Live from ‘Occupied’ Gezi Park: In Istanbul, a New Turkish Protest Movement Is Born

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Yunus Emre Caylak / Demotix / Corbis

Protesters in Taksim Gezi park in Istanbul on June 1, 2013.

Last Friday, Ali Riza Gurs, manager of a local food business, saw the number of sit-in demonstrators at an Istanbul park swell, and spotted a problem: They were hungry and thirsty and would not leave Gezi Park, which is located in the heart of Istanbul and one of the city’s few remaining green spaces, because of bulldozers waiting to raze it under a government plan to turn it into a shopping mall.

Gurs and friends pooled their money, made bread and cheese sandwiches, bought water in bulk and began giving it all away for free. Using Twitter, they called for donations and others joined. Thousands responded. The park now has a fully functioning kitchen serving hot food and eight more stands. People arrive each morning bearing homemade cakes and savories to donate. Dozens of volunteers staff four shifts. As the protest, which kicked off May 28, spreads, thousands are fed each day.

“It’s grown like an avalanche,” Gurs said, beaming. “I haven’t really slept. I haven’t gone to work. This sense of solidarity is a super feeling.” He is one of thousands who have turned what began as an environmental protest into an experiment in social change.

The uprising began last week when a group of environmentalists gathered to protest the government project to demolish Gezi, a 9-acre oasis in the crowded city center, and replace it with a faux Ottoman-style military barracks and shopping mall. Bulldozers began uprooting trees and a brutal police crackdown ensued. As images of the violence went viral, public outrage against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly heavy-handed, authoritarian rule spilled onto the streets. Tens of thousands of supporters streamed to the park, braving tear gas, water cannons and riot police.

Gezi Park is now officially ‘Occupied’ — police withdrew on Saturday after violent street clashes. Like Gurs, thousands are still camped out there and protests have spread to dozens of other Turkish cities. Concerns range from Erdogan’s attempts to introduce Islamic regulation of private life—introducing curbs or bans on abortion and alcohol— to narrowing freedom of expression—Turkey ranks along China in the number of journalists locked up in its prisons—to rampant over-development with no regard for environmental concerns or the rule of law.

Blankets, tents and flashlights have poured into Gezi from around Turkey. Doctors have set up first aid tents to treat victims of police brutality. There is a library, similar to one set up by Occupy Wall Street in New York’s Zuccotti Park. And even a makeshift outdoor movie screen.

There is a palpably positive feel to it all. Gurs is one of thousands of protesters with no prior history of political engagement to have found a voice in the park, awash in color. The protesters come in all stripes— the Muslim Youths Against Capitalism group, leftist unions and yogis, mingle. About half of the 5,000 to 10,000 people camped out in the park are under 30. The vast majority—70 percent, according to a new Istanbul Bilgi University poll—have no political affiliation. The movement has no leader, nor a clear political agenda. And yet the air is charged with the spirit of change.

“What’s happening now has never happened before,” says Bekir Agirdir, general manager of the well-known Konda research consultancy. “My daughter is in the park. And my 78-year-old dad went too last night. It’s not just about being anti-AKP [Ergodan’s party]. Or being anti-Erdogan. It’s really about freedom. People want to change the old way of doing politics.”

My apartment in central Istanbul is now part of the ‘Occupied Zone’. No cars rumble by, just a sea of very cheery people, witty hand-drawn posters, graffiti, tents and makeshift barricades. My friends have become expert demonstrators. They carry goggles and masks in their bags and mix bottles of detergent water against the sting of tear gas. My sister takes her toddler to sit in the park. At 9pm, everyone in the neighborhood comes outside and bangs loudly on saucepans in protest. The middle class has turned militant and their mood is catching.

Can it last? In Gezi, there are no clear leaders, spokesmen or ideologies. “We can’t define it using the old language of political ideology and demands,” says Agirdir. “It is emergent, a process. But it will have a deep impact on Turkey, from politics to business, nothing will be the same.” Though Erdogan has dismissed the protesters as ‘marginal elements’, I spoke to people from all walks of life in the park. It feels markedly different from earlier anti-Erdogan rallies, led by the secularist upper classes. Two large trade unions, which boast some 800,000 members, joined the protests Wednesday by going on strike.

