Kai Wilson ’14, a Political Science major and the current President of MCSG, never planned to study in Turkey, a secular democracy in the Middle East.
“I thought Turkey was a desert, I had no clue,” he said. “I went in with open eyes.”
Wilson found much of what he expected in Istanbul: a great night life, food and soccer. But along with other Mac students, he found a protest movement brewing over discontent with the government.
The protests began in Istanbul, a city split in half between Europe and Asia. The cosmopolitan city was the birthplace of Turkey’s recent protest movement at the end of last May.
The country had already been at a tipping point since earlier that month. On May Day, marches turned violent as riot police clashed with protesters. Wilson noted that the May Day protests in Istanbul were “huge,” saying it “[was] the most tear gassed I have ever been” after he and some friends attempted to take a ferry for a social outing at a local beach.
He recalls one late night discussing some of the issues facing Istanbul and Turkey at large with another Mac student, Ceren Kaysadi ’14, a native of the city who was participating in a digital media internship there at the time. In that conversation, Wilson cited a variety of causes of tension between the government and protesters in Istanbul: the construction of new high rises, growing migrant populations, the increasing commercialization of Istanbul, the state-sponsored push to build new mosques and the government’s perceived detachment from the people.
“[Taksim] Gezi Park was just the final straw,” he said.
The protest movement was transformed on May 31.
“The next day when I went to work at the [Turkish] Basketball Federation, people were saying, ‘Don’t go to Taksim,’” Wilson said.
Kaysadi did not have much of a choice. For her internship, she worked in a high rise overlooking Taksim Gezi Park, one of the last green spaces in its corner of Istanbul. According to press accounts, days before May 31 only a small number of protesters (Kaysadi described them as “peaceful environmental protesters”) staged a sit-in to contest the planned demolition of the park to build a commercial area in its place.
According to Kaysadi, at about 5 a.m. the police suddenly raided the camp of the protesters during their sit-in. When she got to her internship, her co-workers informed her about the attack.
“I literally looked out [the window and] in less than an hour there was a pepper spray canister falling down from somewhere,” she said. This was noteworthy since she worked on the 17th floor of her building.
“We go out to lunch and we literally get pepper sprayed,” she added.
“I was 10 minutes away from where all of the protests were happening. I smelled the tear gas in the air,” Wilson said.
A growing movement
According to Kaysadi, word of the situation spread rapidly on Twitter.
“All the big football [American soccer] team fans . . . are tweeting simultaneously saying, ‘You know what? You fucked up big time this time, we’re coming on the streets,’” she said.
When the football clubs joined the protests, Kaysadi knew they had become a significant movement. “After the football fans came in, it kind of became this passionate street action,” she said.
While the issues Wilson discussed with Kaysadi laid the groundwork for the protests in Taksim Gezi Park, the fight became more broadly opposed to the regime of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the perceived brutality of its response to the protests as more people took to the streets.
After the first police raid, protesters maintained a constant vigil for 20 days to prevent Taksim Gezi Park from being demolished for construction.
“People literally started this village in the park. They would share food, they would share tea, they would share their blankets,” she said. “People would leave their office, go to the park, spend the night, go back home, take a shower in the morning, and go back to work.”
As protesters set up camp in the park, the protests spread.
For Joe Speer ’14, who was abroad in Istanbul studying Urban Studies last semester, the protests soon spread to his suburb an hour away (Speer’s closest encounter with the protests was actually before they started on May Day, when he was almost arrested by Turkish police as he fled down a hill). Kiyal Eresen ’14, a Turkish Cypriot, noted the spread of protests to Nicosia, the capital of the Turkish half of Cyprus. Protesters called for the resignation of Erdoğan at the beginning of June.
The protests still continue. On Sept. 10 the movement was rekindled in southern Turkey after a sixth civilian death occurred during a skirmish between hundreds of protesters and riot police late at night.
