North Africa, West Asia

Chronicles from Istanbul's uprising

“Gezi is like falling in love. When you aren’t there, all you can think about is being there. When you are there, you don’t want to be anywhere else in the world.” A memoir of the Gezi Park protest, which had its first anniversary on May 31, 2014.

Kevin Buckland
13 June 2014
Anniversary of the Gezi Park protests. Demotix/Riza Aydan Turak. All rights reserved.

Anniversary of the Gezi Park protests. Demotix/Riza Aydan Turak. All rights reserved.

Barricades on fertile ground 

The barricades of Istanbul twist up from the street like the aftermath of a hurricane, sewn into lines of neatly piled chaos placed at twenty-metre intervals around the park and on the entrance to every side street. Stop signs stab through wrought iron railings ripped from their moorings, and street bricks are piled into ridges —sculpting a new geography of rubble mountains to hide behind. This is not an image of destruction, it’s the creation of something new; as the street bricks are removed we can see the hint of fertile ground.

Many of the barricades have POLİS written on them; they are the cops’ own barricades that have been composted into this concoction of resistance with other steel and cement ingredients. Another ingredient is cars, flipped onto their side and with polite signs asking you not to throw your cigarettes on them —for there may still be explosive diesel lurking in their tanks. Two of the barricades are whole buses, where heroic drivers turned their steering wheels hard and pulled their giant rectangles perpendicularly across the street next to Gezi park; and then they left, returning to their houses and disappearing into history.

In the sunlight we walked these streets - it was like an amusement park in the aftermath of a war. For miles around Gezi the streets were lined with joyous faces. People stood atop the barricades and took photos, victorious cars honked contagiously and everywhere hands clapped when they did not have pots to bang. Flags hung from apartment windows, and from balconies; and around the necks of beautiful girls that stood out of the sunroof of cars. In this new wind, the flag around her neck became a superhero’s cape, flowing red and the Turkish moon into the moving air. Her arms stretched out with hands folded into delicate peace signs. I didn’t see a policeman all day; it wouldn’t have been safe for them.

In Gezi park itself there was hardly space to sit. Protest marches pushed through the masses of people at only slightly swifter speeds, like where the current in a river runs deep. It wasn’t clear if this was a protest, a picnic, a march or a revolution. Anywhere there was an elevated platform people filled it like a stage, and below them the ground was packed with a crowd that stared up glowingly at a crowd. This is politics without the podium, with the centre pulled out and the public gazing up only at their gazing selves. It functioned like two mirrors facing each other; every cheer, every smile and every clap was multiplied exponentially, travelling onwards.

Nearby the Ataturk Cultural Centre — a public opera house that had also been slated for demolition — had been occupied, and the horizon of its roof was littered with silhouettes and a sign that read BOYUN EĞME (“Don’t bow your head”). A young man sat triumphantly atop this all waving a wide black flag — a crowd was staring up and down at itself everywhere. What if this was politics? The politics of a public looking into each others' eyes.

In Gezi Park, self-appointed crews had already picked up every piece of trash to be found. Still others scoured the ground with plastic gloves searching for more. Searching for a way to help; for this was their place. Above us all the trees showered shade. How happy they must have been to still be standing, with us. From many of the trees hung photos of the first tree that had been lost when the construction vehicles began to break ground.

On that far edge of the park where those thin trees died, there is a place where the land drops off. You can see the topsoil and roots fall away into a rough slab of concrete. This is where the sidewalk ends.

Construction had already begun with the destruction that accompanies modern “progress” – steel poles speared out of the half-smashed concrete buildings that had lined the park. We can imagine that somewhere there were very wealthy men making phone calls to politicians inquiring on the status of their potential investment.

But they weren’t here in the park, in the soft shade of history.

A sign leaning against a tree sang:

“first we were terrorists

 

then we were protestors

 

then we became people.”

History starts as a spark and spreads, time doesn’t roll out like a carpet before us; we push it until it goes on its own or stops. There is an inertia to movements and a contagion in history. There are times when everything speeds up in the spinning barricades of teargas streets; there are times when history runs deep. But on Sunday afternoon, Gezi Park was the still center of the world. History’s breeze blew through the branches of the trees that will still be standing ten years from now. Mahir’s wife told him “Gezi is like falling in love. When you aren’t there, all you can think about is being there. When you are there, you don’t want to be anywhere else in the world.”

