Alex Hill, a 25-year-old alum of Park City High School and the University of Utah, has been living in Turkey for the past two years, drawn there by his best friend from college who is Turkish. When Hill isn't backpacking and exploring, he teaches English to Turkish students. Recently, however, Hill has found himself at the epicenter of mass civilian protests against the Turkish government that are making international headlines.
On May 28, a group of Turkish citizens were besieged by police while conducting a sit-in in protest of government plans to turn Taksim Gezi Park in Instanbul into a site for commercial development. Various international news agencies reported that the police actions included use of water cannons and tear gas and have been criticized as being disproportionate and heavy-handed, sparking larger protests all over Turkey that continue a month later. The protests have spread in scope from the specific park development issue and citizens are now voicing concern for freedom of assembly along with questions regarding a free press. Thus far, the protests have been met with stiff resistance from the government.
Alex Hill lives in Kadikoy, a province of Istanbul, the center of many of the recent clashes between Turkey's citizens and its government. Hill has even participated in the protests. He recently offered to share his experience via email with his hometown newspaper, The Park Record.
Hill, on the government's response to the protests:
"These protests started because of the prime minister's plans to demolish a park to build a shopping mall. He later denied this and said that instead a "cultural center" and mosque would be built there instead, but people here don't want anything in Taksim or Gezi Park. The prime minister has always had a reputation amongst his opponents for being arrogant, but his response to these protests has made even people in his own party to turn against him. Instead of attempting to understand any of the motivations behind the protests, he has dismissed protesters as "mauraders" and said construction would go right ahead. Now he is using more and more tear gas and water cannons on protesters, digging himself deeper and deeper into a mess that he has created."
On those protesting:
"Many are quite young but there are plenty of middle-aged people too. Parents sometimes bring their children (when it's safe) and there are even a handful of teyzes ("aunts", or little old ladies) who show up. Some protests have have passed right in front of my apartment building! In the last couple of days people are simply going and standing in some of these squares and parks in silent protest - one will stand there for hours at a time and a crowd might form."
On why he got involved:
"I live here now and don't approve of the backward and restrictive policies of the current government. More and more, the country is being sold off to big businesses from foreign countries; unchecked development is ruining Turkey and its environment; more people have jobs but the cost of living is also rising. The prime minister, who claims to be a religious conservative, is ushering in a new era of uncontrolled capitalism that is uprooting a traditional, family-based society. The divisions in Turkish society between religious and not-so-religious people and between the two religious sects (Sunnis and Alevis) are exploited by the government. I can't even post anything on Twitter without worrying about whether I'll be arrested. When not only protestors are being arrested but even their defense attorneys too; when the entire city of Istanbul has turned into one big construction site; when religion is being exploited for political and monetary gain, then it's time to take a stand."
On what Istanbul was like prior to the protests:
"The main places in Istanbul in question - Taksim Square and Gezi Park - were, until the police reclaimed the Square, an almost utopian village. Various socialist groups, devout but unconventional anti-capitalist Muslims, feminists, LGBT groups, Kurdish nationalists, fans of rival soccer teams (whose rivalries make BYU/Utah look like a pair of old ladies playing bridge) and environmentalists all lived side by side. The unity that these protests have created amongst differing groups is deeply moving. Last Friday, the more religious protesters conducted their Friday prayers while others (including communists, most of whom are atheists) guarded them from any possible surprise police attacks."
How growing up in Park City impacts his worldview:
"This experience makes me thankful that back home in Park City, I don't have to worry about getting arrested for posting my political views on Facebook or Twitter or worry that the police would use unprovoked violence against residents. It especially makes me thankful for some of the excellent teachers I had in high school who showed students how to have spirited but civil debates and how to look at an issue from more than one perspective. Though I have never left my life was in danger, after dodging tear gas and water cannons, after seeing image after image of the Turkish police turn against ordinary people, it makes me thankful to know that I have Park City to come back to."