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#OccupyGezi | Occupied Stories - Part 2

Tag Archive | "#OccupyGezi"

Resist Istanbul: A Personal Story

Editors’ note: This story originally appeared at İnsanlik Hali.

When There is No Other Way but Resistance!

Istanbul, Turkey–At home in Istanbul, grading student papers while trying to follow continuous Facebook updates of events, I am getting more and more anxious to leave. It is impossible to concentrate. I read few lines from the paper, stop and think “do I have vinegar at home?” I read a few more lines, stop and wonder “does the pharmacy sell gas masks?” Not able to sit any longer, I call, text and Facebook message a few friends: a marine biologist first, a graduate student in history second, then a film director and an environmental engineer. Everyone is planning to head to the Taksim square. I pack some vinegar and a bandanna into my backpack, I make sure I wear sneakers so I can run fast and I leave home not quite sure what is ahead of me.

At the ferry terminal, I greet my friend who just walked there from a meditation workshop. Aslı and I originally met at a yoga class. A month ago, we were at a yoga retreat together, in a small, peaceful green campground next to the Mediterranean. We look at each other, half worry-half smile. Life is, indeed, strange. I notice that her friend has flip flops on; in my mind I go “Who will wear flip flops to a demonstration like this?” But this is what happens when you have young writers, yoga teachers, and filmmakers in an uprising. We are not that experienced when it comes to fighting police on the streets; it has not really been our cup of tea until now. But in the next few days, we’ll get our training.

My generation – people born in the mid 70s to 90s in Turkey – have been categorically defined by their being apolitical. Born around and after the military coup where many activists have been jailed and tortured brutally, many of us, unless their families were activists, have been socialized to avoid “politics.” Demonstrations have been dangerous affairs in Turkey and we have been taught by our families to stay away as much as possible. While this has changed over time to a certain extent, that socialization is strong and has created certain political habits of avoidance. Combine that with the general distrust towards established political institutions that is the trademark of the postindustrial generations and an unresponsive system without many functioning channels for participation, and you have people who are not very positive about the possibilities of change through participation.

Then why are all my friends walking towards Taksim? What happened? Why would someone like me, someone who hates crowds, feels slightly awkward when she chants the slogans of the Turkish leftist parties, who flees the city whenever she can to rockclimb, would pack vinegar and a bandanna and walk towards a square where she is pretty sure she will get tear-gassed, maybe even worse?

At this point, I have already been part of the activities that have been going on to protect the small park, Gezi Park, at Taksim square, which is the social and political center of Istanbul. The park is, comparatively, tiny. Don’t think Central Park or Hyde Park; it is probably not even 1/10th of those. But it is the only green space in this very busy, very urban square. The Justice and Development Party (JDP) government has decided unilaterally that they were to turn the park into a shopping mall in a replica of an Ottoman military barrack, even though there are multiple malls in walking distance or a few metro stops away. An association and a platform was formed around the issue and they started organizing and gathering signatures to protect the park.

This attempt to destroy the park was not an isolated case of transferring public property for private development. It was just one incident among the ongoing attacks from the JDP party directed towards public spaces, including not just historical buildings, city squares and neighborhoods, but also forests and national parks. We have been witnessing an ongoing destruction over the years. Just in the last few months, amidst protests, a beloved pastry shop in a historical building was closed and a cherished movie theater was torn down because they were in a historical building that was sold to be turned into a shopping and entertainment complex. The groundbreaking for the third bridge over Bosphorus which is expected to cause enormous environmental damage took place against opposition from citizen initiatives and professional bodies. The law to open up national parks to development was just waiting to be discussed at the parliament. We were sharing our concerns among friends and on social media, but were joking about how we couldn’t keep up with the speed of destruction.

Nor was the style new: pushing a big urban project that has no public support, that does not make sense from a public service nor urban planning perspective, without any regard for objections coming from the civil society. Tayyip Erdoğan’s version of “democracy” meant that since he was elected and has majority in the parliament, he could do whatever he wanted, however he wanted to do it.

The governing style was indicative of an increasingly authoritarian and arrogant JDP party that was single-handedly pushing a conservative and neoliberal agenda. On the one hand, there were ongoing series of policies that were enacted that caused fear about state intervention in people’s lives and choices. There was the discussion about banning abortions and stories about women being mistreated in state-hospitals when they went in to get abortions; then the PM demanding families to have three kids. There was the overhaul of the education system with the goal of raising “a religious generation.” There was the ban on alcohol consumption between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am along with a ban on all alcohol advertisement. There was a growing sense that the government was trying to push a lifestyle and fit the public into a conservative mold.

