Turkey's Gezi Park and Taksim Square protests have drawn mainstream Istanbullus and a variety of veteran activists together in an unprecented way and could permanently alter the country's political landscape, writes Caleb Lauer
A grassroots protest movement is changing politics in Turkey
Even in the Bosphorus breeze, disembarking ferry passengers could taste the tear gas. It was Friday, May 31, and up the hill behind the pier sat Taksim Square and Gezi Park, where police had been fighting protesters all day. The fight would end in victory for the protesters. Both Taksim Square and Gezi Park - side by side at the centre of Istanbul - would be theirs to occupy: Taksim Square for 11 days, Gezi Park for 15 days. There is a story in this four-day difference.
That Friday, the funicular up from the pier to Taksim was shut. Hundreds of people were hiking up the warren of rivulet-like streets, so steep in spots the roads turned to stairs. Friendly clusters of beer drinkers stood outside corner stores, enduring, like the rest, blinding gusts of nearly invisible tear gas. Later polls - separately conducted by Bilgi University and the polling company Konda - indicate that half were first-time protesters. Still, most thought to wear bandanas; some even had goggles and dust masks. (Hardhats and full-face gas masks soon became the norm.) Protesters shared tissues soaked in vinegar; even the sting relieved burning eyes. Others squeezed lemons over their faces. But most soothing was watered-down antacid, the kind normally taken for heartburn. Samaritans squirted the stuff out of spray bottles at anyone squinting in pain. The taste of the liquid became so familiar that one learnt to distinguish between brands, even develop preferences. The age and manner of the crowd made for a collegiate atmosphere, and apart from the gas, suggested nothing much more dangerous than a night of campus pranks.
That illusion quickly evaporated. Just off Taksim Square, on Istiklal Avenue, a mosh pit of people manned a barricade, raining paving stones on a police water-cannon lorry (called a Toma, after the Turkish acronym). Red-and-black flags of Turkey's revolutionary groups flew over the crowd, and were illuminated in the sheen of gas and smoke by a nearby fire and the Toma's spotlights.
The crowd managed to wrong-foot the Toma and swarm it, smashing it with stones. The lorry sped backwards. Police launched a sustained volley of tear gas, aiming low despite the scrambling bystanders in their line of fire. Caught in an excruciating cloud of gas, some squeezed into a kebab shop, where, cheek to jowl, choking, coughing and crying, they doused each other's faces with lemons and antacid.
"This has been going on since five o'clock this morning," the man behind the counter said.
And it went on all night.
For days, police had been using tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons against protesters camped out in Gezi Park - even setting fire to their tents. The protesters wanted to stop some trees from being uprooted by construction crews, and were opposed to the wider redevelopment of Taksim Square and Gezi Park already underway. The park was to become a shopping mall and the square remade.
The protest against the development grew and then erupted on Friday, May 31.
"It's about more than the trees," Pinar, an architect, said at Taksim that Friday night. Most protesters later told pollsters the police violence itself had brought them to the streets. And very quickly everything was at issue: specific policies, the prime minister's manner, the manipulation of the media.
On the other hand, some protesters had a concrete objective: to physically reach Taksim Square. Since the founding of the republic, Taksim Square has been the most important public space in Istanbul. A demonstration means more when it is staged there. To be barred from Taksim is akin to being silenced. On May 1, 1977, 39 May Day marchers were killed by snipers. For more than 30 years, May Day celebrations in Taksim were banned, and were again this year. Critics, such as members of the Turkish Chamber of Architects, say the redevelopment plan for Taksim will make it harder for people - including demonstrators - to walk to Taksim. And plans to build a mosque, demolish the Attatürk Culture Centre, and house the Gezi Park shopping mall in faux-Ottoman barracks are unacceptable to many people. For republicans and leftists, Taksim Square is hallowed ground.
Late Friday night, some protesters burst past the police lines and flew across the square like gymnasts. Some made for the Republican Monument; a flag-bearer ran at a Toma. Another man, shirtless and built like a wrestler, pushed a dumpster in front of himself, a rolling shield against the Toma's water cannon.
I didn't recognise the initials on the flag.
"Maoists," a man beside me said. The man pushing the dumpster was soon swept off his feet.
One might have assumed that these and other untiring, revolutionary-flag wavers "won" the occupation of Taksim Square and Gezi Park. They, and Çarsi, the Besiktas football team supporters, were certainly given credit: when you face the police, you need people who are experienced. People who know how to build barricades are invaluable, I heard repeatedly in later interviews.