In the evening, the fighting broke out again in Beşiktaş; the smoke reflected in the Bosphorus. And in the capital of Ankara the fighting never stopped. In 90 cities across Turkey people breathe the intoxicating oxygen that the trees of Gezi Park are producing. The air is everywhere, clearing away the tear gas from the lungs of a people finally breathing together.

The men who sell tears

Gezi Park is now alive. Its paths are canals flooded with the currents of people moving, they circle, swirl; dance. This is movement boundless in its aspirations, because it has nothing other than this moment.

No one knows where this will go, but you can feel there is no going back.

These are people who have been too long divided, now together, in a place that is all of theirs.

The park is a place governed by the people inside it. Laws bend or hide. Graffiti writers have never been happier, they take their time in daylight on the walls of the centre of the city. Street vendors sell cheap spray paint in the evenings. Police and those who wield power and uniforms cannot enter here. Physically, every entrance to Taksim is barricaded and guarded, each is a fuse to an endless explosion of emancipation. Genies let loose from their bottles rarely return. The front line holds its ground each night. Mahir tells me nothing like this has happened here in 1,600 years.

At the entrance to the park a burnt police car flipped on its side serves as a message board, it is photographed continuously. Everything is photographed, for there will be grandchildren to hear these stories and see these pictures —they may be legends by then. There are other burnt-out police vehicles scattered around, teenage boys play on them and everyone poses inside the blackened shell of a burnt police station. On one of the cars is written in Turkish: “Less skyscrapers, more love.” A mural proclaims “Taksim belongs to the people” —even the walls are speaking.

During the day there is dancing and music. The trees are the guests of honour, because it is they who inspired this. Countless new trees have been planted in the rust-coloured soil above the ruins of so many layers of years. May these young trees become monuments and may the years grow rings around their slim centres – rings as riches that will never be seen, for these trees will never be cut down.

The people are settling into their place. A kitchen has been formed from pieces of police barricades and a gift wall of needs is littered with cookies, water and cigarettes. A sign reads “For the people who will stay here overnight.” Not everyone stays, for the nights here are still violent —though the frontline has been pushed away from the park and down towards the Bosphorus. Our presence in the park is still uncertain, like a bird who has left the nest but cannot yet fly.

All day everyone had been smiling as their eyes met, as we heard speeches or as clapping caught like fire through a crowded forest. All eyes wide, almost unbelieving. But dusk falls with darkness, and the shadows stretch out from the places where they have been hiding. Cobblestones are still thrown in the night.

There are men who mix cruel recipes, like black magic, like poison potions. Their concoctions turn everyone’s smiles into tears.

The gas came from nowhere and everywhere and bit our eyes like an invisible sadness invading the park. Most had masks by now but still most left, draining from the park like liquid.

Everyone’s eyes watered from the cold truth of power. It made everyone cry. We fixed our masks on and everyone tasted the bitterness, but we tasted it together. Eyes water to wash away what shouldn’t be there, like a rain. We wept from invisible enemies who had wronged us. For years; keeping us apart.

On a wall it was painted: “I am nineteen and I think the only good thing you’ve done is unite us.” On a tear gas canister was written: “Non Lethal Technologies — Made in USA”. I come from a nation that exports tears for profit.

So we put lemon in our eyes and stare hard past the burning. Through the blur of our salt tears mixed with their pepper smoke we still see. All their gas and capital has not blinded us. Through the tears we see blurred visions — strangers holding strangers' hands, leading them through the smoke as we journey through this great and unseen present — breathing the future through its branches and leaves. The trees of Gezi Park, everyday more plentiful, are breathing fresh air out into the same wind that sweeps our whole world clean. Through the haze we glimpse something our eyes had never imagined, but our hearts have always dreamed. The walls tell us, “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere resistance.” You are not alone.

