My beautiful hometown burned last night. Riot police in armored vehicles fired rounds and rounds of tear gas on a crowd of tens of thousands of protestors in Taksim Square, Istanbul’s symbolic heart. Officials say they were extremists. Yet I know many of them. They are artists, filmmakers, students, regular people with ordinary jobs who left work this evening to show solidarity with several thousand, mostly youthful, protestors who have camped out in Taksim’s Gezi Park for two weeks. For people like me, who came of age in Turkey in the 80s and 90s, in the oppressive shadow of a brutal 1980 military coup, Gezi is the uprising we never expected.
Earlier in the day I went to a press conference that was held on the steps of the park. Police had moved into the square in the morning, several armored vehicles lingered on the perimeter, but it seemed quiet. Istanbul’s governor assured us that the police would stay away from the park. People went about their day-to-day business.
Out of nowhere, we heard a bang, and then another bang, and canisters began exploding overhead, sending streams of noxious gas into the air. Within moments the air was thick with tear gas.
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.
And the best part of it, the part that washes away the sting of tear gas just by thinking about it, is that young people were at the heart of it all. Largely under the age of 25, and most with no previous political affiliation, they pitched their tents and took to protesting with immense humor in graffiti, cartoons and inventive slogans. Social media use exploded. Gassed by police, they stood their ground and chanted ‘Pepper gas, ole’ as if they were at a football game.
People older than 25, including my cohort, were surprised by the intensity of young Istanbul’s involvement. How could this generation—who don’t read books, who are gamers and children who grew up in shopping malls—be the new radicals? A therapist friend of mine who works with teenagers explained it well. “It’s the Generation Y effect,” she said. “Their beef—and it is fuelled by burning anger—is with authority and insincerity.” They hate rules, old school trappings about the way life should be lived, anyone telling them what to do. It’s not about traditional politics, they don’t really care about that. But they do care deeply about two things: freedom and respect. Respect for trees, for people of different beliefs, for the city we all share.
That appetite for real freedom, it turns out, is catching. There is a tremendous energy unleashed when people of all ages lose their fear. So even though Gezi park was bombarded with gas last night, the movement won’t end here. Something foundational in Turkish society has shifted. For everyone.