A coalition group called the Taksim Solidarity Platform, has emerged. Their demands are simple: Scrap plans to destroy the park. Stop police violence. Allow freedom of expression and stop ecological pillage. But Erdogan has so far showed few signs of backing down. He called protesters “bums” and said plans to build the mall would go ahead. Elected in a parliamentary democracy with 50 percent of the vote, he says he does not need the support of the remaining population. At the height of unrest, he left the country for a four-day trip to Africa.

Some have called for his resignation. But most of the protesters I spoke to at Gezi say that’s not the goal; not least because there is no credible political alternative. The main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) has been ineffective and unable to capture protesters’ momentum.

“If Erdogan resigned, what would that change?” says Defne Koryurek, a Slow Food activist and a leading voice in the Gezi Park campaign. “It would still be business as usual. What we need is for the government to understand the reasons behind this movement. It’s about this park. It’s about sustainability. It’s about looking ahead to the next 100 years and what kind of a legacy we leave our kids.” Over at the food HQ, Gurs agrees. “It’s about respect for the people. Not threatening them like the government has been doing. This is a people’s movement. It’s about all of us.”

As dusk approaches, the park swells with thousands more who come after work. Work by Day, Protest by Night, reads one woman’s sign. Gas masks are at the ready – the police invariably attack at night—and yet the mood is cheerful. On this night, June 5, it’s Mirac Kandili, a Muslim holy night, and everyone is determined that it should pass peacefully. “It’s as if we’ve all woken up to something, ” says Koryurek. “A process has begun and we are all witnessing where it will take us.”

43 comments
Kemal
Kemal

An old democracy is being smothered by a hypocritical theocracy under the image of the founder of it's secular State“My people are going to learn the principles of democracy the dictates of truth and the teachings of science. Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will, every man can follow his own conscience provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him act against the liberty of his fellow men.” Kemal Ataturk

dkoryurek
dkoryurek like.author.displayName 1 Like

Gezi! what a great chance for us all to dream, talk and connect for a better, wiser and fairer future!

rodopalper
rodopalper

@TIME @TIMEWorld erdogan said a person who drinks is an alcoholic,called gezi park protesters plunderers; no daylight btwn him & mubarek

rodopalper
rodopalper

@TIME @TIMEWorld erdogan said tweeter is trouble for minds, sec.of state said turkey is not a second class democracy in reply 2 john kerrry

Karl
Karl

I see your photo of the protesters and I ask myself why the Turkish girls in German schools wear scarves and these girls don't. And my answer is that most Turks who immigrate to Germany come from more  traditional backgrounds. Since the lower layers of a society are always larger than those above, barring the kind of middle class the US has been foreclosing and IT green carding out of existence since the 80's, that tells me that away from the great metropolis of Istanbul  (Constantinople, still in much of Europe) the people may be if not on the government's side at least be disapproving of the missing headscarves on the women. Turkey has been changing, but then Turkey like the American South has been changing for over a century and never quite arrives where many would like it to arrive. There are cultural difference involved which shouldn't be downplayed. Even if some mid-level officers staged a coup in support of these westernized Turks it would be as afraid as it was from the rise of this republic in 23 on the grave of the Ottoman Caliphate until a decade ago to hold free elections. Because my take is that while millions of Turks, especially in European Turkey and in the old army supported state bureaucracy want Turkey to become European, tens of millions want a modern, wealthy but head-scarved, non-drinking (like Baptists, Muslims don't believe in drinking) Turkey. Even if Erdogan's heavy handedness hands the next election to an opposition it would be short lived. And even that probably wont happen. Think Venezuela - sure millions of Venezuelans wanted Chavez out but many more wanted him to stay because they were finally getting their piece of the pie, something that by the way, with all the sweet talk about elections, is about as rare in Latin America as an American Republican who can hold nuanced views of foreign policy.

Kiara
Kiara like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Karl From what I observe, and I observe most closely, Turkey' s islam is very much particular to Turkey. Headscarf, for example, have always been rather a thing of humble nature more than religion. It is because of Erdoğan' s government and their unwelcome religiosity that people want change. Most people in Turkey drink beer or wine at dinners, and media is pretty much free in sex and so forth despite majority identifying themselves as Muslims. It was equally exasperating when headscarfes were allowed in university for example for liberals and non-liberals alike.

