Surrounded by residential areas, Taksim Meydani (Taksim Square) is the symbolic center of Istanbul and the most cosmopolitan city in Turkey.
Recent years have seen growing unrest in the nation that straddles Eastern Europe and Western Asia. On Friday night, the friction between dissidents and the government reached a new level. One of the epicenters of that was Taksim Square.
Late that night, social media started buzzing with reports that an attempted coup d'état was underway in Turkey. Cafés closed and Friday night festivities came to a halt. Citizens withdrew cash from ATMs, procured supplies, many stocking up on water, then fled city centers to make their way home. People carried out these and other tasks in a quick and mechanical way, without argument.
On Friday night, young soldiers lined the famous Istiklal Street on one side of the square. On the opposite side of the square, police vehicles and police calmly stood by. It was a curious sight: The police clearly outnumbered the soldiers, yet did not approach them for hours.
The government encouraged citizens via Twitter to flood into the public spaces to protest the attempted coup. This would later prove to be an effective tactic.
The protestors swarmed military personnel and pushed them into the center of the square where the Republic Monument is located. The soldiers were surrounded by the angry mob, but would occasionally fire live rounds into the air to dissuade the crowd from overwhelming them.
The police cautiously stood by while civilians doled out their brand of justice. This type of mob justice is encouraged in Turkey; thus, hordes of men feel entitled to mete out punishment.
The soldiers had also taken control and closed major bridges and airports in Istanbul without major incident, but, much like in Taksim Square, were unable to contain the mobs and police that swarmed them. There are reports that the mob beheaded or possibly lynched a soldier on the Bosphorous Bridge.
The troops looked very young. Military service in Turkey is compulsory, so it is likely that these young men were not acting entirely according to their own motives. They looked outnumbered and unsure of what to do next.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s tactic — of having the citizens confront the soldiers – worked brilliantly because the soldiers were not trying to wage war on civilians. Standing with their backs to the Monument to the Republic, they seemed to be staging their own protest. The young men in uniform resisting the angry mob … the angry fundamentalists, the silent police … (I have seen the Turkish police get much more combative during much smaller disputes, so this behavior seemed calm by comparison.)
There was an ebb and flow to the mob, partially coordinated through mosques. Protestors were called to mosques through the call to prayer (and likely also social media). After assembling, they headed toward Taksim Square to help revive and sustain the protest. This went on for hours.
The protests culminated with military jets making several passes over Taksim. They flew low and fast, creating several sonic booms that caused panic because they sounded like bombs.
After a few fly-bys, the soldiers were disarmed and taken into police custody.
Simultaneously, reports coming out about what was happening in Ankara, the country's capital, were very different. The military had bombed the Parliament building and there were active clashes involving tanks.
It is unclear where Erdoğan was during the coup or if a political entity actually coordinated it with the military. The oft-blamed Gulenists have condemned the coup and claimed no responsibility.
As I write this, the last remnants of the attempted coup remain. The government has cut off power to Incirlik Air Base, isolating remaining military opposition.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim later said that 2,839 military personnel have already been detained. Today CNN reported that over 6,000 people have been detained. It is also reported that Erdoğan has begun purging the state of judges and lawyers who could be associated with the military coup attempt. The state had called for more demonstrations on Saturday and Istanbul braced for another eventful evening.
Kristi O'Daniel, a University of North Florida graduate with a degree in International Studies, currently resides in Istanbul, a short walk from Taksim Square. Read a WJCT story exploring the Jacksonville-Turkey connection in which O'Daniel is interviewed here.