The Erdoğan government’s dictatorial approach to town planning has awakened a sleeping giant. In the space of 24 hours a simple protest over a park’s future has become a nationwide rebellion against authoritarian government, violent police and creeping Islamisation of a famously secular society. rabble’s men on the ground, Reuben and Gielty, report.
Yesterday saw one of the biggest protests in Istanbul’s history. At 1pm the commercial centre of the cosmopolitan Pera district, Istiklal street, was trading normally. Ice-cream vendors were musically clanging their ladles to attract tourists in the temperate sun, but at the north end of the road, police with riot shields and under cover of a water-cannon were herding protesters into an underground metro station, before filling it with tear gas and locking the doors. At least one person died as a result, and dozens were seriously injured. Another confirmed dead was reported some hours later while hundreds are in hospital.
This follows a string of brutal crackdowns on protesters occupying Gezi Park in opposition to plans to demolish it and construct a shopping mall in its place. Protesters built up from the 26th of May – hundreds initially to over a thousand by Thursday night. The numbers swelled as news spread of a dawn raid that morning in which the police gassed sleeping protesters, and baton-charged them from their tents which were burned at the scene. While the arrival of opposition politicians halted police action that day, the same tactics were repeated the morning at dawn and police remained to prevent reoccupation. Among those injured was Istanbul deputy Sırrı Süreyya Önder during a sit-down protest, having been hit in the shoulder with a gas canister.
The Turkish police are known for their happiness to use tear gas. But protestors estimated that over 100 canisters were used on the morning of the 31st alone, in one of Istanbul’s busiest retail areas which is surrounded by hotels. The Gezi Park protest was already had wide appeal in that it stood against the privatisation of public space. Many Istanbul natives also question the logic of building a shopping mall at the end of a road that is famous for its shops and boutiques.
The focus of this protest has broadened significantly in the space of a day. May 30th in the park there were a few thousand. Yesterday it felt like a city in revolt.
People still talk about Taksim Gezi park, and it remains ground zero of the struggle here, but the chants are now more likely to be directed at the government and police. What began as a defence of a historic public space in Istanbul is now led by the refrain ‘hükümet istifa’ – the government must resign.
People are enraged by the ferocious police offensives in Taksim. Clouds of tear gas periodically engulf the city centre. Protestors talk about people being crushed under armoured vehicles, suffocated in metro stations or shot with plastic bullets. The mood is one of indignation. A waiter in a restaurant on Istikal Street, Saïd, tells us “the government and police here act like they are kings. We have had enough.”
The crowd is still mostly young but it has grown to tens of thousands and represents a cross-section of the city. The political left, sectarian and divided historically in Turkey, are to the fore but so are middle-class students angry at the conservative turn of the Islamist government. The city’s growing Kurdish population are also well-represented, as are trade unionists. They are united in defence of their park, their right to assemble and their opposition to the state’s authoritarianism.
Yesterday saw the arrival for the first time of the ultras – hardcore supporters of Istanbul’s passionately supported football clubs. Some, like Besiktas’ anarchist Çarsi, are expressly political. The giant UltrAslan from Galatasaray and Vamos Bien of Fenerbahçe are less known for their stances but have plenty of experience facing down the police. They arrived with a typically theatrical flourish; Besiktas first at 7.03pm, their club having been founded in 1903. They were followed in similar fashion by Galatasaray at 1905 and Fenerbahçe at 1907. They joined together and in force, pledging on Twitter to put aside their rivalries. It was a big moment.
At around 8pm protestors began speaking for the first time about demonstrations in other cities across Turkey – Izmir, Bursa, Ankara, Eskisehir, Antalya. Their invocations of the Arab Spring, which seemed unlikely hours earlier, didn’t ring hollow anymore.
Many had feared that a lack of coverage in the mainstream media in Turkey would undermine the protest, especially since the police used signal dampeners to restrict internet access for kilometres around Taksim. But people were determined and information got out anyway. The authorities’ repression exposed their limitations and undermined their legitimacy.
The police were still chasing thousands down Istiklal at midnight, tear gas cannister explosions shaking buildings and filling the air with a bitter taste. Hotels are being evacuated in Taksim Square in advance of today’s demonstration. Organisers expect a six-figure turnout. Activists here say they will retake the park.
As the state began to lose control of this ancient city on May 31st one of its parliamentarians from the ruling AKP Party, Sirin Ünal, mocked the protestors. “Obviously there are some people in need of gas,” he tweeted, adding that “the system needs to be obeyed.” By evening his account was shut. Today will give indication whether the net is closing on his system, too.
The following video clips were taken along Istiklal yesterday evening(previous reports available here and here)
The moment a quiet evening is suddenly turned to panic as police missiles are launched down the main shopping street
At 8pm the main Trade Union joined the protest and marched toward Taksim Square
Football ‘Ultras’ supporters groups, the bitterest of rivals, joined forces to try to retake the square. Reports claim that Galatasaray Ultras ‘freed’ some 50 Fenerbahçe Ultras arrested by police.