As we celebrate the birth of the United States of America this Fourth of July, we asked a former Crested Butte News photographer and writer to share her experience of being in a country where people are demanding freedoms similar to ours. Brooke MacMillan and her husband, Jason, are currently living in Istanbul, Turkey. She agreed to share their insights and perspective with the readers of the Crested Butte News…
Over the chants and shouts of protesters—thousands of ordinary people taken to the streets in an effort to shift politics here in Turkey—we watched as the police TOMA trucks (tank-like, riot control vehicles fitted with water cannon turrets) rolled slowly toward the crowd of protesters. Opening the valves, they began shooting thousands of gallons of orange, chemical-laced liquid in an unyielding baptismal, sending protesters upside-down, limb-over-limb along the pavement, their skin reddened with chemical burns, clothes soaked and clinging to their bodies.
Some stayed down, while others eventually crawled to safety only to regain composure and run from the advancing riot police, who were shooting tear gas canisters and rubber bullets into the crowd. I felt a hot metal canister sling past my face and land a few yards away with a hard smack before smoking and sending people coughing and crying in the other direction. Lines of riot police marched forward in deep blues, helmets, and hard plastic shields, surrounding Taksim Square and Gezi Park, ready to retake the heart of the city. Thousands of protesters had occupied the area for some 10-odd days, transforming the space into a sort of utopic Freetown, representing everything the demonstrators wanted for a new Turkey. Standing at the edge of the conflict, Jason and I gave each other the look we know to mean, “Okay, that’s about all for us today.”
I had never been a part of a protest. I could usually be counted on to stand up for the types of things I felt one should support as a young, female Democrat born and raised in Colorado. Usually political or environmental issues that were at times peripheral and depthless—this solidarity I exercised through letter writing, petition signing, canvassing and blind naysaying. Yes! to Obama, gun control, composting (of course, fur is murder), and let’s not get started on fracking. But these movements have often felt compartmentalized and safe—inline with my party and gender.
Then we left Crested Butte for Istanbul, arriving last August after Jason took a job at an international school here—population increase 10,000 percent—we got a taste of what it’s like to live in a country where people are living and (street) fighting for many of the basic freedoms that I, at times, took for granted back home. Although we’re expats experiencing this city for a couple years before ultimately moving on, we feel a commitment and obligation to this beautiful country, to show support of the personal freedoms so inherent in our motherland—something that goes beyond nationality and culture and pulls at our very human experience.
So 11 eventful months after the move we happily join our Turkish brethren, banging pots and donning gas masks and goggles before heading to the Square in a show of support.
During the four-plus weeks of demonstrations there have been five deaths and 7,833 injured from the excessive use of water cannons, rubber bullets, billy-clubs and tear gas canisters—the injuries have ranged from respiratory problems to severe head trauma to a surprising number of lost eyes (13). From his balcony, a colleague of Jason’s filmed his street as riot police ran after a protester, beat him unconscious with billy-clubs and drug his motionless body out of view—the footage went viral, immediately adding to the scores of videos documenting excessive police force and brutality currently fanning the flames of this protest.
The arrests have also been appalling: 4,900 people arrested for exercising their right to protest, 74 lawyers arrested for assisting and representing protesters and recently several doctors were arrested for volunteering to help those injured in the clashes. Doctors, arrested for helping the injured.
The demonstrations began after environmental protesters attempted to save the small and beloved Gezi Park from being razed to build a new shopping center. The protesters camped peacefully in the space until the government eventually sent in riot police in the early morning hours of May 31, firing tear gas and water cannons before setting fire to the camps. Images of the burning camp, bloodied protesters and aggressive police force ignited a fire in people who have become increasingly fed up with the ruling of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., whose authoritarian governance has been argued to threaten basic freedoms.
It’s an interesting situation as the country has undergone rapid economic growth over the last ten years and many accredit this to Erdogan. Modern day Turkey is the wealthiest and most successful Muslim country in contemporary history. This has widened the middle class exponentially as businesses prospered and people started making some good money. The country isn’t part of the Eurozone, so while neighboring Greeks threw yogurt in response to the government-mandated austerity measures, Turkey has been enjoying a victory lap around many of its struggling European counterparts.
But these luxuries seem to have come at a price. Soaked in justifications around religious laws the PM has slowly tightened his grip on aspects of personal freedoms, most notably freedoms of speech. Citing a vague Turkish law concerning acts of terrorism against the country, Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country.
In response to the protests and mass sharing of images and news surrounding police violence and excessive force, the government is drafting new laws aimed at censoring social media outlets. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested for tweeting about the movement. The government has also contacted Facebook and Twitter demanding login and user information to track down specific protesters. Both requests were swiftly denied.
It’s unreal to us that when we pick up a cup of coffee in the morning we cannot grab a credible Turkish newspaper to get real and factual news on events, leaving us to rely heavily on American and English news sources as well as social media.
The public has also grown resentful over Erdogan’s religiously inspired tendency to meddle in the personal lives of citizens—by condemning abortion and suggesting that all women have at least three children; many are outraged at the government’s hand in bedroom affairs. There have also been strict new laws over the sale and consumption of alcohol—stores are no longer allowed to sell alcohol past 10 p.m. or within 100 meters of religious or educational facilities (which pretty much means everywhere), and they have increased the alcohol import tax 88 percent (Jason pays upwards of $12 for a pint of Guinness).
Despite the excessive police force and harsh government response the protesters are everyone: the young and passionate men and women who grew up accustomed to the democratic freedoms once promised by this regime, the little old ladies who show their support by banging on pots and pans from kitchen windows every night at 9 p.m., shopkeepers who chant alongside the scores who march through the streets nightly, the business owners and hoteliers who have lodged and protected protesters during severe police clashes. Regardless of the outcome here in Turkey, it has been amazing to witness people coming together with courage and hope, exercising their right to challenge the government.
With worldwide coverage and attention, all eyes are on Erdogan, who has repeatedly blamed anyone and everyone for the protests (foreign terrorism, an international plot against his country, and “an interest rate lobby” disturbed by its recent high rates of growth). He has not taken responsibility for his actions or considered opposing viewpoints, instead spreading fear and punishing those who have spoken out.
Every country has its problems, and we have certainly watched U.S. politics digress into bitter partisan bickering over the years. But it’s our right to bicker, and we as Americans take pride in this along with our ability to say what we think without fear of reprisal. We will be thinking of all of you this 4th of July, watching fireworks (or not), eating hotdogs (God, we miss pork) and celebrating the birth of a truly inspirational country.