“To resist for the sake of a single tree”

From the centre of Istanbul’s protests this week, Hans Rollmann reports on the rising of a powerful social movement and the violent state terror it has encountered.

“To resist for the sake of a single tree is more honourable than to beg for a barrel of oil.”

So reads one of the protest placards in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, site of an incredible protest movement that has gripped the country of Turkey over the past week. It sums up much of the sentiment driving the protests: pride among the Turkish people for their country with its vast and complicated heritage; desperation over what many feel is a selling out of their country’s values and future by an increasingly erratic and disconnected political elite; and, at its core, a determination to protect at all costs one of the last green spaces in Istanbul: a grove of trees which has now taken on near-sacred proportions to the hundreds of thousands of people across Turkey who have poured into the streets in a grand social movement that’s been as spontaneous as it was unexpected.

As most are probably now aware, this past week has witnessed both the arising of a remarkable social movement in Turkey, as well as extreme, violent and deadly repression by the Turkish government. What began as a peaceful sit-in protest to protect a famous park – Gezi Park – that was slated for demolition, and replacement by a shopping mall, turned deadly when police violently attacked the peaceful protestors.

Since then tens of thousands of Turks have poured into the streets of Istanbul in defense of the protestors, in what has turned into a broader protest against Turkey’s increasingly repressive government. Almost 2,000 protestors have been arrested, and Amnesty International reports at least two have been killed and more than 1,000 injured in the government’s violent counter-attacks with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Protests have spread to dozens of cities across the country. For the moment, police have pulled out of Taksim Square (where the protests began) in the face of international outrage, but protestors have been emphasizing the importance of increasing pressure on the Turkish government in order to prevent another counter-attack against the tens of thousands of protestors still gathered there. Meanwhile, violent attacks continue against protestors in other Turkish cities, farther away from the scrutiny of international media.

City of contrasts

I unexpectedly found myself in Istanbul just as the protests reached their crescendo, and some Turkish friends of mine offered to meet me on their way to Taksim Square (the square that adjoins the park which has been at the heart of the protests) so we could go down together.

As I waited for them before heading to the protests, it was hard to believe this is the city being described by some tourists as a ‘war zone’. Over here in the Sultanahmet district it’s a very different reality. Long queues at tourist sites compete with street vendors and locals touting guided tours of old Istanbul. Throngs of elderly Britons and Germans, sticking out with their giant cameras and sun-hats, line the sidewalks, and the shops are full.

But in a city of over 13 million, clashing contrasts can exist from one end of its 5,000-plus square miles to the other.

My friends arrive from the other side of the river and we stop for a quick bite to eat. They too are astounded at the calm over here. It’s a different reality across the river, barely a couple miles away. They say the ferries crossing in the opposite direction were packed with thousands heading over to join the protests.

Protestors fill the streets heading toward Taksim Square. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Protestors fill the streets heading toward Taksim Square. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

We prepare to leave, but my friends first phone their friends in the park so we’ll know what sort of a situation we’re heading in to. Yesterday, on their way to support protestors at the park, they took a side-road to avoid the thousands-strong crowds marching down the main street, and get there more quickly.

En route, they were surprised and attacked by pro-government conservatives; one of them was beaten with a stick before they got away.

The protestors have been remarkably peaceful, while the government has been incomprehensibly aggressive. So aggressive that international outrage has, for the moment, forced them to hold their hand and back out of the park where the protests began. But nobody is sure how long this will last. And meanwhile, in other parts of the city, and other cities in Turkey, violent government repression flares up unpredictably and with devastating brutality.

My friend hung up his cell phone, telling us there were crowds of protestors but no police yet.

As we made our way to the square, it didn’t take long to meet up with the tens of thousands of Istanbul residents marching out to support the protests. They’re a varied lot: veterans who’ve been through the thick of the fighting and know what to expect, laden with homemade gas masks (made from Coke bottles), medications and construction site hardhats, families with babies in strollers, and elderly grandmothers handing out flowers to the youth.

I saw an elderly man, likely in his 80s, dressed immaculately in a white vest, suit and tie, as if he were headed to church. Remarkably, he seemed the calmest. He smiled benignly and shook hands with some of the young students, patting them on the back.

Media reports have characterized the protests as predominantly ‘young middle class’ but it’s obvious the protestor demographic is diverse. Whether drawn by curiosity or political commitment, these are people who brook no doubts that this is their city and they intend to have their say in its future and fate.

We took the famous ‘Tunel’ – Istanbul’s oldest subway line – for the final stretch, by which point the crowd had reached critical mass. From the foot of the stairs to the edge of the platform, the subway stand is packed shoulder to shoulder, yet the crowd is calm and orderly; when the doors open people courteously offer seats to the elderly. My friend screws up her nose, noting that the smell of vinegar reeks in the air: protestors were tear-gassed as they retreated into the subways the other day. I’m thankful my sense of smell is dull.

