ISTANBUL — Miray was in the midst of her first week of exams at Bogazici University when small protests began at Istanbul’s Gezi Park last Tuesday. She followed the activity on Twitter, and on Friday, when demonstrations began to escalate, she and some friends decided to join in.
“I have never attended any other protests in my life,” Miray said.
But the amateur protester quickly became a veteran, when police began aiming water cannons at her and a large group near Taksim Square, in the city’s center. After she and other protesters escaped into the Divan Hotel, officers repeatedly threw tear gas into the lobby.
“We couldn’t run away,” she said, adding, “Inside, everybody was panicked.”
It’s a cliche as old as Istanbul itself: It is the city where east meets west, and old meets new. Turkey is home to the Roman ruins at Ephesus, the caves of early Christians in Cappadocia.
But as protests against the government continue to rage this week, youths have largely provided the pulse behind demonstrations in ancient Turkey.
What started as a small sit-in to oppose the development of a mall over Gezi Park has turned into extensive demonstrations across the country, against what many see as needless police violence and the increasing authoritarianism of the Islamist government, headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
From Istanbul to Izmir and Antalya to Adana, protesters have come out in the thousands, facing off against police brutality and widespread arrests. More than 3,000 people were injured on Sunday and Monday, according to the Turkish Medical Association, as reported by CNN. While observers note that violence has decreased in certain areas, the protests remain strong.
Because the Turkish media is notoriously censored — CNN Turk was broadcasting a documentary about penguins while violence erupted — news of the protests spread largely through social media, a trend that, in the early stages of the protests, likely encouraged a younger demographic to participate. Even still, 16 people have been detained in Turkey for social media-related activity, according to CNN Turk.
About 90 percent of tweets about the protests came from within Turkey, according to research conducted at New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation Laboratory and published on the political science blog The Monkey Cage. In contrast, just 30 percent of tweets about the Egyptian uprisings came from Egypt.
“When I [logged] into Facebook, I saw everybody talking and sharing photos about this. In that way I learned about the violence,” said Emre, a student at Bogazici University, who said he was kicked by four police officers and struck by their batons after participating in protests in Izmir.
“I learned from Twitter and Facebook, because the Turkish media is not very good,” said Setenay, a high school senior who was tear-gassed in protests in Izmit. She noted that older people are likely to rely on censored television networks, although she has relied on online coverage from non-Turkish sources like the BBC and CNN International.
“[The] international community has been very helpful … it was crucial for us to learn true numbers and [information] from international channels,” said Cem, another student at Bogazici University who also was tear-gassed during protests in Izmir.
University affiliation, too, has allowed younger people to organize. Some universities, Miray said, have postponed exams and allowed students to schedule make-up times.
Still, many pointed out that the protests were attended by a variety of demonstrators, and did not observe a gender disparity.
“I saw a child who I think was 2 years old. I saw a woman who was head scarved, who was maybe 70 years old,” said Setenay, referring to the covering that observers claim is increasingly worn by Turkish women here, and is viewed as a symbol of deepening conservatism in Turkey.
“They were also communist groups, there were Kemalist groups [people who advocate for the political beliefs of Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk], everybody was there,” said Demet, 21, another university student.
“I think young people started with protest, but I think everyone is involved,” Setenay added.
And perhaps like young people throughout the world, these young Turks are optimistic.
“Maybe young people are just more hopeful, maybe that much better people can lead,” Miray said.
“I want the government to remember this is everybody’s government,” she said.