The Gezi protests of two years ago will live in Turkish history, though they did not result in much tangible so far, save for a few deaths and some battle scars. The first protest started from a sit-in, live-in, give-in of the last park in central Istanbul, an occupy situation. The government wanted to build a shopping center whose architecture was reminiscent of the barracks that had been there at one time (and they had been built on an Armenian cemetery). At the time, I had newly returned to Turkey after some months away and was staying with a friend in Cihangir. We went up to Gezi a few times to see the temperature. When it got very hot, we tried to avoid it.
At first, it was kind of like a party. A few times we gathered in the streets with other gawkers. There were some strange people. For example, one guy was walking around squeezing lemon juice (rumoured to counter tear gas) in his eyes, even though there had not been any tear gas. A little later three young guys with kerchiefs over their faces strolled by and decided to smash the ATMs outside the Taksim Ilk Yardim Hospital. People around them called on them to stop it, but by then it was too late. Unfortunately, hooligans take the opportunity to join in protests wherever they are. And I also have to report that that hospital has since been closed, so now there is no public hospital in Taksim. It is rumoured that it is going to become a hotel. Meanwhile, other hospitals took in injured protesters free of charge.
Of course many of the people protesting looked like what we used to call hippies. But there were also a lot of people like us, middle aged ‘straight’ men and women. As the days went by, the protests widened. The park was occupied in different areas peopled by different groups– women’s groups, LBGT groups, political groups. The Kurds were just outside the park, which seemed to me to be a metaphor of their position in Turkish society. The people in the park set up free kitchens with donated food, which were patronized not only by the occupiers but also by other Turks. They also set up libraries and many people donated books and time. Of course there were musicians and artists and the protests brought out a wicked sense of humour.
Many people went to the park to see what was going on. We went one night and it was so crowded that we could hardly move. We all felt claustrophobic but with so many people it was difficult to see how to get out. Finally we got to the stairs that had broken in a previous protest (the people were srambling to get away from the tear gas) and found ourselves outside the park. This is where the Kurds were. They had pictures of Ocalan (the jailed head of the PKK, the Kurdish group, also known as a terrorist group) and flags of ‘Kurdistan.’ However, they were dancing in circles and being peaceful. Unfortunately, some Turkish men who were not Kurdish were booing them and making nasty comments. One man came up to them and tried to soothe them, telling them it was not appropriate to act that way. We left, fearing a bigger confrontation.
There was a strong feeling of idealism in the air, but things went to hell rather quickly. Tear gas became a nightly ritual, as well as water cannon tanks. Later we learned that the water had been spiked with a sort of pepper gas. People were injured and a few were killed.
There were various kind of protests in Taksim Square. One was the standing man protest, started by a performer who just stood there for hours. The police could do nothing, as he was doing nothing. Many people went up to the square to stand also. Another was a piano player who set up in the square. Other musicians came along and people danced in circles. And of course vendors set up, selling everything from t-shirts to water to balloons.
And yes, there was damage. A wrecked city bus sat on the square, as well as an upturned police car. Protestors made barricades of whatever, they could find. There was graffiti everywhere, with workers vainly trying to take it off the day after the protests.
Every evening, people showed their support of the protests by banging on pots and making noise. Of course there were some neighbourhoods where this did not happen (such as Sultanahmet), but in Cihangir, the cacophony was loud and clear. Taxi drivers and other drivers also leaned on their horns. In fact, most of the taxi drivers I spoke to supported the protests, in spite of the fact that it affected their business. They were especially not happy with the reconstruction of Taksim Square.
One evening we were at a friend’s house for her birthday. We heard people running down the street from the hospital gates. We closed the windows, but she forgot one and we still got gassed. People on that street unlocked the apartment building doors and some took in protesters. My friend took in a couple, high school students. They stayed until the gas had subsided and then left. We wiped our eyes and continued with the birthday party.
The protests were not only in Taksim. They took place in other parts of the city, such as Besiktas and Kadikoy. They also took place in other cities around Turkey, all with the same results of tear gas and water cannons.
There were negotiations between the group sort of in charge of the protests and the prime minister’s office. Finally, the protest groups agreed to leave the park and were going to leave one tent as a symbol of the protest. However, the PM could not wait and sent the police to burn tents and beat and gas the protesters. It was like a father who had agreed not to punish his child, but went ahead and did it. He broke his word, in fact, because he needed to show who was boss.
Weeks of gas and water cannons faced the protests and injuries and deaths continued. I believe it showed the true face of the patriarchal government in a shameful way. The protests finally stopped, for the most part, with occasional spurts of more demonstrations. I know many people in Anadolu, which is very rural, saw this as an Istanbul protest, even though there were protests in many other cities. I am not sure what this will mean for Turkey and its disillusioned young people but I hope that as time goes by the country will recover its equilibrium and embrace the energy of all the people.