Inside Gezi Park

The occupation of Istanbul’s last remaining green space is giving way to new forms of community and democracy.

For many reading about the protests from afar, Taksim Square has come to be known as the heart of the protest movement sweeping Turkey – a square adjoining Gezi Park, which has been occupied by protestors determined to save their park and prevent its demolition and replacement by a shopping mall.

An attempt by police last week to violently evict the peaceful protestors by using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons sparked massive and unprecedented protests across the country. The protests have quickly evolved into a movement with a broad array of meanings for the public, as protestors challenge what they describe as government autocracy and repression, demand democracy and human rights, and resist the violent tear gas and rubber bullet attacks of the police.

But what has  transpired at Taksim Square is far more complex and coordinated than simply a protest. It has turned into an amazing example of community-building and collective organization. When I visited the park, people were more than eager to show me around and indeed proud to show off what they’ve accomplished there. The sense of friendship and generosity emanating from the Park is one of its most striking characteristics. The presence of thousands of people of all ages, occupations and backgrounds is what first strikes the observer with awe and astonishment. But beneath the constant backdrop of drumming and cheers, the underlying soundtrack of a hundred chants and dances and musicians, there’s a deeper level of meaning to what is going on in the park, as this broad and diverse cross-section of Turkey’s peoples work together to build a living example of the type of society they envision and want for their future.

Complexity and community in Gezi Park

Shortly after entering the park, there lies a large space several square metres in size which is thronged by dozens of people. It’s the fledgling Gezi Park library, created out of donations to offer reading material to those in the park. Hundreds of books line the makeshift shelves which are staffed by library organizers. I cannot read most of the Turkish titles, but they’re evidently in high demand: the lineup at each of the tables to peruse the shelves is several people thick. Across from it lies a massive mat – also several square metres wide – on which are scattered magazines, pamphlets, flyers and newspapers. Every time I pass by the space throughout the evening, volunteers are opening newly arrived crates of magazines and books and adding them to the already diverse mix of literature for the park’s supporters to borrow and read.

We soon pass a first-aid tent, one of a few that have sprung up around the park and the square. Further on we pass a larger medical tent with protective barriers around it to provide space and shelter for those overwhelmed by the sun’s heat or the mass of thousands of people around them.

“Things have really improved around here since the beginning of the protest,” my guide remarks. “All the food handlers and medical staff are using latex gloves now. When things began we didn’t have any of that.”

Supplies and support have been pouring in at an incredible rate, keeping pace with the growing size of the protests. Several of the autonomously run camps and stations throughout the park have had to post signs: “No more donations or volunteers needed at this time.”

Feeding the masses

Protestors organized a food distribution station at the people's occupied park. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Protestors organized a food distribution station at the people’s occupied park. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

Gezi Park is a place where no one goes hungry. People – both individuals and groups – have donated food at a constant and dizzying rate. During a single walk through the park I was offered more food than I could possibly eat. Trays of kandil simidi (a special treat resembling a small baked bagel that was being distributed for the Muslim holiday of Lailat al Miraj), platters of home-made spicy dough-balls, containers of falafels, and of course countless boxes of Turkish Delight, both store-bought and hand-made. It seems there’s a non-stop circulation of Turkish Delight flowing from tent to tent and blanket to blanket on the park grounds. And that’s just the free offerings – countless food vendors circulate throughout the park as well. But there’s something truly remarkable about a total stranger running up to you to offer a home-made dessert they’ve made.

After filling up on kandil simidi from three or four such offers (in a display of interfaith solidarity, organizers called on people to bring trays of the treat to the park on today’s Muslim holiday to share; I think the response was greater than anyone could have expected), I reluctantly turn down the next offer to come my way. The fellow pouts sadly. “But mine is the BEST!” he declares. “You MUST try it!”

I easily acquiesce; the spirit of generosity and giving in the camp is overwhelming. Plus, they’re darn delicious.

