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.”