But people with such experience credited those collegiate masses of novices. "Even if we had made plans, it wouldn't have been better organised," said Harun, a member of the Socialist Refoundation Party. The size of the crowd, the sheer numbers, allowed for a rotation at the barricades. "Each time the police paused, enough people were there to push the barricade further," he said. Exhausted protesters fell back to rest, oddly enough, Harun said, at a Starbucks, where baristas only insisted that recuperating protesters not smoke.
The next afternoon, now June 1, after more than 30 hours of fighting, the police were ordered to leave Taksim Square and Gezi Park. Tens of thousands of people flooded in. In the surrounding streets, people reinforced the barricades. There were drummers, dancers, drinkers and singers. "This is a great day in Turkish history," one man told me, posing with his girlfriend for a photograph beside a smashed-up police car. The flags that had waved above the barricades now rose above the sea of heads like an archipelago of red island palms.
Very quickly, a society sprang up behind the barricades. And within that society, two interwoven yet distinct provinces emerged: Gezi and Taksim.
Gezi Park filled with tents, stalls and information stands. Posters, banners and flags hung from trees. There was a library built of breeze blocks, an infirmary staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses, a professional stage and a garden. There were yoga classes and stand-up comics. The place was sustained by donations; food, clothing and medicine were given out for free. Needs-lists were posted on Twitter and Facebook. Part utopian festival, part punk DIY, open and full of wit, it was, at heart, an occupation that reasserted participants' rights of assembly and protest. On the one hand, the solidarity born at the barricades - a first confrontation for many - grew into new alliances in Gezi Park, such as that between LGBT activists and the Anti-Capitalist Muslims group. On the other, there were tensions: especially between some Turkish and Kurdish nationalists. And perhaps more abstract tensions as well: half of the CEOs surveyed by Turkey's Ekonomist magazine reportedly visited Gezi Park during the occupation; these captains of Turkish industry strolled among the table displays of dozens of trade unions and socialist parties.
Next door, Taksim Square was the province of the revolutionaries, where many of those who had fought to get to the square itself settled. From the façade of the crumbling Ataturk Culture Centre and from the Republican Monument hung huge banners portraying images of the left's martyr-heroes - stylised fists, hammers, sickles, stars and an alphabet soup of acronyms. There were photo displays of imprisoned party members and memorials to those killed in the square in 1977. One morning, a man in his 70s who was with a group camped out near the Republican Monument complained he was exhausted from staying up all night trying to keep beer drinkers away. "This is a protest, not a party," the man said.
The two provinces were both distinct and interwoven. But soon "illegal organisations" and "marginal groups" became government shorthand for those camped out in Taksim Square, whereas they found "legitimate protesters" had camped out in Gezi Park.
The contrast, however, was ironic. The initial Gezi Park protest opposed a redevelopment and construction project, one critics said was designed to make money from the destruction of a public space. And though the intrinsic value of simply occupying Taksim Square drove many people to join the larger protests - more so than did the desire to preserve Gezi Park - many of these so-called "marginal groups" actually enjoy a highly localised legitimacy in neighbourhoods across Istanbul because they support and organise resistance to government plans to redevelop marginalised neighbourhoods.
Unlike Gezi Park, however, these plans and the neighbourhoods involved cover huge areas of the city, and have received scant attention from both local and foreign media.
A map of Istanbul prepared for a 2009 United Nations-Habitat mission visit to the city shows 35 neighbourhoods where there is a “resistance” movement in place to oppose the government’s urban renewal plans. Most of these neighbourhoods were originally squatter settlements built by migrant workers in the second half of the 20th century who had left Anatolia’s farms for Istanbul’s factories.
One such neighbourhood is Okmeydani, where the graffiti and posters recall the flags and banners in Taksim during the occupation. Images of the left’s hero-martyrs – Deniz Gezmis, Ibrahim Kaypakkaya, Mahir Çayan – adorn the walls. “What are you doing taking photos of an empty street when I’m already here posing for you?” a smiling grey-haired man shouted from his chair outside a carpentry workshop. Spray-painted on the wall behind him were the well-preserved initials of two of Turkey’s illegal leftist groups.
Among posters advertising upcoming panel discussions and after-school courses – guitar, English, mathematics, choir – one stood out: “We Will Not Permit Demolitions”. The poster was signed by the “People’s Committees” of resistance neighbourhoods across Istanbul: Okmeydani, 1 Mayis, Armutlu, Gazi and others. Whereas these neighbourhoods once supplied much-needed workers, they are today seen mainly as land to be developed.