The Turks in Europe, I believe because of their closed off environment have failed to keep up both with the changing culture and society of Turkey and the countries they have settled in. Therefore the 'South of America' is not quite on the spot, I have yet to come across a car that hasn't honked as a salute to protestors or anyone who is anti revolutionist so far.

The air around is very cheerful, despite the aggressive nature of the answers to the protests, people are having a blast and from what I can see the number of people going out to cinemas and restaurants have dropped significantly. The protestors pretty much cackle and kick the cans of gas back to the policeman, eat 'börek's and read books, occasionally clashing with the police.  

Remarkable incidents all around indeed.

Karl
Karl

You are closer to the action to me so I wont argue with your right on comment. But when I said the Turks in Europe I should have been more clear. I meant the Turks in European Turkey, Istanbul and Adrianople (I can't think of the Turkish name right now. If you are in Istanbul, it is the metropolis of Turkey but it has been politically marginalized since 23. My take, and I  may be wrong, is that there are two Turkeys, one more in tune with Ataturk and French and Mexican notions on the complete separation of church and state (no references to God by politicians or military chaplains or prayers in parliament) and another Turkey that is more traditionally religious. I wish you all the best in your endeavors unless you want the army to take over the government and restore Ataturk's vision. To me, rule by the army is backward per se. Better elected democratic-Islamacists than a junta behind a civilian government front. Religion can be made democratic, Germany at the federal level is ruled by the Christian-Democratic Party. With Turkey's history that seems like your best bet. And yes Erdogan has damaged his government with his heavy-handedness. On the other hand he has been at the helm at a time when economically and in influence Turkey has made great strides. Turkey should blend a splendid imperial past with modern ideas on things and even as a Christian I think an Islamic political party of some stripe will be key to a continuing peaceful transition. By the way I thought Erdogan was cracking down on drinking. I must have read wrong. Good luck and I mean it!

missingpoint
missingpoint

Nice article - let’s see something like this concerning popular protest in the US.

51coin
51coin

a movement continues

一个社会运动的延续

serhatmidyat
serhatmidyat

While it all started as a peaceful protest to save the trees in Istanbul, soon it turned into a nationwide protest against the prime minister, Erdogan, who has undermined the rule of law and basic freedoms and detoriated from democracy during his governance. This is an outcry of a nation against and an authoriterian regime to which Erdogans police is responding with brutal violance against his civilians. This is an outcry that Turkey people will not accept any SULTAN or KING. Stop trying to bring the Ottoman back, IT WILL NOT WORK EVER.

Capulcu
Capulcu

This is propaganda. Either you are intentionally fueling this inaccurate anti-AKP garbage or you are misinformed. If the latter, I suggest you get properly informed before spreading this misinformation.

Capulcu
Capulcu

This is propaganda. Either you are intentionally fueling this inaccurate anti-AKP garbage or you are misinformed. If the latter, I suggest you get properly informed before spreading this misinformation.

nitrox11
nitrox11

Erdogan could do well to look at what happened to Margaret Thatcher. He's heading the same way.

In the late 1980's Thatcher tried to introduce a new tax regime which was inherently unfair. Much like the protests in Turkey growing out of the Gezi Park incident, the new tax regime was the catalyst for revolt. People who were merely fed up with her before decided that they'd now had more than they could stand and the tax system tipped the balance. Resistance came from across all classes and ages and was uniform across the country, culminating in a riot in the centre of London. Like President Gul has just done, others in her party, even in her government, suggested that compromise could be achieved, that some of the demands of the protesters were valid criticism, yet she was having none of it. She soldiered on and didn't flinch from her path. This is the way she had always operated and it had always worked before. Except that she had been in power so long and had become so autocratic and insulated from reality she couldn't tell that 'out there' in the real world the mood had changed and she was not carrying the country with her. She didn't last much longer, deposed by her own party to save their own necks.

azmalhome
azmalhome

http://azmalhome.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/violence-is-a-biggest-sin-in-islam-religion/

The violence is a biggest  sin in Islam religion.

Quran Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow) 2:27    Who break the covenant of Allah after contracting it and sever that which Allah has ordered to be joined and cause corruption on earth. It is those who are the losers.

