Turkish Protesters Are Entrenched as Protests Continue

In Turkey’s ongoing protests, some worry about violence and police retaliation, while Prime Minister Erdogan has dismissed the movement. Mike Giglio reports.

Gurcan Ozturk/AFP/Getty

Turkish media have called her an icon of the country’s spontaneous protest movement and “the symbol of the resistance.” But Ceyda Sungur insists that she is not. A teacher’s assistant in the city planning department at Istanbul Technical University, she showed up at a small sit-in to save a local park last Tuesday in a red summer dress. Police cracked down, and photos of the attack went viral, bringing more people to the streets. The most famous image is of Sungur—now known as “the lady in the red dress.” In it, a riot cop blasts her in the face at point-blank range with tear gas. Her dark hair flies up into the air, and her dress blows back against her frame.

The young woman’s likeness now appears around Istanbul’s Taksim Square, along streets sprayed with fresh graffiti that claim a revolution is underway. Protesters—who have overtaken the square after days of clashes with police—sing her praises, and reporters call her for comment. But Sungur says they are missing the point. “This is not about a lady in red anymore,” she says. “This is something bigger.”

The park protest has spiraled into something far more significant than its original advocates could have foreseen. Demonstrators now call for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to step down, and similar protests have spread across the country. But while Taksim Square remains the movement’s heart, any attempts to find a unifying figure or voice to rally around seem destined to come up short. Myriad political and activist groups are taking part in the protests—as are regular Turks, who have given the movement its unexpected strength. “This is really not organized in a way where there could be leadership,” says Sirri Süreyya Önder, an opposition politician who supported the early park protests and who was injured by a tear-gas canister during the crackdowns.

The contested green area—tiny Gezi Park, located within Taksim Square—has become a scene reminiscent of the Occupy movement. Protesters hand out free medicine and food, give impromptu political talks, and arrange things like clean-up crews. They’ve also formed a popular committee to monitor crowd behavior and steer decisions. On Wednesday, the committee urged protesters not to drink alcohol in Taksim, out of respect for a Muslim holiday.

Just down the street, however, demonstrators were busy fortifying the barricades they’d erected to keep out police. While Taksim had remained peaceful in recent nights, Gumussuyu Street had been the scene of heavy clashes as demonstrators massed and antagonized police, who responded with tear gas and percussion grenades. Such clashes are now gripping Turkey’s cities nightly—and some protesters are becoming concerned about the continued unrest. On Tuesday night, several men pulled themselves atop an overturned guard booth in the middle of the chaos on Gumussuyu Street and urged their colleagues to turn back, while other protesters formed a human chain in an ill-fated attempt to keep their fellow demonstrators, many wearing surgical or gas masks, from pushing ahead to the front lines. “They’re all agitators,” one young woman from the human chain shouted above the din.

Another protester worried that undercover police officers were inciting violence from within the crowd, to give the police an excuse to attack. Many of the predominately young demonstrators, however, seemed to be there to protest—and also for the adrenaline. Even a young American woman (“I’m just an English teacher living here,” she said) could be found charging into the mix. The police seemed unwilling to advance on the crowd, which often broke out into defiant chants: “Spray, spray the gas. Take off your helmet, leave your baton. Let’s see who’s the real tough guy.”

But many said the police would eventually retaliate, either on this night or another. One demonstrator gave a dark prediction about what might lie ahead: “Blood.”

“Why wouldn’t they attack us?” said a 29-year-old demonstrator who asked to go by his initials, S.T., motioning to the destruction around him on Wednesday night. S.T. was standing near a makeshift barricade on Gumussuyu Street, where he’d been helping to organize medical aid during the clashes of previous nights. “Would you really just let us take over Taksim?”

S.T. dismissed the news that a delegation from Gezi Park had met with Turkey’s deputy prime minister earlier in the day to present a list of demands on behalf of protesters. “They are not our people. We don’t trust them,” he said. “We don’t demand anything.”

Önder, the opposition politician, says he’s “concerned” that this aggressive side of the protests could spiral out of anyone’s control, in Istanbul and elsewhere. “The people in the park are trying to silence the extremist elements,” he says.

But Önder cautions that ongoing police violence will complicate that effort, as news of incidents in one city quickly spread to inspire unrest in others. Reports of official violence have been a constant during the protests, and heavy-handed tactics have continued, especially outside of Istanbul in hotspots such as Ankara. Authorities have even reportedly arrested dozens of people for provocation on Twitter—which Erdogan called a “scourge” over the weekend—and other forms of social media. Whether or not the protests are eventually able to wind down peacefully, Önder says, seems contingent on the government’s response, starting at the top. “The demonstrations will keep on going and probably escalate until Erdogan shows that he understands the demands of democracy and freedom,” Önder says.

Erdogan has become the prime target of the demonstrators, for what they claim is his authoritarianism and Islamism. The prime minister has won three straight elections and is uncontested as Turkey’s most popular politician. But he has also provoked simmering anger over his moves to concentrate power in his hands, and for becoming so domineering that he overshadows even his own ministers on top issues such as foreign affairs. His Islamic-oriented Justice & Development Party (AKP) has also pushed through sweeping and often religiously-minded laws—such as controversial recent restrictions on alcohol that many Turks see as an affront to the country’s strong secular traditions.

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The tipping point came when Erdogan put his weight behind several high-profile construction projects in Istanbul, such as a controversial renovation of the Taksim area that would see Gezi Park replaced with a shopping mall. Critics say such projects are upending the city with little input from residents. So far, Erdogan has remained defiant, angrily dismissing the protests over the weekend and vowing not to back down on the park project.

Others in the government have tried to strike a more conciliatory tone. After Erdogan left the country on a three-day visit to North Africa on Monday, AKP party members moved to ease the roiling tensions, with the country’s president, Abdullah Gul, giving a speech defending the right to protest and noting, “message received.” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, meanwhile, apologized for the initial police crackdowns and received the delegation from Gezi Park with its list of demands.

Erdogan returns on Thursday, and the protesters, for now, remain entrenched in central Istanbul and across the country. “It’s very rare for Erdogan to actually back down,” says David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It would be smart for him to do it now.”