On the other hand, the problem was not just about our fear for our lifestyles. It also looked like the PM was using these interventions to distract everyone from major issues and to woo his followers by emphasizing the party’s conservativeness. In the meantime, democratic deficits of Turkey just continued to exacerbate. Turkey became the country with the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world. The mainstream media was silenced and the judiciary became an ally for the executive. There was no way to oppose the JDP. Lastly, on May 11, there was a bombing in Reyhanlı, a town on Syrian border, already tense as a result of the civil war in Syria and Turkish government’s support for the opposition forces. 51 people were killed and the goverment reacted by banning the media from reporting on Reyhanlı. 51 people dead, 140 injured and we couldn’t even read about it in the papers.

While these were happening, people around me were getting more and more frustrated. We joked among our friends about how we couldn’t read the newspapers in the morning because we got too depressed to do work, and how we coudn’t read them at night because we lost our sleep. I felt like I was pushed into a corner by the increasingly conservative and authoritarian politics of the JDP, that I had no place to live and breathe in this country. I was feeling suffocated. Suffocated in this once majestic city where I was born and grew up, whose streets I have walked for years. Constantly afraid that any building, any street, and any natural area in other parts of the country that I loved and cherished was about to be destroyed. Voiceless, powerless; I felt helpless and I was angry not just at the government but at my helplessness. Gezi Parkı felt like a corner that we were pushed into. It was the last corner. It was small; but I could fight to save it.

So I followed the activities of the Taksim platform; I tried to spread the word over the social media. Then last week, on May 27, we got the news that the government sent bulldozers to start the construction. A small group stopped the bulldozers and on May 28 the police tried to push them out. The Gezi Parkı Watch was organized so some activists started sleeping at the park to fend off the bulldozers. People started to go to the park, including myself. The demonstrations were relatively small at first. In fact, I was not quite sure if they would ever get bigger. It was fun; people cheering, singing. A young, educated, colorful crowd, made mostly of anarchists, feminists, socialists, students, LGBT movement… Knowing that we are doing our best to show that we care about our right to this city felt good – but I also was not sure if we got any support beyond the park. And I was not sure what I would do if the police just kicked us out and tore the park down.

But when on the morning of May 31st the police raided the park at 5am, teargassed the demonstrators and burnt their tents down; when they continued to brutally teargas and spray people with water, even during the press release at the Taksim square couple of hours later; when a young woman was shot by tear-gas canisters in her head, I instinctively knew that there was no going back. To protest or not to protest was not a question anymore. The brutality, the arrogance, the sense of injustice was so strong and so in our faces that at last it boiled over. You push people back into a corner, and you keep on attacking, and they have to push back. There is a point where political protest is a defense as much as voice.

What has transpired after that has just been incredible. That night, on the ferry, we could already smell the teargas blowing in the wind from Taksim. We were afraid but we knew what we had to do. We joined others who were coming from all directions as we walked up Cihangir to Sıraselviler with thousands of people, people who looked, how should I put it, very regular. They have finished their work day, walked off their offices and met their friends. They were frustrated with the brutality, with the sense that their lives, their choices, their voices did not matter. They were frustrated about the arrogance of the prime minister. They were tired of feeling helpless. They wanted to breathe, live in freedom.

So they walked and chanted, in solidarity. I had friends who were walking from different directions towards Taksim Square that night and we all had similar stories to tell. Stories of cooperation and kindness amidst chaos. It was scary but incredibly uplifting. Are all street uprisings against police this friendly? These demonstrators were saying “sorry” when they bumped into each other while running away from a tear-gas canisters. They were sharing their food and water, spraying each others’ teary burning faces with homemade antihistamine-water mixtures, carying one another, shouting “do not panic” while trying to remain calm under tear- gas fire, building barricades together. People were opening their doors and letting strangers in. Older people were shouting words of support from windows and giving protesters lemon, milk and vinegar (to help with the effects of the teargas). It felt like the people of Istanbul, who normally grunt and grind their teeth at each other in public, who elbow their way in and out of public transportation have realized that they actually live in the same city, that they can actually help each other and cooperate… That was the feeling – a moment of enlightenment: Yes, we live in the same city. Yes, we have the right to live like dignified human beings. And yes, we can.