Don’t do such thing, that’s harmful for you and others. It’s a biggest important story in Islam religion. But most of people know that, it’s truth to everybody that, A violence fetch a lot of trouble in our peaceful social.it never feel  who involve  to do the violence .because ghost(Satan) enter in them vein…

Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow) 2:7     Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment.

Surat An-Nisā’ (The Women) 4:59     O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result.

Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow) 2:169  He only orders you to evil and immorality and to say about Allah what you do not know.

akslave
akslave

@TIME you wait too much for turkish revolution. you look how you kill protestors in your country

WNYC2ISTANBUL
WNYC2ISTANBUL

After observing  the events that are taking place in Istanbul ,I just wanted to make the following observations:These demonstrators don't seem to care about anything else except their own one sided selfish desires and motives, which are unclear for the most part.  They seem to do anything to get the attention of anyone that's watching.  Look at them in these pictures, and video clips,these people seem like a bunch of cigarette smoking, beer drinking, hooligans, that would care less about  trees and  parks. Just look at the way they are destroying property and defacing everything they see in their path.  Is this any way to behave democratically?   In New York City and elsewhere in the US,we had our own park take overs, these were illegal then and this is illegal now in Istanbul by any legal standards and norms. Why should a tiny minority make life miserable to a majority of the city's population. You have over 14 million inhabitants in the city of Istanbul, and just having five thousand or so hooligans coming to a park and cause chaos is hardly democratic. What a waste, and easy way to destroy the image of Istanbul,a city known to be all tolerant for centuries . Where is the respect for life and property, throwing stones at police is wrong.   Stones and rocks become weapons that kill and cause serious injuries to people.      

PSelkirk
PSelkirk like.author.displayName 1 Like

@WNYC2ISTANBUL That's just ignorant. Did you actually read the article? I was in Istanbul for the first three days of the uprising - the demonstrators are anything but selfish.

CARSI1903
CARSI1903 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 5 Like

First of all, TIME Magazine should take back Erdogan's Man of the year award! A ruthless, greedy man with a fundamentalist hatred in him doesn't deserve any awards but Facist of the year award! US Government should stop backing him up. He banned the freedom of speech in Turkey, hundreds of journalist are in prison! We support Gezi Park movement. TAKE HIS AWARD BACK!

hakkinpesinde
hakkinpesinde

@TIME @TIMEWorld protests are not related w/ human rights, they try to take down elected goverment and bring chp (racist party)

1LifeSoLiveIt
1LifeSoLiveIt

@hakkinpesinde @TIME @TIMEWorld "Hakkinpesinde" means "following the god". If you are really following the god, then you should not lie. Lie is forbidden in Islam and any other religion. Shame on you! CHP is not a racist party. CHP is Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, which is "Republican People's Party" and anyone knows that republicans were never racist, and never will be. On the other hand, protests are not related with any party or any ideology. There are millions of people on streets today and if all these people were from CHP, then they should be the one governing Turkey, not AKP. Say the truth, this is what our religion order from us.

CARSI1903
CARSI1903

@1LifeSoLiveIt @TIME @TIMEWorld  They can't say the truth cause they can't handle the truth :) How can I socialist party be racist?! He is "following the god" blind folded for sure :) or just following Erdogan instead after all its nearly same to them they are the vassals of Erdogan, not God!

bluemaxmb
bluemaxmb like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Yaseminnie great read. Really sheds a lot of light on things for those of us on the outside.

sonjaKR
sonjaKR

@Yaseminnie Great article. Support & respect to strengthening democratic culture in Turkey, to handling disagreement, difference, compromise

Yaseminnie
Yaseminnie

@sonjaKR much appreciated,Sonja-the message is crystal clear and conveyed objectively and I'm glad to see that people are aware of it.

Metaweb20
Metaweb20 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I support those protecting the park. But, I find it curious that many of the protesters shown in this article's photo are smoking cigarettes. They care about saving green spaces and the health of the tress but not their own bodies? That beffudles me.

Capulcu
Capulcu

A country is going through a revolution to retain their freedoms and maintain the secular identity of a nation and you focus on the harmful effects of smoking. I just wanted to write it out so you perceive how silly it sounds. ;)

dos360
dos360

@Metaweb20 They are protesting against a government that plans to impose new restrictions on sale of spirits and tobacco products.  :)