For those who don’t get their fill from such offers, there’s a food station operating twenty-four hours a day. A sign outside proclaims, “Nobody goes hungry!” “Even during the night, you’ll see small groups circulating to make sure everybody has food and water,” my companion says. Volunteer garbage crews also circulate, wearing protective gloves and filling garbage and recycling bags.

It’s not just humans getting fed. In most of the little caged rings protecting the trees is a thin scattering of pet food, for all the stray cats and dogs that live in the area. One of the [many] sad casualties of the police tear gas attacks were the stray cats and dogs in the neighbourhood, who, unlike the humans, had nobody to look after and take care of them when the attacks began. Many cats and dogs fell ill or died from the attacks. Now the park also hosts a veterinary camp.

There’s little that hasn’t been thought of in this place.

Outer defenses

The outer perimeters of the park are studded with the far more grim reality that this is a stand-off with a government that has proven willing to use violence against its own people. Most of the roads leading to the park and square have been barricaded. The defenses are impressive and have grown stronger with each passing day.

A burned out car, fences, and other debris have been piled up by protestors to form defense barricades against the police. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
A burned out car, fences, and other debris have been piled up by protestors to form defense barricades against the police. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

They’re comprised of the piled-up remains of debris from the original battles between police and protestors: burned out cars and buses, surrounded by iron spikes, iron fences and fence-posts, large metal sheeting, and hundreds of ripped up paving stones and bricks. The larger approaches have several successive barriers: perimeters and fall-back points in case of protracted battles. By each of the barricades are large stores of ammunition: piles of paving stones and bricks ready to be propelled at approaching police. As I’m escorted along one of the barricades, I’m shown the various points where police have advanced during previous nights.

“The last time they came, they had construction equipment with them to remove the barriers,” my guide explains. He says the policy of the protestors is to remain behind their barricades, and not to attack the police unless they are attacked. Posters erected around the barricades remind the defenders that their role is to avoid provocation or aggression and demonstrate that their demands and actions are peaceful.

The organization of the barricades is also true to the autonomous and democratic organizing spirit of the camp. I ask whether there’s any particular body coordinating the defense. My guide shrugs.

“Those with the knowledge, explain how to do these things,” he says. “Sometimes, different groups in the park will decide to build a new barrier or part of the defenses, and they will go and do that.”

He says about 2,000-3,000 people have volunteered for the active defense of each of the barriers, assigning themselves to particular ones.

The presence of undercover police provocateurs, seeking to disrupt the generally cooperative and friendly atmosphere of the park, is also a constant danger according to those I spoke with. My guide tells me they estimate 200-300 undercover police are operating in the park. Night – when people are unnerved enough already by the risk of a police attack, which they believe will likely come in the brief hours before dawn if it comes at all – is when the provocateurs tend to do the worst damage, provoking fights or trying to incite violence. He said often provocateurs will try to lure people to cross the barricades, both to make the protestors appear aggressive as well as to lead them into police ambushes.

The barricades are an incongruous site in daylight, however. Protestors and tourists alike teem over them. Stout elderly tourists from the adjacent Hyatt and Intercontinental hotels pose behind the steering wheels of burned out buses for photographs, or perch precariously on barriers, making fists with one hand while holding on to their Marimekko sun-hats with the other.

The camp is vibrant with the spirit of democracy. Today was Lailat al Miraj, a Muslim holiday celebrating the Prophet’s ascension to heaven where he received instructions on how Muslims are to pray. Consequently, I’m told, a debate had been held throughout the park about what they should do about it. There are, in fact, many young Muslims among the protestors, who have found the demands for peace, democracy and human rights resonate as closely with Muslim virtues as they do with Christian, Jewish or secularist ones. Some protestors suggested they hold a celebration of some sort for their Muslim participants. Others – the staunch, Ataturk-worshiping champions of Turkey’s traditional secularism, initially opposed the notion of holding a religious celebration in the park. Others proposed a compromise: a campaign to encourage everybody not to drink alcohol in the park tonight, out of respect for their Muslim participants.

