Tennessee state legislators found themselves in the middle of Turkish protesters at one point during a 10-day tour of Turkey and Azerbaijan that ended last week, according to state Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville.
“They were really a lot like the Occupy Wall Street crowd, or Occupy Nashville,” said Campfield, adding that he had talked with several of the protesters, who were in a peaceful mode when encountered by the Tennesseans in Istanbul.
“They had the same type of arguments” in complaints about capitalism, interrelated with what the protesters saw as unwarranted development of a city park, said Campfield, one of several legislators making the trip sponsored by the Turkish-American Chamber of Commerce of the Southeast.
On his blog, the senator posted multiple pictures and travelogue-like commentary on the trip. The pictures include shots of marching protesters and vehicles that had been battered or burned.
While the Tennesseans encountered no violence themselves, in one blog post, Campfield said arrests were justified judging by the aftermath the group saw.
” I am sure they were probably put in jail for going crazy and being part of a destructive ‘Riot.’ It looked like the protesters did more damage to the park themselves than they did to save it,” he wrote. “Spray paint everywhere. Fences pulled up and trashed. Things burned and still burning. Sidewalks torn up. Barricades built in the streets. Billboards on the street cut, ripped, burned, trashed.
“I’m not surprised a bunch of the protesters were thrown in jail for a few days. Tennessee would probably do the same thing.”
Overall, Campfield said he was left with a very favorable impression of both Turkey and Azerbaijan — one that contrasts considerably with what many people might think about the Islamic region.
“It really was different than how it’s portrayed by the media … everybody wearing a burqa and waving a rifle,” he said. “Everybody was open, friendly … pro-democracy. They all like to be thought of as more European … not like the rest of that crazy Middle East.”
One surprise was the wide availability of alcohol in Muslim-oriented countries, said Campfield, a teetotaler.
“Even the hot dog vendors were selling beer and wine,” he said, adding that some protesters were concerned about new rules to restrict alcohol sales near mosques — rather like Tennessee prohibits alcohol sales near churches.
In Azerbaijan, he said black legislators in the group were “instant celebrities” who were “almost mobbed” by people wanting to meet them since “most had never seen an African-American.” He posted a picture on his blog of Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, surrounded by a street crowd.
A Nashville television station has reported that the Turkish-American Chamber is financed by the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians and that both groups have ties to Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Muslim imam who has founded a network of charter schools in the United States.
Campfield said any suggestion that the trip was arranged to inappropriately influence the legislators “is a joke.” He said Gulen and charter schools were discussed “zero point zero times” during the multiple meetings with city officials, congressional leaders and business representatives of the area chambers of commerce.