Under Ataturk's gaze: On the ground in Taksim Square

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The stern look of Ataturk over Taksim Square, Istanbul Turkey, the day after pol

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Without fail, the rain has fallen on Istanbul every Sunday since I arrived in Turkey on June 15.

The sun, to its credit, has accompanied the protesters since May 31 when Taksim Square was first occupied and it gave the same courtesy to the police as they reoccupied Gezi Park and the square itself, just days after I arrived.

The rain has been equally fair as it has given reprieve to both sides. It stayed on the sidelines while stones and tear gas were thrown from one side to another, but every Sunday it came to earth to wash away the debris and remnants of clashes between protests and police. It cleaned the slate for another day, or week's, worth of battle.

While protesters were forced to flee to social media sites like Twitter to organize their next march, the police set up camp for an undetermined amount of time. Young men clad in full riot gear have lost all uniqueness, as their charismatic Turkish eyes are hidden behind the darkness of blind authority. Rain or shine, the only ones able to defy these boys with guns are Istanbul's legendary stray cats and dogs, who take refuge under the police artillery. These flea-ridden mammals are the only truly liberated members of Turkish society.

Although Turkey is officially a secular country, the many mosques in this city are equipped with loud speakers that call you, six times a day, to prayer. They remind you that tension still exists between religious conservative thinking and the secular intentions of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Kemal, better known as Ataturk, was the Ottoman and Turkish army officer who in the early 1900s after World War One and the Turkish War of Independence in 1923, led his new nation into a transformation from the former Ottoman Empire into a modern, secular and European nation-state. His trademark eyebrows are seen everywhere from the currency, to framed pictures in barber shops and most prominently on a large banner overseeing Taksim Square. He looks onto the old square like a stern father, a fitting look since Atatürk translates to "Father of the Turks".

Atatürk was in the right place at the right time to lead his new nation to something new, but died much too soon to see his vision fully materialize and establish itself in the lives of his children. He's long dead but his revolution continues to this day.

Yan St-Pierre is a native of Montreal, Canada. We struck up a conversation while sitting in a popular ice-cream shop on Istiklal Street, metres away from Taksim Square. He's been based in Berlin, Germany where he is the CEO and consultant for counter-terrorism of the Modern Security Consulting Group (MOSECON). He was in Istanbul assessing the situation while on contract.

With just under 20 years of work on issues of terrorism, insurgency, rebellions, protest movements and revolutions both on the field and as a researcher on multiple continents, St-Pierre is knowledgeable about these kinds of movements and he's able to communicate them effectively in layperson's terms.

We overlooked the French consulate, a large building with a fence that St-Pierre described as dangerous for anyone to try to climb over because of the sharp edges at the top, even though it's at a low height. He took me through what a protester would need to do to safeguard him or herself from water cannons or tear gas. As it turns out, the areas around Taksim Square give little refuge to the blasts of water or tear gas from police. Despite this, every week sees a new batch of protests, and the situation around Taksim, says St-Pierre, is far from over, although seemingly calm and quiet. He's well aware that what these demonstrators want is a revolution, but it won't happen overnight.

"A true revolution is not an instantaneous process," he says.

He uses the French and American revolutions as base points of comparison by stating that it actually took a century before their principles truly set in and that the American Revolution ended with the Civil War, although he acknowledges some will argue that the latter truly ended with the civil rights movements in the '60s.   

"In fact," says St-Pierre, "a full revolution usually takes close to 100 years, or three full generations [to succeed] which is what we're currently witnessing in Turkey." 

He acknowledges that "the revolution really began with Atatürk in the 1920s."

Looking at the many faces (some with proper gas masks, others with makeshift ones) I noticed that the large majority of the protesters are in their mid-20s to early 30s. The odd middle-aged man or woman is seen, and they gladly lead the chant of "This is just the beginning, we will keep resisting." They are a welcome addition to the youth-led brigade.

Ultimately, the struggles in Taksim and in Ankara come from a generation that St-Pierre says are reacting against excessive behaviour and poor political decision-making.

"They are revolting against a ruling elite they feel, know and believe, is denying them the possibilities to achieve their goals, such as having a good job, a home, or be included in the decision-making procedures," he says.

Each passing week is met with more demonstrations in Taksim Square. Other countries, like Brazil and, recently, Egypt, have started protests of their own in defiance of the state of their own affairs. St-Pierre says that these frustrations stem from the same human thread of not being included in the process.

"The trigger varies, but the reasons are the same," he says.

Life outside of Istanbul and Ankara is not as wrought in tension and the square is, apparently, starting to resemble life before May 31. But a mild unease can be felt, as these two main cities start to resemble a police state. Young men walking around with guns and tear gas canisters, as stray cats purr at their feet should never feel normal.

    Samuel Ramos is a Vancouver-based Writer, Editor and Project Manager. He is the Managing Editor at The Source / La Source Newspaper.

    Photo: The stern look of Ataturk over Taksim Square, Istanbul Turkey, the day after police reoccupy the square and Gezi Park. Credit: Samuel Ramos

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