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June 12, 2013 < Previous Entry | Next Entry >

Report from Istanbul: Turkish Police Attack Protesters in Taksim Square with Tear Gas, Water Cannons

Turkish riot police have forcibly removed throngs of protesters from Istanbul’s Taksim Square after nearly two weeks of demonstrations. Beginning Tuesday and lasting overnight, officers fired tear gas and water cannons into a crowd of thousands of people, forcing them to disperse. Thousands of demonstrators also faced tear gas and water cannons in the capital Ankara. It was the most violent police crackdown since the initial protest against the razing of an Istanbul public park. The movement has since grown into a call for Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s resignation over what opponents call authoritarian and anti-secular tendencies. Turkish medics say around 5,000 people have been treated for injuries since the unrest began.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Turkish riot police have forcibly removed throngs of protesters from Istanbul’s Taksim Square after nearly two weeks of demonstrations. Beginning Tuesday and lasting overnight, officers fired tear gas and water cannons into a crowd of thousands of people, forcing them to disperse. Thousands of demonstrators also faced tear gas and water cannons in the capital Ankara. It was the most violent police crackdown since the initial protest against the razing of an Istanbul public park. The movement has since grown into a call for Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s resignation over what opponents call authoritarian and anti-secular tendencies. Turkish medics say around 5,000 people have been treated for injuries since the unrest began.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we are joined by Koray Çalışkan, associate professor of political science at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, also a columnist with the liberal newspaper Radikal. Thank you so much for joining us. Tell us what’s happening in the streets right now, Koray.

KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: I was in Gezi Park until 4:00 a.m. in the morning yesterday, and people were demoralized because the governor told them that the police wouldn’t attack the park, and they did, with tear gas. I was there with a member of the Parliament, Mr. Sari of Republican People’s Party. We were discussing what was going on. And the tear gas just came just near us, and we were on our knees. And people were vomiting, and I felt really bad. I’ve never—I’ve been under tear gas for these 15 days in Turkey right now, but nothing was worse than last night.

Right now I’m very close to Gezi Park, and people are cleaning the park, organizing themselves. They feel way better. And they are very determined. I got many calls from all around the country, telling people that they are coming to Istanbul to hang out in the park, and they’re going to be here to support them. The most interesting call came from an administrator with Nationalist Action Party. This is a right-wing party. And he said he wanted to be in the park to support the people. The main image here is that the people are trying to protect their trees and democracy, whereas AK party insists on building a shopping mall on the last green patch of Taksim Square in Istanbul.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But, Koray, could you explain why it is you think the governor went back on his word and that the police also responded with such excessive force, as reports suggest, to the protesters in Gezi Park?

KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: I think a lot of people want the governor to resign immediately, because he couldn’t handle the situation well. And I believe he has political aspirations. A governor of Istanbul became the minister of interior later, and he wants to look good to the government. And on the one hand, he wants to look good to the electorate by showing the uncle governor face of himself. This is how he calls himself right now. Yet, on the other hand, he gasses Gezi Park and Taksim Square with cruelty. This is—this is unacceptable, and people really do not like what he’s doing, because he said people—he said police would not attack Gezi Park, and he did. How are we going to believe in our governor now, in the next week or next month or the summer?

AMY GOODMAN: Koray Çalışkan, can you tell us why people are in the streets? Tell us how this all happened and what people are demanding now.

KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: The triggering mechanism was the governor’s—excuse me, the prime minister’s determination to demolish a public park and build a shopping mall and a residential tower on it. This is not very different from—imagine Bloomberg says one day that he wants to build a Bloomingdale’s building by cutting out a corner of Central Park. How would New Yorkers would feel? How would Bostoners would feel if the mayor said Boston Commons will be a shopping mall and a residential center? So, this was a triggering mechanism, and people from all around political parties and backgrounds began to come to Taksim Square and also Gezi Park.

However, before that, the government responded to many of its mistakes with more mistakes. For instance, the prime minister was politically responsible for the death of 34 Kurds in Uludere. Instead of apologizing, he said he wanted to—in order to change the course of discussion, he said he was going to ban abortion in the country. He couldn’t. That was very bad.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Koray, could you explain that incident?

KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: Later—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you explain that incident, how the prime minister was responsible—

KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: Yes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: —for the deaths of 34—

KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: Politically, the Turkish army accidentally killed 34 smugglers, Kurdish smugglers, all Turkish citizens, in Turkey with an air raid. AK party—the head of AK party, Mr. Erdoğan, is politically responsible, because the army reports to him. He didn’t apologize. Not even a single private lost his job after this tragedy. And everyone was asking him to apologize, while ironically he apologized for something that happened in 1938 under the Republican People’s Party government, and he didn’t apologize for what he did. So, this created a huge upheaval in the country.

Later, 51 people lost their lives in an attack in Reyhanli. This was the September 11th of the country. This was the first time in Turkish history that a whole neighborhood was bombed in a Turkish small town. The prime minister’s foreign policy that prescribes direct engagement with civil war in Syria was responsible for this attack. He didn’t take responsibility. And ironically, he accused the head opposition party for what happened in Reyhanli. And this was—this was unacceptable. Everyone was criticizing him. And instead, you know what he did? He decided to introduce alcohol ban, to buy and to sell alcoholic beverages for adults after 10:00 p.m.

