You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Turkey's Protests Won't Die Like Occupy Wall Street Did

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

On June 15, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent armored cars and riot police to clear Taksim Square. Gezi Park, the site of the original protests within the square, was closed to the public and put under police watch. For weeks after, the neighborhood felt quiet—"like playing house," Sibel, 23, who lives just down the road on Istiklal Avenue, said two weeks ago. (Like most protesters I spoke with, she asked that I not use her last name.) “A few days ago, we said, ‘Let’s do normal things.’”

The protesters, of course, found other means of resistance. Each night, they gathered by the hundreds in open neighborhood forums in cities around the country, and at exactly 9 p.m., supporters still clanged pots and pans and flickered their lights for 10-15 minutes while those on the streets below honked horns. But Gezi Park again became a site of conflict on Monday, when it was officially, and ceremoniously, reopened with newly planted grass and flowers. Only three hours later, police blocked its entrance and access to major surrounding streets, again employing tear gas and water cannons to repel protesters who planned to reconvene in the park later that evening. It was reopened for the second time on Tuesday, to groups that re-entered with banners and impromptu memorials; larger crowds joined later that night.

With the renewed focus on the park, one would be forgiven for assuming that the Turkey protests have much in common with the Occupy movement in the U.S., which began with the 2011 occupation of New York City’s Zuccotti Park. Indeed, Turkey’s protesters initially embraced the Occupy theme to popularize their message with a foreign audience. An “Occupy Turkey” Tumblr urged those following the events to use the hashtags #occupyturkey and #occupygezi, and actors within Turkey’s government drew comparisons, too: President Abdullah Gül insisted that the unrest in Turkey was “similar” to Occupy Wall Street and “completely different” from the Arab Spring revolts.

But don’t be misled. Turkey’s protests are much bigger than Occupy Wall Street ever was—and already have accomplished much more.

The most apparent sign of the protesters’ success came when, in mid-June, a Turkish court ruled against Erdoğan’s plan to build a replica of Ottoman-style military barracks in Taksim Square. Though the court’s decision was presumably independent, it’s worth noting that it was made at the peak of the unrest in early June (but only released last week). The ruling, though it can be appealed, is an early blow to the prime minister, who initially refused to negotiate with protesters, and to a government that on Wednesday passed legislation curbing the authority of the Turkish Chamber for Architects and Engineers, one of the original groups against Gezi Park's reconstruction.

But a more lasting accomplishment of the protests might be their unexpected diversity, a much broader coalition of political, religious, and ethnic interests than Occupy Wall Street could have dreamed of.

Turkey’s conflicted history, like its treatment of Kurdish and, in the past, Armenian populations, has long made certain conversations difficult. Many Turks are “not very open to each other’s ideas in general,” Eray, a protester of Alevi background, told me. And “even the most liberal person you know here might be against Kurds,” said Selin, a protester who is half-Armenian.

Eray pointed to a picture that he feels best captures the protests. In one hand, a woman protester holds a Turkish flag with the face of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey—often a symbol of ultranationalist secularism; in the other, she holds the hand of a man with a flag of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The pair, supporters of political parties that would rarely have cooperated, are helping each other escape a water cannon. “When I saw it, I couldn’t believe it,” Eray said. “I thought, how could this happen?”

That photo is not an isolated example of the unlikely alliances formed amid the unrest. On June 28, security forces opened fire at an unrelated protest in Lice, a district in Turkey’s heavily Kurdish province of Diyarbakır; an 18-year-old Kurdish man was killed, and 10 wounded. Historically, such clashes are not uncommon in the area, but this time the news was tweeted with a twist on the popular #direnGezi hashtag: #direnLice, or “resist Lice.” What’s more, protesters in Istanbul—some 1,000 miles from Lice—then took to the streets to condemn what had happened.

Turkey’s protesters do face more obstacles than those in America did—principally, how to convey their message in the face of state intimidation. While President Barack Obama was sympathetic to Occupy, Erdoğan has used his bully pulpit to do just that: bully protesters. He has called them “çapulçu” (looters or vandals) and “terrorists,” blamed the “conspiracy” on the opposition, and even alleged that protesters wore shoes and drank beer in a mosque-cum-hospital—and when the mosque’s muezzin and imam refuted the allegation, Erdoğan said it again.

How will the protesters maintain momentum amid violent crackdowns and Erdoğan’s rhetoric? Occupy in the U.S., after all, was undone partly by police evictions (and partly by wintry weather), never having achieved its stated goals. But Occupy couldn't figure out how to fan out beyond its urban park encampments. Turkey’s movement, meanwhile, has already moved on from the symbolism of occupying a public space—the size and frequency of the protests all these weeks, while Gezi was sealed off by police, is proof of that.

That doesn’t mean there’s a clear answer yet to the question everyone’s asking: “What’s next?” Some protesters, like Eray, speak of petitioning the European Court of Human Rights or drafting certain legislation. Selen, another protester, has heard others propose starting a new political party or changing the Parliament’s election threshold of 10 percent for party representation. But the protesters’ most public demands for the moment appear to be about how they should be allowed to protest.

Perhaps they’ll collectively hash out their future over dinner. On Tuesday evening, after Gezi Park was reopened, the municipality hosted an iftar in Taksim Square to break the fast on the second day of Ramadan. Tables were set with tablecloths and flowered centerpieces. But protesters of myriad ages, beliefs, and backgrounds convened instead for a much larger “people’s iftar,” eating at a 500-meter-long communal “table” of newspapers and cloth laid out in the middle of Istiklal Avenue—and held their ground, even as armored vehicles approached.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Erdogan alleged that protesters were barefoot in a mosque. He alleged that protesters wore shoes in the mosque.