I am pretty sure that this is a turning point in Turkish political history. A game-changer. Not because of what will come out of it as a result. I have no idea what will come out of these protests. I know that the aftermath of any uprising is chaotic; those that are the most organized have a way of hijacking the process; and established practices and habits do not disappear quickly. Moreover, a lot depends on the prime minister, whose reaction until this point has just been unbelievably, infuriatingly uncompromising. He is transforming himself into a dictator in front of our eyes and provoking his supporters in a very dangerous and irresponsible manner. So, who knows what will happen? I cannot claim to be overly hopeful – if things go downhill from here, there can also be a lot of disappointment.

But I believe that what we have witnessed in the past week was a break of political tradition in Turkey. There has been nothing similar in recent Turkish history, where so many people of different stripes came out on the streets voluntarily, spontaneously, and have cooperated, coexisted and resisted together. This was a huge learning experience for all these “apolitical” professionals and youth who saw and experienced first-hand that if they act in solidarity – and they acted in solidarity; the socialists, the secularists, the soccer fans, the feminists, the Kurds – they can achieve something. That there is joy in solidarity and cooperation when you are fighting against injustice. That they can, in fact, use their strongest assets – their wit, creativity and love – against police brutality. Finally, we took to the streets and finally we are not afraid or helpless anymore. Now even my three year old niece says she wants to go out and join the resistance. That gives me some hope.

-Deniz Erkmen-
Read more stories from the resistance in Turkey by clicking here.

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Living in Taksim – Daily Report June 7, 2013

Editors’ note: This piece originally appeared at Sinefil.

Long, long day. And not just one, but two speeches by RTE (the PM). Luckily, I managed to miss them both. His first speech was at the airport, upon his arrival from Algiers via Ankara. First the AKP announced that they didn’t want an audience then I guess they changed their mind. Thousands of SMSs were sent inviting people to the airport, free bus services were arranged from all around the city, and the metro line to the airport was kept open until 4 AM. Normally, the metro shuts down at midnight. During the first few days of the protests, metro service to Taksim was stopped altogether. Let alone free bus rides, traffic was diverted away from Taksim. People came anyway.

At his airport speech, RTE was apparently as enraged as ever, declaring that the construction will not stop. His speech will be good material for discourse analysis classes in the years to come. Even the language he employs is divisive and inflammatory. The press was given pictures of the “huge” crowds, which were apparently photoshopped (see below). I’m not arguing that Erdogan is not supported by many, but the need to do this shows a certain desperation… His second speech was in the afternoon, while we were live on radio (more on this later). Apparently, it was softer and milder, and ended with a promise to tear down the Ataturk Cultural Center on Taksim (currently being renovated by the Sabanci Holding) and build “a baroque-style opera building” in its place. Someone needs to remind him that a. AKM (cultural center) is indeed an opera building and b. he announced plans to shut down all cultural activities (opera, theater, ballet, symphony) by the state.

I started out with a shift at the cinema tent 6-10 AM. The park is beautiful at that hour; not empty at all, but peaceful. Apparently people were up until the first lights of the day, making sure the police don’t appear again after the airport speech. 6-10 is the cleanup time, it’s when some are asleep in their tents, others start getting ready for the day. There were some “leftovers,” still somewhat drunk, babbling on. Park is getting somewhat stricter on alcohol, there are signs around to “remain sober,” especially at night, when the previous attacks happened. But the police have now agreed not to take any action until Monday. What happens on Monday, we do not know.
In the afternoon, I did my usual weekly radio program on Açık Radyo, with my co-programmer Yeşim Burul and guest İrem İnceoğlu. We talked about the representation of the protests in the media, the role of social media, and connected to two activists from Videoccupy, who are documenting the entire process. For those who can understand Turkish, here’s the link to the show.
After an evening stroll in the park, I decided I needed something else and went to Nişantaşı for the evening. Life goes on normally elsewhere in the city (even though I have to walk there because there are barricades on the way). It was really nice to be with friends and somewhere without signs and graffiti, even though we could not talk about anything else than the events and what might happen, and kept on checking our Twitter accounts. While we were there Red Hack representatives gave an interview on TV, expressing all the frustrations that are shared by all who joined the protests. (Interview here, in Turkish).
This whole process has made us all somewhat sensitive and emotional. We hug more, we say “I love you” more, we tend to get teary-eyed unusually often. With me, it’s even more personal, because that was, thankfully still is, “my park.” I was born and raised in Taksim, Gezi is where my parents took me to play – as my friends take their children now. We’ve been protesting for nearly two years, come rain or come snow, often in discouragingly small numbers. But I always had an intuition that something would happen if they tried to touch the park. I always thought “it’s not that easy.” No matter what happens now, it’s clear that it’s not that easy. I feel like the entire country has come out to support “my park;” I feel grateful and proud at the same time.  And here I go with the teary eyes again…
-Melis Behlil-
Read more stories from the resistance in Turkey by clicking here.