Around 7am on Tuesday, June 11, police overran the barricades. The deal, broadcast by the authorities, was that only Taksim Square would be cleared and Gezi Park would not be touched. Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, the governor of Istanbul, was quoted in press reports as saying: “Our children who stay at Gezi Park are at risk, [so] we will clean the area of the marginal groups.”
Police pulled down the giant revolutionary banners from the façade of the Atatürk Culture Centre and uprooted the flags planted on the Republican Monument.
The protesters’ reaction was complex. Many from Gezi Park came out to the square to resist. They sat in front of the Tomas and made human chains. “Don’t panic,” a policeman on a loudspeaker announced just as a Toma turned its water-cannon on the crowd. “Withdraw to Gezi Park.”
Just beyond the western edge of Gezi Park, a few dozen protesters stubbornly manned a set of barricades. A Toma’s windscreen burst into flames when it took a direct hit from a Molotov cocktail. Police fired plastic bullets and launched hundreds of rounds of tear gas. Tomas drenched the protesters at the barricades with chemicals.
“I think [those protesters at the barricades] are provocateurs trying to legitimise the police actions against us … I think 99 per cent of the people here think like me. [The violent protesters] don’t represent us,” said Deniz, a young man watching the scene. Later, Cemre, a 20-year-old architecture student, told me the same thing. She sat on the steps of Istanbul Technical University near a barricade. She didn’t mind them clearing Taksim Square if they let Gezi Park be.
But there were no easy distinctions to be made. Protesters did prevent violence – shouting down one man set to attack police with a metal beam. That man, however, was not unique. Later, another dug into his backpack, and then stood inside the edge of Gezi Park cradling a well-prepared Molotov cocktail. And after yet another round of tear-gas canisters fell among the tents in Gezi Park (despite police assurances to the contrary), one man lost his patience, found a rock the size of his foot, gripped it in a rage and ran from the park.
Four nights later, police cleared “legitimate protesters” from Gezi Park in the same harsh manner that they had removed “marginals” from Taksim Square.
Özlem Arkun, a member of the Revolutionary Anarchist Action group who was at the barricades and occupation, speaking weeks later in a cafe run by anarchists, evaluated the occupation. The people staying in Gezi Park and Taksim Square were sustained, in terms of food, water and medicine, through donations, Arkun recalled.
“You got everything you needed, and slowly people forgot about their responsibilities,” she said.
The less people had to rely on themselves, the less they had at stake, and the self-organisation necessary for political engagement evaporated, said Arkun. Because of this, many of the newcomers she had seen at the barricades on that first Friday, that “very motivated” critical mass that helped the protests succeed, had drifted from moral outrage to either boredom or bacchanalia.
Indeed, during the occupation there were makeshift signs in the park: “Be sober” and “Not everything in Gezi Park is free”.
Since the occupation ended, people have been gathering in local parks at night to talk.
Some “forums” attract thousands to hear activists speak on stages. Others consist of 20 or so people sitting in lawnchairs around a tiny guitar amplifier and a microphone.
Each forum has its own format, but their common appeal is that they focus on neighbourhood issues. The forums not only keep the spirit of the Gezi Park occupation alive, they are overcoming some of Özlem Arkun’s criticisms.
“For the meaning of this movement to continue, the ‘local’ must come to the fore … what happens in one’s neighbourhood is a part of daily life. You can’t escape those processes … In this sense, the forums are significant,” said Özlem Çaliskan, an urban planner and volunteer at Bir Umut (One Hope), an NGO that works with many of the neighbourhoods resisting urban renewal.
And within the forums as well, the provinces of Taksim Square and Gezi Park interweave. During the last weekend of Ramadan, people from the Istanbul neighbourhood of Gülsuyu attended a forum on Heybeliada island, just off Istanbul, to share stories of their neighbourhood’s resistance to urban renewal plans with about 100 islanders, many of whom are opposed to building projects where they live. And while many see the forums as a desirable alternative to gathering in Taksim – because they are local in their focus, upbeat and, perhaps most importantly, rarely subjected to police tear gas – this has led to friction with activists who want to keep the focus on Taksim Square.
The number of people attending forums has declined during the summer due to people going on holiday and a growing feeling of issue fatigue. But Turkey’s local elections, scheduled for March 2014, could have a re-energising effect. Will more local activists run for office? Will Istanbul’s “resistance” neighbourhoods remain marginalised? Will Turkey’s governing party win Istanbul city hall again? The elections will provide concrete answers to the complex set of questions the occupation of Gezi Park and Taksim Square has raised about legitimacy and local politics.
Caleb Lauer is a Canadian freelance reporter based in Istanbul.