AMY GOODMAN: You—

KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: He makes a mistake—

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the ban on abortion. You mentioned the alcohol ban.

KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about religion in Turkey right now and what the Turkish prime minister, Erdoğan, represents?

KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: When he represented himself, he wants the West to see himself as a conservative democrat. Right now, people in Taksim and Gezi Park are trying to conserve their own park, which is a 70-years-old park. And the—and AK party’s police force is gassing people who are raising their democratic voice. AK party is a neo-Islamist authoritarian party now. No one would believe that they are democrats. No one really believes that they are conservatives, because conservative parties, for the first place—in the first place, conserve national heritage, right? Values. And we are losing them. We are losing our parks. We are losing our democracy. We are losing our secularism.

Here is what’s going on. After he decided to introduce the alcohol ban after 10:00 p.m. for adults to sell and to buy alcoholic beverages, people criticized him, and he said something terrible: "How come two drunk men can write law, and I can’t, looking at our religion?" He didn’t—he didn’t come clear on that, but everyone knew that he was alluding to, if not referring to directly, to Atatürk, the founding father of Turkey. See, Kemalism, his own ideology, changed a lot. No one really believes in the Kemalist ideology. No one really believes in many of its respects. But cultural Atatürkism is the backbone of Turkish society right now. And when the prime minister alludes to him as a drunk man, this was—this was the end of it. And people realized that a prime minister was comparing the requirements of Qur’an al-karim with the founding fathers and his writings of this country. So, this was actually the main reason behind this upheaval for trees and democracy; however, the triggering mechanism was his determination to build a shopping mall in the park.

And until today, Amy, he didn’t say anything. All people want is the following: "Excuse me. It was wrong to build a shopping mall on a public park. Let’s go home." And he doesn’t say that. Instead, he continues to incite problems by calling for two mass demonstrations, on Saturday in Ankara and on Sunday in Istanbul. This is very sad. You know why? Because people will go there—fine—but what will be their demand? To build a shopping mall on a park? Two big meetings with no political demands, just to support a prime minister who lost the moral cause.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Koray, would you agree: Supporters of the AK party, Erdoğan’s party, say that he’s taken, at least in the past, the most steps towards democratizing Turkish society, diminishing the role of the military in politics, etc.? Do you think that was true and is no longer true? And if so, why?

KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: It is no longer true. A lot of people believed in them, because we didn’t have any choice. I said, look, the main problem in Turkish democracy was the large power of the military. And everyone supported AK party when they tried to finish the power of military, at least to limit it. And AK party was also a pro-European Union party. They promised that Turkey would be a European-type democracy, right? And people supported them. Today is the first test. For the last two years, military is not a part of Turkish politics. Most of the colonels and officers who might have thought about a form of intervention are in jail right now, in Silivri. And this is the first time that Turkish civil and political society are alone without military, and Turkish democracy is run by the government of AK party. And they failed spectacularly. These tons of gas in Taksim Square is helping Erdoğan’s legend evaporate in the West, in the East, in Middle East and in Turkey. People do not remember Erdoğan as a democrat right now. They know that he’s an authoritarian leader who gasses his own people in order to build a shopping mall on a public park.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s call for the protests to stop.

PRIME MINISTER TAYYIP ERDOĞAN: [translated] I urge the young people, who I believe are there with sincere feelings, to put an end to this protest. And I call on those who insist on continuing. This is over. We won’t put up with this any longer.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is a Turkish protester responding to Erdoğan’s call for the demonstrations to stop.

PROTESTER: [translated] It was the prime minister’s choice to expose thousands of people here to tear gas, smoke grenades and water cannons. This is fascism. Our struggle will continue. We will keep on resisting. It will be the prime minister’s loss if he doesn’t change his attitude.

AMY GOODMAN: Koray Çalışkan, where do you see this going right now?

KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: I don’t know. There is two options. Prime Minister Erdoğan should apologize for what happened, and he should tell people of Turkey that he doesn’t want to build a shopping mall on a public park. Second, I don’t think Erdoğan is right in not thinking his own political party. Members of the Parliament from AK party themselves started to criticize their leader, which was unheard of. The former minister of culture, who resisted the building of this mall in this park, public park, openly called Erdoğan to change his ideas. And without Erdoğan stepping back, which is going to be the first time in his political career, this is not going to go anywhere, and people are not going to leave Gezi Park. Tonight there will be a huge festival there. People are going to be there. The police is right across town, which is terrible. And it’s very interesting that the police is now protecting Atatürk Kültür Merkezi and the Atatürk monument in Taksim, Gezi Park. The person, the founding father, who was alluded to by Erdoğan as the drunk man.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we wrap up, how has the conflict in Syria affected what’s happening in Turkey right now? Do you see a connection, Koray?

KORAY ÇALIŞKAN: I don’t think there’s a connection. People in Turkey are against Assad, from left and right, but most of the people are against AK party’s policy to engage in civil war by helping the resistance with guns and money. I don’t think they are related, but one of the structural reasons that made people very upset with Erdoğan’s take on Gezi Park is related to his foreign policy in Syria, but the events are not directly related.

AMY GOODMAN: Koray Çalışkan, we want to thank you very much for being with us, associate professor of political science at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, a columnist with Radikal. Thank you for joining us from Istanbul.

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