Walking down Istiklal Street — a broad pedestrian path leading out of Istanbul’s downtown Taksim Square — the air is festive. It feels like a vibrant party scene, with techno music piping out of side street clubs and multi-colored lights draping above the heads of smiling couples and small roving packs of young Turks. Only the shop walls and windows betray that a kind of urban uprising is underway.
When the police forced back the protesters from Taksim’s Gezi Park last week, they took to the walls with their anger. The Burger King windows are busted out. Someone took a bat to Mango, then sprayed a wide grinning smily face around the two radiating cracks in the glass. The walls scream out with messages ranging from the irate — mostly variations on Fascist Tayyip! addressed to the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (pronounced “air-d’won”) — to the deeply critical ones attacking capitalism, the state and Istanbul’s swift gentrification. Conspicuously missing are any type of looting at all or attacks on any Turkish-owned shops. One local bakery owner commented that he had experienced no vandalism and had in fact sheltered protesters behind his shop windows when they were tear gassed: “No problems! We’re on the same side.”
What began as a simple sit-in against Prime Minister Erdoğan’s attempt to demolish Gezi and its prized trees to build a new commercial complex has, in one week, escalated into a referendum on the government itself and its ambitious plans to both modernize Istanbul’s physical plant and fortify its spiritual one by a religiously conservative ruling party. The rallying cry in Taksim has become: Tayyip must step down!
The prospects for the protesters didn’t look as promising last Friday: beat back by rounds of tear gas, water cannons, and pepper spray bombs, young people took to social media to share images that ricocheted across the globe on the hashtag #OccupyGezi. The semi-official state media here in Turkey, and international media, had up to that point been safely avoiding the blemish. A protester noted that “Bruce Willis had found out about the protests before my neighbor,” and by Saturday #OccupyGezi and the images and videos streaming out of Taksim and over 48 other cities in Turkey were trending globally. The revolution might not be televised, but it would be tweeted.
One crucial miscalculation on Erdoğan’s part came Saturday as well: With growing numbers in the streets around Taksim, he withdrew in apparent hopes of not tempting more people to the streets. The police violence, which both Amnesty International the U.S. government have issued statements condemning, seems to have backfired. Saturday night’s club scene pumped new electricity into the battle-worn young rebels, and the park is now filled with tents, makeshift Occupy-style kitchens and medical stations. New graffiti now spoke of revolution and regime change, bolder and using hashtag symbols that puzzled elder Turks who came down in support of the youth.
Sunday witnessed the broadest turnout yet, with tens of thousands of people streaming into Takism – and overflowing out into its arteries like Istiklal — and news of smaller protests in other provinces and indeed in other countries brought hope to the weathered protesters. While more-organized and established political groups wave tall banners and pipe music through megaphones, the youth of Gezi resist over-politicizing of their struggle by banning flags inside the park. Except, of course, the Turkish flag which is visible everywhere. They speak of one united Turkey and a growing popular discontent with the autocratic overreach of Erdoğan. In the evenings, hundreds of mostly-young protesters remain in the park, lighting bonfires and healing wounds and cuts. On the outskirts they pile broken construction equipment from Erdoğan’s developers into makeshift barricades that have inched out farther from the park, bringing traffic to a standstill.
When reports of police attacking protesters in neighboring Beşiktaş come through on their smartphones, a young man urges the others to “Go home and bring back more material! The police broke through barricades 10 times this size!” The air is tense and rumors of attack fly around quickly, prompting many of the several hundred camped out in Gezi to move to the perimeter to defend the park. The rumors appear to be false alarms, however, and as of this writing no major crackdown on Gezi — the birthplace of the protests – has come to pass.
Will the nascent protest grow into a full-scale uprising across Turkey? It’s hard to tell. Some experts here worry that Erdoğan could soon call on his supporters to openly resist as well, which could spark civil war. Erdoğan himself has doubled down, lashing out against protesters and their Twitter-fueled revolt with insults and claims of anti-religious impropriety. Still, what happens next is unpredictable. Clashes continue in other cities. Once-opposed political parties are coming together. Global activist media networks are reinforcing their communication lines to better help on-the-ground protesters beam out news in real-time with Livestream and tweet-by-SMS. And here in Taksim, the streets are buzzing with conversation around the barricades.
(Photos: Justin Wedes)