Last Friday evening I walked down Cumhuriyet Street in the Śisli district of Istanbul. It was, unsurprisingly in a city of 14 million, very busy. I passed through the crowds, mostly young and in many ways indistinguishable from their European counterparts. As the road bends and becomes Tarlabasi Street it passes Taksim Square. The area is, in part, a building site so many of the surrounding buildings have already been part demolished, a fact which enhances the feel of total destruction now it also bears the scars of the previous weekend’s events. Around the square business continues as usual; the cafes packed, shops and street stalls trading busily with locals and tourists.
Gezi Park stretches out to the north of Taksim Square. Last Friday, it was still a protestor occupied zone. Big, diverse and overwhelmingly peaceful (think Glastonbury meets Occupy St Pauls), a colleague summed up the atmosphere perfectly the next morning: ‘Me and my husband went out to eat and one of the protestors was at the next table. We got talking and he invited us back to the park. I was so nervous but we went in; they were amazing. We sang with them, we danced with them, they were so happy. It was incredible.’
The following evening as I headed back to my hotel there was something different about the crowd. Slightly busier than before, but demographically identical to the previous evening, virtually every other person carried or wore a gas mask, hard hat, or both. As I arrived back in the hotel around 9pm, level with my room, across the narrow street, the nightly display of solidarity began. Every night at this time women lean out of their windows, or stand in the street, and bang loudly on their pots and pans in support of the protestors.
About an hour later as I sat in a pavement cafe, just off Cumhuriyet Street I watched the scene unfolding in front of me. The numbers of protestors had increased. Almost every car that passed sounded its horn, in short bursts or continuously, showing their solidarity with the protestors. Two girls, in their late 20’s, came in; gas masks in hands, red faced and panting from running, eyes wet. The waiters welcomed them in and gave them water. The conversation that ensued led to attention being focused on the wall mounted TV which was now covering the story live; images of the clear out and cleared out park, battered tents, ripped banners, the occasional protestor picking through the debris. There was little coverage of the actual police action but from what I was witnessing beside me, and from the brief explanations translated for me by locals, it was clear it had been brutal.
Despite earlier acknowledgements of disproportionate police actions in Taksim Square and despite an earlier offer to meet with protestors, the warnings given by the Government during that day were final. The park was stormed by force. Much of what was missed from TV, a repetition of the previous week’s events in Taksim Square, exists on the internet.
Heading back to my hotel the streets were now awash with protestors who flooded out into the road itself and frequently broke out into the chant “Her yer Taksim, her yer direniş” (‘Everywhere is Taksim; everywhere is resistance’). As I passed a Kebab shop one of the workers was beckoning passers-by into the shop and starting to close the door. I accepted his invite just as the police water cannon arrived. It stopped at the junction and with no particular aim sprayed tear gas, in a 180 degree sweep, around the junction. I felt my eyes burn as I made it indoors but avoided the worst of the attack. Those outside would not have been so lucky. I was not a lone tourist bravely, stupidly, venturing into a riot zone; the area was filled with tourists and locals just going about their business. A group of protestors goaded the police vehicle and ran off up a hill opposite. It set off after them. One of the staff looked at me. ‘It’s okay now. But don’t stay around for long. Go back to your Hotel’.
It was now difficult to know which direction the protestors were heading. Some of those who had been cleared out of the Park were not local and were seeking somewhere to shelter. Others were waiting to see where the police were heading. Some were starting to gather anything to hand to form barricades: pot-plant holders, road-work barriers, loose paving and kerb stones. The scene, as I arrived in my hotel lobby, was one being played out across Taksim and Śisli: small groups, comprising both protestors and bystanders, were gather, sharing stories and wiping their eyes.
On Facebook friends were posting images, news updates and pleas for information. A dozen were stuck in a hotel reception just off Taksim Square, driven in on their way back from dinner, by indiscriminate police attacks. Others posted pictures of clouds of tear gas ‘from my window now!’ Some bore witness to the police storming hotel receptions where fleeing protestors had taken refuge. Almost all who had been out told tales of hotels, cafes and shops who had offered refuge and assistance often with home-made remedies for tear gas effects. No one saw any violence perpetrated by protestors.
Around 3.00am the noise levels up on the main street grew. A large bonfire was now blazing in the middle of the road. The crowd continued to break out in chants. About an hour later the noise changed. In the distance I could hear shots. Shortly afterwards a sea of white helmeted riot police passed the end of the street, at random intervals one or more would aim skywards and release a tear gas canister, carpeting the area with their obnoxious substance. Protestors ran for cover, disappearing in small groups down the side streets.
The next morning as I walked down the now quiet streets, some pavements, where used for barricades had lost some of their blocks. Three shrubs, taken from pots which had been used to build a road block, had been neatly positioned by the cafe from where they were taken. The slogan chanted last night now adorned the pavement as graffiti. This, and the occasional broken bottle aside, there was no malicious damage. Over the mile or so I covered I saw just one broken window.
By lunch time, the tear gas was once again wafting up from Taksim Square. The usual crowds thronged the street, those with masks and hard-hats back at, or in excess of, the proportion of the night before. Our taxi got us out of town avoiding blocked roads and police lines. As we crossed a junction near Taksim the protestors completely filled the streets. Politely and with no issues they cleared a space for us to pass. Down the road a water cannon was making its way towards them. A few metres along the side street we had now taken a lone woman, perhaps in her late 60s, stood rigidly in the street a few metres from her front door. Her expression, one of fury, was matched by the manner with which she banged the pot in her hand.
At the airport I checked for updates from friends and colleagues. Many were moving out of town or heading home early. Many posted pictures of their personal experiences; blocked roads, clouds of tear gas, police loading chemicals into the water tanks of their cannons, spent shells, police storming hotel receptions. Others reported passing the army gathering on the outskirts of town. Others saw pro-government demonstrators being bussed or sailed in to the counter demonstration. Ominously, a number witnessed coaches arriving near the Conference Centre full of plain clothed police; their future role unclear, although video clips on the internet suggest they are primarily snatch squads.
On Youtube you can find a wonderful rendition of ‘Can you hear the people sing Gezi Park’, an uploaded clip features a group of protestors singing, in English and Turkish, the rousing revolutionary anthem from Les Miserables.* Look closely at them. Other than the balance of the choir being predominantly female, this is a good representation of the type of people who I saw in the streets around Taksim over the weekend. For standing up to an increasingly oppressive regime they are putting their lives in danger. In any other European city they will be out shopping, going to the cinema, sitting in bars and cafes.
A number of trade unions have now announced strikes in support of the protestors while the Government has announced the threat of using the army. In an Orwellian proclamation Erdogan claimed he cleared Gezi Park because it belongs to everyone not just the protestors. The reality is it is being handed to profiteers to tear down and develop.
Erdogan’s determination to crush this protest is precisely the attitude that is fuelling the growth of the backlash. His stage managed supporter’s rallies and calls to patriotism may appeal to those whose primary desire is to maintain their new found prosperity but for many they are the final straw. Over the days and weeks ahead I imagine more will echo the comments of three of my new Turkish friends who, completely independently told me the same thing: ‘Things are really bad; Erdogen has to go, we are no longer afraid.’ I don’t know if he’ll lose this battle but I’m not convinced he’ll win the war. He may yet have to hear the people sing.
*The same theme is now being used more widely to back images and posts about the Gezi Park occupation
Mark Chivers, Chair of South East Dorset Green Party, who was in Istanbul training as a Climate Leader with Climate Reality.