In the evenings, Nurcan Atalan-Helicke often visits the protestors, sometimes with her 4-year-old daughter in tow.
The assistant professor of environmental studies at Skidmore College is visiting family in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, and doing research.
“In every urban area, there are protests going on now,” said Atalan-Helicke, who grew up in Turkey. “In every neighborhood, people go out every night and protest. They chant. They sing. It’s peaceful.”
She said the protestors are “about three minutes away from my parents’ home.”
Since the end of May, tens of thousands have protested daily in the streets of Turkey.
These protests were initially sparked by a plan to redevelop Gezi Park in Istanbul, one of the city’s few green spaces, and turn it into a shopping mall and a replica of Ottoman-era barracks. But the spirit of discontent soon spread to other cities, and the concerns of the protestors have broadened to include government repression, overdevelopment, lack of public input into projects and the tear-gassing of demonstrators by police.
Atalan-Helicke compared the protests to the Occupy movement in the United States, and said that the protests are about much more than the redevelopment of a park.
“This is a very grass-roots movement,” she said. “It’s an eclectic group of people. It’s no longer just environmentalists. The tear-gassing brought more people out. People are concerned about restrictions on free speech, uncontrolled capitalism and rapid urban development.”
Atalan-Helicke’s research interests include social movements and the politics of food and agriculture. As a result, she has spent a lot of time talking with the protesters about their goals and concerns.
“It’s interesting, and it’s also emotionally and physically very tiring,” said Atalan-Helicke, who arrived in Turkey on May 20 and will return to the Capital Region on June 18. “I’ve been talking to the environmentalists about how we have to unite, and to my Muslim friends about how there is too much environmental degradation. People were frustrated and anxious and tense even before the protests. There is so much polarization.”
Atalan-Helicke, 36, is not new to street protests. In 1995, she took to the streets of Turkey to protest rising tuition.
“My parents were very fearful,” she recalled. “They were afraid of the state.”
Noting that thousands have been injured and arrested in the protests going on now, Atalan-Helicke said that she worried about the potential for a violent crackdown.
“There have been incidents here and there,” she said. “There needs to be some questioning about what is going to happen.”
Atalan-Helicke moved to the United States in 2005, after marrying James Helicke, a Pittsburgh native she met while he was working as an Associated Press reporter in Turkey.
Another member of the Skidmore community, freshman Berke Tinaz, 20, said that if he wasn’t in the United States, he would be home protesting with his mother.
The Izmir native said that he is following the protests closely, and that he checks in with his mother daily to make sure she is OK. He said that police have used tear gas at the protests his mother attends, but that she has not been hurt.
“It doesn’t kill you,” he said of tear gas, adding that it helps “if you know what to do” to avoid coming into contact with it.
“This is not just about the park,” Tinaz said of the protests. “It’s about other things. The prime minister is behaving like a dictator. … The government is trying to govern the country with fear, and that’s not what we want. The people who are protesting are peaceful. It’s the government and the police who are attacking violently.”
Tinaz will be a sophomore next year. He is studying biology.
On Friday, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, returned from a trip abroad and condemned the protestors, saying that the protests “must end immediately.”
He said that plans for the shopping center at Gezi Park would be shelved, but that the redevelopment project would move forward.
Veysel Ucan, executive director of the Turkish Cultural Center in Albany, emailed a statement on the events in Turkey earlier this week to people throughout the Capital Region.
“We as Turkish Americans unequivocally reject the use of disproportionate force, which made some of the protestors become more susceptible to provocations by extremist groups and turn violent,” he wrote.
In his email, Ucan called on the Turkish government to exercise restraint, and on the protestors to refrain from violence.
“We condemn extremist groups who are trying to take advantage of the situation,” he wrote. “Violence will only steer the country toward chaos, which cannot be reconciled with democratic principles.”
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