Fortress Taksim. Reflection and reenforcement after days of chaos and drama. Our reporters Reuben & Gielty take to the streets of Istanbul to find out more about the protestors and their supporters.
Monday in Gezi Park saw the protestors fortify the camp and evaluate the progress of the Taksim Uprising. Internally, measures were put in place to strengthen the autonomous structures of the liberated space while on the outside barricades were constructed to protect it from police attack. People were settling into a regular pattern of daylight festivities and nighttime confrontation.
A supply centre was constructed at the front of the second square to distribute the donations that flow in by the hour. A small group had been organising this for days, but they now had a distinct cordoned-off area to work in, the barriers made from appropriated police fences. The volunteer organisers wear armbands made from plastic bags to let those in the park know they can receive donations. Mostly they take in packet food, multipack bottles of water, blankets and clothes. The call for supplies goes out informally – they tell people around them what they need and they put it on Facebook or Twitter. There is no centrally issued communications but within an hour or so what they need will arrive.
Ekin Medeni is a young worker living in Istanbul. She is one of the thirty or forty organisers, most of whom are students but some of those directing activities appear to be older – those who were here from the beginning. They are citizens, she says, not members of political parties and they are building structures for a camp that will last.
“I was the fifth person who came here, I only brought bags to give to someone who co-ordinated things. At first we were a small group and then more came and we had needed a space.”
People in the supply centre work shifts, not of set times but for as long as they feel they can. For those like Ekin who are working the shift starts after work at 6. She lives in Besiktas and has been helping out protestors there as they confront the police. “I go because they need us there also. We can’t bring them food or anything, though, because of the police.”
Organised political parties and groups tend to converge around stalls inside and outside the park. One of these is Revolutionary Anarchist Action (DAF), an anarchist-communist collective and the oldest organisation of that persuasion in Turkey. They distribute flyers and their Meydan newspaper, which has decent production specs for a free political paper.
One of DAF’s members in Istanbul is Özlem Arkun. She says that protestors have already won some victories in the last week. “The courts stopped demolition of Gezi Park so we can say the people have won here. But this is not just about the park, it is bigger. We know that in a few weeks the actions could be over, people could return to their work and this space could be empty. But this will still be an opportunity for a new start for the struggle. What has happened this week will have a lot of impact on the social memory. People realise what can be done if they move together.”
She argues changing the daily life of the people and the city is key for the continuation of the gains made in the Taksim Uprising, but also holds out hope that the general strike this week might broaden the reach of political radicalisation among workers. But she didn’t agree that the movement was middle-class – although it had its genesis there, it had become much more mixed as it expanded.
The Green Left party, a recent merger of the Green Party and the Labour and Democracy Party, also had a stall in Gezi Park. A member of their co-ordinating committee Ayse Öklem told us that although the Taksim Uprising also contained those who wanted the old Turkey, before the AKP, back – such as nationalists and Kemalist militarists- the majority were looking for something new. The large number of those present who consider themselves non-political was because, she said, of the issues of public space and individual rights, which transcended formal politics.
Ayse also felt the character of the police intervention in Gezi Park was pivotal to the development of the protests. “If, on the first day, the police had come and laughed at us I think we would have 2,000 or 3,000 people. But when they use violence more people will come, and every time such a movement will grow.”
She doesn’t believe, however, that economic inequality is something which motivates the protests. Although the gap between rich and poor is large here it has been larger in living memory. However, she argues that “aggressive capitalism” is a factor – the corporate elitism that pushes people out of common areas in Istanbul with privatisation. Taksim is more about the battle between public and private than rich and poor, and across the country it owes more to the desire for more for civic power than redistribution of wealth.
Gezi Park also plays home to LGBT activists, who were among the first to join the occupation of the park. One, Eylem, tells us that gay and transgender people often feel like they have to live in the closet. She says the crowd in Gezi Park is united and focusing on protecting the liberated space but also that the progress of the Islamist movement has been particularly bad for the LGBT community. “They don’t want to see us in public or to give us more rights. We think they don’t want us here at all. But we feel relaxed in Taksim.”
Ulfet, a member of the ‘Feministler’ group of women’s rights activists, says that Islamism should be seen in the context of conservative religious movements across the world – not as specific to Islam. “Here they are trying to take away our right to abortion, to make us cover our heads, to make us be quiet in society. But they do these things everywhere. they just have more power here now than other places. We are not anti-religion but we are against this control over our lives.”
The mood in the park on Monday night was one of nervous anticipation as it was the second in a row that protestors held Taksim. If the park itself was reclaimed space that had spread onto the square, then the areas on the other sides of the park are space for confrontation with police. The roads leading up to the square are strongly barricaded as protestors have dug themselves in. The developments at night here have a very tactical flavour to them. A few days ago it would be that the police take the square and the protesters hold hold Istiklal avenue to the south. The police would clear Istiklal, and minutes later ; protesters have swarmed back from the side streets as if nothing had changed. Now, Istiklal is gained ground, and police attack the newly expanded perimeter.
Police started dropping tear gas around Taksim from high flying helicopters at around 9:30 pm but there was no sign of ground units. We initially thought this was a diversionary tactic to distract the world media, which has now set its sight on the square, from the brutal sweeps of the largely student inhabited area of Besiktas. We received reports that it was subject to even harsher police action than previous nights. We were told local businesses were forced to close to prevent them from harbouring fleeing demonstrators, and even the danger-prone student search and rescue teams were warned by their logistical coordinators to stay away.
However, a ceasefire was negotiated in Besiktas by around 1am between police and the broadly anarchist Çarşi football supportes club, with agreed boundaries.
We also heard that contrary to Prime Minister Erdogans seemingly beneficent statements struggling to keep his supporters from attacking demonstrators, his party doesn’t actually really have that kind of support beyond isolated incidents. “They don’t have the street energy that maybe the nationalist-militarist party would have” said one source.
After the ceasefire, many of the protesters in Besiktas moved to reinforce the massive crowd at Taksim. We witnessed the the construction of the huge barricades out of construction materials on the roads leafing up to Gezi on the previous night. Even then, the atmosphere of those sites were of anticipated conflict as opposed to the festivities of the park.
Police helicopters were a constant presence over Taksim on the Monday night, making flyovers across the park, but their effect was limited in potentially two enterprising ways. We didn’t witness the first, in which demonstrators deem to have found a way to limit of the effect of the gas by picking up the canisters after they land and trapping them in a box.We saw this method in a video making the rounds on social media which was filmed in Ankara, but don’t know that it was employed in Taksim. The second, which we did see, was that demonstrators shone strong lasers from the park at incoming helicopters, severely limiting their visibility from the air. In the UK and USA, people have received lengthy Jail terms for doing this with single lasers, and there were at least fifty in the park.
Police ground units did eventually show up at Taksim. They had been at the first barricade of the northern road leading to Gezi park since just before midnight, and they showed up to the Eastern toad with heavily armoured trucks equipped with water cannons. They too were stopped at the first barricades. It is likely that the police were testing the resistance of the perimeter. The ceasefire at Besiktas worked against them then, because it countered their observed strategy of divide and conquer by trapping and crushing small numbers of protesters. They allowed the heavy cavalry to rejoin the base, and the protesters don’t need to inflict casualties on police. Merely holding the square is enough. A stalemate for the police is a victory for the demonstrators.It is hard to see how the police will deal with the challenge to their authority posed by an occupation of opponents in one of the most central areas in the heart of Istanbul. Mounting an assault will be a far more serious operation than the tent burnings of last Thursday. This article was written pseudonymously by Irish journalists Ronan Burtenshaw and Tommy Gavin because of safety concerns.