cleanup of the square and its environs, even arranging makeshift first-aid stations for injured stray animals.
So no, the unrest roiling Turkey is not about Gezi Park, though it would have been poetic if it had been: the park was once an Armenian cemetery, appropriated by the government and transformed into a barracks after the Armenians “abandoned” it. The protests are about authoritarianism, plain and simple. What will happen now is anyone’s guess. The demonstrators are disorganized, and while they know what they don’t want, they aren’t sure what they do want. The opposition parties are hopeless. Politicians do not resign in Turkey generally; Tayyip Erdoğan certainly won’t. But he has damaged himself greatly and unleashed an unpredictable evil upon a land that has already known far too much of it. How strange that such a shrewd politician should make so grievous a tactical blunder. Then again, it is well known that whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.
Claire Berlinski, a City Journal contributing editor, is an American journalist who lives in Istanbul. She is the author of There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.