Dispatch from Istanbul: Anti-government protests grow — and strengthen

What began as a demonstration against turning a park into a building has grown into a massive, wholesale rejection of Turkey's government

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — If an early victory can be claimed by protesters in this new uprising, it is that Saturday began with tear gas and heavy police confrontation and ended with Itskilal Boulevard and Taksim Square peacefully occupied without a policeman in sight.

(For more background on the movement — which originally was a protest against turning a park into a mall, but has grown to a wholesale rejection of Turkey's government — read my first dispatch here.)

Throughout the late afternoon and into the early hours of the morning, tens of thousands of people filled all streets leading to Gezi Park in Taksim Square. The park itself was relatively calm, unlike the perimeter of Taksim with its cheek-to-jowl marchers, large bonfires, and flipped-over cop cars now acting as ad hoc monuments to the young resistance. But Gezi Park is the emotional core to the protest, and it will be the place where people make their stand.

The crowd is admirably multicultural. Turkish flags bearing the image of founding father Atataturk are not far from Kurdish Party banners; and the most affecting for me, the familiar rainbow flag of Gay Pride marching safely and confidently through the middle of a cheering crowd.

"Today is for us too," said gay activist Tarik Arduar.

Young people are here in multitudes. Islender Demirere, 25, says that this was his first protest. He was less optimistic about regime change, but wanted the government to know that they will keep coming back and in large numbers. His perspective is one I heard echoed among Turks in their 20s, many of whom are facing to the West as they imagine the future of their country. "If the government wants to be like Europe, it also has to have the same liberties. Like gay marriage or legalized marijuana."

In many ways, Turkey is like the U.S, a diverse and culturally fractious nation. Pockets of liberalism are found amid large swaths of rural religious conservatism, PM Erdogan's main base. The largest ethnic minority are Kurds, whose long contentious relationship with the rest of Turkey includes an effort to partition.

Kurds were everywhere in the crowd. They sang: "Shoulder to shoulder against fascism."

When asked what this day meant for Kurdsas a historically discriminated against group, one young man said they stood with the rest of Turks in Taksim Square. Another one jumped in and said they are ready to take up arms and fight.

That was the first call to violence I heard among all the people I spoke with throughout the week.

As we walked away, my friend Peri, whose mother is Kurdish, curtly responded that most Kurds are very peaceful people.

The battle to protect freedom of speech and fight disenfranchisement are principles we can all stand behind, but from afar you might be forgiven for feeling disconnected from the internal politics or native cultural struggles of a country halfway around the world.

But the situation here in Istanbul is something we can all relate to.

The spark that lit this fire was the threat of the government ruining a small park in the middle of the city. But before that came the forced closing of a beloved movie theater, and the government's campaign against alcohol in a city fueled by late-night socializing around traditional Raki.

Yes, there are big, pressing issues like civil rights, freedom of speech, and democracy at stake, but there also the small pleasures of life that are under threat.

When I was first told that the government was taking possession of a city park and turning it into a mall, I was awfully surprised. Imagine learning one day that Union Square Park was scheduled to be torn up and replaced with a concrete mall.

The Cultural Heritage and Preservation Board is tasked with protecting Istanbul's architecture and public spaces like parks, but according to Omer Kanipak, professor of architecture at Bahcesehir University, the organization is not free of the influence of Ankara.

"The preservation board, formed by some academic people picked by the government, is the only commission that may make this legal. However the pressure of the government caused the resignation of some members and the government placed (its) own men in the commission to pass this project."

But according to Kanipak, the future of Gezi Park remains very unclear. "There is actually no defined or planned purpose of this zombie building that the government wants to resurrect. The mayor says it may be used as a cultural center and the PM says it will be a nice shopping mall or residence. There's no plan! The only intention is to erase the park and make a building!"

Here's what is clear: It's no longer just about trees. It's about regime change.

Referring to Prime Minister Erdogan, protester Sinan Sahan's sentiment was emphatic: "He's a dictator. We will stay until he leaves. He is no better than Assad. He does not listen to us."

There is no formal leadership to this movement. It is still young and coalescing, but it's becoming more organized by the day as it has matured to an occupation and not just a protest. All eyes seem to be on the prime minister as the numbers continue to grow on the streets.


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