Notes From Taksim Square

It is one thing to bring 20 eager American clients on a 3-week trip to Turkey.

It is quite another to find your group in the middle of a political uprising.

I was awakened in the city of Izmir early Saturday morning to sounds of shouting and the sight of dozens of policemen in black uniforms and white hats running down the street beneath my window. Cabs were lined up like soldiers on the side of the road, the drivers sticking their necks out from their windows for a better view.

In the distance, there was a chorus of loud popping sounds, which I would later learn is the sound a canister makes when it is releasing tear gas.

Our Turkish guide, Tansu, called me from her room and said, “Turkey is awakening!”

I didn’t have to ask her what she meant. I had watched when the Arab Spring took root more than two years ago, forcing rulers from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen from power. I knew what “awakening” meant.

We were due to point our bus toward Istanbul the next day and the hotel we had booked stands right in the middle of Taksim Square-ground zero for the rioting and where the bulk of more than 3,000 injuries have occurred.

Izmir-a beautiful city along the shores of the Aegean Sea in Western Turkey-had joined in the protesting like many cities here and for the next 24 hours, the riots raged like a giant wave that crested and moved towards shore.

Some of our tour mates sat in the lounge on the 31st floor of our hotel for hours as the people of Izmir moved along the streets and the public squares, chanting and yelling and lighting things on fire-including the bank across the street. Never did we fear for our safety, as the protesters were targeting government buildings and leaving private shopkeepers and tourists out of the fray. These protests had started as peaceful demonstrations, but protesters were met with aggression by police who used water cannons, tear gas and plastic bullets to break up the crowds.

As we drove out of town the next morning with little sleep, Izmir looked like a war zone with its streets full of garbage and felled street lamps.

On the bus and safe in the countryside, our guide described the feelings many Turks have for their current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. These protests, she said, are not just about the destruction of a city park, as it has been played in the press. These protests are about a leader who many believe has become a dictator.

Tansu cited the imprisonment of more than 200 journalists throughout Erdogan’s three consecutive terms, along with stricter laws regulating the sale of alcohol, an aggressive stance on the conflict with Syria, and an overly ambitious development plan that many say puts profit over people. Turkey is an Islamic country, but it has become increasingly less secular under Erdogan’s leadership, threatening the pride and the hard-won independence of the Turkish people who have fought for centuries to establish it.

When we pulled into Istanbul this morning, we had to abandon our tour bus for the subway as protesters had blocked off the entrances to Taksim Square. As the sun set on this beautiful, ancient city-ringed by seas and straits-protesters gathered at the square again to show their solidarity. They chanted and clapped, their voices rising in unison, wanting nothing more than to stop feeling isolated and alienated from their government. They carried signs saying, “We are not activists. We are the people.”

The police have been less aggressive in Istanbul the past two days, allowing the protesters their space in Taksim Square, but they reappeared in other parts of the city. The lack of aggression allowed our tour to continue, but Tansu handed out face masks as a precaution.

Meanwhile, Erdogan has disappeared for a few days – off on a planned trip to North Africa. He has dismissed the demonstrations as the work of “extreme elements” and has marginalized the protesters. The United States has voiced concern over the use of extreme force by police.

I won’t get much sleep tonight, but I suppose that is the price of witnessing history.

And I’ll take this home with me.

What I will remember most is the sound that liberty makes when it yearns to be heard.