Istanbul, Turkey – A barrage of tear gas canisters light up the night sky before slamming into a wall of white-clad demonstrators on the periphery of Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
Emre Elmekci has a Kurdish keffiyah wrapped around his head and goggles and a heavy-duty mask strapped to his face. Flanked by Turkish nationalists on one side and leftists on the other, Elmekci throws the smoking metal tubes back towards the police lines.
“The violence we have seen here in the streets over the past few days is like the state violence that the Kurds have been facing for decades,” says Elmekci.
The activist in his mid-20s moved to Istanbul from the Kurdish heartland as a child and is part of a small but vocal minority of Kurds in the “Occupy Gezi” movement that has spread across Turkey like wildfire since last month.
Elmekci grew up speaking Turkish at home – he says his parents only spoke Kurdish when they didn’t want their kids to understand – and only recently started to re-learn his native language.
“It’s my hope that when people see this [crackdown] they will understand what we have been going through.“
– Emre Elmekci, Kurdish protester
Alongside a punishing military response to their protracted struggle, Kurds – who make up about 20 percent of Turkey’s population and are a large minority in Istanbul – have long faced a state campaign to suppress their language and cultural expression.
“It’s my hope that when people see this [crackdown] they will understand what we have been going through,” Elmekci adds about the police violence and government dismissal of the protests.
It is a sentiment echoed by Turkey’s legally sanctioned pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party (BDP), which has participated in the protests from early on. BDP member of parliament Sirri Süreyya Önder has even been injured after being struck by tear gas canister fired by police.
A defiant Önder spoke from Gezi Park to a crowd of demonstrators on Wednesday, urging authorities to stay away and renewing calls for the government to accept protester demands, including scrapping development plans that would affect the park’s natural beauty.
“All men and women in this park are screaming and saying enough: ‘Enough’! Nobody can damage these trees and people in here,” Önder said.
The government, meanwhile, appears to be losing its patience. When asked about the demonstration in Gezi, Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu told a local news channel Wednesday “you have to do something about it”.
“We’ve established that there are marginal individuals who could engage in all sorts of provocation,” Mutlu said. “I am asking the protestors to leave the park.”
The demonstrations have taken place amid a reinvigorated peace process to end the Kurds’ decades-long struggle for an independent state, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), released a statement on Friday praising the expanding protests.
What started as a small environmental sit-in against the construction of a shopping mall in Gezi Park, situated behind the central and iconic Taksim Square, has ballooned into a full-fledged urban revolt in cities across Turkey. Demonstrators are raging against police brutality and demanding increased democratic freedoms.
Now the movement’s core, camped out in a sprawling tent city that runs through Gezi and Taksim, is a strange mix of people that include Turkish youth, leftists, the gay and lesbian community, Turkish nationalists and Kurds.
|Kurdish protesters dance near Gezi Park [Oren Ziv/Al Jazeera]|
They are uniting against what they see as an increasingly arrogant and authoritarian turn by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AK) party after a decade in power.
In Taksim Square, Kurds sing songs of their struggle for freedom and an independent homeland, engaging in traditional dance around tents set up by the BDP.
“For 30 years the Turkish people have not known or understood the war waged against our struggle for democracy and freedom in the southeast, only believing what they have heard from the government and media,” says BDP parliamentarian in Istanbul, Hasan Vural Kevank.
Vural Kevank acknowledges that the peace process is in early days and Kurdish demonstrators face animosity from hardline Turkish nationalists at the protests. As the upbeat music blasts through speakers, the middle-aged Vural Kevank leans in with an optimistic look.
“Now, after speaking with us here and seeing what has happened in the square, more people understand they have been lied to,” he says.
Metres away, hardline Turkish nationalists wave flags and pledge their loyalty to Mustafa Kamel Ataturk, the founder of Turkey’s modern state and whose brand of Turkish nationalism refuses to recognise Kurdish national existence.
Nationalist Memed Savas Solakojlu, a protester in his early 30s, says Kemalist ideas are still right for the country, but he sees an opportunity in these demonstrations.
“I am happy Kurds have joined the protests. We may have our differences on the [national] issue, but here we are all fighting for freedom. This is how we can resolve things, standing shoulder to shoulder against the government,” Solakojlu says.
Still, tensions and anti-Kurdish animosity has boiled over at times since the protests expanded and fistfights have broken out.
“When the BDP marched into Gezi Park at the beginning, the Kemalists [nationalists] jumped up and immediately started singing the National Anthem,” Elmekci says, as a group of youth wearing Ataturk scarves and carrying Turkish flags march past.
“I have heard nationalists yell at the police, ‘why don’t you go and do this to the Kurds’, and a few have thrown stones at us,” he adds.
However, when it comes to the barricades surrounding Taksim and clashes with police, Turkish nationalists and Kurdish activists are for the most part side by side, along with everyone else protesting.
Elmekci is captivated by the changing national discussion, although he mostly finds commonality with the leftists who focus on opposing Erdogan’s neoliberal economic policies, the jailing of journalists and activists, and a police force that has long cracked down on dissent.
“Now, after speaking with us here and seeing what has happened in the square, more people understand they have been lied to.“
– Hasan Vural Kevank, BDP parliamentarian
“I believe strongly in the power of the street to change the discussion and how we interact,” he says, adding he’s hopeful the collective struggle can change different people’s relationships with each other.
Clamouring over a barricade of concrete and metal poles near Gezi Park as a wave of tear gas again rains down, Elmekci points to pro-PKK graffiti on a wall that someone has tried to cross out – a sign the unity Kurds currently have with other groups may only be temporary.
“You can see things are changing, but some people don’t want to deal with it,” Elmekci says of recent Kurdish rights gains. “We still have a long way to go.”