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Living in Taksim – Daily Report, June 6

Editors’ note: This piece originally appeared at Sinefil.

Istanbul, Turkey–Highlight of the day, or rather, frustration of the day: PM declared in Algiers that they “will build the barracks.” No understanding, no empathy, no reason. Luckily, the stock market went downhill after his declaration; that’s the only thing left that might convince him that he’s doing something wrong. He’s back in Ankara as of tonight and was supposed to land in Istanbul by 11 PM, but they keep on delaying it. The Interior Minister gave a speech full of blatant lies; he claimed no police attacked the Swan Park in Ankara, and when people pointed out that was untrue, he claimed that they had it wrong. Okay. He also claimed that the injured young man who fell off the construction site of the cultural center the other day was pushed by the protesters. If he could only come to Taksim, he would see how people apologize to one another even if they push each other by mistake – this isn’t just a lie, it’s slander in its worst form. But this is the man who was the head of the Istanbul Police Force when Hrant Dink was murdered. Enough said.

As far as my personal observations go, it was yet another peaceful and happy day. A morning walk through Cihangir, site of many gassings over the weekend: not even any graffiti on the walls, all seems normal. A protest march with academics from Tunel to Taksim: big crowd, very supportive onlookers, all in all a good experience. Taksim is the same, too many party flags around the square and on the cultural center I think, but the park remains a party-free zone. I mentioned the main food and medic center, there are many more at this point, as well as a well-drawn plan of the whole area. It is more organized than anything this government has ever done. I didn’t stay very long, it getting even more crowded than last night. I was afraid people would lose interest after the weekend, but I’m (happily) proven wrong.

In other news, one of the AKP members (may be a minister, sorry, not sure) declared that CHP (the main opposition party) should apologize for organizing the protests. We’ll say it again and again – this is a grassroots movement, not connected to any political organization. If CHP were strong enough to organize such an event, we wouldn’t even need to have these protests. It is amazing how much they don’t/can’t/won’t understand the nature of what is going on.

And on a sad note, a police officer died today, falling off of construction while pursuing some protestors. I’m no fan of the police, but this is a pointless way to die (if there ever were a non-pointless way). My only hope is that it will be a sign of how nonsensical the whole situation is.

Things seem to be pretty calm in Istanbul and most of the country, with some tension in Ankara. The creativity boost continues with tweets and slogans, and most significant input for today comes from Kardeş Türküler. PM made a statement about the noise protests held around the cities, where people bang on pots and pans. This song is a reaction to that.

We do realize that we are living in very different times. History is being written. Nothing may change directly at the end of these protests; they might even still re-build the barracks, but I want to believe that something has already changed in the way we look at each other and in our faith in ourselves.

-Melis Behlil-

Read more stories from the resistance in Turkey by clicking here.

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Living in Taksim, Daily Report June 5, 2013

Editors’ note: This story originally appeared at Sinefil.

Istanbul, Turkey–First off: Do not believe the reports in the media saying that Deputy PM Arınç has apologized. His words were directed to a very small group (the activists attacked in the park on the first night of the events), completely disregarding those killed and the thousands injured by police violence since the beginning; and his “apology” sounded more like a fuck you. Some people have a way of making anything sound that way… (Here’s a Turkish video of the “apology”)

For me, it was an exciting day as I was fully out and about for the first time since my cold. After doing some work in the morning, a few colleagues and I joined the tens of thousands with the unions walking from the Golden Horn up to Taksim Square (pic above). It was all peaceful, with a lot of chants. Sorry to say, socialist chants are not as much fun, or not nearly as energetic as those by the young crowds in the park. Another group, probably as large, had come in from the direction of Şişli. Remember how the police didn’t let the unions march to Taksim on May Day, and blocked the entire city to prevent them from doing so because it wasn’t “safe”? Well, apparently it’s perfectly safe when the police is not around.

