What’s bad, I think, isn’t so much the actual attack, although that is pretty grim. Eyes are blinded, vision blurs and your throat constricts so it becomes difficult to breath. (Thousands have been hospitalised for gas-related injuries in the past two weeks.) But for me the really devastating emotion came later: I have never felt so close to the presence of darkness. I can’t explain it any other way. To fire that much tear gas on an unarmed, crowd or into a park occupied by peaceful protestors is simply wrong.
What began as a small protest to save a group of sycamore trees has turned into large-scale civil unrest. Part of me is heartbroken after last night. The disproportionate use of violence inflicted on protestors opens up a deep wound in public consciousness. The gulf between demonstrators and government supporters has become a chasm.
Yet there is also a part of me that is deeply hopeful. A fierce respect has awakened in me for the brave, funny, generous people of this city who risked so much to get their voices heard.
The first protest was surprising enough, but afterwards is when the real miracle happened.
It began with a group of sycamore trees in Gezi Park. They were to have been uprooted to make way for a government project to build a faux Ottoman barracks and a commercial development. Construction is this government’s bread and butter, it’s how they built, literally, the so-called Turkish economic success story. The sight of bulldozers digging up the trees and police violently attacking a peaceful group of sit-in activists triggered a mass outpouring of public frustration with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly heavy-handed rule. Tens of thousands took to the streets.
Overnight, people who had never even been on a rally became hardy demonstrators. Many of my friends took to carrying gas masks and goggles, they learnt to mix home remedies against the painful effects of tear gas on eyes and skin. After two days of stubborn resistance, they took control of the park and a chunk of Taksim surrounding it.
That was surprising enough, but afterwards is when the real miracle happened. A new protest movement was born in the park. Nationalists, feminists, gay activists, Kurds, Muslims Against Capitalism – people who would never normally be seen together learnt how to share a common space. These were not hardened activists, they were activated: people of Istanbul who simply could not sit by any longer. Volunteers made and distributed food, feeding thousands daily. Doctors and nurses set up infirmaries. The park soon had a pirate radio station (Gezi Radyo), its own live TV stream, a vegetable garden and even a dedicated team of trash collectors.
Every night, the park’s few thousand occupants were joined by tens of thousands of others who came to this free zone to show their support. It was festive, not somber, playful. Prim and proper aunties waving red and white Turkish flags sat and watched Kurds dancing folk jigs. Sometimes, they even joined in. There were free readings, concerts, yoga classes and more.