We emerge from the subway into a sea of humanity. The streets leading to Taksim Square are among the oldest and most high-end neighbourhoods in Istanbul: fancy brand-name shops interspersed with classy cafes in centuries-old buildings.

“Is this the Square?” I asked. One of my friends laughed. “No, the square is at the end of that street!” he said, pointing in the distance. I couldn’t see the end, which laid somewhere beyond the swarms of thousands of people as far as the eye can see.

A parade of humanity

The crowd marched toward the square, resembling a strange parade. At times individuals would spontaneously begin to chant as others joined in. Small groups with banners marched in circles up and down the street, singing and clapping and keeping people’s energy upbeat and positive.

Locals demonstrate their support. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Locals demonstrate their support. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

From the windows, neighbourhood locals watch the proceedings. Some have hung out banners to support the protests (making them a target for police fire, my friend explained). There were smashed windows here and there along the street, but protestors have used markers to circle the impact points of rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, underscoring in silent condemnation the fact that most of this damage was done by the police, not the protestors.

A few protestors held bottles of beer, but not in drunkenness. Alcohol has become an unlikely rallying point for the protests: with little debate and a great deal of paternalistic rhetoric, last week the government passed a new law restricting alcohol sales and advertising. For many who take pride in Turkey’s liberal heritage, this marked a line that spurred them to action, reflecting the government’s growing drift toward religiosity and laws increasingly designed to restrict people’s personal choices and actions. It’s starting to raise the ire of international capitalists, too: alcohol distributor Diageo purchased one of Turkey’s top producers of raki (a local spirit) for $2.1 billion in 2011, and has expressed its concern about the economic impacts of repressive laws like this. When a government’s growing fundamentalism begins to threaten even its transnational trading partners, its lifespan becomes even more uncertain.

Taksim Square

In the Square, there were countless sights that caught the eye: symbols of the creativity, individuality, and defiant collectivity of humanity all at once. The monument in the centre of the square for the ‘Founders of the Republic’ – a group of stern and statuesque generals in military uniform – was decorated with flags and banners. “Even the founders of the Republic support the protestors!” laughed one of my friends.

Another one points – “Ataturk himself is holding up a Pride flag!” It’s true: a purple Pride flag looms even larger than the red banners. Gay rights has been another rallying point for the protests: although homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey (yet), the government’s turn toward conservative religiosity has led to growing incidents of police intimidation of queer venues and raids on queer clubs.

The Republic Monument in Taksim Square, Istanbul. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
The Republic Monument in Taksim Square, Istanbul. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

It’s also another indication of the diversity of the protests; spontaneous and without any central organizing, they reflect a coming together of various civil society groups concerned about Turkey’s drift away from democracy and human rights and into the muddy grim backwaters of conservatism, fundamentalism and intolerance. The size of the protests are a stirring indictment, however, of a government whose policies are at stark contrast with the generally tolerant, friendly and open-hearted masses of Turkey’s citizenry.

Another dramatic site was a large building off to one side of the square. My friend told me it’s a theatre and cultural centre which has also been slated for closure in the latest round of ‘development’ around the Square. Community protestors aren’t prepared to let that go willingly either, and they’ve occupied the building. An enormous banner hung from the top of the building while hundreds stood defiantly along the rooftop, waving flags and chanting. Those on the ground stared up in awe, waving back in support and snapping photos of the impressive scene.

The walls tell a thousand stories, spray-painted in deep reds and blacks. The tone of the messaging runs the gamut: “Revolutionary girls are beautiful!” one message proclaimed. More soberly, another cries out in concrete anguish: “You are killing your own people.”

Around the Square, too, were signs of the recent violent police attacks. Police vans turned upside down; even the car of a local media company. When police attacked they did so indiscriminately, targeting everyone in the area. Now that the police have retreated, the community has taken back its space and these symbols of what they’ve been through. A little girl of five or six poses with a bouquet of flowers in front of one of the upturned cars, on which she has drawn a peace sign. Her parents snap a photo, and then the girl turns around to finish colouring her drawing.

In another corner stood one of the buses the riot police drove in on. Now burned out and covered with drawings and painted slogans, people turned it into a game. They clambered up the engine and raced along the top of the bus, jumping off the other end into the arms of their friends and loved ones.

Photo Gallery (click to view):


It was incredible how a scene that was full of violence and bloodshed less than 24 hours earlier could so quickly turn festive. Yet the collective sense of triumph and of a community that protected its own against the bully-like policies of a distant and disconnected government is palpable.