Lines drawn

On Saturday afternoon the collective decision was made to take down the last of the barricades around Gezi. We didn’t need them any more, we had proved ourselves to be peaceful. A few hours after they were dismantled the police attacked. A few hours after that new ones were erected.

Doors of apartment buildings opened and out flooded a population of a city into the night. When its not just protestors, but people; it changes —a government doesn’t know what to do when it confronts not parties but people. Violence had returned to Gezi, and occupied it with their gases and guns. As I write there are 70,000 people in the street. It’s spreading and flooding in the windows. It’s not the gas, but singing. They are chanting “Government resign!”

The night gets bigger than itself; there are surges in the songs.

The main streets were arteries and we were the antibodies.

We pushed forwards because there was no other choice. If you climbed anything all you saw was people, facing forwards and holding ground. Groups of men ripped railings from their streets and passed the heavy wrought iron forwards to the frontlines. Flowers were trampled underfoot. I’m sorry.

Ahead they shot fireworks at the police, as the police gassed everyone. The police shot gas into the hotel lobby that had become a hospital; they gassed the people they had already injured. They gassed the children who were lost from their parents in the violent eviction. Doctors were arrested. When you are arrested for treating someone but not for shooting them, where do you draw the line? Gas should never be used indoors; no one could see anything. Justice is blind.

They arrested even the piano.

The barricades sprayed out like the skeletons of whales, jagged boards like a spine across the street. If we could only hold this space long enough, we could build the next barricade, we could advance, back towards Gezi. Lines of people passed rocks into piles, small stones and scrap wood —you must forge your defences from whatever you can find (so build your barricades next to construction sites). Many hands make light work, and the barricades grew inside the safety of our multitudes. Hurriedly we were constructing something, together.

The barricades we built were lines that cannot be crossed. Every one of us has these lines like a barometer of justice inside our own noble souls. We know when it is attacked, blunted; defiled. But justice loads like a spring; you can push it down ever so slowly. Pressure builds in a closed space, there are limits to what we can allow.

Journalists, lawyers, and doctors arrested.

Children tear gassed in their mother’s arms.

Five deaths.

Pro-government newspapers all with the same headline.

Other newspapers censored.

A prohibition on drinking tea on the street.

And a park.

How do you confront violence such as this? When their only weapon is fear, though their tactics vary.

The referee starts attacking the players, and no one in the stands is allowed to watch.

Our crowds were pushed back, because the police play without rules. When the laws encroach dangerously close to your body; what you can drink, when, where: where do you draw the line? When you are beaten for holding the flag of the country that pays those who beat you: where do you draw the line? Behind every gas canister shot lingers a line of smoke, these lines tie the sky into knots. It rains tears.

After you draw a line you build it.

The barricades around Gezi are lines that have been crossed.

3AM

We could hold the street corner because of the fountain. By now, after two weeks of fighting people had lost their fear of the gas. More people ran towards the canisters than away. Well-practiced teams grabbed the smoking tubes and tossed them into water and closed the containers; or just threw the gas back. A burning barricade was kept alight by molotovs so the water cannons couldn’t drive over it; fire stopping water from passing. They had started pouring chemicals into the water they shot at us; it burnt the skin, but we were out of range.

We held a small corner, as all over the city small corners were held.

The main streets had been lost by midnight. Our barricade was mostly plants in large cement pots. It could be cleared in minutes. It was a tenuous hold.

For hours the corner was held in a sickly game of back and forth. They shot the gas, we threw it back. They had broken through the main barricade in front of Osmanbey metro station, so now their goal was to keep us back as they dismantled it. We stayed in this limbo for hours, alive.

At the other end of our block there was no position to hold, so everything was in motion. It was like every one of the four elements was deceived and coerced into violence: the police shot water, the people threw stones, gas filled the air, garbage fires burned as barricades. In this grey landscape of smoke and stones, young men shot pebbles at the police from their slingshots. Police shot their gas guns. Everyone cowered at the sound, then gas arose from somewhere. People returned fire with rocks and then ran on.

When little else is left for a people they throw stones.

We live in glass cities, facades reflecting the blue of sky as inside the bankers deal to destroy even it. A pebble puts a crack in a lie. One day, all these glass buildings will be greenhouses, and no one will have to throw stones.