I went on and off to the park, but when I arrived at 9 PM, it was more crowded than it had ever been. More crowded than a football game, a rock concert, a rush hour train… Today was a Muslim holiday, so there were calls to avoid alcohol, and it seemed that all abided by this. Prayers were held for believers, and this is important to show the 50% that does vote for AKP that it’s not a bunch of infidels in the park with no respect for any religion. There are now representative tents in the park, in addition to the developed kitchen and field hospital. I hung out around the tent of the cinema crowd, handing out free “simit” special for the holiday. All kinds of people, old and young, were walking by, again, everyone friendly and excited. Fireworks. Literally.

So the news from Taksim are as joyous as the last few days. They even managed to build an outdoor movie theater to show some films. But the police attacked the people again in Ankara with full force, and there were other incidents in Rize. So it’s impossible to say that all is well; and the screenings were cancelled because of this. As I write these, police are watering people in Ankara – and now for a change, CNN Turk is showing it live. If anyone is wondering how strong this water is, here is a video of an old friend of mine who is literally blown away by the force of the water; thankfully, he’s safe.

Representatives from Taksim have visited Deputy PM Arınç today. From what I can gather, nothing really came out of it. RTE comes back from his trip tomorrow. I am somewhat worried. I feel like we’re the children of an abusive father, and he’s about to come back home to beat the hell out of us. It wouldn’t make sense, but nothing he does makes sense. I saw an old friend today (all these old friends I see around the protests!), and when I admitted I was a little worried, he said that only people who are abroad or over 50 are worrying. Granted, I just recently came back, and I spent most of the day with my mother, but that doesn’t make the source of our fears any less real. We are not dealing with a rational man here. Taksim makes me think of the Paris Commune; let’s just leave it at that…

P.S.: I came across this video just after I finished this post. Apparently, I’m not the only one…

-Melis Behlil-

Read more stories from the resistance in Turkey by clicking here.

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On the Streets of Istanbul

Editors’ note: This piece originally appeared at

Istanbul, Turkey–There’s something happening here.

It’s unpredictable. It’s chaotic. It’s raw and imperfect. It’s growing.

About to board a flight from Paris to NYC – I was repping Occupy Wall Street at the OECD Forum – I changed plans abruptly. I flew to Istanbul, grabbed a cab with another random globe-trotter I met, destination Taksim Square. Inside the square is a park called Gezi.

It is now occupied. With thousands of bodies: young, old, all religions, all political persuasions. It began early last week, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began to demolish the park to build a new commercial development. A small group of people – mostly youngsters like my friend Ege (see below) – fought back. And almost a week later the country is on spiritual (and in some places literal) fire. In over 48 cities people are protesting.

The air in the streets around Taksim is electric, because the police have withdrawn, at least for now. Last night, Saturday, techno music bumped in disco clubs while swarms of youth alternately ran from police flashes and tear gas and boogied down. Windows smashed, but nothing looted. Street medics applying bandages at narrow intersections, youth drunk with power and beer celebrating the (small) victory.

This morning’s rain washed away some of that evidence, but the sun started to emerge again around 11am, as did the protesters, but now in a much larger number. Some of them, clad in pink gloves and with blue trashbags, cleaned up the evidence of the reverie the night before. Bonfires that had burned and government vehicles that had exploded to applause had disappeared. Now, little kids and strollers replaced them. Flags of every color and political stripe.

I hear that the protests have been repressed brutally in other cities, and I may have to leave Taksim to Ankara later today to see for myself. People are basking in the uncertainty without fear, and nobody I speak to doubts that the whole country supports this uprising. It is beyond political now, they say.

What looked disorganized last night is beginning to congeal, but no one can tell me what will happen tomorrow when business is supposed to start up again. I guess we’ll see.

-Justin Wedes-

Justin Wedes is an activist, educator, media-maker and community organizer. He’s the co-founder of the Paul Robeson Freedom School in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Its mission is to provide engaging, culturally-relevant curriculum to young adults in Brooklyn in order to train them to become educator-leaders in the struggle for high-quality, free education. To support the school and Justin’s independent media work, visit their website.

See more pics from the last few days on Justin’s facebook and twitter.

Read more stories from the resistance in Turkey by clicking here.

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