Gezi Park has evolved into a site for democratic debate. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Gezi Park has evolved into a site for healthy debate and other forms of experimentation in democracy. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

While such debates reveal the stark differences in ideology between the various groups that have joined together in this protest, they also reflect the vibrancy and depth of democratic debate that is taking place among these groups – debate that plays out with no need to resort to violence or tear gas. If anything, Taksim Square could be taken as a model lesson in democracy for Turkey’s government, rather than as a challenge to overcome.

At times the display of solidarity and tolerance is astonishing. Historically, tensions have existed between the conservative secular nationalists – adhering to the politics of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who pushed for the assimilation of Turkey’s various peoples and cultures – and those striving for cultural and political autonomy, like the Kurds. Yet, near the entrance to the park a rally in support of the Kurdish people plays out in song and dance and the waving of banners, while just metres away the conservative nationalists clap in tune under their Ataturk banners. The demand for peace, rights and democracy has made unlikely allies of the most diverse range of ideologies and beliefs.

Organizing an occupation

It’s explained to me that there are multiple layers of organization in the park, but most of what is happening is being organized autonomously by groups of volunteers who coordinate specific tasks, working in a loose yet effective harmony with each other. There’s a group that coordinates food distribution; another committee looking after medical needs; others coordinating defense of the barriers. “Somehow or other, it all seems to work out,” I’m told. “And quite efficiently, in fact.”

Various groups proudly display banners identifying themselves in their respective areas of the park: the Istanbul Feminist Collective over here, a gay rights group over there. A dance troupe is performing a traditional dance in front of the feminist collective’s camp, while local politicians look on and clap and take photos with the protestors. Religious associations and political affiliations are everywhere. The square and park are adorned with thousands of posters, banners, and splashes of street art; women’s groups have been monitoring the vast array of propaganda for sexist or homophobic language, which they erase or modify in creative ways. Students from various universities have set up their own camps with little placards identifying their respective school; another corner proclaims it welcomes international students. As I walk past a tent labelled “Vegan”, I hear cheers: a popular Muslim religious figure is apparently giving a speech of support. There are regular speeches and lectures in the heart of the park as well. Some university professors had been scheduled to give a talk on ‘The role of universities in supporting the protests’ while I was there, but it had to be rescheduled.

Support of universities has been key as well. Many of those here are students, and this is in fact finals time in the Turkish school year. Yet universities have been flexible. I’m told of professors who cancelled final paper assignments, and others who – normally rigorous and formal about exams – gave students simple take-home exams instead. Purportedly one exam simply asked students to discuss the reasons people were protesting in Taksim Square. Chemistry professors have apparently been testing students on the chemical properties of tear gas and its remedies.

Istanbul’s broad and diverse population are engaging with the protests in a wealth of creative ways.

Memes and motifs

There’s an ongoing engagement with social media and pop culture throughout the park as well. A fellow passes me by with a giant inflatable penguin on his head. Penguins have become a ubiquitous motif: at the beginning of the protests, CNN Turkey ignored the police tear gas attacks and broadcasted documentaries on penguins instead (local media have since apologized for their failure to cover the news appropriately). Penguins have thus become one of the protest motifs.

In a world where millions are instantly united by social media, political actions can be quick and effective in situations like this. Starbucks has been criticized by protestors, who claim that when the police tear gas attacks began, Starbucks was one of the only shops to close its doors and refuse to allow in those injured and seeking shelter. Starbucks has since been scrambling to regain its credibility amid calls for boycott: Tweeting images of its staff helping protestors, and posting notices around campus denying that it failed to provide assistance.

The large and powerful Garanti Bank has felt the impact of protestor anger as well. It’s part of the corporate consortium that also owns the media companies which protestors say failed to cover the tear gas attacks when they began. Hundreds of customers have closed their accounts in protest, withdrawing millions of dollars in savings from the bank.

