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It’s not just a park: Turkish protests hit home in Chicago

By: Cameron Sidhe (cenos2@uic.edu), Managing Editor

What started as a protest to protect open spaces in Istanbul has erupted into a massive rebellion, affecting not just those in Turkey, but their friends and family here in Chicago. Societal resentment in the country caused by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s unpopular and authoritarian rule, as well as his denunciation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), created a perfect storm of instability, aggression, and political power play whose origins stem in the eviction of protesters trying to protect Taksim Gezi Park from demolition. Outrage over the police brutality toward peaceful protesters began a series of protests on multiple issues, spreading like wildfire over the country as the government and police desperately attempted to control the public, downplay the issue with state-sanctioned media, and silence the voices of protesters with brute force. One month later, the protests remain fully in force, even inspiring truces between intra- and international political parties to show support for the public uprising.

Here in Chicago, the Turkish expat community has been intimately connected with the situation through social media, hearing directly from friends and family in the conflicts instead of information filtered through pro-government agencies. Alex Burchard, a Turkish citizen studying architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, originally learned of the protests through Facebook. “I found out about it because one day I was on my computer, and I noticed my friend post loads of things on her wall, and she doesn’t post all that often,” he said. Social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr allowed almost instantaneous coverage of the struggle, as Turkish citizens wrote directly about their experiences for the world to see, bypassing the veil of misinformation perpetrated by state-supported media outlets.

Turkish individuals in Chicago, amid the chaos and conflicting reports available outside of the country, struggled to learn if their loved ones back in Turkey were safe, or if they had been victims of riot police dispersing tear gas and gunfire throughout the crowds of protestors. Burchard, aware that his friends are politically active, was immediately concerned about his friends and family once the news of the protest reached him. “My initial reaction was to be very worried about my friends because I know they’re not the kind of people to sit and let something like this pass them by. Many of them were out protesting from time to time as their bodies and their mothers would allow,” he said. One of his friends, Anil, served as a first responder as the clash between protesters and police grew violent, leaving four dead, eleven permanently blinded by tear gas, and countless others injured.

The protests, however, have strengthened the Chicago Turkish community and spurred pride in the Turkish identity. Two protests in solidarity with their brethren abroad have already taken place, and more may follow depending on the political situation. On a smaller scale, Burchard has noticed a proliferation of Turkish flag shirts and others wearing red to identify the cause. “I’ve worn my Turkish flag shirt and red in general more recently, and found my Turkish flag in my apartment and put it somewhere more prominent. I had a moment with a fellow Turkish Flag Shirt-wearer biking down the lakefront trail mid-June. We were going opposite directions, and saw each other’s shirt and smiled and waved,” Burchard said.

Turkish Chicagoans recognize the dangerous curtailment of freedom that the current regime represents, fueling more solidarity with the protesters fighting to keep their country focused on religious freedom and secularism. “Erdoğan, while he has done fine things for the economy, he’s been taking Turkey in a direction of limited freedom, and towards becoming a more religious state,” Burchard said, a statement with which other Turks agree, noting that his friends in Turkey “prefer to have their personal freedom and do not want religious rules to become state law,” which is the crux of the political saga.

As the situation in Turkey escalates, worry about family members and friends continues to mount, especially as the violence and civil unrest spreads throughout the country. Burchard notes that “I worry about my friends there, and their futures in a country that could go quickly towards Islamic rule if this guy isn’t defeated soon.”

Despite the stormy political environment and the escalating violence, Burchard, like many other Turkish expats, remains proud of his country and hopes for a brighter, freer future for his friends and family. “I hope that it comes to a resolve that keeps Turkey a western and prosperous nation, and doesn’t spark a civil war,” Burchard states, summing up a hope for peace which Turks and non-Turks alike share.

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