Amid violent crackdown, young Turkish protesters light fire-kites of freedom

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—-an eyewitness account by Mehmet Ozturk in Izmir, Turkey —

I live in Izmir, a coastal city of 3.6 million people, third largest in Turkey.

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On Saturday June 1, seven of us joined thousands of people who went to Gündoğdu Square in Alsancak in central Izmir.

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We were responding to a police crackdown on protesters in Istanbul trying to stop a project to put a shopping mall and army barracks in Taksim Gezi Park. The incident sparked a nationwide uprising against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

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There was a peaceful and colorful atmosphere in Izmir.

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People representing different groups, social classes, ethnicities, political parties and football clubs were together. Supporters of arch-rival football teams Karşıyaka and Göztepe, from opposite shores of Izmir, were waving their flags together.

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People were chanting slogans: Tayyip Resign!, Government Resign! We are Mustafa Kemal’s Soldiers! Turkey is Secular, Turkey Will Remain Secular! Shoulder to shoulder against Fascism!

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However, I saw provocateurs among the protesters trying to pull the crowd towards Basmane district, where police were waiting. They had sticks in their hands. They were yelling at the crowd: “Police are attacking protesters, we need to go to help them.”

But some of us knew that there were actually no protesters in Basmane. There were only police and water canons.

The provocateurs succeeded in moving crowds to Basmane. Clashes started with police. Police threw tear gas and attacked with water cannons.

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Protesters started a fire in the middle of a road and made barricades.

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After midnight, police smashed the crowd with excessive force. People there filmed it and shared it by social media. The police sprayed pepper gas into faces, knocked them down with water cannons, beat them with truncheons, kicked people lying on the ground. Vigilante groups, loyal to the governing party, were armed with knives and cleavers, and they used wood and iron sticks and clubs to beat people.

I saw a destroyed Burger King and Starbucks in Alsancak. My friends said that Bank Asya, connected to an Islamist group, was burnt down. People think vandals did this, not protesters. It was a terrible night.

The next day Sunday, June 2, crowds gathered again at Gündoğdu Square. The atmosphere was the same.

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There were no problems in the daylight. Many people went away and came back after the rain stopped. The rain shrunk the crowd size from about 30,000 to 10,000.

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People lit torches and started fires on the pavement to keep warm.

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Police were waiting outside of the square. Pro-government people were waiting on the side streets. My friends saw them, and said the vigilantes had knives, clubs, and sticks of wood and iron, which one of them used to hit my friend’s father.

Most of the vigilantes are reportedly members of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Youth Branch. They walk behind the police to search for protesters, drive them into corners, and beat them horribly with wood and iron sticks.

Erdogan, who reportedly called protesters “drunkards and marauders”, said that if the number of protesters increases, he would bring much more people against them. And reportedly he used these words: “If there are 100,000, I’ll bring 1,000,000 against them.” To prepare for this, people brought “defensive materials”: bottles of milk-water mix; lemons; masks; pots, spoons and whistles to make noise.

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Protesters used a municipal bus as a barricade to prevent police from reaching the square. Police used tear gas. But there weren’t serious problems until midnight. After midnight, police made an assault on people at the square. They used water cannons, tear gas and truncheons. As people fled, the pro-government vigilantes chased them. My friends and other anti-government protesters hurried to take shelter in surrounding houses and a military officer’s club. Everybody was scared, and texting people to tell them what was happening.

There was excessive violence and disproportionate use of force. Police used water cannons to drive people to the coastal promenade and surround them. My friends watched from their balconies. Everybody was texting updates. They saw people beaten and arrested. Many were arrested in Alsancak.

After midnight, in Karşıyaka, on the other side of the bay, I saw a huge crowd making noises with saucepans and spoons. 

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People driving cars joined in. They sounded their horns.

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It was noisy but non-violent. My friends took photographs of the Justice and Development Party’s Karşıyaka building burning down.

Everybody is trying to share info with social media, because mainstream Turkish media is not covering these incidents. They only covered the prime minister’s speeches. Only one channel, Halk TV, funded by Republican People’s Party, showed the protests.

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The next day in Istanbul, people protested outside NTV, a national television network owned by Doğuş Group, which has a close relationship with Erdogan’s government. The sign, above, says: “Media, how are you? Perhaps you are busy?”

Many protesters are against these things:

–bylaws and legislations for the benefit of Islamic capital groups

–the government’s attitude towards secularism and lifestyles which we want

–government attempts to transform the education system into a more religious one

–Erdogan’s desire to create a religious youth, preventing people to celebrate national holidays

–Erdogan’s dictatorial behavior, disrupting the freedom of speech, imprisoning anti-government journalists, authors, and doctors (including a famous surgeon Mehmet Haberal), and many other people with an opposing view.

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This is mainly a resistance of people from a broad cross-section of political parties, ethnic groups and social classes.

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More days of protest followed. On June 4, there was a vibe of “Make Love, Not War”. People were chanting, dancing, kissing, sharing food, holding banners — it was like a youth festival. There were no police, tear gas, pepper spray, violence, or provocateurs in the square. 

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The people of Turkey want to solve this situation in our own way, in a self-sufficient way, and without assistance from any countries. This resistance is no longer about the Gezi Park urbanization project in Istanbul. It is about people’s desire to restore a country full of freedom and free from hatred. To symbolize this, people lit up lanterns to send their wishes into the sky. 

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