As the protests swelled, mainstream media operations found it difficult to report on the situation.“What you see on the news is not even close to what is really happening on the ground,” Kaysadi wrote in a follow-up email after our interview. “I had to personally witness how the big media channels closed their doors and windows, when riots were happening down on the next street whilst policemen [were] beating up the civilians.” Mac students on the ground began doing some of this work themselves. For Kaysadi, that meant frequent Twitter and Facebook posts, in both English and Turkish, explaining the situation as she perceived it from talking to activists at the protests and going out to protests both at Taksim and in her home neighborhood whenever she was off work.
“I immediately published what was happening literally during the day on Macalester’s student groups [on Facebook],” Kaysadi said.
At work, she gained the nickname “Ceren the Resister” for her activism.
“I kept spreading the news because I kind of felt obliged to do it,” she added.
Wilson and Speer took a different approach. They started a joint Twitter account, Americans in Turkey, to provide English reports from the area on the protests and retweeted a variety of news reports on the subject. However, their citizen journalism was cut short; with the growth of the protest movement, their study abroad ended with a “forced departure,” according to Wilson.
“It was this passion I hadn’t seen,” Wilson said. “Political passion, soccer passion, whatever you want to call it, it was the biggest difference I saw between the US and Turkey. And I loved it.”
Finding an endgame
Wilson and Speer’s Twitter account described Erdoğan as “Big Brother” in one tweet, and nobody interviewed for this article identified themselves as a fan of the government leader or his administration. Nevertheless, Mac students were not rushing to make the issue black and white. While Kaysadi plans to vote for the main opposition party, the CHP, in the next elections, she is not particularly satisfied with any Turkish political party right now. And Erin Newton ‘14 *, who grew up in Izmir, is willing to paint a more nuanced image of the prime minister, praising the economic policies Erdoğan’s administration previously pursued while condemning the regime’s violent crackdown on protesters.
“Dissent and discomfort and frustration are what unite them against the administration, and in that respect I am united with them,” he said, offering qualified support for the movement.
As the protest movement grows, there are disparate interests and groups that have their own goals in mind: Kurds, Alevites, Cypriots, students and liberal secularists in large cities like Istanbul and Izmir, all coexisting under a large umbrella of opposition to the administration.
“It has been a concern for all of us since week one, and it was problematic because all of these ‘marginalized’ groups came onto the field like communists and more aggressive groups, which I would not personally support,” Kaysadi said. “But eventually, all of us were there for one cause: to achieve our freedom, our social freedom.”
“Part of the reason they have gained so much traction across the country . . . is because it is so multifaceted across so many ethnic and religious social class groups,” Newton said. “It doesn’t matter what economic class you come from, you get sympathizers from basically every level.”
And while some want to see Erdoğan out of office (although not, Kaysadi stressed, in a coup), others are worried about the consequences of another party claiming the presidency.
“I really want Erdoğan to be gone for both Turkey’s and Cyprus’ sake, but at the same time for the Cypriots’ sake I don’t want him gone just yet because I think he is the only political leader in Turkey now that could be willing to have a negotiation on the island,” Eresen said.
An opponent of Turkey annexing the northern half of Cyprus, she said the opposition CHP follows “a much more nationalistic policy” and “are not as lenient as Erdoğan onthe Cyprus issue.”
Back at Mac
It is difficult to say just how informed Mac students are on Turkey as a whole and the protests in particular, but it likely falls somewhere between thinking the entire country is a massive desert and the hyper-involvement of someone like Kaysadi.
“International coverage only lasted a few days, and then it started fading away,” Kaysadi wrote. “It almost feels like nowadays we are on our own if we really need to find out what’s happening out there.”
“I think there’s mild interest [in the protests]. I think it really comes down to those who are most interested are typically interested in international affairs and those who are friends with the handful of Turks on campus,” Newton said. “That’s about it. I would say the majority of campus isn’t very involved.”
“I would like for everyone to know about what’s happening in Turkey and really the magnitude of what’s happening in terms of people resisting those in power, but it’s just not really on our radar,” Speer said.
But even Speer, since returning from Turkey, laments how he went from following the protests “24/7” while in the country to relatively ignoring the situation since coming back to Macalester this semester.
Kaysadi is exasperated so much of the story remains untold. “So much to tell. Rethinking everything, it just makes me want to scratch the walls,” she wrote.
*Editor’s note: Erin Newton lives with Danny Surman.