On the frontline in Istanbul: The view from Gezi park
It is June 16th 2013. It has been 19 days since the Gezi resistance started. Yesterday evening, after giving a speech in Ankara, prime minister Recep Erdogan made a threat.
"If by tomorrow these people won't empty the Gezi Park, our police forces will find a way to empty and secure the park," he said.
At exactly 9pm, which is usually the time when people hit pans and spoons in order to show their support with the protestors, a strategic manoeuvre took place by police near Gezi Park. It was unexpected and brutal. There were many families, women and children visiting the park at that point. From Facebook and Twitter posts, my friends and I were getting hundreds of horrifying messages every second, about people being injured and tents being torn down. On Reuters we watched in shock as the live stream showed police entering the park area with large vehicles, using water cannons and tear gas against demonstrators.
People were separated from their kids. Police even hit the front of the Divan Hotel, which had been converted in to a medical zone. At one point they threw gas cans inside the hotel, where injured people, pregnant women and children were recovering. After hearing about this, thousands of people from across the city hit the streets to stop this brutality.
It all started two weeks ago with this little park, in the middle of the city centre, right next to Taksim Square. This last green spot right in the heart of Istanbul is called Gezi Park.
The actual process of tearing the park down was initiated by the municipality of Istanbul on the May 28th, late at night. To prevent it, environmentalists occupied the area in the form of a peaceful protest.
At 5am on May 31st, the police violently attacked peaceful protesters in the park, who were still sleeping in their tents, with tear and pepper gas. This unnecessary use of force by the police triggered a chain of events. People started to express their shock through the social media; especially via Facebook and Twitter. The fast spreading news immediately encouraged people to express their anger and frustration in the form of a civil uproar, which started first in Istanbul, then spread quickly to Izmir, Ankara and other major cities of Turkey.
At this point the Gezi resistance also started for me.
I am 25 years old and I am half-Austrian, half-Turkish. I was born in Istanbul and lived there until I graduated from high school and went to Vienna to study. I only just moved back home last March.
I was out of town during the first few days, when it was mainly environmentalists occupying the area. My boyfriend told me there was a festival-like feeling in the park, with many people just talking and making music. I was very eager to go.
We went outside that evening, though we couldn't move much because of the horrible pepper gas. We had masks but it was unbearable so we had to go back home. We looked for these incidents on TV. It was all happening right under our noses, though on the Turkish television channels there was literally no-one reporting any of it. TV-channel CNN-Türk was showing a documentary about penguins.
Almost as a reflex, we started writing on Facebook and Twitter. We could see a lot of people shared our shock about what was happening and how the Turkish media was silent. We felt helpless.
All of a sudden, at around 2am, we heard some people hitting pans and spoons from their balconies. We went out on the street and joined them. Nobody talked. Everyone just hit pans, spoons, forks or plastic bottles on concrete. We couldn't do anything, so we tried to be heard. We tried to wake up the people. We had reached our limits.
One excessive use of force by the police and everything which had been bubbling up inside us for the last ten years burst open. I remembered when I was in high school and the AKP government wanted to ban mini-skirts or revealing tops. I remembered the government demands for people who cheated on their spouses to get jail sentences.
I can remember every time I got back during my vacations over the years, I felt like the people were being polarised – every day a little more. The religious became more religious. Secularists became increasingly infuriated by their treatment. When Erdogan was elected for a second time in 2007, the harsh differences became more apparent.
I remember when the AKP restricted the rights of restaurants and bars to serve alcohol on the streets. At some point Erdogan started talking about how many kids people should have (at least 3), that abortion should be illegal and that all kinds of advertisements about alcohol should be banned.
Since that night, people have been taking their pans and spoons out at 9pm, to make noise from their windows and balconies in order to support the people on the streets.
The next day – June 1st – was a Saturday, so we had time to prepare. We got our masks, sun glasses, asthma-inhalers, water and some liquid, which was said to be helpful in case of being gassed. Before we even got to the park, some policemen started running towards us and threw some gas cannons. We started running back. Everywhere there was gas and people in panic.
Eventually, the police had to leave the Taksim area as people kept streaming in from all directions. People were singing songs and celebrating the maintaining of the park. The frightening mood changed immediately into a very happy and optimistic one.
Some protestors came and asked everyone to come to Besiktas (another area at the Bosphorus, close to Taksim) because apparently the police were being very violent there. In front of the Besiktas Inönü football stadium, some big police vehicles, which are called TOMA (Toplumsal Olaylarla Mücadele Araci – meaning a vehicle with the purpose of fighting civil incidents), came out of nowhere and threw what seemed like fireworks at us. We took shelter behind the big stairs in front of the stadium. We realised it would be too dangerous for us to continue so we returned home.
The football fans from the teams Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray all joined together, calling themselves 'Istanbul United'. They have been especially present in these demonstrations, for they have a lot of experience dealing with the police. In particular the 'Carsi' group – the fans of Besiktas – became heroes of the resistance. Every chance they got, they helped people in need and motivated everyone with their high spirits and humour.
The next few days my boyfriend's place became a gathering area. People were coming and going, giving each other news, bringing medicine and gas masks. We were taking in people who had been seriously harmed by the gas or just those who needed to use the bathroom. It was such a surreal, scary and amazing atmosphere.
No matter how angry people became, violence was always frowned upon. If someone was trying to throw stones at the police, another would immediately talk them out of it. These incidents gave the government the chance to divide the protestors into the 'honest, respectable ones' and the 'illegal, violent ones'. It's the same strategy the government used to divide the people during these ten years on the basis of religion.
Now it's been over 15 days without proper sleep. Some days we just get home, charge our phones, take what we need and then get out again.
During these protest, people from very different radical groups came together: ethnic minorities, nationalists, kemalists, environmentalist, socialist, unionists, anarchists, libertarians, liberals, feminists, post-feminists, LGBT activists, lesbians, gays, transsexuals, transvestites, and more.
Gezi Park was almost utopian. It was a place where people looked out for each other. Everybody shared food and tents and gave to others without expecting anything in return.
So far, we have not achieved a major democratic or political result. And last night, we saw the most brutal police response yet.
We don’t know what will happen. There is panic, chaos and uncertainty. The mayor is lying to our faces. The government hasn't made any comments at all. But we're still here.
We will be until we're heard and our demands are taken into account. We will not be ignored.
The writer of this article has kept her identity hidden for fear of police reprisals, but you can follow her on @MarlaMillaMia on Twitter to keep up to date with her experiences on the streets of Istanbul.