Around 3am people started digging up the sidewalk bricks to build up the barricade, prying them out with a stray piece of metal they pulled from a street sign. A chain formed and passed the bricks forward. Quickly the police pushed forward, harder and farther than before. This, they would not allow. People were pushed back and we climbed back inside. Now, from our window we saw the police advancing as dark machines, robotic and heavy in their movements, sweeping the street like a net in the ocean. Everyone became a magician and disappeared, but slowly and all together. The police pulled back — they kept close to their vehicles and their vehicles needed the width of main streets. The people returned in their wake.

Sun day rain

By Sunday morning the police were no longer police. Between the twelve men that drudged below there were 8 uniforms, evenly spread out so that everyone had at least something that looked official. Some had only yellow POLİS vests and rumours were they were deputizing sympathizers —it seemed Erdoğan wanted a war. I saw a policeman throw stones.

The sun had risen like molasses, nothing seemed to be advancing. No one had slept and many of the small bands still roaming the city had been there for 12 hours. I hoped the police had rested —they are dangerous enough already. Gas crept in the morning windows, and the explosions of their guns didn’t cease. Old men covered their heads with their newspapers as they ran across open streets on their way back from getting groceries.

The state used gas like a maid uses a broom – pushing everything to some non-existent “away”.

The police stomped through the corner barricade we had held all night, and took the street.

Damla told us that in 30 minutes the university exams would let out, there would be thousands more on the streets. “You should get out now” she said, “after the schools let out I don’t know if you will be able to. This will not stop today.”

Heads down, on the street. This is where time is precious. Go. Small streets get blocked easily; their trucks move fast. Gas makes walls you can’t see across. Look around. You always need to know how to get out of there, but you don’t. The streets felt wide after so much time in crowds. Deer in a clear-cut forest. Steal a glance at a corner. Osmanbey was still resisting. Keep it in your mind: this is the last you will see of it. Watch behind you, but know where you’re going. Five streets collide. Look around. Good luck. Go! Now it seemed calm. Damla found a taxi. We were gone.

Outside the city centre children swung from their parents arms and women wore high heels and chirped into their phones. The metro escalators vomited people onto the bright street endlessly. Cars zoomed by. Everyone waited for the light to change before crossing the road.

Madness.

Late that Sunday afternoon a rain came and drew a clear breath into the lungs of Istanbul. Big drops fell and we knew everyone would go home. It was time. The water wiped the gas from the buildings and the smoke from the air. It cleaned the blood from the bruises and watered the flowers that had been trampled underfoot. I’m sorry. It cleared the eyes that had been crying in the gas for so long. People opened their windows, for there was air again. Stray cats curled up inside everywhere and everyone slept soundly. Water rained down on this world we dream.

Suddenly you find yourself without a body. Everything is still there: your love, your ideas and your sight —but you have no body. Where do you go?

Gezi was gone, surrounded by thick lines of trained humans. But what had been incubated in that park: in the free meals and the all-night dances, was inoculating the air like pollen.

Gezi had given a body to an idea. Indeed, any idea you wished to contribute fit into the park’s strange alchemy, brewing medicine from a precise recipe of outrage. So what was Gezi if not a park? There are as many answers as there are people. But, it was so dangerous it had to be stopped —what were they so afraid of?

Gezi was gone and now it was everywhere.

“Everywhere is Taksim, Everywhere resistance.” It filled the air like the oxygen dispersing from its trees. It was a symbol we inhabited, a place for ideas. It was anything we made it. Inside that place — that symbolic space — everything had changed as if a spell had been cast over it and us. Everyone smiled, everyone danced. The tea was free if you wanted and cookies were everywhere. No one wanted for anything except the chance to do more. This was that dangerous space they feared. The infection of freedom. Dangerous like a flower —irresistible.

You breathe it into your body. It becomes you.

So let us! remember that once there was a place

called Gezi Park. And in that place there were trees so magic

they could make sweet air for you to breathe.

And in that place above a cemetery and stones

 —a dream was and so will ever be.

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