I was at my desk in Cihangir, trying to write about the Yeni Camii, while outside the dueling sounds of chanting and tear gas cannons were clamoring for my attention. When, just outside your window, tens of thousands of people are clashing with police in a protest that was making headlines around the world, it’s a little hard to concentrate on anything else.
The drama started on May 28th, 2013, in Taksim Square’s Gezi Park. A small group of concerned citizens had occupied it, in protest of a new shopping mall which would destroy one of Istanbul’s few remaining green areas. Using tear gas and water cannons, police in riot gear violently dispersed the protest, which by all accounts had been peaceful.
This excessive use of force in Gezi Park ignited the always-flammable powder keg of Istanbul’s popular rage. By Friday night, the number of protesters had grown into the tens of thousands. The government’s response? More cops and more tear gas.
All this over a new shopping mall? Not entirely. Popular frustration about increasingly aggressive police tactics had been building for awhile. On May 1st, the yearly Labor Day march, was suppressed with tear gas and water cannons. And I myself tasted the acid sting of tear gas three times, just because we live near Taksim. But you know what I never saw? Any sort of protest that could possibly justify tear gas. The police were deploying this weapon indiscriminately, and people eventually got fed up.
Weeks before Gezi Park erupted, we passed a small gathering of protesters in Taksim Square. I don’t know what their cause was, but it must have been over pensions or something, because these were elderly people. They had a couple signs, and there were no more than thirty of them. But the police force which had been deployed was ridiculous. There were at least four times as many cops as protesters, all of them outfitted with weaponry and riot gear. It was a presence designed not for peace-keeping, but intimidation.
So, there was a lot of anger in Istanbul and the flames were only being stoked by the dismissive attitude of the government. Prime Minister Erdoğan gave a speech in which he boasted that he “didn’t care” what the Gezi Park protesters thought. The shopping mall would be built as planned. He called any opposition to his plans “illegitimate” and labeled the protesters as “extremists“. State media in Turkey ignored the protests, or covered them in a very superficial manner.
For years, Erdoğan’s Islamic AKP party had been introducing ever more conservative laws, and this had liberal Istanbul on edge. The country had recently been in the news for banning red lipstick on flight attendants. There was a strange fight in Ankara over public displays of affection. And a law banning sales of alcohol between 10pm and 6am, and outlawing any advertising of alcohol, had just gone into effect.
One fear we heard over and over from Turkish friends, is that their city might lose its identity. That the conservative, Islamic values of the majority will be forced upon the city’s secular minority. It’s not inconceivable. But if the Gezi Park protests are any indication, Istanbul will never be afraid to fight for its beliefs.