A small cadre of Turkish Seattleites are organizing support for escalating protests they say are about saving democracy in Turkey.
It began as a peaceful gathering — a relatively small protest to save a celebrated park in central Istanbul from becoming a shopping mall.
Then last Thursday Istanbul police swept into Gezi Park in Taksim Square to dispel the demonstrators with tear gas and water cannons in an overt display of force, the likes of which haven’t been seen in Turkey for years.
Overnight major Turkish cities erupted in violence as riot police clashed with protestors galvanized by the tactics taken by police in Istanbul. Fire and tear gas filled the streets near major tourist destinations in Istanbul, Anakara, and Izmir.
Hundreds of protestors turned into tens of thousands. According to the Turkish government, more than 1,000 people were detained in two days (protestors say the number is much higher) and three confirmed deaths.
A video summarizing protest events in Turkey so far, compiled by Istanbulda Ne Oluyor.
The images coming from the streets of Turkey stirred Nokta Berberoglu, a 36-year-old Amazon employee raised in Turkey now living in Seattle.
On Friday morning Berberoglu started reaching out to her Turkish friends in Seattle, mostly young tech-industry professionals. By Friday evening they had organized a small demonstration of their own in Westlake Park in support of protestors back home.
Since then the group, which calls itself Save Turkish Democracy, has been gathering daily at the Seattle home of Ozgur Araman, a 34-year-old Microsoft software engineer who moved from Turkey eight months ago.
“We woke up that morning and we had to do something,” said Berberoglu Monday night, surrounded by 12 members of the group inside Araman’s home. “It’s not even about the trees anymore.”
The Turkish expats crowded in Araman’s living room came to strategize about what actions their group will take next.
A large flat screen TV displayed a twitter feed following Turkish hash tags, and a YouTube window played videos taken by protestors on the ground.
For many in the U.S. the protests in Turkey appeared to have sprung out of thin air as the media struggled to tease out some context in the days following the first clashes.
Parallels to the Arab Spring and Occupy started appearing online almost immediately. Was Gezi Park Istanbul’s Zucotti Park? Would Taksim Square become Turkey’s Tahrir Square?
According to members of Save Turkish Democracy, the connections are flimsy at best. Young people clashing with police and tweeting the action from urban encampments does not an Occupy movement or Turkish Spring make.
Group members said you only have to look at the name of their group, Save Turkish Democracy, to understand how it differs from the movements that swept the Arab world in 2011.
“It’s not comparable. We are here to save the existing rights, not get them,” said Berberoglu.
While there have been some major bumps along the way, Turkey has essentially maintained a multi-party, secular democracy since the 1940s. The group said most protestors just want the freedoms guaranteed in Turkey’s constitution to be upheld.
Unlike Occupy, the protests in Turkey are not aimed at income inequality or the influence of banks and corporations on government. Instead, many Turks are rallying in support of maintaining their secular state and freedom of expression that they argue was brutally quashed in Gezi Park.
There’s also the issue of Turkey’s confrontational Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogon became Prime Minister in 2003 following a landslide victory of his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP). Plans to raze Gezi Park and the subsequent police raid of protestors appeared to be the tipping point for many Turks after years of frustration over Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian and religiously justified policies.
There was his crackdown on PDAs (no kissing in the subway). Then alcohol laws were restricted, making it illegal to sell booze after 10 p.m.
Erdogan’s biggest detractors call him a tyrant and have demanded an end to his government. In recent speeches the Prime Minister has extended little reconciliation. He has dismissed protestors as “looters” and “bums”, called Twitter a “menace to society” and reaffirmed his stance to move forward with revamping Taksim Square.
However, the group gathered in Seattle was quick to point out they’re not out to support one politician over another.
“I don’t know if people in this group even know each others political views,” said 37-year-old Kutlay Topantan.” It’s not a political issue, we haven’t even talked about it.”
One of Save Turkish Democracy’s primary tasks has been to use social media to relay information from friends and family on the ground to others inside Turkey. Group members voiced frustration and confusion over the Turkish governments suppression of free speech and freedom the press.
Erdogan’s control over Turkish media and the increasing number of imprisoned Turkish journalists has been a rallying point for many protestors. The Turkish press is among the most stifled in the world, according to the non-profit group Reporters Without Borders. Turkey currently ranks 154th out of 179countries in the organization’s Press Freedom Index.
Batuhan Biyikoglu, another member of Save Turkish Democracy, said when the violence started last week, he called his family in Turkey to make sure everyone was safe, but a media blackout of the protests kept many Turks in the dark. “They didn’t even know what was going on,” Biyikoglu said.
As the police were releasing water cannons and tear gas in central Istanbul, CNN-Turk was broadcasting a three-part documentary on penguins. The CNN affiliate is one of the largest news channels in Turkey. An online petition is now demanding CNN pull its affiliation with the station.
While it may not come under the Occupy umbrella, the events in Turkey seem to have marked an awakening for younger Turks. Feliz Kurban, a 34-year-old member of the group originally from Istanbul, said the upside to the unrest is that people of her generation are finding a political voice.
“I am glad this happened,” she said. “This has united people in a way that hasn’t happened in my life time. If this becomes a civil rights movement, that would be great.”
Everyone in the group agreed, they would be on streets if they were back home. In the meantime, Save Turkish Democracy has vowed to continue to gather in Seattle to support the efforts of protestors and raise awareness about the suppression of free speech in Turkey.
“We want people to know that innocent people are getting hurt for stating an opinion,” Berberoglu said. “Basic democratic rights are being abused.”
Save Turkish Democracy will hold another rally in support of Turkish protestors Saturday, June 8th at 1 p.m. in Victor Steinbrueck Park. Details here.