The protests have even added a new word to the Turkish language: capuling (pronounced ‘chapuling’). Technically, the word means something like ‘pillage’ and ‘plunder’. The prime minister used it to refer to the protestors during one of his early media statements, and his comments have been seized on in creative and comical ways, even sparking a viral hip-hop video. Now ‘capuling’ has become a synonym for ‘protesting’ or any worthwhile endeavor, in fact, in an etymological upturning of its traditional meaning. According to a new Wikipedia definition, it now refers to: “[those who] act towards taking the democracy of a nation to the next step by reminding governments of their reason for existence in a peaceful and humorous manner.” Placards enthusiastically announce the ‘capuling’ activities of those depicted therein – from penguins to professors.

Darkness falls

The sun begins to set, but Gezi Park continues to burn brightly with the energy and enthusiasm of the thousands of protestors still gathered here. The park actually becomes busier in the early evening, as workers from across Istanbul get off work and go to spend a few hours in solidarity. Many wander about with bemused and slightly amazed smiles, accepting gifts of food and candy, taking photos and learning from the different booths and tents. I’m told that people used to refer to Turkish youth as being apolitical, and now the previous generations – who saw their country through a wide range of political challenges – are amazed to see their youth are not nearly so apolitical as they thought. There’s a sharing going on here, too, of knowledge passed between generations. It’s one thing for grandparents to tell their grandchildren about protests and barricades, another thing entirely for them to both share the same experience together and learn from each other’s experience and enthusiasm.

In one section of the park, a large memorial has been built to Abdullah Comert, a 22-year old youth killed in the protests. His final Facebook status is posted under his photo in commemoration posters throughout the Park: “I slept only five hours in three days. Sprayed with tear gas countless times, I risked my death three times. And you know what people say? Give it up, how will you save the country? Yeah, and if you do not save us, we will die trying. I am so tired that I drank seven energy drinks and nine painkillers in three days, my voice has been closed but I will be back to the square today at six. Just for the revolution.” [taken from an online translation]. The memorial display consists of bricks and candles that are now lit, and protestors pause solemnly to pay their respects.

I’m told the crowds normally linger until sometime after midnight, and then the park’s population shrinks slightly to those few thousand who stay overnight to protect it against any potential attack by the police. I’m told the tension grows thickest in the short hours before dawn, which is when police attacked the last time. Once the sun rises, the park’s defenders breathe a sigh of relief, considering it less likely that police will attack when the streets are full of workers and tourists.

Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Protestors celebrate and build unity in song and dance. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

I’m shown one of the prepared garbage bags that lies ready beside a tent. It contains everything necessary for defending the park: a hardhat, set of goggles, gas mask, heavy gloves for catching and throwing back gas canisters. Towels to soak with vinegar for added protection. First aid kits. There’s a grim organization to the defense; preparations everybody hopes will not prove necessary to use.

The thought of a police attack is a grim possibility that protestors try to keep out of their minds as they maintain the festive and upbeat community atmosphere of Gezi Park. Indeed, even now, an hour before midnight, the mood is as loud and full of excitement as ever. We try to find our way out of the park, which is more challenging in the near darkness. Some of the trees have had tiny lights wrapped around them, which blink in an ethereal, magical green glow in the darkness. Suddenly our path is halted: members and supporters of the Carsi football club, which has played a key role in supporting the protests, are still marching their way around the park, performing a tribal hybrid between football chants and political slogans. Their energy is infectious and everybody joins in, jumping up and down and waving their hands in the boisterous chant. The marchers hold up team shirts and banners; even football can be a force for political change, it seems. Nearby, the sky lights up with fireworks launched from the Square.

Gezi Park and Taksim Square have become the heart not just of Turkey’s vibrant social movement, but of a model in community building that clearly inspires and enthralls the minds and hearts of the thousands who are gathered here. It is inspiration enough to keep them coming back, day after day, and despite the constant threat of police violence. But the spirit and achievements of the Gezi Park camp attest that it is not threats and violence that is foremost on people’s minds, but rather the possibilities for a new type of community, and political reality, in the country that this remarkable diversity of peoples all share.

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