Democratic protests…?

by Sanjena Sathian


credit: Sanjena Sathian

 This afternoon, a few of us found ourselves in the middle of a Kurdish minority group’s political protest near Taksim Square, a central area in Istanbul. This is not a strange occurrence in Turkey, from what we’re told – protests are a regular facet of life here (just yesterday, crowds filled Taksim Square, protesting new Internet censorship laws). Many people have told me about this constancy of protests, often adding, with a twinkling eye that betrays a joke, “Well, because we are a democracy, right?” That’s what we heard from our new Kurdish poet friend who a few of us spent the morning chatting with in a Kurdish café near Taksim. He mentioned the protest to us offhand, mentioning that he didn’t think we should go. But we wanted to check it out, so we decided to venture nearby, keeping a safe distance just in case.

Crowds and police gathered near Taksim Square this afternoon/credit: Sanjena Sathian

Crowds had gathered in one of the larger streets branching off of Taksim Square – one we’ve already walked down many times in our few days here – and they were surrounded by the most policemen I’ve ever seen in one area. About sixty or seventy policemen hung around the perimeter, completely decked out in full riot gear… and it was definitely a larger crowd of policemen than are necessary to keep the peace. A line of plainclothes police stood in the middle of the street, blocking people from entering the area with the protesters. Playing the innocent tourist, a few of us went up to them to ask what was going on.

“Minority protest,” they told us.

“What are they protesting?”

“The government. They’re always protesting. All the days.”

“What about the government?”

“Just everything. Always protesting. Elections. They’re just a minority.”

It went on like this for some time: we pressed, they didn’t answer. It wasn’t as though they were evading the questions – it just seemed abundantly clear that these were regular facts of their lives. As we peered into the crowds to get better looks at the scene and pestered the unresponsive policemen, a few of them even peeled off from the pack and wandered into nearby kebab stores to buy a coke and a snack. Their bored demeanor seemed a strange, flat contrast to the steady pounding of political chants and the occasional high-pitched screetch of what can only be described as pure anger coming from the protesters.

the crowds of pro-Kurds and PKK supporters chanted the illegal party's name and sang political songs/credit: Sanjena Sathian

From what we knew, these protesters weren’t just there to complain about the government as per usual. What we witnessed was a memorial service to twelve of the Kurdish minority party’s fighters who had just been shot and killed in the mountainous area of what Kurds call Kurdistan and Turks call southeastern Turkey. (the party is called the PKK and is officially outlawed in the Turkish parliament). Protesters symoblically held a black flag with twelve red roses printed on it, but that flag stood out as the only clear tribute to the fighters themselves. It was overwhelmed by red and yellow PKK and BDP flags and hordes of members of the Kurdish minority who had gathered not only to remember their lost ones but also to continue to demand, as they do “all the days,” a political voice.

a protester holds a PKK flag/credit: Sanjena Sathian

But the plainclothes policemen we were bothering had no sympathy or even recognition for the Kurds. They never even mentioned to us who the protesters were, referring to them only as “the minority,” and telling us that the protest might get violent because “these people are violent.”

a close up look at the protesters/credit: Sanjena Sathian

The tone throughout the street seemed precarious as we watched the protest unfold. We neared the area, only to be told by a journalist vehemently to clear away because it could get violent. Everything remained calm as we watched, but we found out later that after we left, the police did in fact use tear gas on protesters.

We’re still learning about the ins and outs of Turkish politics and the way minorities voice their opinions, but today was a confirmation that we’re not in Kansas anymore. The way this public sphere operates is wildly different from our own, and being in the minority here means something very weighty.

See the additional video below for more of our film footage of the protest:


credit: Sanjena Sathian

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