In Gezi Park
I used to walk through Gezi Park every morning on my way to work. But on 1 May the park was closed. There are plans to build a shopping mall on top of it, and the mayor of Istanbul and the minister of the interior had used this as an excuse to cancel the May Day celebrations there. Trade unions and opposition political parties organised marches to Taksim anyway. The stand-off led to a curfew in all but name. On May Day I looked out the window of my flat and counted ten police officers on the street, one outside every building.
Things returned to normal on 2 May. I resumed my morning strolls through Gezi. The tourist season had begun. But last Monday, 27 May, I came down the steps by the luxury Divan Hotel to see a man standing between a bulldozer and a tree. There were cameras around him. He was speaking with a plainclothes policeman. I didn’t recognise him at first, but then I realised he was Sirri Süreyya Önder, the film director and socialist MP who had read the ceasefire message of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, to hundreds of thousands of people in Diyarbakır two months ago. One of the leading figures of the Kurdish peace process had turned his attention to the government’s urban developments plans.
When I walked home that evening, dozens of tents had been pitched in Gezi. The night was warm. Bands played; celebrities gave readings; it was fun to drink booze in the face of the new ban on selling alcohol at night. A friend, who objected to comparing the event to the Occupy Wall Street movement, called it ‘Turkey’s Woodstock’.
At dawn police attacked the protesters with tear gas and water cannon, then set their empty tents on fire.
The pattern repeated itself on subsequent nights: a night of partying in Gezi followed by a police raid at dawn. Some people brought gas masks with them; everyone carried lemons, which help relieve the effects of tear-gas. Protesters with heart conditions were advised to bring their medication.
On Thursday evening, Rihanna, who was performing in Istanbul in front of a crowd of 30,000, was invited on Twitter to come to the park. She didn’t reply. But after the concert, at one o’clock in the morning, hundreds of her fans made their way to Gezi.
On Friday the police announced there would be no more meetings in the park, and closed it off. The protesters, undeterred, regrouped in Taksim Square, a hundred metres away. No longer confined to the park, the protest spread through the streets. Fights broke out between police and protesters. Schoolchildren were trapped between the protesters and the gigantic police vehicles spraying water and tear gas. The doors of Taksim’s subway station were closed, locking hundreds of passengers inside. Gezi was completely surrounded by police. I walked along a side street; protesters were trying to sneak into the park through the metal fencing.
They seemed to have got used to being tear-gassed. I’m not. Tear gas makes you cry, choke and spit at the same time. It is easily carried on the wind; you have no idea where it’s coming from but it suddenly hits you and envelopes you. It makes you want to get as far away from it as possible, but you don’t know which way to run.
By evening, tens of thousands of protesters were on İstiklal Street. Önder was hit in the shoulder by a tear-gas canister; people rushed to the hospital where he received treatment. Things became absolutely chaotic. Police used mobile phone jammers to stop protesters from communicating with each other. The live webcams on İstiklal Street were shut down. There were rumours of arrests in side streets. Meanwhile, the Turkish media were completely silent about what was going on. One television channel, its headquarters in Taksim, broadcast a cooking show.
Istanbul hasn’t seen such protests since the murder of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007. Then, tens of thousands of protesters marched through the streets in silence. This time it was very loud. After midnight on Friday, protesters, too, turned violent. By early Saturday morning there were a couple of masked groups on the streets, throwing cobblestones and setting cars on fire. After the police were forced to leave the square, protesters marched to Beşiktaş, where the prime minister’s office is. In Gezi there was music and drinking; in Beşiktaş things quickly got out of control. Protesters tried to drive a crane to the prime minister’s office. The police threw thousands of tear-gas canisters into side streets.
The media blackout meant we had to rely on Twitter for news. Having read hundreds of tweets I tried to doze off at around 3 in the morning. Sirens kept me awake. I tried to remember what Gezi looked like when I used to walk through it, the silence and the way the trees glowed in the sun.