In the park itself, the scene resembled an enormous open-air festival. Thousands were seated in the park, talking and sharing food with each other. The protest was incredibly musical too. Many toted instruments, and corners of the park were filled with mini-performances while onlookers clapped and sang along. I saw fiddles, guitars, a set of bagpipes, flutes, and traditional instruments that I’d never encountered before. The air hummed with drums and chanting, the soundtrack of humanity letting loose its creative and joyous spirits. A hundred different chants echoed at once but there is nothing discordant about the effect: a harmonious ambiance rose from the green.

Suddenly a cheer roared from somewhere up ahead. A red banner was weaving its way toward us, followed by a line of youth cheering and half-dancing behind it. They made their way over to our tent, and then stopped. Several of them produced white and black banners, and one of them began a chant. The others joined in and then began hopping up and down frenetically.

My friends laughed and started clapping in tune. “It’s the cheer for one of the local football clubs,” one of them explained. “They are in support of the protests.” I remarked on the fact that even the football clubs have their politics. “Yes,” my friend acknowledged. “This team comes from a poor and working class neighbourhood, so they understand what this is all about.” The chant reaches a crescendo and everyone leapt up in the air, waving their fingers in a wildly stylized version of jazz hands – a football cheer, apparently.

The men holding the football team’s banner then started a new cheer,  which everyone joined in on for the chorus. It’s in Turkish so I don’t understand most of it, but I can make out the occasional names of other Turkish cities.

“They are proclaiming their support for protestors in other cities of Turkey,” my friend explained. “Especially in Izmir. Right now we have heard there is horrific violence being made against the protestors in Izmir. So we are telling the people of Izmir that we honour their courage and that we are with them.”

An older fellow had been curled up in a sleeping bag by my feet, getting a bit of sleep. The chanting was almost on top of him, however, and he begrudgingly woke up, blinking in confusion. He saw the people cheering and chanting over his head. Several of them hold out their hands to him. He laughed, rubbed his eyes, and reached out. They pulled him up and into the dance.

Getting organized

Food distribution station organized by protestors. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Food distribution station organized by protestors. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

I was introduced to a fellow sitting outside his tent. He shook hands politely and shyly introduced himself. He is a student at the university. During the day he goes to his office to work, shower and change, and in the afternoon returns to protect the park where he sleeps overnight, gas mask at the ready, lest the police return.

“We’re getting better organized,” he said. It’s true: what started out as a spontaneous protest had quickly developed ways of meeting the needs of a sit-in of tens of thousands. Volunteer garbage crews circulate with large bags, collecting trash. Some groups collect recyclables (for donations to buy wheelchairs for the needy, their spokespeople say). While there are countless street vendors selling pitas, barbecued corn, pretzels and other street food, there are also tables laden with donations where food is being distributed to those who need it and cannot buy it. One woman points to the far end of the park. “We’ve turned the police barricades into a community kitchen,” she said.

One might wonder about the ecological footprint of a sit-in of tens of thousands, yet the trees that were initially at the heart of this protest movement remain sacred. Protective signs and slogans have been looped around them; garlands have been tied protectively around some small groves, and colourful ribbons adorn the branches of the larger trees. A young man shimmied up one tree, tying bright ribbons around a branch. He then strung out a hammock between two of the larger branches and rolled himself into it. Nobody was taking his tree anywhere.

Dark clouds in the distance

The festiveness of Taksim Square and Gezi Park belied the violence of government repression occurring elsewhere in Istanbul and other cities in Turkey. It’s little wonder the police have retreated from this park – with the attention of international media, and with the concentration of tens of thousands of people, any effort by the government to attack the park would result in unspeakable bloodshed.

Yet, elsewhere, they do not have the same compunction. Even as I write this, reports are coming in of incredible violence in the Besiktas neighbourhood of Istanbul, where protestors rallied near the prime minister’s office. Reports of violent tear gas and rubber bullet attacks in the cities of Izmir and Ankara are also filtering through. What is evident is the confusion and panic of a government that has become so used to governing without democratic process that when finally confronted with organized resistance, it has no comprehension of how to respond other than with violence and brutality.

Protestors march in the streets... Photo by Hans Rollmann.
As protestors continue to demonstrate in Istanbul, their safety and the well-being of their country are at stake. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

It’s unclear what the outcome of the events in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey will be. But as the sun sets, thousands continued to pour out of the subways and off the ferries and march toward the defense of the heart of their city.

One thing is clear, however: for these people, reclaiming their city and their freedoms is a choice they have made with determination, pride and dignity. And they are not about to let anybody – least of all their own distant government – take that away.

Ways to support the people of Turkey

“You must be our voice to the world,” I was told. Raising awareness about what is happening is crucial in bringing international pressure on the Turkish government to end its violent reprisals.

Amnesty International has compiled a list of recommended actions; they encourage concerned individuals abroad to write to the Turkish government and to pressure their own governments to lobby Turkey to respect human rights and peaceful democratic protest.

Twitter feeds like #Taksim and #aforgutu, and blogs written by protestors on the streets, are sharing up-to-date news and calls for support and action.

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