Taksim Square Protest: Erdogan's Tear Gas Only Fuels the Fire

As protests in Turkey escalate and labor unions go on strike to protest police brutality, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinic met growing unrest with threats to deploy Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) if the police failed to restore order. Recently, two union federations representing about 800,000 doctors, engineers, and dentists, hosted a one-day strike in solidarity with protesters, and have further provoked the ire of government officials. On Monday, during a televised interview, Arinic deemed the strike illegal and emphasized the lengths to which the government would go to stop them. However, the knee-jerk impulse to meet challenges to Erdogan’s authority with excessive violence will only bolster the spirit and resolve of protesters and provoke even greater sympathy towards their cause. 

Attempts to silence demonstrators thus far have only resulted in an amplification of their voices. What began on May 28 as a small sit-in in Gezi Park with only about 100 activists has spread throughout the country, and indeed, the world. Originally meant to resist the demolition of one of Istanbul’s only remaining green spaces, protests have become symbolic defenses of the freedoms of speech and assembly. Much of this stems from the fact that initial demonstrations were met with excessive police force, such as the burning of activists’ tents and belongings and the use of water cannons and tear gas to clear the area.

The government initially apologized for the initial police raid of the camp, but statements since have grown in their threatening and repressive nature. Along with Arinic’s recent comments, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed protests as "nothing more than the minority's attempt to dominate the majority... and we will not allow it." It is troubling when expressions of dissent towards one’s government become justification for majority tyranny, as Erdogan implies. And if dispersing protesters is one of Erdogan’s top priorities, meeting them with such hostility and condescension is not conducive to that goal, especially considering that, according to a poll by Istanbul Bilgi University researchers of 3,000 activists indicates that 92.4% are protesting specifically because of Erdogan’s “authoritarian” attitude.

Prime Minister Erdogan misses the point when he notes that protests are not about ripped up trees. Yes, on the one hand, demonstrations have escalated into something larger and more symbolic, but on the other hand, that symbolism is intimately tied to the fight to protect Gezi Park and natural spaces, in general. Erdogan may be confident in his rule, touting the economic gains made in Turkey under his authority, but doing so only adds insult to injury: Destroying Gezi Park would be an additional step in the process of gentrification in the city center for the sake of foreign investments, showing a “complete disregard for the city in ecological and social terms”, according to a widely-circulated Jadaliyya article. Furthermore, beyond the excessive police brutality and open hostility towards the protesters by government officials, Gezi Park represents a natural space in which people can congregate and assemble. An assault on the space represents an assault on one of the most fundamental of civil liberties. 

There is still opportunity to calm the growing unrest in Turkey, despite the four dead and 5,000 injured, according to the Turkish Medical Association. Deploying the Turkish army and increasing the use of police force on peaceful protesters, however, is not the solution. As Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International noted, “To Prime Minister Erdogan I say stop the violence, end the brutality and open up the media to allow a full debate of the issues. The world is watching. We have heard the prime minister rightfully call for peace elsewhere in the Middle East. He must now walk that talk at home…. Violence serves no one's interest.”