On Thursday, June 13, 2013, I took a day trip to Gezi Park, Istanbul. The protestors had expanded south and diversified in terms of the values they represented, the conditions they demanded and the forms of expressing them. As the protests grew bigger, without a leader, many expected them to die out. With trees no longer playing a central role, what was there to unify people from different walks of life?
Why would a Kemalist, a “soldier of Ataturk” as some liked to refer to themselves and inscribed on their bandanas, want to share the same space with a PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) sympathizer; both despising (and blaming each other) for the many atrocities committed in a recently suspended thirty year war? How could one explain portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Abdullah Ocalan facing each other, one from the stairs of Gezi and the other from the façade of the Ataturk Kultur Merkezi (Ataturk Cultural Center)—their stern gazes watching over the thousands gathering in Taksim and at Gezi Park?
These various analytical approaches to Gezi fail to see the space, time and actors as “in process”; that is, not as being but as becoming. What I found was that people’s demands had taken an abstract turn. Within their self-constructed dreamscapes, time and space were constructed in terms not truly accessible to an outsider, an unpredictable process open to surprising turns and twists and like a dream, absurd from the eye of the beholder.
What brought people together at Gezi regardless of their inner enmities was this very act of dreaming, of thinking of a better future and of discussing its possibilities, without boundaries. Certainly, there were demands; yet these demands would not suffice to underlie the motives bringing people together. The whole was greater than its constituent parts.
Hence the park remained an anomaly for those outside of it. Its songs were anarchistic, tents corrupt and prayers heretic. Its people were promiscuous and heathen. Having already been assigned a new species—that of capulcu—they were now also promoted to a new status—that of the terrorist. From outside the park, its people were possessed; theirs was an entanglement in madness, or a delirium waiting to be cured. Both the space and their minds were in urgent need of being sanitized.
My initial encounter was little different from these accounts widely available in the mainstream media. The park I found was soaked in water and gas, with people sneezing every other minute as the winds spread the gas particles on the trees. It was dirty, ugly and smelly. It was cold, dark and depressing. Was this what we were chanting about in Bursa, “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance”? - the scene that I anticipated as I left my bed at dawn in order to take the ferry from my hometown to Istanbul?
But as simits were brought into the park from the outside, tea was served and people started showing up, things began to change. The rain stopped, bringing more people with sleepy eyes from inside their tents. Each greeted one another with warm smiles. Smiles that made little sense to me. Why smile?
Why not immerse yourself in your own sorrow? The world is dark and so is Gezi. I was still the outsider; wandering around with ambivalent thoughts, without a task or purpose. Then a friend joined me. We went to one of the infirmaries. Having seen many people carrying groceries, we asked whether there was anything we also could bring. We were told that they had enough supplies, yet lacked personnel. Having no training in stitching people up, we decided to clean up some of the garbage around the infirmary. Others were also helping - some sweeping the floors, others tidying up their tents, strengthening them to endure who knew what? After my friend left for school, I took a walk around the park in solidarity, and already something had changed in me.
Early morning cleaning after a long night
First it was the space that had altered. I was offered food, gas masks, raincoats and smiles. "Everything is free within this park's boundaries" was one of Gezi’s many mottos. I do not know how time passed by. Outside, I kept time with my wristwatch. But as the protests progressed, I found that time was also ordained through hourly TV-news, Facebook feeds and tweets. Mornings it seemed were those times when ministers and the mayor were calm and assuring. They spoke of the protestors as young friends, and guaranteed that the police forces would not intervene with the situation at Gezi. “You’re safe and free. Those who say otherwise are provocateurs,” tweeted the Mayor of Istanbul. Afternoons were marked by the Prime Minister taking the stage, rescinding the assuring remarks, and threatening the protestors. “Finish it off in the next 24 hours” were the Prime Minister’s orders. Evenings burst with the raids taking place and public intellectuals speculating on the possible scenarios awaiting the public the next day.
In the park, cleaning, singing, eating, discussing were all done together throughout the course of the day. Only fighting broke this pattern, during the night raids. Without access to the Internet, and without the need to leave the park, one could hear next to nothing about the “outside world”. Gezi was a world in itself; a self-sufficient commune where the street children and homeless were full and happy. And this place was simply peaceful.
I found other friends around 6 PM. They told me of the bad news from the outside world; that the police were expected to intervene. Police forces had already surrounded the park. My friends advised me to leave; without a helmet, without goggles, only with a gas mask, I had little chance. They were ready for the battle; I was not. They were brave and willing; I was willing, but definitely not brave enough.
I left the park around 7.30 pm. I went to Kabatas, grabbed myself a ticket for the 9.30 pm ferry. I had an hour and a half, but I could not help but think about the park, that somewhat dreamy atmosphere, and the friends I had left there. I decided to walk back down the stairs of Dolmabahce. Not having gone far, however, I saw that the police had already blocked the road near Gumussuyu. If I were to go back in, there would be no way out I was told. Thus I left Taksim for good, and went back to Kabatas with a broken heart. But what I saw during the day, and what I experienced, gives me hope about humanity.
On June 13, I dreamt of a better future. So did thousands surrounding me, providing shelter from the rain, masks and medicine for the gas, music for my ears, colours for my eyes and love for my soul. As my words here come to an end, the festival at Gezi no longer exists. The wish tree set up by the dreamers has been set on fire by the police, who took over the park the night of the June 15, following the Prime Minister’s “final warning”. As of June 16, thousands are on the streets, being beaten up by the police and getting arrested. Having visited Gezi, no words suffice for my sorrow. These will be the days that we will some day remember, with deep regret, as the moment when not only our freedom of expression or right to peaceful assembly has been brutally curtailed, but our very freedom to dream.