At 7 p.m., people left work. By 8 p.m., people walked in the streets. By 2 a.m. they went home. It was becoming a routine, Ali Uslu explained as he sat in the George Sherman Union.
However, Uslu, a College of Arts and Sciences junior, was not describing the typical Friday night in Boston. He was describing the routine he found at home in Istanbul this summer during a temporary lifestyle of protesting.
After finishing his BU classes at the end of June, Uslu returned home to Istanbul to find his friends spending their evenings in the streets “mingling with the police.” Except by “mingling,” Uslu meant the police were shooting tear gas and water cannons at a crowd of chanting protesters.
“When I got tear-gassed for the first time, I didn’t think I would breath again,” Uslu said.
Uslu, among other BU students whose homes and families are in Turkey or who spent their summers in the country, had varied levels of contact with the protests before returning for the fall semester. Some students took to the streets themselves, while others thought the protesters were simply stirring up trouble. But all viewed the activism taking place through the lens of social media.
The protests, which began May 31 as activists occupied Istanbul’s Gezi Park to prevent its demolition for a proposed mall development, grew into larger protests decrying the increasing authoritarianism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, international relations Wilfrid Rollman explained. Though the number of people involved in these protests has diminished since June, the protests still continue today, as police respond with stronger tactics.
Initial environmental protests quickly evolved as Turkish citizens felt they lost control of their country, wrote Jenny White, an expert on contemporary Turkey and a CAS anthropology professor, in her blog on July 21 recounting the events of this summer.
“[The protests occurred because] the space for accountability in Turkey has become as small as one’s shadow at noon,” she wrote.
However, the necessity for more protests and the effectiveness of past protests is up for debate, White wrote. White’s first-hand accounts from citizens of Istanbul concluded that “there may have been excessive force used, but the overall assessment was that the protesters deserved it for causing trouble.”
The force used by the police and Erdoğan should not have been unexpected, Rollman said.
“Turkish regimes are not known for being gentle with protesters,” he said.
These protests did not indicate a continuation of the Arab Spring, but they did occur in a pivotal country in the region.
“People were very concerned about these protests,” Rollman said. “Are they going to destabilize the country? Is this going to be another Syria? There was a concern that if these protests were mishandled, it could balloon.”
Uslu said that police preventing citizens from protesting shows that Turkey is not a democracy. However, he said one result of these protests is that the culture of democracy in the country is changing. Citizens can now go out and shout in the streets when they want. They are no longer confined to just voting.
“People have realized democracy is not just a spectator sport,” Uslu said. “What’s most surprising, is that it became mainstream. It’s not just the marginalized people protesting, it’s your 50-year-old grandma and your best friends.”
The number of people involved in the protests has diminished since June, but the protests continue today as police respond with stronger tactics. Despite the continuation of unrest, there are those who believe the demonstrations are only making the situation worse for citizens.
The escalation of these protests was not something Numan Aksoy, a CAS sophomore, expected when he arrived in Istanbul at the beginning of June. Now sitting at a Starbucks, he sips tea, trying to get in touch with his Turkish side — though he admits he still added five pumps of raspberry flavoring.
Aksoy, who was born in Turkey but moved to the U.S. at the age of five, interned with Peace Islands, a Boston-based institute that brought him to Turkey as a translator for Massachusetts state representatives on June 1, around the time when the protests began.
Askoy said at first, no one knew what was going on. At an event at the Ritz Carlton Hotel with the Turkish foreign minister, Aksoy heard booms and bangs from the balcony. Five seconds later, he felt something very stringent on his nose — it was tear gas.
“It’s one thing to peacefully protest and hold up signs, but it’s another thing to throw Molotov cocktails and destroy public buses,” Aksoy said. “Why would you vandalize areas that belong to the public and things that serve the public? It’s just going to disadvantage them.”
As someone who did not want to participate in the protests, Aksoy said he heard of many young people his age — including some of his own friends in Turkey — joining the demonstrators without knowing what they were protesting or what Erdoğan was actually doing.
“I’ve heard journalists ask some of the protesters on the street and their answers are, ‘I don’t know, I’m just hanging out with my friends,’” Aksoy said. “Not all of the protesters know what Erdoğan is doing. They just think he’s a bad guy because he is portrayed as an authoritarian. It’s not to say that he doesn’t rule as an authoritarian, but he’s done more to help Turkey and benefit the region than any other leader in a while.”
Erdoğan received 50 percent of the votes, which meant that though half of the people are not in favor of him, 50 percent are, Aksoy said.
“He doesn’t have opposition, so he thinks what he does is what’s going to benefit the majority of the country,” he said. “With good opposition, he would definitely lessen his tone and ask before he does stuff.”
Though not everyone agreed on the grounds of the protests, they did bring many more people into political activity. This is especially true regarding those who had not previously felt they could change their government.
“You saw leftists, middle-class people, the LGBTQ community and soccer fans together,” said Ozan Tuncer, a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Engineering and a Turkish citizen. “You don’t expect them to be holding hands with each other while holding up the flags of their respective groups, but they were. The soccer fans who were fighting over their sport last night are now chanting together against the government.”
These protests specifically brought a lot of young people who never cared about politics before into the arena. Tuncer considers himself one of them.
Tuncer spent his summer protesting before returning to BU for the fall semester. Sitting in the lounge after classes, Tuncer smiled as he talked about the protests, telling stories about an adventurous summer break. He continuously pulled his smart phone out of his pocket to show photos he took from the evenings over the summer and to look up English translations of chants he shouted with the crowds.
He recited one: “Shoot us, shoot us, pepper gas us. Take off your masks and leave your batons. We will see who is really a man.”
Though these chants involved many physical actions — both on the parts of the protesters and the police — the wave of social media’s use in movements today was also apparent. From the first day of the protests, Tuncer checked his Facebook newsfeed from the conference he was attending in Texas at the time over and over again as friends began posting updates.
“I was checking my Facebook the entire time because the media was not showing anything,” he said. “Social media was telling the story.”
Tuncer said he joined the protests because he saw his friends and the people who are part of his life speaking out for a necessary change.
“You can’t go to the government to tell them what you want,” he said, pausing briefly to choose his words carefully.
In her blog, White wrote many people protest because they want their voices to limit the government’s ability to act without public regulation, not because they want to become part of the Turkish government’s political process.
The Turkish democratic process has many setbacks, but a coup will not help, White wrote in her July 21 post. She claimed that a “Gezi revolt at the polls” is needed, but first they need a party to vote for. And for that to happen, the government needs to make it possible for a party to grow.
“People are unhappy with the authoritarian trend of Erdoğan, but he is mitigating it — luckily or skillfully, I’m not sure — with the relative economic stability of the nation,” Rollman said.
Though the protests have died down considerably, the unrest remains an important consideration in the region as decisions are made about Syria, Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Turkey’s other neighbors.
“Turkey will have to be involved, Turkey is involved,” Rollman said. “[Turkey’s] not a hot spot, but it is a very strategic country. Given a change in circumstances, it could become troublesome.”
Now through three-and-a-half weeks of classes back in Boston, Uslu said he logs on to Facebook and sees photos and status updates on the continuing protests from people he knows.
What’s it like being back for him?
“It kills me,” he said immediately. “My mom is happier that I’m here, though.”