Turkey's Weekend of Street War, Jubilation, and Bulldozer Joyrides

By Matt Shea

Photos by Nazim Serhat Firat and Ali Güracar

"There is now a menace, which is called Twitter," Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared on Turkish television on Sunday. "The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society."

Made in one of two speeches given to Turkish TV yesterday, it is a statement that characterises the social unrest in Turkey as much as it seems to validate it. While mainstream Turkish media has largely tried to ignore the tens of thousands of protesters on the streets of Istanbul, Twitter has offered them a way to organize themselves and publicize their cause. What began as a peaceful protest about the destruction of a park to make way for a shopping center has turned into a broader expression of Turkish discontent. Many sections of society are angry at what they see as a concerted attempt by Erdogan to transform the democracy he is charged with maintaining into an Islamist dictatorship. A combination of gentrification, government corruption, and hints of a crackdown on personal freedoms, such as drinking alcohol and kissing in public, has provoked the biggest social uprising in Turkey for a decade.

And let's not forget the media blackout—a lack of press freedom tends to be a decent sign that a country's top-ranking officials are getting a little too power hungry.


Protesters clash with police in Ankara.

During the weekend, protests spread to more than half of Turkey's 81 provinces. Most notable were those in the capital, Ankara, where violent clashes between riot police and demonstrators resulted in more than 700 injuries, and in Istanbul, where the number of wounded has reached 1,000. You can only guess those figures are rising as we speak, while officials have announced that more than 1,700 arrests have been made.


Beşiktaş fans joyride a digger through Istanbul.

On Sunday evening, fans of the city's Beşiktaş football team commandeered a digger and drove it at riot police, and those who didn't feel up to joining the struggle in the streets hung out of windows, adding to the din that has engulfed parts of the country by banging on pots and pans.

VICE currently has a number of reporters and filmmakers in Turkey. We called one of them on Sunday to make sure they hadn't suffocated in tear gas plumes and to get their perspective on the latest from the ground. There's also a selection of images from the weekend's events in the gallery above.

VICE: Have things calmed down or are they getting more violent?
VICE Reporter: Things have calmed down in Taksim Square for sure. Protesters have built barricades all around the park, so it’s very hard for police vans or bulldozers to enter. But since 9:30 PM tonight. clashes between police and protesters have gone off in Beşiktaş and it’s been brutal. They’ve been using tear gas and other gas which has made people vomit. It has been alleged that it is Agent Orange, but I can’t confirm or deny that.

Have you encountered many injured people?
When you walk on the streets here every five minutes you’ll see someone who has an injury, be it a bruise or someone suffocating from tear gas. There are six makeshift clinics at Taksim, staffed with volunteering doctors and medical students because police aren’t letting ambulances through. There were 500 people needing treatment in the medical center I was in yesterday; these people can’t get to hospitals. On Friday one protester was in front of a hospital and she saw 40 ambulances taking people in—at that point the official numbers of people who had been injured was less than 40. So I can’t confirm injuries, but obviously a lot more people are injured than the media is reporting. At least where I am right now, Gaviscon, which is used to help the effects of tear gas, is sold out.

I’ve heard some reports that police have destroyed benches and billboards to make it seem like protesters did it. Have you seen that?
There are a ton of rumors floating around about all sorts of things. The first night we were here people were screaming about young people being killed openly on the streets by police, which is still unconfirmed. Then yesterday there was a lot of talk about Turkish Greenpeace confirming that Agent Orange gas had been used against protesters, but again I think that was just a rumor. I’m not saying it can be ruled out, but it’s hard to confirm. It is possible that police have gone into crowds intentionally causing a ruckus, but it could also have been football hooligans or anarchists. We actually spent time yesterday with a group of protesters who’ve spent the entire time gathering all the rumors and then trying to fact-check them.


Anti-Erdogan protesters gather in Istanbul on Saturday night.

What kind of demographic are you mainly seeing?
Mainly young people, because we are mainly out filming the action in the evening, but the moving thing about this protest, and what a lot of Turkish people have been talking about, is that all types of people are protesting and chanting side by side. There are Turkish nationalists next to Muslim anti-capitalists and even Kurds. For Turkey this is very special. Added to that you see women in head scarves, football hooligans, and anarchists. Everyone is out on the streets because they found that this absolutely brutal clampdown on a peaceful protest is unfair, and they’ve joined forces to say, “No, this is enough.” So it’s a difficult question to answer—there are lots of people.

Do the protesters seem to have a common ideology?
Of course, like in any protest, you see socialist flags and anarchist flags, but as I said before this is clearly not a protest with specific political agenda. Above all, this is a protest about human rights, freedom of speech, and democracy. Everything began with a small protest to protect the Gezi Park from being demolished to make way for a shopping mall. An MP from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, Sırrı Süreyya Önder, stood in front of the bulldozers and told them it was illegal to demolish the trees in Gezi Park without permission. He was shot by police with a tear-gas canister and hospitalized. People are angry because this is one of the last green areas in this part of Istanbul and because it’s historically an important symbol of civil resistance, but also the gentrification of this area is something people have been angry about for a while now. Mainly, though, the more brutal the police are, the angrier people are becoming.

Are the protesters aligning themselves with the main opposition party in Turkey?
People are trying to take over the protest for their own ideological purposes, but there are many different groups out there. I can’t emphasize enough how many different groups of people there are. You have hipsters next to nationalists next to Muslim anticapitalists next to families next to anarchists. It’s about people standing up to brutality and saying they will have their voices heard. I can't believe I've seen Kurds and Turkish nationalists protest party together.


An man receives treatment for wounds at one of Istanbul's makeshift hospitals.

Have there been any pro-government groups or Islamists trying to attack the protest groups?
Yes, there have been pro-AKP people fighting alongside police against protesters in Istanbul and other cities. These people are very pro-AKP so you can safely say that they’re Islamists. There aren’t a lot of them, though.

Are there any demands, slogans, or chants that are common to most protesters?
I’ve heard “From shoulder to shoulder against fascism,” “Police take your gas masks off and we’ll see who the real man is” and "Don't stop expressing yourself, if you do you'll be the next one (brutalized)."

What are the state-friendly news stations broadcasting over there?
This is something that every person we interviewed talks about: they want to know if we’re Turkish or international media. There’s very little coverage. We were interviewing people in a hotel and on the news there were happy images of farmers and their cattle while outside it looked like a warzone. People on the street feel that this isn’t being adequately reported on. People are booing at Turkish media vans. Erdoğan keeps infuriating people with his TV appearances while Turkish media is very quiet about the protests.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @Matt_A_Shea

More on Turkey:

Turkey Almost Lost Its Internet 

Occupiers Faced Down Cops in Istanbul's Taksim Square  

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