A Remarkable Protest in Turkey

Last week, a group of people in Istanbul, Turkey, gathered in Gezi Park, a green space near the central Taksim Square. The Istanbul city government had announced plans to demolish the park to build a shopping mall, and the protesters were trying to prevent it.

The Turkish police then followed what has become a new script when dealing with protesters: they got violent. Much like the May Day protests, which the government tried to ban then violently broke up after protesters refused to comply, the police moved on the crowd with water cannons, truncheons, and tear gas.

The government has also effectively blacked out Turkish media, who have not reported on the protests in any substantive way. International media have tried to fill in the gap as best they can, but the degree of censorship being enforced by Recep Tayyip Erdogan is troubling.

Though often lauded outside Turkey as a reformer and democrat, the Erdogan government has taken a recent turn for the authoritarian. Erdogan’s heavy-handed approach to the protests has helped push an otherwise ordinary local environmental protest into a nation-wide movement opposing his rule (and led to his fending off accusations that he is a dictator).

It remains to be seen how far and wide these protests will go. So far it doesn’t quite look like a “Turkish Spring,” or whatever the term is nowadays to suggest a regime-changing protest movement. “Urban renewal” projects that involve bulldozing ancient parts of the city for modern buildings have generated incredible controversy in Istanbul. This is the first time such controversy has bubbled over into full-on protests.

But the mass protests over Gezi Park seem to augur something new. By almost all accounts – verifiable via the ever-useful social media – the protests started out fairly small. And rather than silently resenting the police overreaction and media silence that followed, people took to social media to talk about what was happening. And while there remains little sense of concrete political action that will result, the mass protests are at least a new feature of Turkish political life.

If Erdogan is smart, he will take the Gezi movement as a red line: the casual disregard for public opinion has shown its limits. And if he’s not smart, then we might see the protests expand to the breaking point.