Imagine All the People

UnCommon Ground - Imagine All the People

It’s 7:30 p.m. on June 14, and Belkis Elgin ’02 is walking up the stairs to Gezi Park, a leafy public space in the middle of Istanbul, Turkey, a city she has called home for most of her life. For two weeks, the spot has been occupied by protesters: at first, a small crowd angered by the government’s plans to replace the park with a shopping mall; now, a group swelled to thousands, voicing various long-simmering frustrations with the government. The day before, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had offered a final warning to the protesters, promising that he would soon “clean the square.”

Tonight, though, Elgin sees riot police sitting idly on both sides of the square, resting in chairs, sipping tea. A few days ago, they made an ultimately unsuccessful bid to take back the park with the aid of water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas. Most of the protesters and members of the press milling about now are wearing helmets, in part a reaction to news that at least one protester had been killed after being struck in the head by a tear gas canister—the fourth protest-related death in two weeks. Estimates have the number injured in protests across Turkey at nearly 8,000.

During the prime minister’s 10-year rule, opposition movements have criticized him for perceived injustices ranging from infringements on democratic rights to increasingly theocratic tendencies. Recently, for example, a law was pushed by the ruling party to restrict the sale and advertising of alcohol, a substance that is forbidden by Islamic law. Before that, Erdogan riled up secular opponents with support for a law that made infidelity a crime. While the prime minister’s term isn’t up for another two years, a round of local and national elections is a mere nine months away, and some suspect that holding his ground here against the protesters could help secure his position and mobilize the base.

Elgin had been hoping something like the protests would happen. The bans, the lack of transparency—it all made her uncomfortable, angry. She wondered how long people could take it. But still, she never expected this.

The park is so thick with tents that no soil or grass is visible. A recent rain washed away the traces of gas, which Elgin has experienced only in small amounts—though visiting the area even hours after a gas attack can leave her voice cracked and “sounding like a cartoon character.” When you take a direct hit, her fellow protesters have told her, you can’t open your eyes, you can’t breathe. Everything burns. It feels like you are dying. “Then you feel the courage,” they told her.

There is no violence tonight, though the protesters are prepared. Vendors sell gas masks and goggles. A stand called the “Revolution Market” doles out free food, water, and a pepper-spray salve passed down from veteran activists in Greece. The market’s shelves are typically stocked via social media: A list of items needed by protesters is posted on Facebook, and supporters oblige. Elgin often brings supplies on her lunch break from her job as a film program assistant at the Museum of Modern Art, a 15-minute walk from the park.

More often, though, Elgin comes after work. There is a joke circulating among her friends about how most of the protesters are now like Clark Kent during the day, then they shed the suit and tie to protest at night. The crowd comes in all ages, but Elgin sees a majority in their 20s. That, she thinks, is how a movement can grow up and become real. Even now, if the protesters are forced to leave, she thinks, it will turn into something new and something positive. A new generation has already woken up. More Denison graduates living and working in Turkey are involved in the movement as well, including Katie Johnson ’02, who has been posting images and commentary on her Facebook page.

As the night wears on, there are chants and protest songs. During candlelight vigils, names of the dead are shouted out. At 9 p.m., like every night since the start of the protests, a din rises through the city, with residents honking their horns or banging on pans on their balconies in a show of solidarity.

At 11p.m., Elgin starts to leave. She has work tomorrow, but has stayed late, hoping to see her “new hero,” German pianist Davide Martello, who has been known to show up with a grand piano to play for the protesters. Elgin particularly had wanted to hear his version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

It’s a song with a message she really admires.

For 18 days protesters held their ground in Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, protesting against their government. On June 15, on the very evening that Belkis Elgin ’02 was interviewed for this story, riot police were finally able to clear the park after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for an end to the occupation. Protests have now taken a new form, says Elgin, as groups conduct public forums in local parks. 

Published March 2013