Bulent Kilic / AFP - Getty Images
Turkish youth chant as they protest on the way between Besiktas and Taksim on June 6, 2013.
ISTANBUL — Emir Ay doesn’t live on the fringe of Turkish society. Nor does he cavort with terrorists.
He does go to graduate school, majoring in information technology. And he’s been on Taksim Square every day — and night — since he began a sit-in with a couple of dozen others, in late May, to protest the planned demolition of the iconic square’s leafy park to make room for yet another shopping mall and mosque.
"[Prime Minister Tayyip] Erdogan calls us 'hooligans.' If I'm a hooligan then I’m a peaceful one who helps clean up the park after everyone goes home at 4 a.m.," he said.
But, when the riot police started to violently break up the Taksim sit-in, Ay — like many others — snapped.
The national paroxysm of anger and frustration that followed has shaken Turkey to its core. Like many others, Ay had never demonstrated in the streets before.
Now, he said, he’s already mentally moved beyond the police’s thick tear gas and water cannons, which left two protesters dead and thousands injured.
"It's no longer about the police," he said. "It’s actually about freedom."
Erdogan was right when he quipped — just before he gave Taksim protesters the ultimate brush-off and flew to North Africa on an official trip — that Turkey doesn’t need an “Arab Spring” because it already has a "Turkish Spring": free elections, an inclusive constitution, and a booming economy.
But even before you step into the square, you stumble over barricades blocking all access roads.
Then there’s the tents, the banners, the blasting speakers, the makeshift clinics, the ubiquitous graffiti like enormous tattoo — and everyone connecting on Facebook or Twitter. You can’t help feeling you’ve witnessed all this before. In Tunis. Or Cairo.
Stringer / AFP - Getty Images
Protests that started as an outcry against a local development project in Taksim Square have snowballed into widespread anger against what critics say is the government's increasingly conservative and authoritarian agenda.
Until you speak to the Turks in the square. The families. The school groups. The singers and dancers. None of them talk about bringing down a government. Instead they want to reform their democracy, which they see as severely skewed towards Erdogan's “own people” — the conservative, religious, middle class — and away from the young and secular-minded who didn’t vote for him.
Begum Uzun has practically lived on Taksim Square for the past week. Neither a looter nor an extremist — as Erdogan seemed to suggest — she’s an "ordinary activist" and a PhD student who’s lived and worked in Canada.
"We are all fighting for something different,” she explained. “Some for the trees. Another to lift alcohol restrictions. Or to end the crackdown on dissent. Or on the media. But we all share one goal — to get Erdogan to listen."
Emir Ay agrees. Ironically, the more Turkey’s influence has grown in the West, the less he’s felt a part of the "New Turkey."
It's as if the 49 percent of Turks who don’t support Erdogan just don’t exist, he says. "Erdogan said that we don’t have the right to say anything. But we said we do have that right. And here we are!"
Now protesters — and everyone else — are asking, "What happens next?"
Anti-government protesters camp out in an Istanbul park after another night of violent clashes with police. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.
Erdogan flies back today and will find that Taksim Square has become a liberated zone — a direct challenge to his authority. Will he engage with the protesters, or crackdown again? "He’s got a confrontational mind," said Cengiz Aktar, a Turkish political analyst.
"His instinct is to never yield. And he has plenty of crazy supporters who are ready to charge the square and badly beat up protesters."
In its vitality, it's street art, it's sights and sounds, Taksim inspires comparisons to the best of the "peoples" squares. But there could be dark, deadly, Tiananmen-like days ahead.