The last tree or the final straw?

The Turkish government should reject the use of violence in its clampdown against protesters.

protests in turkey
The Greenpeace office in Istanbul has been providing medical attention to injured protesters [Volkan Cagali/Greenpeace]

The Greenpeace office in Istanbul has been under siege. It is in the heart of Taksim, an area in which a brutal police clampdown has been trying to end the peaceful protest over the planned destruction of the small, and historic, Gezi Park by Taksim Square. The protest has grown to involve tens of thousands of people and drawn the support of people from all over the world.

There is a little calm in the storm now as police have withdrawn from Gezi Park and the tear gas is dissipating. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, remains bullish about the plans to trash the park. He remains stern in his rejection of the peaceful protests but has conceded that the police may have over reacted. This is far from over.

In the past 24 hours, tear gas canisters have been thrown by police at the entrance of our building and on to our roof. We are not a threat, we are non-violent and we are offering medical assistance to injured peaceful protesters or the heavily armoured police should they need it.

People are travelling from all over Turkey to Taksim, people are gathering elsewhere in the country and around the world in solidarity to say “I am in Gezi” and to say “we are watching and we are horrified by the brutality”.

Thousands of protesters throughout Turkey have taken to the streets over the past 24 hours [Volkan Cagali/Greenpeace]

It is no longer about a handful of trees in a tiny park or the plans to cover it with a shopping mall. But, make no mistake, the fundamental human need for natural spaces over the inexorable march of shopping malls remains an important factor.

The clampdown in which heavily armoured police unleashed a fog of tear gas and a volley of rubber bullets injuring and hospitalising peaceful protesters, has reminded people of Tahrir and Occupy Wall Street. Perversely, perhaps, it has also emboldened them, hardened them and brought into sharp focus that this is now a struggle for the quality of Turkish democracy. It is a struggle for the right to peaceful protest; a struggle to say people and nature come before the business interests of powerful elites and their insatiable greed for profit.

Many other issues and concerns over Prime Minister Erdogan’s constant erosion of civil liberties and environmental protections are being masked by the “fog of war”, the vast clouds of tear-gas wafting across Taksim.

Freedom of speech and the right to peaceful assembly are sacred principles, without which democracy cannot prevail. These principles must be respected by the Turkish authorities. The violence against protesters must stop!

Regular updates from my colleagues in our Greenpeace office in Istanbul are a cause of great concern and of pride. Our staff, supporters and volunteers stand in solidarity with those who demand the protection of the park. They stand in solidarity with those demanding an end to the police brutality and all violence.

Our office is located on Istiklal Street, the main avenue leading to Taksim square – just one kilometre from it. The protests have spread along the street and police officers have been confronting demonstrators directly under the office, using tear gas and water cannons. Access to the office has been impossible at times and the air is acrid.

However, our office has remained opened throughout the night and will remain open as long as is needed. We are taking in injured and exhausted protesters. We are offering respite from the storm and first aid to the injured. A number of doctors and medics have joined us to provide triage for those in need. The atmosphere is tense but our activists are resolute in their determination.

I am alarmed by the inability of the media channels in Turkey to fully cover what is happening – for years they have been subject to government suppression and censorship. But across social media, citizen to citizen, peer to peer, the news is being heard and seen. The authorities are being watched and condemned. Photos, videos and tweets have been flooding the net. Hundreds of offices and business places in Istanbul have been opening their wifi networks for public access – making a mockery of the notion that news can be controlled – to make up for the phone data network being shut down trying to prevent people from reporting what they are seeing. Our teams in Turkey are regularly updating our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

We hope all of our staff, supporters and volunteers stay safe but we also support the risk they are taking. In these trying times, we embrace our core values of peace and non-violence, of bearing witness and taking action.

To Prime Minister Erdogan I say stop the violence, end the brutality and open up the media to allow a full debate of the issues. The world is watching. We have heard the Prime Minister rightfully call for peace elsewhere in the Middle East. He must now walk that talk at home. We appeal to him not to repeat the tear-gassing and brutality of the last days, we ask for him to stay the rubber bullets and batons. Violence serves no one’s interest.

Our thoughts, our hearts and our solidarity are with the people of Istanbul and the people of Turkey. Pay attention, seek out news of what is happening and add your voice to the clarion call for the violence to stop, for the park to remain and for the right to peaceful protest to be upheld.

Kumi Naidoo is Executive Director of Greenpeace International.