Bellowing foggy clouds of tear gas choked the early Istanbul morning of the 30th of May, as police clad in paramilitary riotgear stormed Gezi park in Taksim. Reuben & Gielty have this report from the front lines.(This article was written pseudonymously by Irish journalists Ronan Burtenshaw and Tommy Gavin because of safety concerns.)
Using a signal dampener to limit internet use and accompanied by a heavily armoured “Mass Incident Intervention Vehcile,” they peppersprayed the occupants of tents set up to oppose the government’s plan to raze the trees and turn the park into the site for the construction of a shopping mall.
Bulldozers followed, beginning the deconstruction of the park as police burned the now-vacant tents. It was a far different environment from the festive atmosphere in the park the previous day, but the deconstruction halted by late morning as opposition politicians appeared. Their presence and the return of the protestors halted the bulldozers causing the police to withdraw. By late afternoon the festive atmosphere had not only returned but increased as news of the raid helped galvanise support for the protesters.
The occupation by the demonstrators began three days previously in response to Prime Minister Erdogan’s insistence that the park would indeed be demolished and replaced with a shopping mall. But there has been a vigil of a few tents in anticipation of the demolition since the plans were announced last year. The park had already been chipped away by construction, bit by bit, for years.
Students Sencer and Kemal are members of the Turkish Communist Party. They talk about how the municipality has tried to sell the project. “They say it will help the area and drive traffic underground. They also talk about how the new mall will be in the shape of a historic barracks that was once there.”
It is also said that there are plans for the construction of a new mosque, which would brazen in its to appeal to the voters of a party that has built itself on coupling conservative social policies with liberal economics. In those terms then, the struggle over Gezi park is a microcosm of a much broader battle; it is about keeping trees in the city but its roots are much deeper.
Taksim Square is one of Istanbul’s few public spaces, and the heartbeat of its anti-establishment politics. In 1977, amidst the hostility of the Cold War, right-wing militias opened fire on a May Day demonstration and killed thirty-six protestors. Ever since it has been home to mass mobilisations and confrontations.
Gezi park joins the square from the east – a green oasis in the city’s concrete. One of very few parks on the European side of this city of fourteen million it stretches for just under a kilometre.
Today its entrance is cordoned off by police barricades. Rows of buses and armoured vans sit in front of hundreds of uniformed officers, lounging around tables in the afternoon sun. The mood is tense but there is little to indicate the battle which took place just hours earlier.
The protestors leave the front square, a buffer of empty fountains and flower gardens, between themselves and the police. They are congregated in the grassier second square, hundreds deep at first but swelling to thousands as work and prayers finish by the Bosphorous.
Gonca is among a group at a table taking signatures for a petition and handing out ‘Taksim belongs to everyone’ stickers. She says the group has collected more than 100,000 since December. The protest, though, has intensified in the last few days.
“On Monday the bulldozers arrived but the people came into the park and stopped them. Then the Prime Minister went on the television and said, ‘no matter what you do, you will not stop this. We have decided to remove the park.’ That made us more determined.”
Behind her, tents have sprung back up from where the police cut them down the night before. Home-made banners are tied to the trees. Groups of protestors dance, chant and paint in a festival of creative resistance.
Leftist iconography and slogans mix with those who say they aren’t political but are here to defend their park, and they vary young and old. The protestors are united in the belief that this space belongs to the people and isn’t the preserve of anyone to sell off.
Ilhan is from the Asian side of Istanbul. He says the protest is a manifestation of a broader frustration held by people here – at their disempowerment in the face of a revanchist government.
“They think that they can just do this, take a place that belongs to all of us for generations and do what they want. They don’t care about our opinions, they don’t listen. Why do they want to attack this place? They say we are dangerous but you can see everywhere that people are peaceful. It is because they don’t respect us.”
Graffiti daubed on the wall carries the occupation’s slogan “Taksim Bizim, Istanbul Bizim!, “Taksim is ours, Istanbul is ours!” While laced with environmental concerns this protest is ultimately about the common ownership of this space. It sits alongside struggles of various sizes all over the world – in Mexico City’s Coyoacan, New York’s Zuccotti Park and Cairo’s Tahrir Square – as an example of people asserting their right to the city.
Taksim Gezi is now in that moment where possibility and energy coexist with uncertainty and fragility. Major opposition politicians pledge support, but an army of police stand ready to finish it by force. It’s unlikely that the protestors could withstand a serious offensive without bigger numbers, but they insist that they’ll try.
Part of the day’s creative festivities included tutorials on the construction of home-made gas masks from air-pollution masks and 2.5 litre plastic bottles. It remains to be seen how the events in Gezi park will play out. Its unclear how long the festive atmosphere will last, and its easy to conceive of ways it could end badly. At the center of all of it though; is Taksim.